Viking 3 kings man, p.6

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 6

 

Viking 3: King’s Man
 



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  I remembered our conversation when I received my next summons from the Orphanotrophus. This time I found he was not alone. The fleet admiral, the drungarios, was in his office, as well as a naval kentarchos, by coincidence the same man who had turned Harald and myself off his dromon. Both men looked surprised and resentful that I had been called to the meeting, and I made sure I stood respectfully, eyes fixed once again on the golden halo of the icon, but listening with close attention to what the Orphanotrophus had to say.

  ‘Guardsman, I’ve received an unusual request from war captain Araltes, now on anti-piracy patrol. He wants you to accompany the next pay shipment for our army in Italy.’

  ‘As your excellency orders,’ I answered crisply.

  ‘It is not that straightforward,’ said the Orphanotrophus, ‘otherwise I would not have summoned you in person. This shipment could be a little different from usual. Araltes – or Harald as you told me your people call him – has been very effective. His men have destroyed several pirate bases and captured or sunk a number of the Saracen vessels, but not all of them. One particularly dangerous vessel remains at large. Araltes reports that the vessel’s base is in Sicily and therefore beyond the operational range of his monocylon. The drungarios here agrees with this assessment. He also tells me that several of his warships have attempted to hunt down this corsair but so far have failed.’

  ‘The vessel has been too quick for them,’ explained the drungarios in self-defence. ‘She is powerful and well manned and she has been able to outrun my dromons.’

  The Orphanotrophus ignored the interruption. ‘It is vital that our troops now on campaign in southern Italy receive their pay in the next few weeks. If they do not, they will lose heart. They have not been paid for half a year as both the last two pay shipments were lost. We believe the vessels carrying the payments were intercepted by the same cruising pirate, who has yet to be accounted for. It was either a remarkably bad stroke of luck for the raider or, as Araltes suggests, the pirate was informed in advance when and where the shipments were being made.’

  I waited impassively to hear what the Orphanotrophus would say next. So far he had not mentioned anything which explained why Harald wanted me to accompany the next shipment.

  ‘War captain Araltes has suggested a ruse to ensure that the next payment does get through. He proposes that the army’s pay is not sent in the usual way, by the imperial highway from the capital to Dyrrachium and there trans-shipped for Italy. He proposes that the money is delivered by sea all the way, aboard a fast ship sailing from Constantinople, around Greece and then directly across to Italy.’

  ‘That plan is madness, your excellency. Typical of a barbarian,’ protested the kentarchos, ‘What is there to say that the merchant ship would not equally be intercepted by the pirate. Unarmed, the vessel would be helpless. It would be an even easier target.’

  ‘There is a second part to the plan,’ said the Orphanotrophus smoothly. ‘Araltes suggests a fake pay shipment is also sent, at the same time and along the normal route, to distract the raider. This shipment is to be of lead bars instead of the usual gold bullion. It will be fully escorted as if it were the real consignment, taken to Dyrrachium, and loaded aboard a military transport carrying extra fighting men supplied by Araltes. This decoy vessel will then set sail for Italy. If the pirate’s spies tell him about this vessel, he will intercept it, and this time he may be destroyed. Meanwhile the real shipment will have slipped through.’

  ‘If it please your excellency,’ the kentarchos interjected, ‘the shipment can go all the way by sea, but why not aboard a dromon? No pirate would dare attack.’

  ‘The drungarios assures me that this is impossible. He cannot spare a battleship,’ replied the Orphanotrophus. ‘Every dromon is already committed.’

  Out of the corner of my eye I watched the drungarios. He looked towards his kentarchos and gave a shrug. The drungarios, I thought to myself, was as much a courtier as a seaman. He did not want the risk of the imperial navy losing another bullion shipment, nor did he want to contradict the Orphantrophus.

  ‘Guardsman, what is your opinion?’

  From the tone of his voice I knew the Orphanotrophus had directed his question at me, but still I dared not look directly into his face, and kept my gaze fixed on the icon on the wall behind him.

