AMBROSE, PRINCE OF WESSEX;
 JOURNEY HOME.

Copyright   ©   2006,  by Bruce Corbett.



                       
Novel  length: 68,161  words
               


PROLOGUE



    Some seven years before this story opens, Prince Ambrose and Phillip, his faithful tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village along the Wessex coast. While on the way to Europe as captives, a terrible storm almost sinks the ship, and Ambrose, and then Phillip, struggle to save it.
    The battered vessel 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, at the time just a chained slave, but once a linguist and scholar of Imperial Byzantium.
    The ship 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 Ambrose and Polonius are forced to flee in order to prevent Phillip from becoming a sacrifice to a Viking god.
    The three companions flee by small ship north and then east, until they hit the coast of Norway. They land in an isolated Norwegian village, and after being treated hospitably, leave to begin their overland trek to Sweden to find a friend of Ambrose's old master. Once in Sweden, they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders.
    The arrival of pursuing Danish tribesmen ends these plans abruptly, however. They are forced to flee once again. Gunnar arranges for the friends to join an expedition sailing for Novgorod; a Slavic river town where Rus tribesmen have been invited to settle.
    Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius set up a trading post there for Gunnar. Within months however, they get an opportunity to join another expedition that will take them deep into the heartland of the continent.
    After a bitter fight against nomad raiders on the way south, they reach the town of Kiev. There, they work with the leaders to train men and develop a string of fortifications along the river. The vast open steppes are close and nomad raids are frequent.
    A fierce attack on the Kiev area by a Pecheneg horde is fought off only with great difficulty, and Polonius’ knowledge of military history becomes instrumental. Soon thereafter, the war arrow is sent up and down the river. A punitive attack on Constantinople, the greatest city in the world at the time, is being planned by the audacious Varangians.
    The three friends join the attack on Constantinople, and, after considerable adventures, return to Kiev in the fall. In the spring, the three friends are sent south again, but this time as official emissaries for Kiev's Varangian leaders.
    With luck and skill, the three emissaries reach an agreement with the Emperor of Byzantium. They head north again with the good news, only to discover that Kuralla, Polonius' wife, has mysteriously disappeared.
    A Slav outlaw risks his life to bring them news of her whereabouts from the north, and the three friends quickly take an expedition north to rescue the beautiful Kuralla. After hard travel and battle, they succeed. They no sooner than reach Kiev, however, than they must sail south again. The emperor of Byzantium awaits their return.
    Welcomed by the Emperor in Constantinople, the three find that the doors of the most prominent citizens of the magnificent and decadent city are open to them. Ambrose becomes infatuated with a married noblewoman, and only the timely arrival of Phillip and Polonius save him from assassination. Soon thereafter, Polonius finds himself an unwilling pawn in the imperial power struggle, and the friends must again flee for their lives.
    Their ship is captured by Cretan pirates, and the travellers are enslaved. After a daring escape, they make it to the port of Alexandria. Gold and treachery forces them to ride eastward, along the coast of Africa. A Byzantine Admiral pursues them doggedly. After many adventures, they reach Tripoli, where a Moslem slaver delivers them to Byzantine Italy. They are attacked again, and only clever planning allows them to reach the Lombard state of Benevento safely, There, Ambrose renews an acquaintanceship with a priest from when he was a child, and they travel northward with a strong military escort.
    The above story may be found in Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev, Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Emissary to Byzantium, and Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, Southern Journey. This Story, Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Journey Home, begins when Ambrose and his friends start north to Rome, and, eventually, Calais and Angleland.

FORWARD


    As much as possible, this story is based on historical fact. I played fast and loose with the dates when Basil became co-emperor and then emperor, but at most I am off by a few months. All of the events referred to, except for those surrounding Ambrose and his friends, are historical facts and concerns. Byzantium and the Holy See were allies against the common menace of Islamic warriors invading Sicily and Italy itself, but there were serious rifts within the Catholic church. The issues discussed by Admiral Demetrious, the Pope, and Emperor Louis were real. There was great rivalry over which priests, from Rome or Constantinople, should convert the Bulgarians. Several sees in the south of Italy had been taken from the pope’s direct control some time earlier, and the pope was eager to get them back. The Patriarch of Constantinople had been forced to resign under very suspicious circumstances, allowing Emperor Michael to appoint a layman in his place, and this man, Photius, had indeed called a synod of eastern churchmen, where they voted to depose the pope!  The serious ideological differences, led, not too much later, to a formal split between the eastern and western wings of the church. Meanwhile, Emperor Louis did lead, about a year later, an army south to attempt to dislodge the Moslems from the city of Barium.
    To the north, the great empire of Charlemagne was no more. The king was struggling simultaneously with the ravaging Vikings and his own rebellious noblemen.
CHAPTER 1

CENTURION KHALIL MEETS THE TRAVELLERS
SOUTH OF ROME.


