Viking 3 kings man, p.8

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 8

 

Viking 3: King’s Man
 



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  ‘One-sixth goes to the imperial treasury as the emperor’s share, the rest is for us. That’s the rule,’ gloated Halldor as another dripping mass of plunder was brought to the surface.

  Harald, I noticed, kept a very close eye on what was being recovered. He trusted his men to carry out an ambush unsupervised, but when it came to division of the spoils he made sure that every single item was precisely accounted for. He stood beside the makeshift table on which each piece of salvage was examined, and watched as its value was calculated. When a mass of silver Arab dinars was brought up, the coins melted together as a lump of metal by the Fire’s heat, he ordered it to be weighed three times for value before he was satisfied.

  Watching him, I could not help but wonder about his inner thoughts. I had seen him lie full length on the marble floor before the Basileus, who claimed to be the White Christ’s representative on earth, and I feared that this lucky outcome for his allegiance might prove a step along the path that would lead Harald to favour the Christian faith. It would be easy for him to be seduced by the wealth and luxury. Standing with a group – Harald, Halldor, and several of his councillors – I was on hand when the most precious of all the objects recovered from the galea was laid upon the table. A Christian cross, it had no doubt been stolen from some rich monastery or church. Each arm was at least three spans in length, as thick as a man’s finger, and embellished with patterns moulded on its surface. I knew from my days as a novice in an Irish monastery that to create such an exquisite piece was itself an act of great devotion. The magnificent cross lay upon the bare wood, giving off the dull sheen that only pure gold will give.

  Halldor ran his fingers over the workmanship with admiration.

  ‘What’s that worth?’ he wondered aloud.

  ‘Weigh it and we’ll find out,’ came Harald’s blunt instruction. ‘There are seventy-two nomisma to every pound of gold.’

  If Harald was naturally inclined to follow any god, I thought to myself, it was not the White Christ but Gullveig from my own Elder Faith. Thrown into the fire to be destroyed, Gullveig, whose name meant ‘gold draught’, always emerged more radiant than before, the very personification of thrice-smelted gold. But she was also a treacherous and malignant witch-goddess, and suddenly I felt a twinge of foreboding that Harald’s gold thirst would lead to his downfall.

  FOUR

  ‘YOUR EXCELLENCY, HARALD plans to return to Constantinople now that the pirate menace is dealt with,’ I reported to John the Orphanotrophus when I got back to the capital. ‘He has already transferred the bullion shipment to Dyrrachium, where he intends to purchase a replacement ship for the Greek captain Theodore so that he can continue on to Italy with the army’s pay. They may even have received it by now.’

  ‘This Araltes acts without waiting for orders,’ commented the Orphanotrophus.

  ‘It is his nature, your excellency.’

  The Orphanotrophus was silent for several moments. ‘Corruption is everywhere in the bureaucracy,’ he said, ‘so the information that the pirate had a spy in the office of dromos is useful, though hardly surprising.’

  His words had an undertone which made me wonder if the discovered spy was to be added to the minister’s schemes. John was as likely to blackmail the informant into working for him as to punish the man. I felt sympathy for the victim. His position was not so different from my own.

  ‘Does Araltes trust you?’ the eunuch asked abruptly.

  ‘I don’t know, your excellency. He is not someone who gives trust easily.’

  ‘Then I want you to win his trust. When he arrives back here, you are to assist him in any way you think will earn his confidence.’

  When I told Pelagia about my new assignment that evening, she was apprehensive.

  ‘Thorgils, it looks as if you can’t untangle yourself from affairs of state, however much you try. From what you’ve told me about Harald, he is a remarkable man, but dangerous also. In any conflict of interest between him and the Orphanotrophus, you will be caught in the middle. Not an enviable position. If I were you I would pray to your Gods for help.’

  Her remark prompted me to ask if she knew anything about the older Gods who were worshipped by the Greeks before they began to follow the ways of the White Christ.

