Viking 3 kings man, p.4

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 4

 

Viking 3: King’s Man
 



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  I scarcely attracted a glance from these burly strangers as I headed for a tent, larger than the others, which stood apart. I recognised it at once as a command tent, and did not need to be told that this was where we would find the leaders of this unknown group.

  Gesturing to my two companions that they should wait outside, I pushed open the door flap. As I entered, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the subdued light. Around a trestle table stood a group of four or five men. Observing that I was a stranger and dressed in a foreign uniform – for I wore the guards’ scarlet tunic – they waited impassively for me to explain what I wanted. But one man, thickset, with bushy grey hair and a heavy beard, reacted differently. He stared hard at me.

  There was an awkward silence while I wondered how I should introduce myself, and what tone I should adopt. Then the silence was broken. ‘Thorgils Leifsson! By all the Gods, if it isn’t Thorgils!’ the grey-haired man exclaimed loudly. He spoke with an unmistakable Icelandic accent, and I could even pick out which region of Iceland he came from: he was a man from the west fjords. His voice also gave me the clue to his identity, and a moment later I placed him. He was Halldor Snorrason, fifth son of Snorri Godi, with whose family I had stayed in Iceland as a young man. In fact, Halldor’s sister Hallbera had been the first girl with whom I had fallen in love, and Halldor’s father had played a crucial role in my teenage years.

  ‘What’s that fancy uniform you’re wearing?’ Halldor asked, striding across to clap me on the shoulder. ‘The last we heard, you were headed off into Permia to buy furs from the ski-runners. Don’t tell me that Thorgils, former associate of that outlaw Grettir the Strong, is now a member of the imperial Life Guard.’

  ‘Yes, I’ll have been a guardsman three years this autumn,’ I said, and here I dropped my voice in case the men from the dromos could hear me through the tent cloth. ‘I’ve been sent to find out what you and your comrades are doing, and why you have come to Constantinople.’

  ‘Oh, that’s no secret. You can go back to your chief and tell him that we’ve come to offer our services as fighting men to the Emperor of Miklagard,’ Halldor replied cheerfully. ‘We hear that he pays very well and the chances of loot are excellent. We want to go home as rich men!’ He laughed.

  I had to smile at his enthusiasm. ‘What? All of you want to join the Life Guard? I’m told that there are five hundred of you. A recruit only joins when there is a vacancy and there is a long waiting list.’

  ‘No,’ said Halldor. ‘We don’t want to join the guard. Our plan is to stay together as a single fighting unit.’

  The idea was so unexpected that for a moment I was silenced. Norsemen did not usually form themselves into disciplined warrior brigades, particularly when they were roving freebooters hoping to loot and plunder. They were far too independent-minded. There had to be another factor.

  Halldor saw my puzzlement. ‘Every one of us has already pledged allegiance to one man, a single leader. If he finds service with the Basileus, then we follow him.’

  ‘Who is that man?’ I asked.

  ‘I am,’ said a deep voice, and I turned to see a tall, soldierly figure stooping in under the door flap at the far end of the tent. He straightened up to his full height, and in that instant I knew that Odinn had answered my profoundest hope.

  Harald Sigurdsson – as I soon knew him to be and that was long before he became known as Hardrada, ‘Hard Ruler’ – stood a little under six and a half feet tall, and in the half light of the tent he was like a hero emerging from the shadowy world of the earliest sagas. Broad-shouldered and muscular, he moved with an athletic grace, towering over the other men. When he came closer, I imagined for a moment that I was looking up into the face of someone I had heard described in a fireside tale when I was a child. He had the fierce look of a sea eagle. His prominent nose was like a beak, while his close-set bright blue eyes had an intense, almost unblinking stare. His thick yellow hair, too, resembled the ruff of long feathers around a sea eagle’s neck, for it hung down to his shoulders, and he had a quick way of turning his head, like a bird of prey seeking a victim, so that the hair shifted on his shoulders like an eagle’s ruff. His moustache was even more spectacular. It was dressed in a style long out of fashion: two thick strands of moustache hung down on either side of his mouth, like blond silk cords, and dangled against his chest.

