Viking 3: King’s Man, page 7
The Arab ship was undoubtedly a pirate. As she closed on us we could make out that she carried at least eighty men, far more than any trading ship would require, and they were chillingly professional in the way they went about their duties. They adjusted the three huge sails to perfection, then moved across the deck and lined the windward side to trim their vessel and waited there. They did not shout or cheer, but remained poised and silent, certain of the outcome of the pursuit. Up in her bows I saw the archers, sitting quietly with their weapons, waiting until we were in range.
Theodore knew our situation was hopeless, yet he passed from panic to a sense of defiance. Every time he turned and saw how much the gap between the ships had closed, he did not change expression but merely looked up to see that our sails were at their best, then turned back to face towards the cliffs as they drew closer. After three hours’ chase we were no more than a mile from the coast, and I could see that Theodore had been right. The sheer rock face extended in each direction for mile after mile, yellow-brown in colour, sun-baked and utterly desolate. The dark sea heaved against the boulders along their base. Either the pursuing galley would overtake and its crew board us, or we would simply crunch against the rocks. Fifty paces from the cliff, our captain pushed across the helm and our vessel turned and began to run parallel to the precipice, so close that I could hear the cries of the sea birds nesting on the high ledges. Here the wind was fluky, bouncing off the rock face so that our sails began to flap and we lost speed.
‘Get out your oars and row!’ bellowed Theodore.
The crew stabbed at the water and did their best, but it was almost impossible to get a grip on the choppy water and they were not professional galley rowers. They looked shocked and frightened, but to their credit they remained almost as silent as the chasing pirates. Only occasionally did I hear a sob of effort or despair as they tugged on the looms of the oars.
Of course I joined them on the oar bench. I had rowed a longship and knew how to handle an oar, but it was only a gesture. Our sole hope was that Harald’s two monocylon would suddenly appear, sweeping down from the north. But each time I looked over my shoulder the sea remained empty. To one side of us, and almost level now, the Arab galea kept pace. Her captain had reduced sail so he did not overshoot his victim. Half his oarsmen, perhaps forty men, were rowing to hold their position steady. He was, I realised, worried that he might come too close to the cliffs, and did not want to risk damaging his vessel. I judged that he would bide his time until we were in more open water, then close in for the kill.
We were approaching a low headland which jutted from the line of cliffs, obscuring what lay further up the coast.
‘Listen, men,’ shouted our captain. ‘I’m going to beach the ship if I see a suitable spot. When I do that, it’s every man for himself. Drop your oars, leap out and make a run for it. So keep up the pressure now, row as best you can, and wait until I give the word.’
Soon the dorkon was lurching past the headland, so near that I could have thrown a pebble on to the rocks. Now the pirate galley closed the range. One or two arrows flew. The archers were hoping for a lucky strike, to maim a few of our oarsmen. Not too many, of course, because crippled slaves fetched a lower price.
Past the headland the coastline opened up ahead. To our right was a wide, shallow bay, but the beach itself was a mass of stones and rock. There was no place where we could run ashore. Theodore jerked his head at me and I left my oar to join him at the helm. He seemed almost calm, resigned to his fate.
‘This is the spot marked on your map where we should be in case of need. But I don’t see anything.’
I looked around the sweep of the bay. Ahead of us, perhaps half a mile, I saw a narrow break in the cliffs which rose again on the far side. ‘Over there,’ I said, pointing. ‘Perhaps in there we will find a landing place. And maybe the entrance is too narrow for the Arab ship to follow us. If we can squeeze in, we might have a few moments to abandon ship and run clear.’
‘It’s worth a try,’ grunted the captain, and altered course.
We laboured ever closer, heading for the cleft. But as we approached, I saw that I had misjudged it. The gap was wider than I had supposed, which meant our dorkon could slip in, but so too could the pirate ship if her steersman was bold enough. The skipper of the Arab craft must have thought the same, for he did not harry us as we crept closer to where two low reefs reached out, leaving a narrow gap between. Our pursuer even had the confidence to stop rowing: I saw the regular beat of the sweeps come to a halt. They waited and watched.
Sails flapping, our dorkon glided through the gap. As we entered, I knew we were doomed. We found ourselves in a natural harbour, a small cove, almost totally landlocked. Sheer cliffs of yellow rock rose on each side, banded with ledges. They enclosed a circular sea pool, some forty paces across. Here the colour of the water was the palest blue, so clear that I could see the sandy bottom, no more than ten feet below our keel. Despairingly I realised that the water was deep enough for the Arab galley to float. There was not a breath of wind. The cove was so tightly surrounded that the cliffs overhung the water in places, and if the lip of the precipice crumbled, the rocks would fall straight on to our deck. We had found the refuge marked on the map, and had we reached it earlier, even by a day, we could have concealed ourselves here and waited in safety for Harald’s monocylon to appear. I had failed.
‘We’re trapped,’ said Theodore quietly.