The armoured Lombard warrior pulled his lathered mount to a halt just in front of Archbishop Andretti. He spoke. “Your Grace, a Byzantine ship has been spotted along the coast just north of here.”
    “What is it doing?”   
    “Nothing, Your Grace. It appears to be anchored.”
    “There is only the one ship?”
    “Yes, Your Grace.”
    “Have any crewmen been seen ashore?”
    “The watchers are not sure.”
    “Either strangers have been spotted on the shore, or they haven’t. How can they not be sure?”
    “No small boats were seen in the water, but the ship must have arrived after dark. It was not there when the sun set.”
    The archbishop looked at Ambrose and Polonius. “Then I think, Prince and Ambassador, that we must assume that your Byzantine friends have put at least a few men ashore. There is little other reason to arrive at night and anchor in an isolated location. Byzantine ships are always welcome in any of our harbours.’
    Polonius looked puzzled. “You surprise me, Your Grace. I understood that the Beneventians and the Byzantines were bitter rivals for southern Italy.”
    “That is true, Ambassador, but there is an old Beneventian saying that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Benevento and Byzantium are Christian allies in the never-ending war against the Arab and Berber invaders. Except for a few isolated islands, nothing remains of Byzantine Sicily, and the pirates already hold a base on the mainland, at Barium. Now that the crescent rules across all of North Africa, the Berber tribes send their restless young men north across the sea by the thousands. We do not have a strong-enough navy to fight off the invaders by ourselves. The Byzantines are masters at naval warfare, and we would be fools to not support our Christian cousins when they cruise our waters.”
    “Except in this case you do not think that they are here to fight against your common enemy?”
    Archbishop Andretti sighed. “There is always the chance of a pirate ship or two off the coast, but there are no Berber armies anywhere in Benevento. The Berber Italian foothold is on the east coast. Let us look at the facts. A Byzantine ship slips into a dangerous bay at night, carefully avoiding our nearby port where they would be warmly welcomed. I think it would be wise to order more scouts out.”
    Polonius nodded. “I think that would be wise, Your Grace. I warned you that Admiral Demetrious would eventually show up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has brought his entire fleet.”
    The archbishop smiled. “We will take precautions, my friend, but you must relax. You are in sovereign Beneventian territory now, The Byzantine fiat ends at the border south of here. The Beneventian scouts will soon be beating the bushes for any lost Byzantine sailors. We have a strong escort of soldiers and the good people of Benevento do not bow to the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Even the powerful emperor of Italy has been forced to accept Beneventian independence.”
    “Bishop, do you mean the holy Roman emperor?”
    “Of course, Prince. Less than 70 years ago, Charlemagne himself swept south into Italy with the intent of conquering it all.”
    “And Benevento held out against Charlemagne?”
    “Well, the truth is . . . no. The duke of Benevento’s sons were taken north as hostages and it took a considerable tribute to buy peace. Charlemagne died, however, and his heirs started squabbling. The sons were released. Benevento just quietly ceased sending any tribute north, and none of Charlemagne’s brood were strong enough to come south and subdue the Beneventians a second time. Ergo, Benevento was forced to pay tribute for a few years, but it has fully regained its independence.”

   ***           

                       
    Sergeant Zanolin, commander of the archbishop’s scouts, came around a bend in the road and rode towards his master at a quick trot.
    The Archbishop idly watched him approach. He called out when the scout commander was close. “Sergeant, what is the news?”
    “There is a single rider on the road, Your Grace. He is a stranger, and he comes this way.”
    “We are worried about an ambush from a strong military force, Sergeant. One stranger does not sound so frightening.”
    “He is not Beneventian, Your Grace. He has the hard look of a veteran soldier and the callouses of a fighting man on his hands. He claims to be a Frank, but I do not believe him.”
    “Then let him approach, Sergeant, but provide him with an escort, and make sure you send scouts out both front and rear. I do not wish to be unhappily surprised by any of the stranger’s friends.”
    “I hear and obey, Your Grace.”
    As the stranger approached with his Beneventian escort, Ambrose watched him with great interest. He was a big man, armed but not armoured. Most intriguingly, he looked vaguely familiar.