  ‘And who are you?’ he demanded.

  I was so stunned by his appearance that I faltered in my reply, and Halldor had to fill the gap for me.

  ‘He is Thorgils, son of Leif the Lucky,’ said the Icelander. ‘He used to stay at my father’s place in Iceland when he was a teenager.’

  ‘He’s your foster brother?’

  ‘No – my father took an interest in him because he was what you might call gifted. He has, or had, the second sight.’

  The giant Norseman turned towards me, and his eyes searched my face, judging me. I sensed that he was calculating whether I could be useful to him.

  ‘Is that the uniform of an imperial Life Guard?’

  ‘Yes, my lord,’ I replied. Calling him ‘my lord’ seemed utterly natural. If ever I had seen a born aristocrat, it was this tall, proud stranger. I guessed he was about fifteen years younger than me, but there was no question who was owed respect.

  ‘I suppose they’ve sent you as a spy,’ he said bluntly. ‘Tell your master that we are exactly what we seem to be – a war band – and that its leader is Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, half-brother of St Olaf. Tell him that I have come to place my myself and my men at his disposal. Tell him also that we are veteran fighters. Most of us have already seen service in the household of King Jaroslav of Kiev.’

  Now I knew exactly who he was: scion of one of the most powerful families in Norway. His half-brother Olaf had ruled Norway for a dozen years before being toppled by jealous chieftains. ‘I’m only a duty escort, my lord,’ I said meekly. ‘You need to talk to the two officials waiting outside. They are from the seketron – from the office which looks after foreign envoys. They will handle the arrangements.’

  ‘Then don’t let’s waste time,’ Harald said briskly. ‘Introduce me.’ And he turned on his heel and left the tent. I hurried after him just in time to see the expressions on the faces of the two bureaucrats as this imperious giant of a man bore down on them. They looked alarmed.

  ‘This is the leader of the, er, barbarians,’ I said in Greek. ‘He is very high-born. In his own country he’s a nobelissimus. He has spent some time in the court of Kiev and now wishes that he and his men enter the service of the great Basileus.’

  The two civil servants had regained their composure. They produced parchment and reed pens from the small ivory work cases they carried and waited expectantly.

  ‘Please repeat the name of the nobelissimus,’ said the man whom I took to be the senior.

  ‘Harald, son of Sigurd,’ I answered.

  ‘His rank and tribe?’

  ‘No tribe,’ I replied. ‘From his family have come the kings of a far northern country called Norway.’

  The civil servant murmured something to his colleague. I could not hear what he said, but the man nodded.

  ‘Is his father the current king of his people?’

  This was becoming embarrassing. I had no idea of Harald’s current status, and was too nervous to ask him directly, so I translated the question to Halldor, who had joined us. But it was Harald himself who replied.

  ‘Tell him that my country was ruled by my half-brother until he was killed in battle by his enemies and that I am the rightful heir.’

  Harald, I thought to myself, had a very clear idea of his own worth. I translated his statement and the official wrote it down carefully. He was clearly feeling more comfortable now that he could reduce everything to the written word.

  ‘I will need an exact roster of the people in his company – their names, ages, rank and places of origin. Also a full inventory of any goods they are carrying: type, size and description of their weapon
s; number and condition of the sea craft they have; whether there has been any sickness during the journey from Kiev . . .’

  I sensed that Harald, beside me, was losing patience.

  ‘Making lists, are they?’ he interrupted.

  ‘Yes, my lord. They have to report back to their office with a full description of your war band and all its equipment.’

  ‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘Tell them to make a second copy for me. It could be useful for my quartermasters.’ Then he turned on his heel and strode away.

  Fortunately one of the Rus guides who had brought Harald and his men downriver from Kiev spoke adequate Greek and volunteered to relieve me of the chore of translating as the bureaucrats from the dromos patiently went about their task. I took the chance to draw Halldor to one side and ask him about Harald.

  ‘What’s this about him being the rightful heir to the throne of Norway?’ I asked. ‘And if he is the rightful heir, why has he been spending time at the court of King Jaroslav in Kiev?’

