AMBROSE, PRINCE OF WESSEX;

EMISSARY TO BYZANTIUM.

 

 

 

 

By Bruce Corbett

 

 

Copyright © 2008 Bruce Corbett

 

Smashwords Edition

 


 

AUTHOR'S NOTE.

 

 

You are about to read the fictional story set in an era several centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; circa 865 AD.

Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Emissary to Byzantium, is a work of fiction and I freely admit that when I was unable to discover the true facts, or when there was a conflict of opinion between scholars, I did not hesitate to use my literary license to invent facts that would best fit my story, but the truth is, most of my story is based on historical events.

In the story, Ambrose, the young hero, expresses great concern over what is happening back in Wessex. The Angles and Saxons, who had already faced several major raids from the Danes, were, in fact, soon to be locked into a quickly escalating struggle with Viking marauders. The invasion of the Danish "Great Army" occurred in 865 AD.

The Rus, or some other tribe, probably living in what is presently Sweden, really did travel the Russian rivers in their river boats. The daring Vikings sailed as far as the Black and the Caspian Seas.

The Viking trade to Constantinople is well documented. There is considerable debate as to who really founded Kiev, but it appears clear that, at some point, Viking tribesmen arrived and took over control. Within a few years of 860 AD., there was the first of several attacks on the Byzantine Empire by Viking tribesmen travelling down the Dnieper River. While most modern scholars date the attack at around 860, one version of the Primary Russian Chronicles date it at about 865. Since that best fits my story, that is the date I used.

The Khazars, a tribe of fierce nomadic riders, controlled the mouths of several major rivers emptying into the Black Sea. In return for a tithe on all trade that passed through their territory, they fought off other marauding tribesmen.

Constantinople was the heart of a vast trading empire; one that started to expand again shortly after 867, under the inspired leadership of Basil, the founder of the Macedonian Dynasty. Meantime, in far-off Britain, the Wessex kings Ethelbert, Ethelred and then Alfred fought to hold together several small Saxon kingdoms, while facing repeated attacks by Danish invaders.

The ascending throne, roaring lions and the singing metal birds in the Byzantine palace are based on descriptions by contemporaries of the time. Ambrose clearly did not exist, nor Polonius, yet they might have. The story of Basil is true, though he actually sent Michael's own assassin to kill the Emperor, in 867.

This was a time of great turmoil and change in the world. First and foremost, however, this is a novel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

PROLOGUE

 

This story is the second of a series. In Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev, Prince Ambrose and Phillip, his faithful tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village along the Wessex coast. The Vikings quickly put to sea and sail for home. A fierce storm almost sinks the ship and Ambrose and then Phillip help to save it. The battered ship makes a Frisian port and there many of the Saxon captives are sold. One stranger, however, is brought aboard. Thus Ambrose and Phillip meet Polonius.

The vessel reaches the Danish home port and the three friends are put to work. Ambrose has a generous master and he falls in love with a slave girl. Phillip is brutally treated, however, and in the end Ambrose and Polonius flee with Phillip in order to save Phillip from becoming a sacrifice to a Viking god.

The three companions flee by small ship north and then east, so that they hit the coast of Norway. They are warmly welcomed in an isolated Norwegian village and regretfully leave to begin their trek to what is now Sweden and a friend of Ambrose's old master. There they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders. The arrival of a pursuing Danish long-ship ends these plans, however.

They are forced to flee once again. Gunnar quietly arranges for them to travel with an expedition to Novgorod, where Rus tribesmen have been invited to settle. Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius set up a trading factory there for Gunnar and then join another expedition that will take them far south; much closer to the main trade-centre of Constantinople.

After a bitter fight on the way south, the expedition reaches Kiev. There the Rus leaders come to an agreement with the town’s rulers and take control. Soon all, Slav and Varangian alike, work to set up a string of fortifications along the river, for the steppes are close and nomad incursions are frequent.

A fierce attack by an entire tribe of steppe nomads is fought off only with great difficulty. Even before all of the dead are buried, however, the call goes out for all the Varangian tribesmen to rally. An attack on Constantinople is being planned. This is where Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev ended and this story begins.

 

 

CHAPTER 1.

 

The Call for Vengeance Goes Out.

 

 

As soon as the thin Byzantine shook the snow from his cloak and hung it up on a peg by the door, Prince Ambrose handed him a tankard of warmed mead. Polonius smiled and settled on the bench in front of the open pit fire. The Saxon prince sat across from his good friend and looked expectantly at him. The winter wind howled and beat at the sturdy wood door and Polonius shivered, in spite of the heat from the fire.

Phillip threw another log on the already blazing fire, knowing his Byzantine friend keenly felt the winter cold. Even he, inured to the cold and damp of his homeland, complained that the Asian winters were bitter. The burly thane pulled his bearskin tighter around him and then settled down beside the fire to listen to Polonius' story.

On the long river road south from Novgorod to Kiev, Polonius had given the Rus jarls Dir and Askold some military suggestions that he had gleaned from his scholarly studies. After some of his ideas had been instrumental in the surprising defeat of the battle-hardened Pecheneg horde the summer before, the Byzantine scholar had suddenly found himself chief military advisor to the rulers of Kiev and its rapidly-expanding river empire.

To no one's surprise, when rumours of impending trouble with Byzantium swept Kiev, Polonius had been ordered to report to the Great Hall, which was the nexus of the rapidly growing Slav and Rus empire governed by Dir, Askold, and Olaf, their Slav ally. Ambrose had not been invited to the conference and he was intensely curious as to why Kiev's town leaders had so urgently summoned the Byzantine scholar.

Ambrose watched Polonius sip his mead slowly, knowing the scholar was savouring the moment. The prince knew his friend enjoyed few things more than telling a good tale, but it was apparent that he intended to tease him and Phillip a little first.

Ambrose sat quietly and with a semblance of outward calm for a few moments, but suddenly burst into a grin. "Well? What are you waiting for, you rascal? Tell us what happened!"

"Well, Prince, Dir had ordered a complete sheep to be stuffed with delicacies, and he served only the finest Greek wine. It was actually an excellent vintage from Lesbos, I think, although it was perhaps just a trifle sweet."

Ambrose could stand it no more. "Phillip!"

The Saxon thane answered. "Aye, Prince?"

Ambrose rose to his feet, "What do you think about escorting Polonius here to the nearest snow bank? I don’t think it would be necessary for him to stop to get his mitts on the way."

Phillip, a giant amongst even the Vikings, stood and moved ponderously forward. Polonius warily watched Ambrose and Phillip approach. He was still shivering from the long and frigid walk back to the cabin snug against their trading post.

"Of course, dear Prince, it was not just to feed me that Dir requested my presence!"

Phillip and Ambrose were still closing the distance when Ambrose spoke again. "Hold, Weapons-master. This begins to sound a little more interesting. Perhaps we should listen for a moment before we teach him how to make snow angels in a snow bank."

The giant Saxon weapons-master, stolid as ever, came to a halt and grunted.

Ambrose smiled wickedly. "You were saying, sir scholar?"

"Oh, I guess you want to know if there is any substance to the rumours that we have heard."

"That will do, for a start."

"Well, Master, Dir reported to the council that there was a major altercation between some Varangian traders and the Byzantine authorities at Cherson."

Ambrose looked grim. "What exactly happened, and when?"

"A Varangian trader was accused of theft."

"And?"

Polonius shrugged. "The man was hung. Several of his comrades were whipped, and the entire crew were robbed of their trade goods after they accused the town officials of complicity."

"I understand that this would be considered a serious breach of trust on the part of Byzantium, but just why would this cause a poor Byzantine scholar to be dragged out in the midst of a savage winter storm?"

"What I have not told you, Master, is that the Varangian trader who was hung is related to very influential men in both Novgorod and Kiev."

"And you were called from your warm seat by the fire so you could be informed of this important fact?"

It was Polonius' turn to grin. "No, Prince. Merely to hear that Dir, Askold, and Olaf have allied themselves with Rurik and are planning a revenge attack on the grand city itself; what you barbarians choose to call Miklagard."

"To plan what? We are going to attack "the Big City"? Are Dir, Askold and the Council crazy?"

"No Prince-of-the-Saxons, just very angry."