  ‘I am not an expert on naval matters, your excellency,’ I said, choosing my words carefully, ‘but I would suggest that, just as a precaution, two of the monocylon escort the bullion vessel through the zone where the pirate ship is most likely to be operating, at least to the limit of their range.’

  ‘Strange you should mention that,’ observed the Orphanotrophus. ‘That is just what Araltes also proposes. He says he can send two of the monocylon to a rendezvous off the south cape of Greece. That is why he asks that you be aboard the bullion ship. So that there are no misunderstandings when the captain of the Greek ship meets up with the Varangian captains.’

  ‘As your excellency wishes,’ I replied. Harald’s deception plan was the sort of strategy which would appeal to the Orphanotrophus.

  ‘Araltes asks one more thing. He requests that we send him an engineer and materials for the Fire.’

  Beside me the kentarchos almost choked with astonishment. John noted his reaction.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ he said soothingly. ‘I have no intention of allowing the Fire to be made available to barbarian vessels. At the same time I don’t want to snub Araltes. He is evidently someone who takes offence easily. He says nothing about requiring a siphon to dispense the Fire. So I’ll send him the engineer and the materials, but no siphon. It will be a genuine mistake.’

  It took three weeks to prepare the plan. First the bureau of the logothete of the domestikos, the army’s secretariat, had to draw up two sets of orders: the official one for the false shipment and a second, secret set of instructions for the genuine consignment. Then their colleagues in the office of the logothete of the dromos, responsible for the imperial highways, had to make their preparations for an escorted convoy to go overland from Constantinople to Dyrrachium. The managers of the way stations were warned to be ready with changes of pack mules for carrying the payment, as well as horses for the mounted troopers. The eparch of the palace treasury received his instructions direct from the Orphanotrophus: he was to cast eight hundred bars of lead to the same weight as the thousands of gold nomisma, the imperial coins with which the troops were paid. Last, but not least, the navy had to find a suitable merchant ship to carry the genuine shipment around the coast.

  When I went to the Golden Horn to view the chosen vessel, I had to admit that the kentarchos, who had been given this responsibility, knew his job. He had picked a vessel known locally as a dorkon or ‘gazelle’. Twenty paces in length, the vessel was light and fast for a cargo carrier. She had two masts for her triangular sails, a draught shallow enough to allow her to work close inshore, and extra oar benches for sixteen men so she could make progress in a calm as well as manoeuvre her way safely in and out of harbour. Her captain also inspired me with confidence. A short, sinewy Greek by the name of Theodore, he came from the island of Lemnos, and he kept his ship in good order. Once he had made it clear to me that he was in charge and I was to be only a supercargo, he was polite and friendly. He had been told only that he was to sail to Italy by the direct route and expect a rendezvous at sea with auxiliary ships of the imperial navy. He had not been told the nature of his cargo. Nor did he ask.

  I next saw Theodore on the night we left harbour. In keeping with the secrecy of our mission, we sailed within hours of the chests of bullion being carried aboard. The water guard were expecting us. They patrolled the great iron chain strung across the entrance to the Golden Horn at dusk to hinder smugglers or enemy attack, and they opened a gap so that the dorkon could slip out and catch the favourable current to take us down towards the Propontis or inner sea. As I looked towards the towering black mass of Constantinople spread across its seven hills, I recalled the
day when I had first arrived. Then I had been awed by the sheer scale and splendour of Miklagard. Now the city was defined by the pinprick lights of the apartment blocks where thousands upon thousands of ordinary working citizens were still awake. Closer to hand, the steady beam of Constantinople’s lighthouse shone out across the water, its array of lanterns fuelled by olive oil and burning in great glass jars to protect the flames from the wind.

  The dorkon performed even better than I had anticipated. We set course directly across the Propontis, and this in itself was a measure of our captain’s competence. Greek mariners normally stopped each evening and anchored at some regular shelter or pulled into a local port, so they hugged the coast and were seldom out of sight of land. But Theodore headed directly for the lower straits which led into what he called the Great Sea. Nor did he divert into the harbour at Abydos, where the empire maintained a customs post and all commercial vessels were required to stop and pay a toll. A patrol boat, alerted by signals from the customs post, managed to intercept us but I showed the written authority that the Orphanotrophus’s chief chartularius had given me, and they let us proceed. The document stated we were on urgent imperial business and not to be delayed. John, I noted, had even taken to signing his name in the purple ink.