  ‘He had to flee Norway when his half-brother was defeated and killed in battle while trying to regain the throne. He found refuge with King Jaroslav, as did many other Norwegians who backed the wrong side in the civil war. He spent three years in Kiev as a military commander and was so outstanding that he asked the king if he could marry his daughter Elizabeth.’

  It seemed that there was no limit to the self-confidence of Harald Sigurdsson.

  ‘So what was the king’s answer?’

  ‘He didn’t need to say anything. The Princess Elizabeth told Harald to come back when he had riches and renown, and as Harald is not one to let the grass grow under his feet, he retorted that he would win his fortune in the service of the Basileus. Anyone who wanted to join him could do so if they were good warriors and swore allegiance to him. Then he left Kiev with his war band.’

  ‘Well, what about you? Was Harald’s boast enough to make you join up?’

  ‘It’s just as I said, Thorgils. I want to be rich. If there’s anyone on this earth who’s going to win plunder, it’s Harald Sigurdsson. He’s ambitious, he’s energetic, and, above all, he’s got battle luck.’

  There was one more question which I had to ask, and I dreaded the reply.

  ‘Is Harald a follower of the White Christ,’ I asked, ‘or does he follow the Old Ways?’

  That’s the odd thing,’ replied Halldor. ‘You would have thought Harald would be as Christian as his half-brother King Olaf, whom many are now calling “St Olaf”. Yet, I’ve never seen Harald go out of his way to attend a church service or say a prayer to Christ. He serves just one God – himself. He knows exactly what he wants: to win the throne of Norway, and he will follow any God or belief that will help him achieve his ambition.’

  It was that statement which, in due course, convinced me to throw in my lot with Harald Sigurdsson. Later I was to join him, not for riches, but because I believed that I had finally met the one man capable of restoring the fortunes of the Old Ways. If I could help Harald to gain his throne and show that Odinn and the Old Gods had favoured him, then he might return his kingdom to the Elder Faith. My scheme was refined and shaped in my mind over the weeks and months to come, but it began on the day that Halldor Snorrason told me of Harald’s ambition.

  ‘You should know that Harald’s more than just a bold warrior,’ Halldor went on, unaware that his every word was adding to my certainty that Odinn himself had groomed Harald as his champion. ‘He’s a great patron to skalds. He can judge their poetry because he knows the ancient lore as well as any man alive, and gives a handsome reward to any skald who skilfully portrays the world of the Gods. And he’s more than just a critic. He composes good verse himself. Most of us in his war band can quote the couplet he composed as he fled from the battle that killed his half-brother – ’ Here Halldor paused. Then he took a breath and recited:

  ‘Now I go creeping from forest

  To forest with little honour;

  Who knows, my name may yet become

  Renowned far and wide in the end.’

  ‘Not bad for a fifteen-year-old wounded while fighting on the losing side of a battle that decides a throne,’ he commented.

  Yet again I felt that Odinn was pointing the way. I too had been fifteen years old when I fought and was wounded in a great battle that had decided a kingdom, the throne of Ireland. The Norns, who determine men’s destiny, had woven the same patterns into the lives of Harald Sigurdsson and myself. Now Odinn had brought us to where our paths crossed.

  The sound of a footfall behind me made me turn, and there was the man himself. With the sunshine falling full on his sea eagle’s face, I saw something that I had not noticed before: his features were regular and well made, and he was a very handsome man, except in one strange detail – his left eyebrow was very much higher than the other. I took it to be a shadow of Odinn’s lop-sided mark, Odinn the one-eyed.

  ‘SO WHAT DID you make of this Araltes?’ asked John the Orphanotrophus when I reported back to him the following day. I noted a sheet of parchment on the desk in front of him, and guessed that it was the written report from the office of the dromos. It was widely acknowledged that the imperial bureaucracy had never operated so efficiently as when John had taken over the running of the state.

  ‘He seems genuine, your excellency. In Norse his name is Harald, son of Sigurd,’ I answered, standing to attention and staring fixedly at a semicircle of gold paint. It was a saint’s halo in an icon fixed to the wall behind the Orphanotrophus’s head. I was still frightened of the man and I did not want him looking into my eyes and reading my thoughts.