"And so warriors from a few riverside settlements are going to grab their weapons and sail off to attack what you tell me is the greatest city on earth? Polonius, was it not you who told me that the main reason these river settlements even exist is so that the Varangians can have the privilege of sharing the river trade with the Slavs. The city is the destination for most of the trade that goes south. To attack Miklagard would be to cut off our noses to spite our faces."

"All true, Prince, but what would happen if it became known that the proud Varangian tribesmen, fierce warriors who bow to no man, simply swallowed such insults and humbly crawled back to be abused again."

Ambrose sighed. "I must admit, I can see your point when you put it that way. Our Viking friends are not known for humbly swallowing anything. But just how do scattered tribesmen intend to take on what you keep telling me is the greatest army and navy in the world?"

"Prince, you underestimate the sheer number of both Varangians and Slavs who sailed south past our door last year, even while the Pechenegs raided on the river. If just some of the independent Slavs are willing to join in alliance with us, Rurik sends his forces south from Novgorod, and Dir and Askold call up all of Kiev's allied forces, then we have a very numerous and powerful force.

Ambrose looked at Polonius and spoke. "Scholar, the Slavs are not best friends with the Vikings who just invaded their land and are brutally crushing any who stand up to them."

"Prince, the Slavs watched us defeat the Pecheneg horde and, holding by holding, they are submitting to Viking rule. Make no mistake - they know that, within a few years, the Vikings and their Slav vassals will be in uncontested control of all the land from south of here to Lake Ladoga. Most are already submitting to the power of Kiev or Novgorod. It is in their interest to join us on this expedition. Those who fought at our side last summer, went home rich men."

"All right, I concede the numbers and I know the Varangians are accomplished warriors. But against Miklagard? You have many times told me just how impregnable the city is. Could it be that someone found Joshua's horn left over from his battle at Jericho, or do our illustrious leaders have another incredible trick to bring down those walls?"

"Neither, Master, but they do have me as their trusted advisor. I did tell them how they could avenge the slight."

"Polonius, what in the name of Almighty God are you talking about?"

"I will explain, Master."

"I humbly await your words, advisor to-all-the-Rus."

The Byzantine suddenly smiled. "Finally, you two show the proper respect a learned scholar deserves."

"Phillip, I fear Polonius' head has swollen. We must apply the life-saving properties of snow and ice without delay!"

Polonius responded quickly. "Think, Ambrose, what would happen if several hundred vessels, each crammed with eager fighting men, hove into sight by the walls of Constantinople?"

"Polonius, you yourself said that it was impossible to sneak up on the city. I well remember you telling me that there were watch towers all along the coast of the Black Sea, or at least from the Danube south."

"True, Master, and if they spotted the Varangian fleet, what would they report?"

"The size and make up of a hostile fleet. And after your description of them, I have no wish to face a Byzantine fleet armed with this ‘Greek-Fire’ you so often talk about."

"The coast guardians would see the same peaceful Slav and Varangian fleet that has arrived on their shores every year since time immemorial. But even better, what if the fleet could arrive at Constantinople without even being spotted?"

"Then the men could probably manage to fight their way to the walls - you did say there are three separate walls surrounding Constantinople?"

"Yes, and the tallest is six times the height of a tall man."

"Then we could charge bravely to the very walls, where we could spend a few decades waiting for the food to run out, or for the Byzantine army to show up. That is, of course, if the Byzantine fleet, which you continually remind me, is the greatest in the world, does not burn us all to the waterline, first."

Polonius’ smile grew into a grin. "And what if I told you that the Byzantine army is scheduled to march in the early spring for Cappadocia to put down an insurrection and the Imperial navy is planning to launch a campaign against Arab pirates in the Mediterranean at the same time? It is expected that it will take the better part of the year for both of them to complete their respective tasks.

Ambrose looked thoughtful and Polonius continued. "You are quite right, Prince. The allies can not possibly take Constantinople itself, but I suspect that they could pretty much devastate the trade that passes through the Propontus. Further, outside the city walls are thousands of unprotected villas, farms and monasteries that are very rich indeed. As you say, why would the Varangians want to destroy the city anyway? The river people have grown rich trading with the city. The intention would be to intimidate; not destroy."

Ambrose sighed again. "Why do I suspect that you had a lot to do with this very interesting plan of attack?"

"Prince, I promised both you and Phillip the opportunity to visit the mother of cities some day. I just didn't think that we would have the opportunity to visit it in quite this manner."

 

 

A hundred men, some Slav and some Viking, stood at attention in front of Askold, Dir, and Olaf. Askold addressed the assembled men while Olaf stood silently. Even the Slavs allowed to sit at the governing council conceded that it had been the fierce northerners who had saved their lives in the bitter struggle against the Pecheneg horde the previous summer, and they accepted their new masters.

"You have been assigned your routes. You are to each take one of these war arrows. I want you to spread the word in every town, village and farm that you visit. Every adult male, Slav or Viking, from the Viking Sea to Kiev itself, is enjoined to meet at Kiev! I expect, when the spring flood subsides, to see assembled on our shore the greatest fleet ever seen on the Dnieper River.

We will sail south as an avenging fleet, and we will loot the wealthiest empire the world has ever known. Never again will the Slavs and the Vikings be known as weak traders cowering on their northern rivers. We will travel in our tens of thousands and we will show the Byzantines the power of the northern people!

Last year we stood side by side, Slav and Viking together, and we defeated the fierce Pecheneg nation. A river of gold flowed into our treasury, and those who fought on our side were richly rewarded. This year, we will spring a surprise attack on the complacent Byzantines. We will teach them who are the masters of the northern rivers!

Tell the people that the Slavs and the Vikings are united. Tell the people that Novgorod and Kiev are united. Together, we are a force that is unstoppable!

Go now and prepare yourselves for the journey. The fate of our expedition rests in your hands. I am relying on you to spread the word to every settlement; every farm. Go and do your duty!"

 

 

As the last vestiges of snow slowly melted, the mighty Dnieper River swelled and swelled. The raging waters reclaimed the town docks, crept inexorably across the lower meadows and inundated the river fort. Ambrose watched in awe as the river, normally over a Roman mile across, swelled to several times its normal width.

Each day, when it seemed that no more water could be found in all the vastness of the far north to feed the rushing giant, the water crept a little higher. A few Varangian ships made it to Kiev, but only at great peril.

By the end of the month, however, the water began to recede. At first a few and then dozens of Slav and Varangian vessels made it safely to shore in front of Kiev. The higher meadows filled with a city of tents and shelters and the air was filled with the sound of carousing warriors.

Ambrose was surveying the shore when Polonius quietly walked to his side. The prince turned to his friend and tutor.

"Greetings, Scholar. Look at the far side over there. I have never in all my life seen anything like this raging torrent. It seems more like a moving sea than a river."

Polonius shrugged. "How long is your island of Britain, Young Master?"

"I do not know for sure, Scholar, but the Romans estimated it was perhaps five hundred of their miles from end to end and perhaps from one to two hundred wide."

"The Dnieper then drains an area several times the size of your entire island, Prince. And with the cold here, most of the precipitation in the winter is locked up in the form of snow and ice. What you are seeing here is six months of precipitation, all flowing into the rivers and streams at one time."

"It is truly incredible, yet the Varangian and Slav allies have managed to make it here. I counted almost two hundred vessels not an hour ago, and more are arriving every hour. What are Dir and Askold waiting for?"

"They wait, Prince, for the main fleet from Novgorod. Rurik has sworn his support and has apparently dispatched a large fleet. As you know, they have to fight what will be a vicious current before they can ride the wooden rollers and then sail down the Dnieper. And, Master, it is still too early to sail beyond Vitchev Hill."

"I know we marched past it last summer, but Captain Hammar told me that Vitchev Hill is just a day's sail south by ship. Why can this fleet not sail beyond there?"

"Ambrose, below Vitchev Hill is the open steppes."

"I remember it well, Polonius. But the main threat, the Pechenegs, were crushed just last fall, and I cannot imagine any other steppe raiders bothering this fleet. Certainly not if it sails as a coherent force."

"It is true that we drove off the Pecheneg horde last summer, but they have raided these shores for generations and will not easily forgive what we did to them last year. We killed many and we took a lot of their gold, but don't be fooled. They still have uncounted thousands of veteran warriors. Somewhere out there, too, are still the Magyars, the Bulgars, renegade Khazars and still others who look to the river for easy pickings. But the main reason we wait, my prince, is that the river is still too dangerous."