  ‘Theodore, the Greek captain I sailed with,’ I told her, ‘pointed out to me a ruined temple up on one of the headlands. He said the old Gods were like a family. So I’m wondering if they were the same Gods we worship in the northern lands.’

  Pelagia shrugged dismissively. ‘I’m not the right person to answer that. I’m not devout. Why would I be when I am named after a reformed prostitute?’ She saw she had to explain herself and continued wryly. ‘St Pelagia was a streetwalker who took the faith and became a nun. She dressed up as a eunuch and lived in a cave on the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land. She’s not the only harlot to have done her bit for the Christians. The mother of Constantine, who founded this city, previously ran a tavern where she provided her clients with more than cheap wine and stale bread. Yet she was the one who found the True Cross and Christ’s tomb in the Holy Land.’

  Seeing that I genuinely wanted to know more about the older beliefs, Pelagia relented.

  ‘There’s a building called the Basilike on the Mese, close to the Milion. It’s stuffed full of old statues which no one knows what to do with. Some of them have been stored there for centuries, and among them you may be able to find a few statues of the old Gods. Though whether anyone can identify them for you is another matter.’

  The following day I located the Basilike without difficulty and gave the elderly doorkeeper a few coins to let me look around. My intention, of course, was to discover who the old Gods were and why they had been replaced. I hoped to learn something which might save my Gods of the North from the same fate.

  The interior of the Basilike was dark and depressing. Hall after hall was filled with dusty statues, placed with no sense of order. Some were damaged, others lay on their sides or had been leaned casually against one another by the workmen who had brought them there. The only sunlight was in the central courtyard, where the larger pieces had been dumped. All were crammed so close together that it was difficult to squeeze through between them. I saw busts of former emperors, sections of triumphal columns, and all manner of marble odds and ends. There were heads which lacked bodies, faces with broken noses, riders without horses, warriors missing shields or holding broken swords and spears. Every few paces I came across inscribed marble panels which had been prised from their original locations. Cut in different sizes and thicknesses, the panels had once identified the statues to which they had been fixed. I read the names of long-dead emperors, forgotten victories, unknown triumphs. Somewhere in the jumble of statuary, I imagined, were many of the originals to which the inscriptions had once belonged. To reunite them would be impossible.

  I was standing in front of a marble panel trying to decipher the worn letters when a wheezing voice said, ‘What size are you looking for?’

  I turned to see an old man who had shuffled out from the maze of figures. He was wearing a shapeless woollen mantle with a frayed hem.

  ‘The best pieces go quite quickly, but there are some large ones at the back which have cracks in them. If you cut away the damaged areas, they’re still usable.’

  I realised that the old man had mistaken me for someone searching for scrap marble. Pelagia had mentioned that marblework in the city was now made mostly from pieces of salvaged material.

  ‘I had no idea there was so much derelict statuary in store,’ I said.

  The old man sniffled; the dust was getting in his nose as well as his eyes.

  ‘The city authorities need the display space,’ he explained. ‘Every time there’s a new monument, the sponsors want to put it in the city centre where most people will see it. But the city centre is full up. Not surprising when they’ve been erecting public monuments there for seven hundred years. So they tear something down and, if they’re trying
to save money, reuse the plinth. Half the time no one can remember who or what the original statue commemorated. And that’s not to mention the statues and monuments which get pulled down when someone wants to build a new apartment block, or which topple over due to neglect or during an earthquake. The city council doesn’t want to spend money on putting statues back on their feet.’

  ‘I came here to look at the older statues,’ I said cautiously. I did not want to arouse any suspicions that I was a heathen. ‘Maybe I can find a representation of one of the ancient Gods.’

  ‘You’re not the first person to do that ’ said the old man, ‘though I doubt if you’ll have much luck. Difficult to turn an old God into a new man.’ He cackled. He still believed that I was a monumental sculptor looking for a cheap and quick way to carry out a commission by remodelling an earlier statue.

  ‘Can you tell me the best place to look?’