  ‘What about this tale that he is some sort of nobleman?’

  ‘It is correct, your excellency. He is related to the royal family of Norway. He and his men have come to offer their services to his majesty, the Basileus.’

  ‘And what would you say is the status of their morale and equipment?’

  ‘First-class morale, your excellency. Their weaponry is workmanlike and well maintained.’

  ‘Their ships?’

  ‘In need of some overhaul, but seaworthy.’

  ‘Good. I see that you kept your wits about you. My pedantic colleagues in the dromos have taken care to remind me of the regulation that no foreign prince may serve in the imperial Life Guard. Too risky, it seems. In case he gets ideas above his station. But I believe I have a use for these barbarians. I am sending a note to the akolouthos, the commanding officer of the guard, telling him that you are detached for special duties. You are to be the liaison between my office and Araltes and his force. You will receive a bonus above your regular guard’s pay and, unless you are employed otherwise by me, you will continue to perform your normal guard duties. That is all.’

  I left the room and was immediately intercepted by a secretary. He handed me a scroll and I opened it to see that it contained my written orders. It seemed that the Orphanotrophus had decided on his course of action before I even reported to his office. I read that I was to prepare ‘the visitor Araltes’ for an audience with his imperial majesty, the Basileus, at a date yet to be decided. Until that time I was to assist in familiarising Araltes with the organisation and operational structure of the imperial navy. I reread this sentence, as it was not what I had anticipated. The imperial navy was very much the junior branch of the imperial forces, though it possessed the most powerful fleet in the Great Sea. I had expected Harald and his men to be recruited into the Varangians-without-the-walls, the brigade of foreign mercenaries which included Armenians, Georgians, Vlachs and the like. But instead Harald and his men were to be marines.

  When I next visited the camp at Mamas, I explained these orders to Halldor, who merely grunted. ‘Makes sense,’ he said. ‘We’re used to sea fights. But what’s all this about preparing us for reception by the Basileus?’

  ‘You’ve got to get the details absolutely right,’ I told him. ‘Nothing angers the emperor’s councillors more than mistakes in court etiquette. It reinforces their view t
hat anyone unfamiliar with court procedures is an ignorant savage, utterly uncouth and not worth dealing with. They’ve been known to turn down the requests of foreign ambassadors simply because of some minor transgression of court protocol. For example, a visiting ambassador who uses the wrong title to address the Basileus will be refused further audiences with the emperor, have his ambassadorial privileges withdrawn, and so on.’

  ‘So what should Harald call the Basileus?’

  ‘Emperor of the Romans.’

  Halldor looked puzzled. ‘How’s that? This is Constantinople, not Rome, and anyhow isn’t there a German ruler who calls himself the Holy Roman Emperor?’

  ‘That’s what I mean. The Basileus and his entire court are convinced that they are the true heirs of the Roman empire, that they represent its true ideals and continue its glory. They are prepared to grant that the German is the “the king” of the Romans, but not “the emperor”. Just the same way that their own holy men claim that their Great Patriarch is the high priest of White Christ worship, not the person in Rome who calls himself the pope. It also explains why there’s such a confusing mix of Latin and Greek in their military ranks – they speak of decurions and centurions as if they were soldiers in a Roman army, but the higher ranks nearly all have Greek titles.’

  Halldor sighed. ‘Well, I just hope you can persuade Harald to use the right phrases and do the right thing. I’m not sure he will like grovelling to the Basileus. He’s not that sort.’

  Halldor’s worries were needless. I found that Harald Sigurdsson was fully prepared to rein in his usually arrogant behaviour if it was to be to his advantage, and because I desperately wanted the Norwegian prince to succeed, I worked hard at tutoring him in exactly how to behave during his visit to the Great Palace. The emperor’s subjects, I told him first, thought it such a great privilege to be allowed to meet the Basileus in person that they would wait for years to be granted an audience. For them it was the equivalent of meeting their God’s representative on earth, and everything inside the palace was regulated to enhance this impression.

 
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