"Polonius, I assume that you refer to the Seven Cataracts. Why will not the high water allow us to slip over the rocks that would cause us grief later in the year?"

"Prince, Captain Hammar explained to me that the water must be low enough that we have some hope of managing the vessels as they race through the constricting gorges."

"So we are waiting until the waters are low enough that we can control the boats, but high enough that we won't ground."

Polonius smiled. "Precisely, Prince. That . . . and the rest of our allies."

 

 

 Ambrose was caught up in the excitement as several thousand Slavs and Varangians trained near their beached ships. The three friends, who had not yet formally committed themselves to going, finally discussed making arrangements to join the expedition.

"Polonius, you are partly responsible for this expedition. Why do you hesitate to sail with the fleet?"

"Master, I have never personally felt the least desire to face some ill-mannered thug armed with a rusty sword that weighs more than I do. When I have to, I kill as efficiently and effectively as possible. I have simply never had the slightest desire to prove my worth against someone a whole lot stronger than myself, and I cannot understand the battle lust the Vikings seem to revel in. Life is too precious to risk needlessly.'

He sighed. 'Miklagard is a callous bitch, but she is a big, beautiful bitch, and I guess I would like to see it one more time before I die. The call of one's own land is strong . . ."

"And so?"

 "And so I will follow you and Phillip south, if that is your desire."

Ambrose, eager himself to see fabled Constantinople, yet had one last reservation. "Polonius, what about Kuralla? You will have to leave her side."

"I have discussed it at length with her, Master, and she understands the need for you and Phillip to go south. In fact, she insists that I go and nursemaid the two of you."

With a need for soldiers, plus Polonius' language skills and knowledge of both the military arts and the ways of the Byzantines, Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius were assured a part in the expedition. For his part, Ambrose worked hard with Polonius, when they could take time from their trading factory, to work on his Greek.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2.

 

The Incredible Adventure Begins.

 

 

Early in the fifth month of the Year of Our Lord eight hundred and sixty-five, Dir and Askold finally gave permission for the fleet, now some 300 strong, to cast off. Amidst much laughter and a lot of bantering, the Viking river karves and the myriad dugouts, both large and small, slipped into the current and headed southward. Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip sailed on the Deerhound, Gunnar's ship that had earlier brought them first to Novgorod and then to Kiev.

Some women and children cried. Others waved bravely to their sons, fathers or husbands, as they watched the warrior host embark on a daring and very perilous expedition. The men grinned and waved back, hiding their unease. They were finally on their way to attack the capital city of an empire which was known to have the most powerful army and navy in the world.

 

 

Ambrose stared at the shoreline as it slid effortlessly by. The current was strong enough that the men were not sent to the oars except when the bow lookouts called out that there was a submerged log or other obstacle. Generally, judicious use of the steering oars were enough to keep the boats moving and in the main current.

On the first night, they camped on the riverbank a little north of Vitchev Hill. For seasons far beyond the memory of anyone alive, Vitchev Hill had been the traditional gathering site for the Varangian and Slav traders sailing for the Black Sea. Dawn found the warriors awake. Whatever the eventual fate of their daring expedition, they were eager to press on.

When Ambrose had passed this spot the previous fall, the fort had not even been visible. The Pechenegs, on their way north to Kiev, had used its log walls for firewood.

Curious to see the resurrected fort, Ambrose waited impatiently as the Deerhound swept south again. At last, out of the morning mist the prince could see a hill; the highest point of land for some considerable distance. Perched on top was a small wooden fort. After the Pechenegs had been defeated, Dir and Askold had sent men south to rebuild it.

It was not impressive militarily, but the purpose of the little garrison was to watch the open steppe lands that swept south from this point. The fort only needed to provide shelter for messengers and protection while the men lit a signal fire. The little fort by itself could not stand long against any serious fighting force. The dozen-odd warriors who had wintered there, plus their families, stood on the shore and waved cheerily as the fleet swept past.

Starting at the hill and stretching out of sight to the west and the south, Ambrose saw again the fabled steppes that he had heard so much about but had only visited so briefly the summer before. Still to the south of them was the now-famous ford where the Varangians, with Polonius' help, had stopped the Pechenegs cold.

As Ambrose watched the shore slide by, he noted that only in the most protected spots along the river did any trees grow.

He spoke. "Look, Polonius. Last year's grasses make the land look like it's made of pale gold."

"True, Master. In just a few weeks, however, the short green shoots you see pushing their way through the golden straw will grow tall enough to hide a standing man.

 

 

As the sun neared its zenith, the Deerhound swept around a bend and suddenly Ambrose recognized the large island in the middle of the river. It was the island that the Slavs and Varangians of the Kiev federation had used as a base against the Pechenegs. Just down river was the ford that the warrior nation had been forced to use. It had been here that Polonius' ideas had been put into practise and rivers of Pecheneg blood had been spilled. Finally, in the face of Varangian efficiency and fanaticism, the Pechenegs had been forced to pay gold for the privilege of crossing the river.

The story was still told and retold around thousands of fires. The battle had been the greatest victory in memory for the Varangians and their Slav allies.

 

 

Ambrose turned to Polonius. "Listen! What is that sound I hear?"

Polonius cocked his ear and listened intently. "Sweet merciful God! That must be the first of the cataracts. Why is the fleet not heading for shore?"

Even as he spoke, however, the lead vessel hoisted the signal flag that ordered the ships to turn in. Most of the crews must have heard the ominous roaring, for the men ran to the chests they used as seats. Once seated, they pulled hard for the safety of the land.

The Deerhound ran ashore on a gentle grassy slope. Captain Hammar pointed at three men standing near him.

"You three! Mallets, stakes and ropes. Over the side with you, you lazy bastards!’ His finger swerved to the next crewman. 'You! Make sure those lines will run freely.’

He looked at the four men who still hesitated. 'Well? You want us to go through 'the chute' backwards? I want those stakes deep in the ground and the lines tied securely to them, before I can finish my fart. Move it!"

The fierce river current tugged at the ship, but the men on the oars held it firm while the designated men leapt over the bow. Within moments, the sturdy karve was securely fastened to the grassy bank.

Now that the boat was secure, Captain Hammar turned to the rest of the crew. "All right, the rest of you lads! The order is spear and shield! Loose formation. Move it!"

To Ambrose's surprise, the rest of the crew abandoned their oars, strapped on swords or axes, grabbed spears and shields and then ran to join their fellow crewmen ashore. Within seconds, a loose line of heavily armed warriors stretched the length of the ship and beyond.

The warriors, joined by crewmen from other ships that had tied up beside them, moved slowly and deliberately onto the vast plain of winter-flattened grass. Shields were held high and spears were held ready for instant use.

Ambrose looked in surprise at captain Hammar, who stood in the bow beside him. "Captain, are we in danger of being attacked?"

"Not likely, son-of-Canute. But the First Cataract is near and there are often skulkers hidden in the grass. If any are here, the men will flush them out."

"Surely no skulkers are going to take on this armada, Captain?"

"I think not, Canuteson. It is not the skulkers that we need to fear. They will hide, wait for stragglers, and loot any ships whose captain is foolish enough to dump in the fast waters or leave his supplies inadequately protected on the shore. We kill any we can catch. Right now, we are just making sure they will not annoy us. But make no mistake, Canuteson. Across these steppes roam immense warrior nations capable of fielding tens of thousands of men.

So far you have only seen the Pechenegs. There are several more, equally powerful, and you may be sure that each of them knows the location of all the cataracts. It is a foolish man who takes chances along this stretch of the river."

"Then what comes next, Captain?"

"We tie everything down as securely as we can and then you will have the ride of your life!"

"Captain, are you saying that we will ride the ship through this cataract?"

"Of course, Canuteson. The first cataract is actually quite tame - as long as you know where to steer. Later, you will see some really wild water."

 

 

Once the crew returned to their ship, they prepared the ship for the run through the cataract. The mast was securely lashed onto the deck and everything else movable was tied down. Finally, the men cut lengths of rope and tied themselves to the ship.

Over the roar of rushing water, Captain Hammar called to Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip. He waved his knife over his head and grinned.

"Keep your saxes handy in case the ship flips!"