  ***


     Kuralla, wife of Polonius, spoke suddenly. “Prince Ambrose, do you not recognize our visitor? It is Centurion Khalil!”
    Ambrose looked again as the man approached. He smiled at Kuralla as he spurred his horse forward and called out. “Why so it is. Welcome, Centurion. Not long ago we were riding the dusty trails of North Africa together, and now I find you in Benevento. I am greatly surprised to see you, but that makes it no less a pleasure. Will you turn around and ride with us a little way?”
    “I am just a humble legionary now, Prince Ambrose. My centurion’s plume was taken as punishment for my failures in North Africa. I would, however, be honoured if I could ride with you for a time.”
    “It seems you have a harsh master, Khalil. You did the task assigned you to the best of your ability. No one should fault you for what happened in North Africa.”
    “Both the squadron commander and, when he arrived, the admiral, were very upset, Prince. They needed to vent their frustrations on somebody. A certain Saxon prince managed to extract a rather large sum of gold from the squadron commander, and then had the audacity to throw fire bombs at his ships. Your bombs caused serious damage. I am lucky I escaped a whipping.”
    “That is a shocking story, Khalil, but if I remember correctly, this same admiral and squadron commander tried to kill the innocent Saxon prince you refer to, and his friends, not to mention an entire caravan of innocent merchants. They were that angry over a couple of minor fires?”
    “The squadron commander was upset, Prince, but when Admiral Demetrious arrived, he was livid. The fires you started caused more than minor damage. On one of the ships, the stored Greek Fire caught fire.”
    Polonius drew his horse near and spoke. “Peace be with you, Khalil. Then the ship was a total loss?”
    “And may the blessing of God be with you, Ambassador Polonius. To answer your question - yes - the ship burned to the waterline, and the other two burned badly enough that it took some two weeks of hard work to repair the damage. Demetrious had to write Constantinople to explain to Basil where all the gold had gone. Then, to add insult to injury, a day or two later, while they were in the midst of repairs, the emir’s real soldiers showed up and extracted a second bribe - even bigger than the one paid to you. Neither Admiral Demetrious nor his squadron commander were happy men, and both cast around for scapegoats. I can only imagine how the emperor took the news.”
    Ambrose looked serious. “You did nothing wrong, Khalil.”
    “I returned, alive, and did not warn my commander that you were attacking.”
    “That’s because we held you prisoner.”
    “My crime was that I failed in my task and did not have the good sense to die, Ambassador.”
    Ambrose turned to Polonius. “I told you that we could have asked for more gold, Scholar!”
    The archbishop kneed his horse closer. “Is this man a spy, Prince?”
    “Khalil is a Byzantine soldier doing his job, Your Grace. He is one of the men who scouted us out on the caravan trails in North Africa.”
    “Prince, if you but say the word, I will pray for his immortal soul while the Duke’s men stretches his neck from the next tree we pass. The world need less spies, and, if he seeks forgiveness, God will welcome him this very day to a better world.”
    “Khalil is a good soldier, Your Grace, and as Christ took even prostitutes to his bosom, so I would like to take Khalil to mine.”
    Archbishop Andretti stared at Ambrose for several moments. “You never cease to amaze me, Prince. This man is your enemy, who will report your position to his master as soon as he is out of our sight. Yet you wish to let him live?”
    “I believe Khalil to be an honest man and would like to consider him a friend, Your Grace. I think I would prefer it if we just let him eat lunch with us, and then I will send him on his way.”
    Even Khalil looked surprised. “Prince, as much as it grieves me to say it, you know that the archbishop is right. You know that, as long as I am breathing, I will report to my Admiral. I bear you no ill-will, yet I will obey my commander. I am sworn to do so.”
    “Of course, Khalil. I know you to be a good soldier, and I would expect nothing less of you.”
    “And I will have to tell the admiral where you are, Prince. That is why I was sent ashore.”
    Ambrose smiled. “I am counting on it, Khalil. I expect you to tell the admiral nothing but the truth. I expect you to tell Demetrius that I am surrounded by a strong force of brave soldiers. The Beneventian frontier scouts have been alerted, and Duke Adelchis, the ruler of Benevento, is even now on his way to join us with a strong military force.”
    The fierce man-of-the-church glared at the legionary and spoke. “If that is not enough to deter your master, soldier, then tell him that any man who attacks this column risk not only defeat in this world, but eternal damnation in the next.”
    Khalil looked serious. “Sirs, it may take more than all of that to stop my master. Admiral Demetrious is beside himself with anger. The prince and his companions have made him look like a total fool, and he fears for his very life if he returns home without at least the two ambassadors. In fact, the word is that he has been flat-out told that he is not welcome back in Constantinople until you have all been properly returned or disposed of.”
    “Then tell him his own life hangs by a thread much thinner than he thinks.”
    Khalil looked puzzled. “How so, Prince?”
    “Your emperor may be in his cups too much, but he will surely note the loss of one or more of his provinces. I suspect that the man responsible for such a thing would die a very slow and painful death.”
    “I do not understand, Prince Ambrose.”
    “It is actually quite simple, Khalil. An attack on this column is a declaration of war on the Pope, on Benevento, and possibly on Emperor Louis as well. I know what the Byzantine Empire faces in the east, not least of which are the Varangians and their Slav allies. In Sicily, all the major cities have fallen to the Berbers and their Arab masters, and the pirates out of Barium threaten what is left of Byzantine Apulia. I saw Calabria, and you and I both know that the Duke of Benevento could walk to the southern coast any time he pleases. Calabria has been bled dry to support the war effort in both Sicily and Apulia.”
    “I am only a humble soldier, Prince, following my orders.”
    “You are a good man, Khalil, and you will have to take my word on it. An attack on this column could cost Byzantium all of Italy, and even Michael at his most drunk would notice that. Remember, Basil is only the High Chamberlain, or has he been made co-emperor yet?”
    Khalil looked surprised. “Then you have not yet heard the news, Prince! Basil is now emperor.”
    “No, I have not heard. Drunk or sober, Michael was a friend to me, but I can hardly say the same of Basil! How did Michael die?”
    Khalil looked nervous. “He seems to have been suddenly taken by a mysterious fever, Prince.”
    “Was the fever constructed of steel or hemp, Khalil?”
    Khalil licked his lips. “It is profitless to speculate, Prince Ambrose. I do not know.”
    “Khalil, will you take my words to Demetrious?”
    “Of course, Prince.”
    “Good. And Khalil?”
    “Yes, Prince?”
    “Tell Demetrious that our story is written and in safe hands. Our Byzantine admiral is not going to be able to easily erase either our stories or our lives.”
    “I will tell the admiral all that, Prince, although I am not sure that it will stop him. He is a desperate man.”                        