  I was rolling up the scroll with its lead seal and about to return it to my satchel when the wind plucked a folded sheet of parchment from the bag and blew it across the deck. Theodore deftly caught the paper before it disappeared overboard, and as he returned it to me he gave me a questioning glance. He had obviously recognised some sort of map. I had been planning to show it to him later, but now seemed an opportune moment.

  ‘The commander of the vessels which will join us later as our escort provided me with this,’ I said, spreading out the page. ‘He sent it by courier from Dyrrachium to the office of the dromos in Constantinople to be passed on to me. It shows where we can expect to rendezvous with our escort.’

  The Greek captain glanced down at the outline drawn on the parchment and recognised the coastline immediately. ‘Just beyond the Taenarum cape,’ he said, then shrugged. ‘Your commander need not have troubled himself. I know that coastline as well as my home port. Sailed past it more times than I can remember.’

  ‘Well, it’s best to be sure,’ I said. ‘He’s marked where his ships will be waiting for us.’ I placed my finger next to a runic letter drawn on the parchment. Recalling what Halldor had told me about Harald’s knowledge of the ancient lore, I recognised it as a private code.

  ‘What’s that sign?’ asked Theodore.

  ‘The first letter of what might be described as the alphabet my people use. It’s called fehu – it represents livestock or wealth.’

  ‘And that one?’ asked the captain. A vertical stave line with a single diagonal bar had been drawn near the coast a little further north.

  ‘That’s nauthiz, the letter which signifies need or distress.’

  The Greek captain examined the map more closely and remarked, ‘What’s it put there for? There’s nothing along that stretch of coast except sheer cliffs. Not a place to be caught in an onshore gale either. Deep water right up to the land and no holding ground. You’d be dashed to pieces in an instant. Wiser to give the place a wide berth.’

  ‘I don’t know the reason,’ I said, for I was equally puzzled.

  With each mile that our ship travelled, I noticed the difference between sailing in the Great Sea and the conditions I had experienced in colder northern waters. The water had a more intense blue, the wave crests were whiter and more crisp against the darker background, and the waves themselves more lively. They formed and re-formed in a rapid dance, and seemed never to acquire the height and majesty of ocean rollers. I commented on this to Theodore, and his reply was serious.

  ‘You should see what it is like in a storm,’ he warned. ‘A sort of madness. Steep waves falling down on themselves, coming from more than one direction to confuse the helmsman. Each big enough to swamp the boat. And no hint before the tempest strikes. That’s the worst. It sweeps in from a cloudless sky and churns the sea into a rage even before you’ve had time to shorten sail.’

  ‘Have you ever been shipwrecked?’ I asked.

  ‘Never,’ he said and made the sign of the cross. ‘But don’t be lulled into complacency – the Great Sea has seen more than its share of shipwrecks, from the blessed St Paul right back to the times of our earliest seafarers, to Odysseus himself.’

  The dorkon was sailing close inshore at the time, passing beneath a tall headland, and he gestured up towards its crest. High up, I could see a double row of white columns, close spaced and crowned with a band of white stone. The structure gleamed, so brilliant was its whiteness.

  ‘See that there. It’s a temple to the old Gods. You’ll likely find one on every major headland – either that or some sort of burial mound.’

  For a moment I thought he was talking about my Gods and the Elder Way, but then realised he meant the Gods whom his people had worshipped before they believed in the White Christ.

  ‘They were built where they could be seen by passing sailors,’ the captain went on. ‘I reckon that in former times the mariners prayed when they saw those temples, asking their heathen gods to give them safe passage, or thanking them for a voyage safely completed. Like today I lit a candle and said a prayer to St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of mariners, before I embarked.’

  ‘Who were those older Gods?’ I asked.

  ‘Don’t know,’ he answered. ‘But they seem to have been some sort of family, ruled over by a father god, with other Gods responsible for the weather for crops, for war and such like.’