The ropes tethering the Deerhound to the shore were released and the ship, freed of its constraints, moved sluggishly from the shore. Suddenly, however, the full force of the current hit the vessel. Several rowers had to help the men on the steering oar keep the racing vessel bow-first as it hurtled downstream.

The noise of the rushing water became overwhelming and Captain Hammar, tied to the bow with stout rope, signalled with hand gestures to a team of strong warriors who struggled with the steering oar. The ship raced through the narrows, and granite walls rose abruptly on either side of them.

Ambrose felt it was as if they were threading a gigantic needle at a terrific speed. The ship bucked and twisted as if it were a living creature, but the skilful captain, a veteran of this run, knew when to row and when to run with the raging torrent. By keeping the ship close to the right bank, Captain Hammar managed to avoid all the eddies that could spin the ship and leave it vulnerable to the hidden rocks.

At last, after what seemed like an eternity but was, in actual fact, only a few minutes, the ship nosed into gentler water. The incredible roaring noise abated and, as suddenly as it had started, the cataract disappeared. The vessel floated on a wide river whose waters, after what they just been through, seemed absolutely serene.

Captain Hammar untied himself and moved to the stern. As he passed his three guests, he smiled and spoke to Ambrose. "Well, young Canuteson, what do you think of your ride?"

Ambrose shook the water from his eyes. "Captain, that is an experience I would not wish to repeat too often. Do all the ships that make this trip each year run that cataract?"

The captain grinned. "Oh, aye, but coming down is much more fun than going up. In the fall the water is much lower and we will have to haul the empty ship upriver through that channel by hand. But don't worry, Canuteson, that was merely the first and easiest of the cataracts. Almost all the ships make that one."

"And those that don't?"

"We rescue who and what we can. That's why the skulkers hide on the shore. Sometimes their gods are more favoured than ours and then they have good pickings."

 

 

At Captain Hammar's signal, the battered ship headed again for shore. Exhausted and soaked, the crewmen yet again grabbed their weapons and leapt ashore as the vessel was beached. A semi-circle of alert and armed men again protected the ship against surprise attack.

Ambrose watched in awe as over seven hundred vessels, one by one, emerged unscathed from the boiling water. While most of the exhausted crews beached their vessels and rested, two ships sent out by Dir and Askold cruised the waters south of the cataract. Ambrose realized that they were looking for overturned boats or men in the water. Two men were plucked alive from the waters, but another ten corpses were snagged. All in all, the joint commanders felt they had been lucky. All the larger vessels had made it safely. Only four small Slav dugouts, overloaded with men, had capsized.

 

 

Captain Hammar approached his three foreign passengers. "Come, Canuteson, Polonius, Phillip. It is time to thank the gods for our safe journey."

Ambrose looked up and down the river bank and suddenly realized that the warriors were moving, en masse, inland. Many carried squealing piglets or indignantly squawking chickens. Ambrose looked back at the ships and saw only Slav sentries remaining on guard by the ships. Puzzled and curious, he hurried to catch up with Captain Hammar.

To Ambrose's great surprise, he soon found both Hammar and Askold prostrate before a heavy log planted deep within the soil. The top of the log was intricately carved and a face stared haughtily at him. The Vikings formed a huge circle around their leader and his chief lieutenants.

Ambrose and his two friends stood silently. Thousands of warriors surrounded them and not a single word was heard. Only the wind competed with the distant thundering of the cataract, until Askold's voice rang out.

"We thank you, lord, for seeing us safe through the cataract. We bring humble offerings to you as thanks."

Askold stood and deftly uncovered a large metal beaker. It was the signal. The warriors who carried the animals filed forward. The animals' protests were silenced with a sharp knife and the beaker quickly filled with warm blood.

Some men threw down loads of firewood and cleared patches of ground. Others unpacked bread and broached barrels of ale and mead. Kettles were quickly set up.

Ambrose turned to Hammar. "Captain, you said earlier that we have left the lands of the Slavs. Do the inhabitants of these lands allow alien gods to rule here?"

"The overlords of this land are the Khazars and they worship a single god they call Jehovah. We pay them tithe, however, so they do not interfere with our beliefs. The Pechenegs, Magyars and others who raid along this river sometimes desecrate our sites, but these figures contain strong magic and are generally left alone. This sacred log was brought all the way from a Rus forest.

Stand still now, guests of Gunnar. You will soon be honoured. Here comes Askold now."

Askold approached. He held the beaker in his left hand, while he dipped a clump of twigs into the blood with his right.

"Ah, Canuteson, Polonius, Phillip. Today we thank the gods for our safe journey. With the sacrificial twigs I anoint you. Wear the hlaut with great joy. Tonight we feast."

Having said that, Askold dipped and waved the twigs in his right hand, sprinkling drops of blood on all four of the men in front of him.

 

 

On the third day after the wild ride, the roar of tortured water was heard again and the current plucked at the Deerhound. Polonius looked at Ambrose in alarm. No one needed ever again to explain to either of them just what that noise meant.

Ambrose put his hand on his friend's shoulder. Polonius had the wisdom of many men and was a brilliant scholar and linguist. He just didn't include excessive courage amongst his many assets.

Ambrose knew that the lean Byzantine was only there because of his friendship with him and Phillip. Polonius had come on this daring adventure in spite of his own better judgement.

"Good news, friend Polonius."

"I do not like that sound I hear, Prince. I could use some good news."

"Captain Hammar told me that we do not run this cataract."

"Then how do we get the ship past it?"

"Funny, when I asked him that, he just laughed."

"Thank you, Ambrose, for those reassuring words. I suspect I know the answer. My guess is that we will all have aching backs before another sun sets."

 

 

Once again the signal flag was raised and the fleet headed for shore. The ships made for the beach near a stockade that stood naked on the shore. Once again the crews mingled and formed a shield wall. This time they advanced much more carefully; weapons held at the ready.

Ambrose watched in puzzlement. "Our brave companions seem very nervous today."

Polonius watched for another few moments before he spoke, "Aye. One of the crewmen told me last night that we are now deep in the land claimed by both the Pechenegs and the Khazars. And the Magyars regularly raid here as well."

"Was that not the case where we shot the first cataract?"

"We are much deeper into disputed territory and, as you yourself told me, we can not shoot this cataract. We are thus sitting ducks for any large force that catches us ashore."

"But we are over seven hundred ship crews. That makes a force of almost seven thousand men! In my own country, a king would go happily into battle once he had called up a thousand men. An army of two thousand is very unusual."

"This is a bigger and more populated land, Ambrose. In my old homeland, not so far from here, an army of thirty thousand is not considered to be large. But you are right. An enemy who comes across us may be very unhappily surprised. Instead of finding a small fleet manned by hundreds of warriors burdened with thousands of shackled slaves and mountains of trade goods, they would find instead a veteran army which does not need to spend most of its resources protecting vulnerable cargo."

"So what would happen most summers if the enemy found the Varangian traders on the shore?"

"I gather it would be a major problem of logistics. The Pechenegs by now must have respect for the Varangian fighting men. The Slavs, if properly led, are good fighters themselves, but the traders obviously have to haul the ships through the raging waters with the use of ropes and brute strength.

The ships have to be lightened and that means the cargo must be unloaded, stored, protected and then carried by hand to where it can be reloaded. That, I gather, is the purpose of the stockade. There is, I suspect, another one just like it at the southern end."

"So the traders must simultaneously haul the ships through the water, transport the cargoes and keep a strong guard on it and the slaves at all times."

Polonius smiled. "In a nutshell, yes."

 

 

The next morning, Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip found out first hand how the system worked. The smaller boats, mainly dugouts, were pulled from the water and towed or carried south by teams of men. The larger boats were stripped of supplies and cargoes, but the distances involved and the size of the boats, made a portage for them impossible. Instead, massive ropes of twisted whale-hide were used to harness a hundred men to each ship and slowly, very slowly, each vessel bucked and kicked its way through the treacherous and churning waters.

Nearby, heavily armed squads were burdened further with massive packs. Pigs and chickens, kegs of mead and weapons; all had to be carried southward. The patient columns of men plodded the Roman mile from one end of the cataract to the other, dumped their precious loads and then marched back under the warm spring sun to repeat the task. Fortunately, the main cargo of this fleet was fighting men, so the time needed for trans-shipment was much faster than normal.