CHAPTER 2
THE TRAVELLERS VISIT DEMETRIOUS IN NAPLES



    Ambrose poured wine into the cups of both Phillip and Polonius. “My friends, Khalil’s visit last week got me to thinking. I don’t know about you, but am tired of running from this Byzantine sycophant. I have an idea.”
    Polonius and Kuralla nodded. Phillip, weapons-master to two generations of West Saxon kings and Ambrose’s guardian since the two were kidnapped and enslaved, spoke in his gruff voice.
    “He may be a sycophant, but he controls a powerful and professional force, Prince. He is also, according to Archbishop Andretti, holed up in Naples, surrounded by his own Byzantines and under the protection of the Duke of Naples.
    Ambrose smiled. “No doubt bribing that worthy ruler to send his troops against the bishop’s column.”
    Polonius looked serious. “The road we are following, the Via Latina, skirts the boundary between Benevento and Naples for a considerable distance, Prince. Even with our Beneventian escort, we should be wary. But please, continue, Prince. We are listening.”
    “As you say, he could be a threat to us even here. This Byzantine admiral drove us out of Alexandria. He chased us across hundreds of miles in North Africa. He tried to ambush us along the Maghreb coast, and, to top it off, he bribed the emir of Tripoli to capture us.”
    “All this we know, Prince. He also had every soldier in Calabria looking for us.”
    “The archbishop’s scouts report that he is sitting in a tavern in Naples, and he seems to want to see us very badly. Why do we not oblige him?”
    Polonius spoke. “Prince, Phillip speaks the truth. Demetrious may be a mere political appointee with more money and influence than brains, but he is backed by hundreds of thoroughly professional marines, not to mention a fleet of the most deadly ships in the world. We have ridden almost a thousand Roman miles trying to escape his clutches. So, if I understand you correctly, instead of riding north under the protection of the archbishop’s escort, you wish to ride right to Demetrious. You must forgive me if I am a little puzzled.”
    Archbishop Andretti was equally aghast. “Prince, I cannot advise that. The pope himself eagerly awaits your arrival. Your Admiral Demetrious is in Naples, where I have no authority and little influence. I have scouts out watching the frontier as we speak. I cannot properly protect you if you leave Beneventian territory.”
    Ambrose smiled. “But my dear Archbishop, surely Naples does not follow the heretical teachings of Patriarch Photius. I know you command no soldiers there, but does not the word of the Holy Father hold weight there?”
    The archbishop made a wry face. “The people of Naples follow the proper Roman doctrine, Prince, but, unless there are both clear and firm instructions from the Vatican to the contrary, even the most powerful princes of the church learn it is wise to bend with the  wind.”
    “Then you are saying that the local priests in Naples could not protect us?”
    “God’s kingdom is not of this earth, Prince. I can protect you in Benevento because the Duke grants me the authority and provides the soldiers. In Naples, the ruler holds the big stick, and a wise priest will obey his sovereign before a mere archbishop, no matter how charming and handsome, from far away.”
    “Then the ruler would turn us over to Demetrious?”
    “I could certainly influence such a decision - unless enough gold is put on the table. I would send word to the Holy Father, and he would command the local church officials to use all their influence to free you, but by the time the word came back from Rome, it is likely that you would be in irons and far out to sea.”
    “So the Duke of Naples would sell us out for thirty pieces of silver?”
    “The Duke is a greedy man. I suspect that it would take much more treasure than that, but, yes, probably. All rulers seem to have a great affinity for the yellow stuff, and you yourself said that Demetrious was willing to spread a lot of gold around in return for your capture.”
    Ambrose nodded. “I quite understand your situation, Archbishop. In that case, I would be grateful if you could just arrange for the loan of three Benedictine robes.”
    “Ah, I think I understand. You intend to go into Naples in disguise.”
    “Exactly, Your Grace.”
    Archbishop Andretti sighed. “I cannot approve, Prince. Why on earth would you want to ride right into his clutches?”
    “Archbishop, did you not leave copies of our story at more than one monastery - to be opened in the event of your or my death?”
    “Aye, of course, Prince. It was what you asked. I even put scribes to work copying what Polonius wrote. There will soon be an even dozen copies, distributed from Calabria to the Vatican itself.”
    “Then don’t you see, your Grace? There is no more reason for Admiral Demetrious to chase us. While Michael ruled, our story could have cost Basil his head, literally. Now, thanks to holy mother church and your industrious scribes, our death or capture will only publicize the very story that Emperor Basil is trying so hard to hide.”
    “And you think the admiral will call off the hunt if you inform him of this?”
    “It is worth a try. We can travel in disguise, on fast horses.”
    “You can also write a letter, Prince. I have no end of young novices who will be happy to deliver it for you - and there is no risk to you.”
    “I think I have to plead my case in person, Archbishop. I am confident I can persuade the admiral.”
    The archbishop stared at Ambrose. At last he spoke. “I think you are wasting your time and risking your neck needlessly, but you are young and impetuous.’ He sighed.
‘I cannot agree, but I will find you the robes.’
    He turned to his young assistant. ‘Brother Luigi, send a messenger to the last Benedictine monastery we passed for three robes - one large enough for our giant friend here, and then please be so good as to bring me my maps. Maybe there is something we can do to make Prince Ambrose‘s trip a little bit safer.”
    Ambrose smiled. “I would be grateful, Your Grace.”