In the distance I heard a shout. It must have been the voice of the Arab captain prowling outside, ordering his men to furl sail and prepare to row their larger ship through the entrance. Then I heard the creak of ropes in wooden blocks and supposed that the Arabs were lowering the spars as well. They were taking their time, knowing that they had us at their mercy.
‘Every man for himself!’ called Theodore, and his crew needed no urging. They began to jump into the clear water – it was no more than a few strokes for them to swim ashore. At the back of the cove was a ledge of rock where a man could haul himself out. From there the faint line of a goat path meandered up the cliff face. If we scrambled up fast enough, maybe we could get clear before the slave-catchers arrived.
‘I’m sorry—’ I began to say, but Theodore interrupted.
‘It’s too late for that now. Get going.’
I threw myself overboard and he jumped a moment later. We were the last to abandon the ship, leaving her bobbing quietly in the placid water.
I hauled myself out on to the rock ledge, reached down and gave Theodore a hand, pulling him ashore. He followed the line of wet footprints where his crew had scrambled for the goat path. Up above me I heard the clattering of falling stones as they clambered upwards as fast as possible.
Glancing back, I saw the Arab ship was nosing in cautiously through the gap between the rocks. Her hull almost filled the entrance, and her oarsmen had scarcely enough room to row. Several of the pirates stood on deck and were using the long sweeps to push the vessel into the cove.
I turned and climbed for my life. I had kicked off my boots before I swam, so I felt the sharp rocks cut and bruise my bare feet. I slipped and grabbed for handholds while I looked upwards trying to locate the path. Dirt and small pebbles dislodged by the Greek captain rained down on me. I was less than halfway up the cliff face when I caught up with Theodore. There was no room to overtake him, so I paused, panting with exhaustion, the blood roaring in my ears, and stared back down into the cove.
The Arab galea now lay alongside our abandoned ship, with about a dozen looters already on the dorkon’s deck. They were levering up the hatch cover, and soon they would reach the bullion chests lying in the hold. Shouts from below told me that the Arab captain – I could clearly identify him by his red and white striped turban – was ordering some of his men to pursue and capture us. Two or three of them were already swimming ashore.
Suddenly, a speck dropped past the cliff face on the far side of the cove. At first I thought it was a fault in my eyesight, a
From below me came shouts of alarm. The men who had boarded the dorkon began to scramble back aboard their own ship, while their captain raced towards the stern of his vessel. He was shouting at his crew and waving urgently. One of the Arabs picked up from the deck a missile which had failed to burst and threw it overboard. I saw it was some sort of round clay pot, the size of a man’s head. The Saracens kept their discipline, even though they had been taken totally by surprise. Now, those who had been swimming ashore turned back towards their vessel. Others hacked through the ropes binding the galea to the captured dorkon and began to push clear. Most of the crew found their places on the benches again and set their oars in place, but they were hampered by the confines of the little cove. There was little room to row and not enough space to turn the galley. The Arab captain yelled another command and the oarsmen changed their stroke. They were backing water, now attempting to reverse the galea out through the narrow gap.
Meanwhile the clay pots continued to rain down. From several came spouts of flame as they struck. Fire broke out on the galea’s cotton sails, neatly furled on their spars. The rolled-up cloth served as enormous candle wicks, and I watched the flames run along the spars, then catch the tarred rigging and race up the masts. More fire pots struck. As they burst, they spilled a dark liquid which splashed across the wooden deck. Sometimes the liquid was already ablaze as it spread. At other times it oozed sideways until it touched a living flame and then burst into fire. Within moments the deck of the galea was ablaze with pools of fire expanding towards one another, joining and growing fiercer.
The Saracens began to panic. Rivulets of flaming liquid spilled down and ran below the galley benches. An oarsman leapt up, frantically beating at his gown, which had caught fire. His companions on the bench abandoned their task and tried to help put out the flames. They failed, and I saw the desperate oarsman fling himself overboard to douse himself.
Then I saw something else which I would not have believed was possible. The burning liquid from the fire pots dripped from the galea’s scuppers and ran down the hull, then spread across the surface of the pool and the liquid continued to blaze, even on the water. Now I knew I was witnessing the same terrible weapon that had destroyed the Rus fleet when it attacked the Queen of Cities two generations earlier. This was the Fire.
As the Fire took hold, there was no stopping or extinguishing or diverting it. The blazing liquid spread across the galea’s deck, sought out her hold, ran along the oar benches and surrounded the vessel in flickering tongues of flame. The expanding fire licked the sides of the abandoned dorkon, and soon that vessel too was alight. Smoke was pouring up from the two burning vessels. The column of smoke twisted and roiled. Its base expanded and shifted, enveloping the wretched Saracens. Some wrapped their turbans around their faces to protect themselves, and tried uselessly to beat back the flames. The majority jumped into the fiery water. I watched them try to duck beneath the floating skin of Fire. But when they surfaced for air they sucked the Fire down into their lungs and sank back down, not to rise again. A handful managed to swim towards the open sea, heading towards the gap between the reefs. They must have dived down and swum underwater to get beyond the reach of the floating Fire. But their escape was blocked. Now their attackers showed themselves.