On the companions' third back-breaking trip, a Slav sentry waved his arms madly. It was the signal that all had been hoping they would not see. Like the well-trained warriors they were, however, the men dumped their loads and formed into defensive formations. All scanned the steppes anxiously.

Ambrose spotted first one rider, then another. Even at that distance, the prince could see sunlight glinting off metal armour. Phillip had the eyes of an eagle. Ambrose turned to the faithful thane.

"Well, Weapons-master, what do you see?"

Phillip was a man of few words, but he had been born a soldier and had trained all of his life in the military arts. He did not have Polonius' grasp of the grander strategies, but his tactical thinking was superb.

"Look there, Prince. I can see three . . . no . . . four riders. The riders are evenly spaced. Polonius, do my eyes deceive me, or is that the Khazar wheel you described to me?"

"Your height gives you an advantage, old friend. But yes, they seem to be riding in a scouting rather than a combat formation."

Ambrose spoke, "If I was a Pecheneg commander, I would know precisely where the cataract is and would advance toward it in battle formation."

Polonius and Phillip enjoyed teaching the prince. Polonius assumed his teaching voice.

"And why would the Pechenegs not use the great wheel scouting formation?"

"If they were smart, they would send in a few scouts to watch for the traders' arrival, but these scouts would not ride openly and wear shiny metal armour that might betray their position."

"And?"

"If the main force was advancing, they would ride in a compact formation. The last thing they would want to do is to spread out so that they could be easily spotted by Khazar patrols."

"And so, Young Prince, by elimination, who are we watching close on us?"

"If you don't mind, I will keep my weapons handy, but it now seems obvious that we are seeing a Khazar patrol coming here to check on us."

Polonius smiled with pride at his favourite student's deductive thinking. "Well done, my Prince!"

 

 

The wheel of riders halted and the far-flung riders closed on its leading edge. A few became dozens and the dozens became hundreds. The riders, however, made no hostile moves and the allies were content to stand and watch. At last, a cadre of riders, the commanders who rode at the centre of the huge wheel, became visible under their horse-tail banners.

The commander was young and mounted on a spirited white stallion. He rode up to the knot of Slav and Varangian officers who stood and waited for him.

The Khazar called out in the Slav tongue. "Well met, gallant warriors! Have you seen any raiders in your journey?"

Dir stepped forward. He was a giant among the Rus and he was immense compared to the wiry nomad riders. He had been studying the Slavic tongue and he responded in the same language.

"Well met, Khan-of-the-Khazars. Thanks to the efforts of your brave warriors, we have had no difficulties at all."

"I am glad that, as yet, you have had no trouble, traders. Beware, however. We have seen evidence of steppe-raiders, but we have not yet been able to catch up with them."

Dir spoke again. "Where do you go after here, Khan?"

"We will ride south, looking for the fools that dare trespass on our territory. Perhaps we will have some slaves for sale in a few days."

Dir nodded. "Khan, I wish you and your men good hunting."

 

 

At the next cataract, the granite banks rose like cliffs on either side of them. There was, however, a narrow strip near shore where the water bubbled merrily through shallows. The men stripped naked and leapt into the fast running water. Poled by a few men on board and manhandled by the rest of the crew, the ship slipped relatively effortlessly into the third cataract.

As the Deerhound was first in the flotilla to dare the cataract and Ambrose was in the bow helping to pole the ship, it was he who looked up and saw the barrier of rocks that had been painstakingly piled across their only possible route. He immediately raised the alarm by calling out and gesticulating madly. His shouted words were smothered by the roaring of untold tons of water just a few hundred Roman feet away.

Captain Hammar was alert, however, and saw his gestures. He pantomimed half the crew staying in place to hold the vessel in place, while the other half scrambled to retrieve their armour and weapons.

They were none too quick, for from the rocks and on the cliff appeared hundreds of archers. The ship could not go forward. It couldn't go back upriver and many of the crew had to remain in place if it wasn't to be destroyed.

The designated crewmen formed into the skjaldborg, the shield-wall formation that the Vikings favoured. They started to work their way to shore, but the avalanche of arrows wounded several of the warriors. What the Pecheneg tribesmen did not know, however, was that Dir and Askold had held fully half of the fleet upriver and they had ordered these crewmen to form up on the shore. Once the first half had made it through and their boats were safe and floating on the river, that group would, in turn, form a guard for the second half.

Each captain silently signalled the captain in the ship behind it and within the space of a minute, the massed warriors at the northern fort, over two thousand strong, were alerted and moving south at a run. Thus the Pechenegs, expecting to find a fleet laden with precious cargoes and relatively few warriors, found instead an entire army of battle-hardened warriors. Even before the battered Varangian line made it to shore, the Pechenegs felt a new vibration in the ground.

The Varangian and Slav formation, thousands strong and running along the heights, thundered into the Pecheneg lines. Steppe warriors on the cliff top ran for their horses in a blind panic. Those who had clambered down to surprise the Varangians found themselves cut off from their mounts by grinning warriors who ruthlessly cut down any they could catch. There were few survivors.

 

 

The rest of the cataracts were far more dangerous than the first three. The fourth, called the Aifor by the Varangians, involved a brutal six mile trek for the men carrying the supplies. Dir and Askold split the forces so no one was ever more than a mile from a strong contingent of warriors, but every man who marched across the grasslands scanned the horizon with great trepidation.

 The men slipped into a practised routine. At the northern end of the cataracts, ships were stripped of their cargoes and even masts. These items were painstakingly carried by hand to the southern end of the cataracts. Then, hundreds of men harnessed themselves to their vessels and coaxed them through the raging waters. At all times, other ship crews stood guard over their supplies.

Ambrose was surprised to discover that there were palisades or earthen fortifications at each of the cataracts. Most were old and some were dilapidated, but all were used. The allies met more Khazars then raiders and some of the Khazar tribesmen even brought strings of horses to the cataracts. These were rented out to the exhausted crewmen to haul the ships through the raging water. With the exception of the one unsuccessful raid, there was no evidence of a Pecheneg presence along the river.

 

 

As Ambrose watched the fleet manoeuvring to pass around some sand bars, he again spied mounted warriors on the shoreline. This time, however, he recognized the style of clothing.

"Captain Hammar, we have visitors, but I think these ones are friendly!"

The captain followed Ambrose's gaze. He laughed. "You are right, son-of-Canute. It is the traditional Khazar welcoming committee. Look around the point, beyond the riders. What do you see?"

"I see tents. Dozens, no, hundreds of tents!"

"Thousands of tents."

"Captain, you said we would arrive at the Khazar encampment when we reach the sea."

"And so we have, Canuteson. If you taste the water beneath our keel, you will find it salty. The open sea is close. But first, it is time to pay our passage."

"Passage?"

"Canuteson, each spring and fall the Khazars faithfully patrol the area of the Seven Cataracts. You saw the patrols. Their young men risk their lives so that we can sail safely through. They have done their job. Now they expect their payment."

"What payment do they expect?"

"Ten percent of the value of our trade goods."

"Then they will be disappointed with their take this day."

Hammar shrugged. "They will take ten percent of the cargoes we carry. They are scrupulously fair."

Once around the point, the Varangian and Slav ships turned to shore. Ambrose was then able to clearly see the encampment stretching for over a Roman mile. He suddenly realized just how many Khazar warriors it took to keep away the river marauders. Although Captain Hammar had told him this was the main Khazar encampment on the Dnieper River, he had seen several thousand more Khazars riding the steppes.

 

 

The khan smiled broadly as the Varangian and Slav officers came to greet him. Dir and Askold, dressed in glittering armour, led their officers forward as the khan spoke.

"Welcome, traders! I am honoured to greet you, in the name of Jehovah and my Great Khagan. Land your people! Tonight you will all be my guests and we will celebrate your safe arrival. Already my people are preparing the feast."

Dir stepped ahead of his officers and spoke, "Khan Thekar, it is a joy to see you once again! We are honoured by your invitation and happily accept. Yet I should tell you now that what you see drawn up on the shore behind me is not a trading expedition."

The khan looked more serious. "Our scouts have several times counted your ships, Dir, and your men. It did not add up to a trading expedition."

"Your men are astute, mighty Khan. Last summer, Varangian traders were abused and killed at Cherson. We sail to right a wrong."