  ***


    As they approached the sea, Ambrose saw a single majestic peak thrusting upward from the land ahead ahead of them. He turned to Polonius.
    “Does this mean that we are close, Scholar?”
    “I think so, Prince. The archbishop told me to look for Mount Vesuvius. He said that we would skirt the southern slope and then arrive at a coastal road. After that, we just follow the coast north along the coast until we see Naples.”
    Ambrose looked nervously ahead. “Scholar, I see smoke rising from the mountain. Should we be approaching so closely?”
    “Archbishop Andretti said that it has not erupted in over 80 years. Still, somewhere below our feet, in the year the Roman emperor Vespasian died, the volcano erupted so violently that the three towns of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum were completely buried.”
    Ambrose stared northward at the huge cone. “And yet I see vineyards up the sides and a forest near the top.”
    Polonius shrugged. “The land is obviously fertile and men seem to have short memories . . . Look! If you look out to sea, you can see the beautiful island of Capri, once the playground of Roman emperors.”
    The road skirting the volcano met a major road running north and south along the shore. Ambrose and his two friends headed north towards the city that could now be clearly seen towards the north shore of the bay.
    Polonius spoke again. “Prince, it is not too late to change your mind. Are you sure you would not like to turn around now?”
    “Thank you, Scholar, but we have fast horses and Archbishop Andretti has promised us fresh mounts if we return the way we came. I am terrified, but I want this chase to end. Either we give ourselves up, or we convince Demetrious to give up. I see no other possible conclusion.”
    “I see two, Prince. We make it through the Alps, or we end it in Naples.”
    “That is what I want to do, Polonius.”
    “We end it with an assassin’s dagger.”
    “Thank you, my friend, but I would never wish that mortal sin upon you! We cannot kill the man in cold blood.”
    “If it means that my beloved Kuralla is safe, and you and Phillip, then I would not hesitate for one second. We are being hunted by a powerful fleet and hundreds of the best soldiers in the world. Make no mistake, Prince. Demetrious will do everything in his power to catch and kill us. If I could strike a blow against him, I would do so without the slightest hesitation.
       

CHAPTER 3
POLONIUS FINDS THE ROOM ABOVE A TAVERN


    Polonius made the sign of the cross and spoke to the pair of men lounging beside a food stall. “May God be with you, my brothers. We are looking for a great admiral from Constantinople and wondered if you could help us?”
    The ragged pair of men looked up at the three monks mounted on horseback. “And may God be with you, Holy Brothers. If you mean the Greek fop who arrived with the fleet, you will probably find him guzzling fine wine in the Three Maidens Tavern.”
    The second man spoke. “No, Pietro. Do you not remember? We saw him not an hour ago in that litter heading for the harbour.”
    “That was him?”
    “Aye, I saw him staring out of the curtains at the fishmonger’s daughter.”
    The first man turned again to the monks. “Then you are in luck, Holy Brothers. It appears that your admiral has deigned to visit his ships.”
    Polonius smiled. “But if we looked for him in the late afternoon, would we be likely to find him at the Three Maidens?”
    “Aye, Holy Brother. I have never heard of the admiral missing a good meal. Only Naple’s best is good enough for that lump of lard.”
    Polonius made the sign of the cross again. “May God’s blessings remain with you now and always, my brothers.”

                            P               

    Ambrose, Polonius and Philip tied their mounts to the hitching post by the door and entered the building. A freshly painted sign with three busty girls on it indicated that this was indeed the Three Maidens tavern. It was a fine building, with a large fireplace in which an entire pig was slowly rotating. The proprietor, a well-dressed and rotund man, came over to greet the travellers as they entered the main room.
    “Welcome to the Three Maidens. How may I help my Benedictine brothers?”
    Polonius made the sign of the cross again. “May God be with you always, sir. Our Abbott (right-word?) *** has sent us to see some great admiral – Brother Luigi, what was his name again?”
    Ambrose responded. “I think it was Admiral Demetrious, brother.”
    “That’s it. We are looking for one Admiral Demetrious.”
    The proprietor shook his head. “Then you just missed him, Holy Brothers. He left for the harbour not an hour ago.”
    Polonius spoke. “That is disappointing. Did he perhaps leave any of his officers behind?”
    “I don’t think so, Holy Brother. You can check for yourself, however, if you wish. He has the first room at the top of the stairs, and the next two belong to his officers and a guard detail.”
    “Good sir, if I don’t find him or one of his officers, do you have any idea when the good admiral will be back?”
    The proprietor smiled. “He has never yet missed one of my dinners. He has ordered my famous roast goose for his evening repast.”
    “I thank you, brother. May we go up and check to see if any of his officers might still be here?”
    “Be my guests, Holy Brothers. God’s servants are always welcome in this establishment. Oh, and Holy Brother, my wife - she is not feeling well.”
     Ambrose smiled. “Of course, brother. We will add her to our prayers this very evening. And may the grace of God be with you now and always. If we do not find any of the admiral’s officers present, we might wait awhile, or just return later.”
    “You may wait anywhere you wish. If you care to wait in the main room, tell the serving wench that Salvatore said that the first cup of wine you order is free and is to come from my private stock.”
    Ambrose smiled again and bowed. “You are very kind, brother.”