  The old man shrugged. ‘Can’t help you there,’ he replied curtly. ‘Could be anywhere.’ As he turned away with complete lack of interest, I reflected that when the old Gods were discarded, they fell into oblivion.

  I spent the next few hours nosing around the Basilike. Nowhere did I find a statue that resembled the Gods I believed in, though I did find what was obviously a sea god, for he had a fishy tail and carried a seashell in one hand. But he was not Njord, my own God of the Sea, so I presumed he belonged to a different faith. In one corner I saw a well-muscled statue sporting a bushy beard, and thought I had stumbled across Thor. But, looking more closely, I changed my mind. The unknown God carried a club, not a hammer. No True Believer would have failed to show Mjollnir, or Thor’s iron gloves and strength-giving belt. The other effigy which raised my hopes was the contorted figure of a man pinioned to a rock. The writhing figure was obviously in torment, and I thought it might be Loki the trickster whom the Gods punished by tying him to a rock, using the entrails of his own son as his bonds. But I could see no trace of the serpent whose venom would fall on Loki’s face if it was not collected in a bowl by his faithful wife Sigyn, nor a statue of Sigyn herself. The carving remained a mystery, and I was disappointed that I found no trace whatever of the God whom I expected to be there – Odinn. And among all the inscriptions I saw not a single rune letter.

  I had reached the very back of the last storage hall when I finally came across one image that I could identify for certain. The carving was done on a panel, and there were holes drilled for the attachment points where it had been fixed on public display. It was a picture of the three Norns, the women who weave the fate of all beings. One of them was spinning, another measuring, and the third held scissors. As I gazed at the panel, it occurred to me that here, perhaps, was a message that I should heed. Not even the Gods themselves can alter the destiny that the Norns have woven, so there was nothing that I could do to change the ultimate fate of the Elder Way. It was better that I should try to understand what was replacing it.

  Perhaps Odinn put that thought into my head, because he soon arranged for me to fulfil my wish. On my return to the guards barracks, a message was waiting for me from John’s sekreton. It informed me that I had been seconded to the staff of Araltes, and my duty was to act as his interpreter with protomaistor Trdat on a mission of great importance. When I showed the message to Pelagia and asked her if she knew about this Trdat, what he did or where he was going, she seemed baffled.

  ‘A lot of citizens would know the name of Trdat,’ she said, ‘but it can’t be the same man. He was the protomaistor, the master builder, who repaired the church of Hagia Sophia, the Holy Wisdom, after it had been damaged in an earthquake. But that was in my grandparents’ time. That Trdat must be long dead by now. He was an Armenian, a genius as an architect. It is said that no one else had the talent to make such an elegant repair. Maybe this Trdat is his grandson, or his great-nephew. The role of protomaistor passes down through families.’

  ‘And what about this mysterious mission of great importance the Orphanotrophus mentions? Does the gossip in the marketplace have any clues as to what that might be?’

  ‘No doubt it has something to do with the Basileus,’ she answered. ‘His sickness – even though you still don’t want to call it that – isn’t getting any better. In fact it has been growing worse. It now affects him almost daily. The doctors are unable to halt the progress of the illness, so Michael has turned to the priests. He’s becoming more and more religious, some would say morbid. He thinks that he can obtain a cure from God by prayer and religious works.’

  ‘There’s something else I need to ask you before Harald gets back to Constantinople,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mention this to the Orphanotrophus, but Harald asked me to find out the best way of converting his booty from the pirate ambush into cash or bullion. And he would like to make the arrangement discreetly so that the authorities do not know.’

  Pelagia gave a thin smile. ‘Your Harald is already acquiring some of the habits of this city. But, as I said, you had better be careful. If the Orphanotrophus gets to hear that you are acting for Harald in the conversion of loot into cash on the black market, and not keeping him informed, you will suffer for it.’

  ‘I will say that I was carrying out his instructions to win Harald’s confidence. What could be more helpful than acting as his money agent?’