The khan sighed. "The Byzantines are not our enemies. Still, you are one of the Khagan's most favoured vassals. When you asked our permission to take Kiev, you promised gold in return for our support and you paid both promptly and generously. It is also true that you were generous last fall with the Pecheneg gold you captured.

I suppose that you are carrying more steel than gold on this trip, Khan-of-Kiev. The Pechenegs were active. We paid dearly for your protection this month."

"And we are grateful, Khan. We will faithfully give ten percent of what we carry if that is your wish. Yet I have a proposal that may meet your approval."

"I listen, Khan-of-Kiev."

"We are sailing against Constantinople. In a few weeks we hope to return burdened with the treasures of Byzantium."

"And?"

"And we would be prepared to give ten percent of our treasures upon our return."

"Dir, if your expedition is successful, you may be carrying a king's ransom. Why would you offer us ten percent of such a fortune?"

"The Khagan has been generous with us. I value his friendship and wish him to remain a friend of the Varangians."

The Khan broke again into a smile. "I see. You feel that you may need friends before Michael the Third is through with you, do you?"

Dir grinned in return. "Loyal friends, Khan."

"Your proposal is accepted, Dir. Come! Let us find some drink while the feast is prepared."

 

 

Two days after leaving the Khazar encampment, Ambrose saw the Black Sea. The crews made camp on the beach overlooking the open waters. The joint commanders declared a day of rest before the fleet would proceed. A contingent of Bulgarian traders who were camped on the shore and who greeted the new arrivals, were politely but firmly escorted to Dir's tent.

Ambrose looked along the beach and saw a line of over seven hundred beached vessels stretching out of sight in both directions. Although the largest ships, the karves, were expressly built for river travel and were by necessity much smaller than the ocean craft that the Vikings used on the northern seas, yet each vessel represented anything from four to sixty warriors. Instead of the normal cargoes, the Rus and their cousins and allies had crammed the ships with fighting men.

As Ambrose stared at the bustling camp, it struck him as incredible that, only a year before, the citizens of Kiev were fighting for their very lives against a rapacious enemy. Even while they had fought, Dir and Askold had attempted to bully and cajole their neighbours into forging a joint Varangian-Slavic nation.

Now, less than a year later, the same men were leading literally thousands of Varangians and Slavs from the entire length of the Dnieper River system, and beyond, into the most incredible adventure that could be imagined.

Gathered before Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius, on this one beach, were the cream of the Varangian fighting men, and mixed in were several thousand Slavs. Daring travellers and traders long before the Vikings had reached their rivers, in alliance with the interlopers they retained some freedoms and gained Viking protection. It was an alliance that would one day fuse the two groups indivisibly together.

While the crews spent the day resting, Dir, elected supreme leader of the expedition, called an officer's conference. Polonius was included, as a respected military advisor to Kiev, and he brought along Ambrose.

As Polonius felt it his duty to point out what they were all facing, he asked if any had seen a dromon warship in action. "My lords, the ship has two rowing decks. It carries a pair of ballista and has high fore and aft fighting towers from which archers can shoot down upon our rowers. Much worse, however, the ballista can launch pots of Greek-Fire. Once a pot bursts, nothing will extinguish the blaze.

If one of our vessels attempts to close for boarding, the great metal tubes in the bow and stern can also launch the liquid flaming death. My lords, great sailors that you are, you would face such a terrible weapon that you have no hope of destroying their fleet!"

Dir listened patiently to all Polonius said and then interrupted when he paused to draw breath. "Polonius, it might perhaps be best if you did not so eloquently describe this Greek-Fire in quite such lurid detail to our warriors. Although I have not personally seen the dreaded Greek-Fire used, yet I have heard it is as terrible as you have said . . ."

Polonius caught his breath and dared to try to continue. "But surely we must find out if the Byzantine fleet actually sailed . . ."

Dir raised his hand and Polonius instantly subsided. Ambrose smiled. He knew that even a Greek who enjoys the spoken word as much as Polonius realized that to interrupt his commander twice was not expedient.

 ". . . as I was saying, Polonius, I understand your concern fully and even share it. Would it make you feel better to know that, yes, we have confirmed that the main Byzantine battle fleet sailed for Mediterranean waters several weeks ago?"

Ambrose saw that his friend had been bested. The scholar showed good sense by just bowing gracefully.

"My lord, forgive your humble servant . . ."

Dir smiled in amusement. "No, Polonius! You are learning our ways. Each man may speak in turn. It is only when all of us speak what we truly feel will we be able to plan intelligently. We must look at all possible obstacles. Only then can we find ways to overcome them. Only then do we have a hope of success. And your advice, Scholar, probably allowed us to survive last summer. You may have neither the physique nor the desire to be a warrior, but, if the truth were known, I consider you to be the most dangerous man I have ever met. I am grateful that you are on our side.

Warriors, I do not mean to keep you in suspense any longer. Mixed in with the Bulgarian traders were some of our spies. The Byzantine fleet has already left the waters of the Bosporus. We are only left with some minor army and cavalry elements to deal with . . . Yes, Polonius, I daresay you are going to tell me that the Byzantine heavy cavalry is considered the finest in the world. And the mercenary bowmen - we saw the power of mounted bowmen just last summer, but we strangled their quick movements with trees and swamps. Here we will not be so lucky.

Polonius! What would be the best way to deal with such an army?"

"My lord commander, in the absence of a threatening fleet, I guess I would stage a series of amphibious assaults and only venture ashore for brief periods; thus preventing the possibility of any serious troop build-up that could threaten . . ."

"Easier, Polonius! Even easier!"

"My lord, I bow to your wisdom. Enlighten me."

Dir was greatly amused. "That will be the day! Still, Polonius, let me answer your concern fairly. It is my considered opinion that the Byzantine combination of heavy cavalry and highly trained infantry, when combined with their normal contingents of mounted mercenary archers, would tear us to shreds on the ground.'

He looked around the tent, enjoying the shock on each man's face, including Polonius'. At last he let the other boot drop.

'If we had to face them! It has also just been confirmed that the good Emperor Michael III, may the Christian saints bless his bones, has just left Constantinople to personally lead his army into Cappadocia!

My friends, there is no hound in the chicken yard! The capital sits unprotected, except for some small security forces. It seems we are not expected."

Ambrose listened to Dir expound further on his plan of attack and his respect for him grew even further. He had these hard-bitten warriors panting at his feet.

"Officers of the Varangian and Slavic alliance! This then is the plan. Tomorrow, at dawn, we sail due south, in convoy formation. My learned navigators will plot a course that will lead us directly to the point where the Black Sea narrows.

I anticipate that the journey will take up to a week, so be sure that you all have sufficient food and water aboard for that amount of time. We will not, at any point, approach shore, except, of course, when we reach our destination. The smaller dugouts should be left here. The men from them will have to find a berth on the larger boats.

I want the fastest boats to form a cordon around the main fleet. No foreign vessel must be allowed to escape if it spots us. It is essential that our presence becomes known for the very first time when our lookouts can see the walls of the Golden City itself. Go now and prepare your ships!"

 

 

Ambrose was walking along the shore when Captain Hammar and Dir approached from the opposite direction. Hammar saw Ambrose and called out to him.

"Son-of-Canute, Jarl Dir has asked if he can ride on the Deerhound with us. Since you were appointed as Gunnar's chief factor, I thought I would ask you if you had any objection."

"Of course not, Hammar, though I admit to being puzzled."

Dir answered. "It be simple, Canuteson. Tomorrow we sail for a great adventure, but I would be a fool if I thought there was no danger at all. Askold and I have agreed to separate, in case of any disasters overtaking the command ship."

"I would be honoured to have you aboard, Jarl."

Dir grinned. "Good. Then it is settled."

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3.

 

They Meet and Close with a Byzantine Fleet.

 

 

The sun rose slowly over the vast waters of the Black Sea. It seemed to Ambrose that the ball of fire hovered just above the horizon. Its reddish light illuminated an incredible sight. Over seven hundred ships; their sails hoisted to catch any possible sea breeze, slid silently south into open waters.

In truth, Ambrose still was not sure how he felt about the adventuring of the pagan Varangians amongst whom he had lived for over a year. He turned from his view of the fleet to face Polonius and spoke quietly in his still imperfect Greek.