        ***           


    Polonius approached the first door and listened carefully. Hearing nothing, he withdrew two thin pieces of metal, and manipulated the simple lock with them until he heard the click of release. He pushed the door open, while Ambrose and Phillip drew their swords from beneath their robes and followed quickly. As the weapons-master squeezed through, the big man let the door gently close.
    To Ambrose’s great surprise, the room was not empty after all. There was a beautiful girl standing by the bed. She was blond, naked, and attached to the bed with a ten-foot length of chain.
    She started to cover her breasts and genitals, looked again at the men, and lowered her hands, though Ambrose could see a blush start on her face and work its way down to her beautiful alabaster breasts.
    To Ambrose‘s amazement, she spoke in Anglish. “Go ahead and look,’ she said. ‘What is the difference? In the last week I was stripped naked in a public market and pawed by a hundred men and boys. Even one woman took an indecent pleasure in touching me in my private place. Since then, I have been sold for two gold pieces and then been raped a half dozen times. You men are all pigs! I see lust even in the eyes of men-of-God! Barbarians, you do not even understand one word I say, do you?”
    Ambrose replied in her language. “I understand you very well, little one. We mean you no harm, but if you call out, we will be forced to kill you. Do you understand that?”
    At the sound of a familiar tongue, the tears started to flow down her face. ‘Look at my chain. Do I look like some man’s faithful servant? I hope you kill my master - slowly. Better yet, you lend me a knife and hold him down for me, and I will happily remove the burden of that sin from your shoulders.”
    Ambrose could not help but stare at her exposed beauty. “Who are you, girl?”
    “I am nothing but a cruel man’s sex slave.”
    Ambrose replied. “Even pleasure slaves are not normally chained to a bed.”
    The girl shrugged. “Apparently they are if they attempt to run away.”
    “You speak the Anglish of my native land, girl. What is your name?”
    “Rheda, sir. I am a Jute, from the isle of Wight.”
    “But that is part of my brother’s realm.”
    “Your brother’s realm . . . What is your brother’s name?”
    “Ethelred.”
    She looked hard at Ambrose. “But that is not the name of any ealdorman on the island - that is the name of my king!”
    Ambrose smiled. “He is my half-brother.“
    ”Then that makes you a royal atheling - a prince of Wessex!”
    “My mother was a slave, but, yes, my father was a king. I guess that makes me an atheling.”
    “Sir, if you are a West Saxon atheling, what are you doing in Naples, in the robes of a Benedictine monk? And why, sir,  are God’s monks carrying naked swords?”
    “We are here to have a private chat with your Admiral Demetrious.”
    Rheda stared at the three of them in turn. “A Saxon bastard prince, a big man, and a thin Greek . . . sir, could you and your companions be the three men that the admiral has been chasing for so long?”
    Ambrose nodded. “I suspect so, Rheda the Jute.”
    “Then you are Prince Ambrose, and you two are Phillip and Polonius!”
    Ambrose smiled again. “We are guilty as charged.”
    “Oh, sirs, beware! The admiral will do anything to get his hands on you.”
    “That is why we want to talk with him. Do you know when he will return?”
    “He is generally back here by the Vespers bell, Prince.”
    “Good, then we will wait for his return. I need you to be very quiet, however. He must not know that we are here.”
    Rheda stood proudly, forgetting for a moment her nudity and embarrassment. “You are brother to my king. I will obey you in all things, Prince.”
    “Then we must be very quiet, and you should sit down on the bed. You do not have to stand, Rheda.”
    “I do, Prince. I cannot sit comfortably, and Demetrious told me that if he finds out that I have used the bed without his permission, he will whip me again.”
    “Rheda, turn around.”
    Obediently, the young woman faced the bed, exposing her back and buttocks to Ambrose‘s gaze. The prince stared at the welts that stretched from her neck almost to her knees. “God in heaven, child! What did Demetrious do to you?”
    The tears showed in her eyes again, but she spoke bravely. “After I tried to run away, he had me whipped.”
    “How many strokes did he order, Rheda? You have been brutally beaten.”
    “He ordered a dozen, Prince.”
    “That is much more than a dozen, Rheda!”
    “Aye, Prince. He ordered the rest after I kicked him in the balls the next time he tried to spread my legs.”
    All three men smiled. Ambrose spoke, “Good for you, girl! I would have liked to have seen that.”
    Polonius spoke, “Prince, we had better prepare our little reception. We will need to hide near the door so that he does not see us until it is too late.”
    Ambrose nodded. “Phillip, perhaps you can noisily descend the stairs so the tavern-keeper will think that we have left.”
    “Prince, I swore to your father to protect you. I cannot do that from somewhere outside.”
    “Phillip, if someone steals our horses, then we will have no way to escape and we will be taken. I need you to keep them around back and ready. I will stand by the window until I see you wave.”
    Phillip sighed. “I do not like it, but you are right, Prince. Without the horses, we are dead. I will obey.”
    Rheda spoke. “If it pleases you, Prince, I will keep the admiral’s attention when he enters the room.”
    Ambrose forced his eyes to stare only at her face. “Thank you, Rheda. Looking like that, it should not be hard!”
    The girl blushed again. Ambrose continued. “I do not, however, want you punished because of us.”
    “Demetrious can own my body, Prince, but he cannot own my soul. The moment he removes this damned chain, I will run again.”
    “Be careful, girl. He may decide to cut your Achilles tendon. It is an old technique to keep slaves from running. After that, you can barely hobble.”
    “Then I will hobble or crawl, Prince. In my heart, I am free. I will not give up attempting to escape.”
    “What would you do if you escaped, Rheda? We are all a long way from home.”
    “I have a brother in Rome, Prince. He, too, was captured by slavers, but he has been lucky. A Jute woman in Rome bought him, freed him, and married him. A Saxon who knows me and saw me in the slave market told me this just last week.”
    “Then you would flee to Rome?”
    “Run, hobble or crawl, Prince, that is where I am going.”