  ‘What sort of loot does Harald have on offer?’ Pelagia asked bluntly, and I reminded myself that she was a woman of business.

  ‘Silver and gold items mostly,’ I replied. ‘Plate, cups, jugs, that sort of thing, foreign coins of various countries, some jewellery, a few pearls. The pirate was making shore raids as well as seizing merchant ships before he was caught. His galea had a very mixed haul of booty. Our divers brought up a small clay jar from the burned-out wreck. It was packed in straw and carefully crated so it had survived unbroken. Our Greek captain was most excited when he saw it. He read the marks and told us that it was a dye shipment on its way to the imperial silk factory.’

  ‘If that was a jar of purple dye, then he had every reason to be excited,’ Pelagia told me. ‘The dye comes from seashells, and the extract of twelve thousand shells is needed to colour a single imperial robe. By weight that dye is far more precious than fine gold.’

  ‘Where could Harald dispose of such things without attracting attention?’

  Pelagia thought for a moment, then said, ‘He should deal with a man called Simeon. Officially he’s an argyroprates, a seller of silver. But he also handles gold and precious stones. In fact he has another string to his bow as a moneylender. He’s not supposed to be in that business, but he can’t resist the eight per cent interest. The bankers’ guild probably knows what he is up to, but they let Simeon operate because they find it useful to have someone who can do the occasional deal for them off the books. But it would be best if I contact Simeon first. He has a money changer’s table on the Milion, not so far from the bread market, and we know each other by sight. If I make the connection successfully between Simeon and Araltes, I will want an introduction fee of, say, half a per cent.’

  Pelagia was as good as her word, and it turned out that the half per cent was a bargain for the services that Simeon was to provide Harald with. The argyroprates always contrived to find someone willing to pay silver or gold for brocades, silks, boxes of spices, holy artefacts, even on one occasion a pair of lion cubs. In that particular transaction the keeper of the Basileus’s menagerie in the Great Palace paid a premium price.

  Harald came back to Constantinople shortly before Ascension Day, and barely had time for one private meeting with Simeon – at which I acted as the interpreter – before he received the details of his new assignment. His war band was to be sworn in as a unit of the Varangians-without-the-walls and receive regular army pay and accommodation. Harald himself was to select twenty of his best men and report aboard a warship loading stores and materials in the harbour of Bucephalon.

  A copy of his orders had been sent to me, with a note penned in the margin by the chief secretary to the
Orphanotrophus telling me that I was to accompany Araltes. I had lived long enough in Constantinople to know that Bucephalon harbour was reserved for vessels used by the imperial family. The only warship stationed, as far as I was aware, was the fast dromon assigned for the use of the Basileus himself. I had no idea why Harald and his men should be on board.

  The intelligent-looking young man who greeted me on the dromon’s deck quickly explained the situation. A civilian, he was slightly chubby with a glossy mass of curly black hair, and he had the look of a man always ready to find an excuse to smile or make a joke.

  ‘I’m Trdat,’ he said genially. ‘Welcome aboard. I gather that you are to be the interpreter for my military escort. Though why I need one is beyond me.’ He spoke with such lack of formality that I wondered what he was doing on board the Basileus’s personal dromon.

  Trdat waved his hand casually at the taut rigging of the immaculate warship, the scrubbed decks and gilded detailing, the smartly dressed officers. Even the blades of the thirty-foot rowing sweeps were picked out in imperial purple and gold.

  ‘Quite a ship, don’t you think? Couldn’t imagine anything finer for a gentle sea voyage in the best season of the year.’

  ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘And why?’

  ‘Those stuffy bureaucrats haven’t told you? Just like them. Always priding themselves on their discretion when there’s no need for secrecy, yet willing to sell classified information if it swells their purses. We are bound for the Holy Land to see what can be done about the state of Golgotha. It’s a mission for His Majesty the Basileus. By the way, I’m an architect, a protomaistor.’

 
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