"Polonius, my friend, what do you make of the Vikings?"

"I am not sure I understand what you are asking, Master."

"They sometimes seem so terribly callous and cruel. I have seen them laugh at a foe foolish enough to ask for mercy. Having been a slave myself, I obviously lack their enthusiasm about enslaving others. And yet the best thing I can say about them is that they live as men.

To a person they feel to be worthy of their respect, the Vikings I have met are fanatically loyal and faithful. I have seen them cheerfully go to their death to protect a friend. If they feel, however, that someone doesn't deserve their respect, they abuse him and perhaps sell him into slavery."

"It is a fate, Prince, that they think a victim deserves for allowing himself to be bullied or captured."

"Polonius, have other Varangian or Slav forays been made in to the Pontus Euxinus in the past?"

"I vaguely remember talk of it when I was a young tad, Ambrose, but I think that they were just brief raids on the periphery of the Empire. Never before have the river people dared to attack the queen city itself."

Ambrose let his gaze sweep the horizon. He sighed. "Whatever my feeling about this attempt to challenge the world's greatest power, I cannot help but feel a lump in my throat as I look at this vast armada sweeping southward. Polonius, I suspect that the Byzantines will soon come to understand why so much of Christian Europe goes to bed asking God to deliver them from the fury of these Northmen."

 

 

With their expert navigators, many of whom had sailed these waters yearly as peaceful traders, their journey was relatively direct. While no other foreigner was ever invited to watch, including Phillip or Polonius, yet Ambrose, as an adopted son of Canute, was invited to the open deck behind Hammar's tent. There, with the solid clouds blotting out the position of the sun, magic was performed at Dir's command by the gnarled and ancient navigator who directed the ships so unerringly across the open seas.

Polonius waited impatiently for Ambrose to return from observing the rites. "Well, Prince, what is the secret? Did you manage to learn how the Vikings sail across vast distances without reference to any land features?"

"I wish I could tell you, Polonius, but I am still not sure."

"Then what did you actually see?"

"Well, the old man hummed many incantations while he made readings from an instrument that reminded me a lot of a sundial. The wizard held up a thin piece of rock and slowly twirled it. Amazingly, when his shoulder pointed towards where the sun should be, the colour suddenly changed.

"Changed? Changed how?"

"The thin rock, normally like a piece of white quartz, suddenly turned a deep blue. Once the old man established the sun’s direction, he was able to compare his readings with runes from his sacred book. After more incantations, he pointed out the direction he wanted. The captain then ordered the steering-oar crew to the new heading."

 

 

While Ambrose didn't pretend to know the magic behind such a feat, yet he thought of it often over the years. Surely, he thought, this explains how the Vikings are able to terrorize Europe. Time and again, they appear without warning on an unsuspecting coast.

Whatever the magic, it was effective, as, without any land sightings to confirm their position, the fleet arrived neatly at the point where the waters narrow on the way to the Mediterranean. The mother of cities was near!

 

 

Without any delays, for they now had been at sea for some days, Dir signalled the fleet forward. Long oars were thrust out and the rowing crews scrambled for their trunks that doubled as rowing benches.

As per Dir's instructions, twenty karves pulled ahead of the main fleet. After a long interval, another twenty moved forward to a position where their commanders could keep an eye on the first group. Finally, the main body of the fleet had been ordered to follow as a group, ready to move to the defence of the first two groups if needed.

Soon after the allied fleet cleared the western tip of the southerly channel, the signal towers that lined the Byzantine shores, from just south of the Danube delta to the great city itself, came alive. The crews rowed hard, for they wanted to reach the city before the majority of merchant vessels could either reach protected anchorage or put to sea and flee south.

Not far from the walls of the city itself, the advance guard of twenty ships came across the first of the anticipated clumsy merchantmen. While the first squadron continued, several ships from the main fleet leapt to the attack.

 Within an impressively short time, the giant guard-chain across the bay Polonius called the Golden Horn, sank beneath the waves. As the massive chain slipped into the calm waters, the single remaining wing of the Byzantine Home Fleet sailed forth to face the on-coming fleet of unknown vessels.

Being in the second wave of ships and having completed a shift at the oars, Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius had the exciting opportunity to watch what was transpiring from a safe distance.

The ships of the Home Fleet that had been left in harbour slid majestically into view; their sails furrowed and their oar blades dipping and rising in unison. Composed of one and two-deckers, the Imperial Home Fleet numbered perhaps thirty vessels, although some were just small and light galleys. The Varangians were superb sailors, but they faced vessels whose crews were fresh and whose ancestors had dominated these waters for over 1500 years.

Ambrose stood in the bow and excitedly watched the two fleets approaching each other. "Look, Polonius! Just under the surface! Are those the rams you were talking about?"

"Aye, Master. If the crew can get the right angle, they can drive that bronze beak right through the sides of our ships. Those light galley-rams of the Imperial fleet were not designed for rough seas, but, in these sheltered waters, they are amazingly fast and manoeuvrable. I pray to our merciful God that Dir and Askold have planned a way to deal with the rams."

"Polonius, did they expect to face them?"

"Aye, Master. Both have travelled to the Imperial city in past seasons. They had a pretty good idea of what they would find here.

Of even greater concern to me are those two-decked dromons bringing up the rear. There are only a few of them, but I fear them greatly. Do you see those bronze tubes mounted on the bow? If one is fired at your vessel, the ship is lost. Don't try to fight the fire; just get off the ship. It will burn to the waterline."

"But Polonius, can they be shot into the wind?"

"No, Prince. The liquid fire blows with the wind. A ship that shoots into the wind might put itself on fire."

As the sun neared its zenith, the two fleets closed. Once they had moved into more open water, the Byzantine vessels formed a straight line.

Ambrose pointed towards the Byzantine formation. "What are they doing, Polonius?"

"Clearly, Master, they do not want any of the Varangian vessels to slip around their battle line."

Soon a crescent of some ten Varangian ships swept southward to meet the straight line of the Imperial fleet. Those of the second allied group pulled their hearts out in order to close the distance. Dir, however, ordered the signal flag flown that commanded the main fleet to remain at a considerable distance. Ambrose presumed that he wanted the first two groups to close before the main fleet attacked.

The large Byzantine two-deckers and the galleys were regularly interspersed. Even from where the three friends stood, they could hear the shouts of the Varangians in the first wave calling out to Thor and Odin.

With much jubilant noise, the two tips of the crescent met the oncoming line. Immediately screams and yells could be heard, as the Varangian archers loosed their arrows and made ready to board any vessels that should be so foolish as to come within reach.

In magnificent unison, twenty Byzantine ballista arms snapped against their withholding ropes and twenty pots of Greek-Fire leapt into the air. As Polonius had predicted, the vessels unlucky enough to be struck with a clay pot soon found that the viscous, savagely burning substance could not in any way be extinguished. Whatever the Greek-Fire struck, burned.

When the crews abandoned their oars to fight the terrible flames, the nimble galleys took their opportunity to swerve and ram the sides of the allied vessels. While the galleys were otherwise frail, yet the metal-sheathed underwater beaks were an integral part of the entire hull. They were easily capable of punching a hole in the side of the Varangian and Slav vessels.

Amidst the carnage, the dromons ploughed on. On their bows stood fighting towers, from which the Byzantine archers poured a steady and lethal fire down into the lower-sided allied vessels. If a Varangian ship came too close, then Greek-Fire poured from the metal tubes mounted on the bows.

Ambrose felt a stab of fear when he saw the carnage. The Greek-Fire was a terrifying weapon! He looked at Dir, who leaned on the railing and calmly watched the unfolding events.

At last Ambrose could stand it no longer and he spoke directly to Dir. "Jarl, the first wave of vessels seems to be in terrible trouble!"

Dir turned. "Fear not, Canuteson. The captains know what they are doing.'

Seeing doubt cross Ambrose's face, Dir suddenly grinned. "Watch and learn, son-of-Canute. The first twenty ships are to be sacrificial. There, you can see it now. The Varangian warriors are even now happily throwing grappling hooks, tying their burning vessels fast to the enemy and abandoning ship and leaping onto any enemy ship within reach. Our own Varangian Fire is about to singe the Byzantine fleet!"