Along the arms of the two reefs scrambled armed warriors. Big and heavily bearded, wearing cross-gartered leggings and jerkins, I recognised them at once: they were Harald of Norway’s men. They carried long spears and took up their positions on the rocks where their weapons could reach the swimmers. I was reminded of the fishermen in the northern lands who wait on riverbanks, on shingle spits, or at weirs, ready to spear the migrating salmon. Only this time it was men they speared. Not a single swimmer escaped through the gap.
Just five of the pirates managed to reach the rocky ledge below me and haul themselves ashore. Suddenly I was knocked aside by a Norseman leading ten of his fellows down the goat track to the ledge. This time they did not kill their enemy, because the Arabs sank down on their knees and begged to be spared.
‘Hey, Thorgils, time to come on up!’ It was Halldor’s voice, shouting cheerfully. I saw him on the far lip of the cliff waving to me. I turned away from the massacre, a picture of those dying men seared into my mind. Weeks earlier, in Constantinople, I had come across one of the White Christ fanatics haranguing a crowd in the marketplace. To me he had seemed half mad as he threatened his listeners with terrible punishment if they did not repent of their sins. They would fall into an abyss, he screamed at them, and suffer terrible horrors, burning in torment. That image came very close to the scene I had just witnessed.
‘You used us as bait!’ I accused Halldor after I had climbed to the top of the cliff and found some forty Norsemen gathered, looking very pleased with themselves. Concealed in a fold in the ground some distance away was their camp, a cluster of tents where they had established themselves as they waited to spring the trap.
‘And very good bait you made,’ answered Halldor, a grin of triumph showing his teeth through his beard.
‘You could at least have warned me,’ I said, still disgruntled.
‘That was part of the plan. Harald calculated that you would understand the meanings of the rune symbols on the map, and be so pleased with yourself for having worked them out, that you wouldn’t think of anything else but carrying out the message. That would make the scheme all the more effective.’
His answer made me feel even worse. I, as well as the Arab pirate, had been hoodwinked.
‘And what would have happened if our ship had got here earlier, or the Arab pirate had showed up later? Your elaborate scheme would have collapsed.’
Halldor was not in the least contrite. ‘If the Arab had shown up late, then the bullion shipment would have got through safely. If you were very early and tucked yourselves away in the cove, he would have come looking for you. Naturally we would then have helped him, sending up smoke from a cooking fire or some other way of guiding him to the spot.’
I looked round the group of Norsemen. There were very few of them to have destroyed the most powerful Saracen vessel in the region.
‘Don’t you see the genius of it?’ Halldor went on, unable to conceal his satisfaction. ‘Both the pirate and that eunuch minister in Constantinople thought this was a double deception. The minister believed we would lure in the pirate to the fake shipment and the real bullion would get through. The pirate thought he had seen through that plot and would pounce upon an easy prize. But Harald was playing a triple game. He reckoned on using the real shipment as the genuine bait, and look how well it turned out.’
‘And if the galea had overhauled us at sea, and captured us and the gold?’
Halldor shrugged dismissively. ‘That was a risk Harald was prepared to take. As I told you, he has battle luck.’
I looked around. ‘Where’s Harald now?’
‘He entrusted the ambush to me,’ said Halldor. ‘We stumbled on the cove when we were searching for pirate bases along the coast. Harald immediately saw how it could provide the perfect location for an ambush. But he thinks the imperial bureaucracy is so riddled with spies and traitors that he had to take every precaution. He sent only a handful of men to set up the ambush so their absence would not be noticed in Dyrrachium, while he himself stayed with o
I must still have looked resentful because Halldor added, ‘There’s another benefit. Harald’s cunning has exposed the source of the pirates’ information. It must be the office of the dromos. Someone there who makes the practical arrangements for the bullion shipments was informing the Saracens where and when to strike. Harald suspected this, so when he sent that map with the rune signs he set another trap.’
I remembered the officials from the dromos who had accompanied me on my first visit to Harald’s camp at Mamas. Even then I had wondered if one of them had learned to speak Norse in the dromos’s college of interpreters.
‘You mean the spy had to be able to read rune signs if he was to understand the significance of the map,’ I said. ‘And only someone in the dromos office would have that skill.’
Halldor nodded. ‘Tell that to your castrated minister when you get back to Constantinople.’
Harald himself arrived with his patrol ships just as Halldor and his men were beginning the task of salvaging the cargoes of the two burned-out wrecks. The water in the cove was so shallow that it was easy to recover the bullion chests from the dorkon. Their contents were unharmed. Halldor’s divers then turned their attention to seeing what had sunk with the galea. To everyone’s delight it turned out that the ship was packed with booty the pirates had taken earlier. Many of the valuables had been damaged by the Fire and seawater had ruined much of what remained, but there was still a good deal worth salvaging. The finest items were church ornaments, presumably looted from raids on Christian towns. They included dishes and bowls of silver as well as altar cloths. The fabric was a blackened mass, but the pearls and semiprecious stones which had once been stitched to the cloth were unharmed. They too were added to the growing pile of valuables.