  Much like my own Gods, I thought.

  Our vessel was far ahead of the most optimistic schedule, and when we rounded Taenarum cape and reached the place where Harald’s two ships were due to meet us, I was not surprised that the sea was empty. There was no sign yet of the two monocylon, and I had some difficulty in persuading Theodore that we should wait a few extra days. He was well aware that we were entering the area where piracy was rife, but he was also worried by the risk of dawdling off a dangerous shore.

  ‘As I told you,’ he said, gesturing towards the distant horizon where we could see the faint line of the coast, ‘there’s no harbour over there, and if the wind swings round and strengthens we could be in trouble.’

  In the end he agreed to wait three days, and we spent them tacking back and forth, then drifting each night with sails furled. Each morning we hoisted our lookout, seated on a wooden cradle, to the masthead, and there he clung, gazing to the north, the direction from which we expected Harald’s ships to arrive.

  At dawn on the third day, as he was being hauled up to his vantage point and glancing around, the lookout let out a warning shout. A vessel was approaching from the south-west. Theodore jumped up on the rail, gazed in that direction, then leaped back on deck and came striding towards me. Any hint of his usual friendliness was gone. Fury was mingled with suspicion in his expression.

  ‘Is that why you wanted us to wait?’ he shouted, seizing me by the arm and bringing his face up close. His breath smelled overpoweringly of garum, the rotten fish sauce the sailors relished. For a moment I thought he was going to strike me.

  ‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

  ‘Over there,’ he shouted, waving towards the distant sail. ‘Don’t tell me you weren’t expecting that. I should have known it all along. You treacherous savage. You lied about waiting for an escort. That’s a Saracen ship twice our size, and you’re the reason why she turned up here so conveniently.’

  ‘How can you be so sure she’s an Arab vessel? No one can tell at this distance,’ I defended myself.

  ‘Oh, yes I can,’ the captain snarled, his fingers digging deeper into my arm. ‘See how she’s rigged. Three triangular sails on three masts. She’s an Arab galea out of Sicily or—’

  ‘Keep calm,’ I interrupted. ‘I’ve no idea how that ship happens to be here just now. Even if you don
t believe me, we’re wasting time. Set all sail, get your oarsmen to stand by, steer north. I’m sure our escort ships are well on their way, and we should meet up with them before the Saracens catch us.’

  The Greek captain laughed bitterly. ‘No chance. If that Saracen ship is the one I think she is, we won’t get far. You know what “galea” means. It’s our word for a swordfish, and if you’ve ever seen a swordfish racing in for the attack, you’d know she’ll catch us. Probably by noon, and there’s no way out. There isn’t even a friendly harbour where we can seek refuge.’

  His words reminded me of the map Harald had sent. I fumbled in my satchel and pulled out his chart. ‘Here, what about this?’ I tapped the nauthiz rune. ‘Isn’t that the reason for this mark. It’s a place to go if we’re in distress.’

  The captain looked at me with dislike. ‘Why should I trust you now?’ he said grimly.

  ‘You don’t need to,’ I replied, ‘but if you’re right, and that Arab vessel is as fast and dangerous as you say, you’ve no other choice.’

  He thought about it for a moment, then angrily spun on his heel and began yelling at his crew to set all sail, then get themselves to the oar benches. Taking the helm, he steered the dorkon on a slanting course towards the distant coast. He didn’t even look at me, but set his jaw and concentrated on getting the best speed from his ship.

  Even the most ignorant sailor would have seen that our vessel was no match for the Arab galea. We were light and quick for a merchant vessel, but the Arab had been designed as a pure seagoing hunter. She carried far more sail than we did and was expertly handled. Worse, the southerly breeze suited her to perfection and she began to overhaul us so rapidly, her bow slicing through the sea and sending up a curl of white foam, that I wondered if we would even get as far as the coast. I had been in a sea chase years earlier, pursued by longships, and we had gained temporary advantage by running across a sandbar into waters too shallow for our enemies. But this was not an option now. As the coast ahead drew nearer, I saw that it was utterly forbidding, a rampart of cliffs directly ahead of us.

 
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