Hundreds of blond warriors abandoned their blazing vessels and started harvesting the Byzantines. The second wave of twenty ships hit the Byzantine fleet before it had time to disengage from their first encounter.

Ambrose's own vessel, the Deerhound, was suddenly in the midst of the sea battle. Captain Hammar ordered the oars to be drawn in and then he released his fighting men. Men who had, moments before, been nervously sharpening their swords or rowing desperately were suddenly charging for a nearby dromon. Over a hundred crewmen swarmed onto the decking of the Byzantine vessel. Ambrose drew Victory-Maker and charged after them.

The Byzantine rowers were themselves trained fighters, and they turned to face this new onslaught. They flowed into a shield-wall that effectively blocked the Varangians from attacking the fighting towers where their commanders had taken refuge, even while the Byzantine archers above continued to harvest the Vikings.

Ambrose thrust and hacked, but the men facing him and his companions were professional soldiers. They did not fight with the savage joy of their attackers, but they fought with cool efficiency. As long as they held, the officers were safe and, eventually, the archers would destroy the attacking force.

Ambrose slipped on a patch of blood and the burly sailor facing him saw his opportunity. He attempted a thrust with his short sword. Unable to throw up his shield in time, the prince knew that he was lost. Before the man could complete the thrust, however, a dagger plunged into the man's right eye. Screaming in sudden agony, the man dropped his own guard and a massive broadsword instantly decapitated him.

Ambrose scrambled to his feet quickly and held his shield high against the arrows that fell continually amongst them. He knew that the attack would falter soon, not because the Varangians were not brave, but because they were sustaining so many casualties. The only hope was to get to the fighting tower and kill the archers before they annihilated the attackers.

"Polonius! Can you take out the men directly in front of me?!"

"I hope, young Master, that you are not intending to do what I think you are planning?"

"Polonius, if we don't kill the archers, then we are all dead! Can you do it?"

"Of course."

"Then do it on my command! Phillip, are you ready to charge?"

"Aye, Prince!"

"Polonius, would you be so kind?"

The slim Byzantine sighed and reached for his throwing daggers. "How do you expect me to hit anything with this living tree trunk in my way?! On my command, you two will have to squat . . . Now!"

The air suddenly filled with spinning slivers of highly polished steel. The three sailors facing Ambrose and Phillip Screamed as the blades struck unprotected hands, legs and faces. Ambrose's lightning quick blade and Phillip's massive one completed the task. Ambrose ran forward through the sudden gap, followed closely by Phillip.

Polonius, with a look of fear on his face, paused long enough to gather his throwing daggers and then scrambled after his two comrades. Ambrose called back to the gaunt Greek. "Let’s go, Scholar!"

Ambrose saw that, behind the line they had just broken through, there was no one left to stop him. He and Phillip quickly closed the distance to the tower, expecting that arrows would shower down on them at any time. They reached the narrow stairway that led to the top of the fighting tower, but it was blocked by a black giant who made Phillip look puny.

The guard wielded a boarding axe and smiled wickedly at the two. Ambrose groaned. The giant had obviously been told to guard the entrance and he looked impatient to fight. At least they were now so close that they were safe from the archers above.

Ambrose started the attack. His blade was deceptively thin. The weapon had been forged in an unknown land and it held its edge like nothing the northern blacksmiths had ever seen. Best of all, its light weight gave Ambrose an advantage over the much heavier swords that both the Saxons and Vikings favoured.

The blade flickered out and back. Ambrose feinted and tested. The giant, secure in the limited space, nonchalantly struck aside Ambrose's blade. The blow, limited as it was, almost tore Ambrose's sword from his hand. The prince quickly realized that he was matched against a foe with almost superhuman strength. He now realized why only one man had been left to hold the stairway.

A voice thundered in Ambrose's ear. "Move back, Prince, and I will see if I can take him!"

Obedient to his former tutor, Ambrose moved out of reach of the grinning giant. The weapons-master's mighty blade swept forward, but the man had retreated far enough that the great sword could not be used to full effect. Phillip attacked several more times, but the two were evenly matched. Continuing screams told Ambrose that their Varangian comrades, now that they had cut their way through the sailors, were being systematically slaughtered by the archers just above them.

Ambrose called again for his secret weapon. "Polonius, would you please come and remove this blowhard. Men are dying!"

Phillip backed carefully out of reach of the axe and the giant laughed aloud when Polonius stepped forward. He called in Greek to the emaciated scholar.

"The strong one and the quick one get out of the way for you?! Man, go home and eat, before I am forced to cut you in half!"

Polonius responded in his native Greek. "Just a few days ago, friend, the leader of this expedition told me that I was the most dangerous man he had ever known. If you let us go by, I will not be forced to kill you."

"You speak like a Byzantine, man. You are fighting your own people!"

"My own people enslaved my entire family and sent both me and my father to the mines to be worked to death . . . and you have only moments left to move aside."

The black giant saw Polonius' hands mysteriously fill with a pair of throwing daggers and he realized that this man might not be idly boastful.

"I cannot let you by, little one. The kentarchos told me to hold the stairs at all costs."

"Then I'm sorry, friend."

The man was quick. He threw up his shield in time to catch the first two, the ones that had been aimed at his eyes. Shifting it up, however, left his legs unprotected and the third and fourth blades struck deep. The giant bellowed in anger and lowered his shield in reflex. The fifth and sixth took him full in the face and they were followed by an irresistible lunge of Phillip's huge sword.

The three clambered over the fallen giant. His bulk alone made it difficult for them to climb the stairs. Behind them, desperate Varangian warriors scrambled to follow.

Once at the top, Phillip led the charge. In the open, his sword was a devastating weapon, especially when allied with Ambrose's swift blade. The pair, backed by a thoroughly unhappy Polonius, started to harvest the unarmoured archers. A steady stream of Viking warriors up the stairs ensured that the battle would end quickly.

Ambrose suddenly found himself facing a man in magnificent armour. The prince guessed that he had caught the kentarchos himself. The man was no coward, however, and both prepared to do battle.

Ambrose spoke in his best Greek. "Surrender, sir! Your men have fought gallantly and it is no sin to save their lives."

The men swung at Ambrose. "It is a crime to lose, barbarian. I will not live if my ship dies."

Ambrose blocked the swing with his shield and attacked in turn. "Then I am sorry that you must die, Kentarchos."

The kentarchos was well-trained and clearly practised with a sword. Yet Ambrose was young and strong and very, very, fast. His nimble blade penetrated the kentarchos' defence several times, but each time the man's armour protected him from serious injury.

Around them, the battle raged. Ambrose felt himself tiring and instead of using his shield to block the kentarchos' attack, he used Victory-Maker. The kentarchos' blade shot skyward and suddenly it was over. Ambrose's slender blade penetrated the man's throat. Ambrose watched the brave man die and then he was violently sick.

Polonius helped his friend to his feet, when suddenly a series of shrill trumpet blasts echoed over the waters.

"Polonius, what was that?"

"Rest easy, Prince. That is the Byzantine navy's recall! We've won."

"Oh. I don't think I much care right now. But why are they running? They have not all been defeated yet."

"Look north, Master."

Even while the Imperials had been forced to engage the second wave, the entire northern waters had turned bright with Viking sails. Hundreds of vessels, from the larger Slav dug-outs to the small Varangian karves, had arrived.

Once the Byzantine formation was smashed, the sea battle became a series of single-ship encounters. It was here that the northerners were masters. Even without the massive reinforcements, Polonius told Ambrose that he suspected that the Byzantines would have eventually lost. The main battle fleet ruthlessly set about sinking each and every Byzantine vessel that had not yet managed to escape. Dir's plan had called for complete naval supremacy on the Propontus and the destruction of these last few ships ensured that there was nothing left afloat to challenge the Varangians.

Thus, long before the sun lowered itself into the heartland of the Empire, the battle was over. Before the first day had ended, the northern wolves were plucking helpless sheep from the waters.

Without adequate time to flee south, the tubby and slow merchantmen were easy prey. The Varangian fleet swooped far south in an attempt to capture as many vessels as possible before word was spread and the shipping lanes were abandoned. Only the Golden Horn itself was closed to the northerners. The massive barrier-chain stretched from the walled town of Galata to the main city itself.

 

 

Return to Bruce Corbett Photography site

Return to Bruce Corbett Author site