        ***              


    Ambrose heard Demetrious’ voice in the hall. “Wake me in time for supper. I feel the need of a little nap.”
    Ambrose heard the sound of laughter. “Enjoy her, Admiral. She is a spunky one, but that last whipping should have taught her some manners.”
    “We shall see, Centurion. Oh, and arrange another meeting with the Duke. I think I am going to have to pay our lordling another visit and put a little pressure on him if I am going to get his troops to go hunting with us before the bastard prince makes it to Rome!”
    “Yes, Admiral. I will call you when the innkeeper tells me your supper is ready, sir.”
    “See that you do, Centurion. I can already taste that delicious goose.”
    Ambrose crouched tight against the wall as the door opened. Demetrious staggered in, a little drunk.
    Rheda turned slowly to face her master. She straightened, and then bowed low, until her breasts hung pendulously.
    Demetrious smiled at the naked girl bowing before him. His eyes followed the gently swaying breasts. “Ah, there you are my dear! You really are a delicious little thing. I would ask you to disrobe, but I see that you have anticipated my thoughts. Come here and undress me, then we will continue with your lessons on how to pleasure a man.”
    The tip of a razor-sharp sword touched the Greek’s back. “Not right now, she won’t, Admiral. Turn around very slowly, and keep in mind that the moment you so much as utter a sound without permission, you die.”
    Demetrious turned slowly, as instructed. One by one, he focussed on Ambrose, and then Polonius. His eyes took in the drawn sword, and the throwing dagger in each of Polonius’ hands.
    Demetrious whispered. “May I speak, Prince?”
    “Just so long as it is very quietly. In fact, I want to have a little conversation with you. That’s why we are here.”
    “My lords, all of this is so unnecessary. You had but to announce yourselves, and I would have welcomed you and been pleased to arrange for the finest transport for you. My orders are to spare no expense!”
    “I want to go home to Angleland, Demetrious, and Constantinople seems a little out of my way.”
    Demetrious replied. “Ah, there’s the rub. I have the strictest instructions to take you back to the capital. The new emperor desperately needs to see you.”
    Ambrose became angry. “Don’t lie to me, Demetrious! Your instructions are not to take me back, and you know it!”
    “On my mother’s honour, Prince, those are my instructions!”
    “Then your mother is a poxed whore, Admiral. You have no intention of returning us alive to Basil!”
    The courtier broke out in a renewed bout of sweating. His silence gave Ambrose the answer he needed.
    “You are right to sweat, Demetrious. I am tired of being chased around the Mediterranean, and you seem to be the instigator of a lot of my troubles.”
    “Then I hesitate to ask why you are here, Prince.”
    “I sent you a message in Egypt, Demetrious.”
    “What message was that, Prince Ambrose?”
    ”My friends and I buried your Greek mercenaries.”
    Demetrious looked at Ambrose. “I did not know what happened to them, but I did guess that you and Hakim’s men did that little deed. Did you know that my brother was amongst the lost?”
    “We did not ask them their names, Demetrious. I am sorry that your brother died, but we warned them off, and only killed them when they attacked us.”
    “And the Arab riders - it was you who visited my men again, Prince, in the Maghreb?”
    “It did seem somehow fitting that your commander would pay us, who you were hunting, to leave you alone, and it was, indeed, a fine bribe that he offered us.”
    “But, in spite of the gold, you didn’t leave my men alone, Prince. You did a great deal of damage to three valuable ships!”
    Ambrose shrugged. “Perhaps, Demetrious, you are forgetting that you, yourself, sent those crews out there to set up an ambush to murder me, my friends, and a large number of innocent merchants. We attacked your ships which were sitting unmanned, not your men. Even after that little visit, Admiral, you still did not get the message. You attempted to bribe the emir of Tripoli into capturing us.”
    “I did bribe the emir. He was just too stupid to catch you.”
    “And the assassins in Calabria?”
    “I sent no assassins after you in Calabria, though I might have if I had known where you were. Wait - there was a report of a massacre of a party of Byzantine soldiers by what appeared to be pirates . . . was that you?”
    “We defended ourselves against a group of soldiers who tried to sneak up on us while we slept. If you consider that a massacre - then we are guilty.”
    “And you used arrows from Africa?”
    “We used Turkish arrows, Demetrious.”
    The admiral sighed. “That explains the confusion. You are a hard man to kill, Prince Ambrose.”
    “Do you even know why the emperor Basil wants us dead?”
    “I do not need to know, Prince. If I wish to keep my own head on my shoulders, I merely need to obey my lord Basil’s very clear instructions.”
    “Demetrious, Basil intended to use my sword to kill the husband of Theodota. Once Basil had pushed him into a duel with me, then the old man’s gold was going to be used to bribe the Royal Guard. Polonius, here, was then supposed to use his magic with the flying daggers to kill your lawful emperor.
    We are ambassadors representing the Rus empire on the Dnieper River. We have no interest in your internal politics, and your emperor Michael had been very generous to us. Do you wonder that we fled the capital?”
    The perspiration now poured down Demetrious’ face. “Prince, what you have just told me is enough to have my head removed from my shoulders.”
    “Then listen carefully, Admiral. After your attempt to capture us at Tripoli, Polonius here wrote down our story in great detail.”
    Demetrious licked his lips nervously. “That was a dangerous thing to do, Prince.”
    Ambrose smiled. “More dangerous than learning to swim while wearing chains or being cut to pieces by mercenaries? Polonius is a prolific writer, Demetrious. Our story now resides with the Duke of Benevento and in quite a few monasteries throughout southern Italy. I hope you will forgive me if I do not tell you which ones. Couriers have even carried sealed copies of our story as far as the Vatican.
    Archbishop Andretti has agreed to personally escort us to Rome. He has left instructions, Demetrious. If anything should happen to him, then the letters are to be opened and made public. He, in turn, has agreed to release the letters if anything happens to me, Polonius, Phillip, or Kuralla. So you see, Admiral, you might consider ensuring that we all live a very long and healthy life . . . or perhaps you should just go home.”
    “Prince, you do not understand.”
    “I understand that you have harassed me across hundreds of miles, Demetrious. I am tired of it and I want it to end.”
    “I cannot stop, Prince.”
    “You have never been so close to death as you are at this very moment, Demetrious. With you dead, your officers would have to send for new instructions from Basil. By the time the orders came, I would be safely in Angleland.”
    “Then kill me if you must, Prince, for I cannot stop. The emperor Basil has decreed that I must not return to the capital until I have completed my task, and you are that task.”
    “Then take some of that gold you have been spreading about so liberally, Demetrious, and start a new life somewhere far from Byzantine influence.”
    “Prince, if only it were that easy. Basil is no fool. My family is held hostage in the capital. They would die a very slow and painful death if I ever ran or disobeyed my master.”
    As Demetrious spoke, his hand slid behind his back. Suddenly, Rheda cried out. “Look out, Prince! He has a hidden knife there!”
    Before Demetrious could move his hand more than a few inches, Ambrose‘s blade pressed against his throat. “Pull your hand out slowly, Demetrious. You are less than a heartbeat away from joining your poxed ancestors.”
    The Byzantine inched his hand out from behind his back and gingerly placed a dagger on the table. Ambrose stared at the beautiful knife. The blade was of the finest Indian steel, and the pommel held a beautiful cut emerald.
    Ambrose spoke. “That was a foolish thing, Demetrious. Why did you do it?”
    The sweat was flowing in runnels down Demetrious’s robe. “I knew you were about to kill me, Prince Ambrose. What else could I do?”
    Ambrose stared at the Byzantine courtier for over a minute. At last he spoke. “Demetrious, you are right. I should just kill you now and get it over with. I will tell you what I will do, however. I will trade you your life for the knife and the girl. I will even throw in three golden byzants for her. I want her sale to be legal.”
    “Rheda? She is just a slave girl bought in the market, Prince.”
    “She is a Jute slave girl, Demetrious. She is a subject of my brother the king.”
    “Prince, the knife cost a hundred byzants, but I should not have attempted to draw it, and I would like to make a gift of it to you as atonement. As for the girl, if you would like to legally purchase her, I would have to ask for at least half of what I paid for her. Shall we say - perhaps - fifteen byzants - especially as you are paying me with my own gold.”
    “With your emperor’s gold. You paid two, Demetrious. Be satisfied with a 50 percent profit - and your life.”
    “As you say, Prince, a gold byzant is a fair profit, especially if I am to be given the opportunity to spend it.”
    Ambrose gestured towards Demetrious’ battered campaign desk. “I see paper and ink, Demetrious. Draw up the manumission papers. I am eager to be on my way.”
    “And if I do this, I will live?”
    As Ambrose spoke, he fished into his pouch with one hand, and then dropped three golden byzants on the small table beside him. “If you try another foolish stunt, you could very easily die this day, but if you honour your end of the bargain, yes, you will probably live to see sunrise. You must swear to me, however, that you will send to Basil the information I have just given you.”
    “Consider it done, Prince.”   
    “Then give the girl her clothes, unchain her, and write the manumission paper.”
    ”If you would drop the sword blade just a little, Prince, I will be pleased to obey.”
    Ambrose let the blade tip drop to the floor. The prince smiled. “Just don’t forget Polonius‘ blades, Admiral. Polonius doesn’t need much of an excuse to kill you. I would even save three byzants.”
    As Demetrious fished an iron key from his robe and bent down to unlock the leg shackle, he spoke. “Now that we have agreed on a price, Prince, I must tell you that you are wasting your money. She is pretty enough, but she is stupid and willful. Even my whip has not properly taught her her place, and she has no idea how to properly please a man.”
    Polonius spoke for the first time. “It is said, sometimes, that a poor rider will blame his mount, Demetrious.”
    “Well, this particular mount is both stupid and stubborn, and there are a hundred more like her in the marketplace. The Vikings land them by the thousand in Friesland.”
    “Maybe she does not like being a slave, Demetrious.”
    “Few do, Ambassador. What do you know of a slave’s feelings? Why would you even care?”
    Ambrose spoke. “Though my father was a king, my mother was a slave. Phillip and I were captured and forced to wear the Viking slave collar, Demetrious, and, later, briefly, Moorish chains. Do not tell me that I know nothing about being a slave!”
    Demetrious looked more closely at Ambrose. “You, Prince? And yet you ended up as an ambassador for the Rus Vikings.”
    “It took luck and good friends, Demetrious.”
    “And, I suspect, more than a little bravery and skill, Prince. The Vikings are fearsome warriors. I understand that they do not understand the concept of mercy.”
    “The paper, Demetrious, we have a long way to go tonight.”
    “Prince, you said you would let me live.”
    “And I will, Demetrious. You will be stripped, tied, gagged, and chained in Rheda’s place, but you will live.”


Return to Bruce Corbett Photography site

Return to Bruce Corbett Author site