Ambrose, Prince of Wessex;

Southern Journey.

 

 

Copyright © 2007, by Bruce Corbett.

 

 


Author's Note

 

 

Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Basil, once a stable boy and soon to be emperor himself, really did persuade the Byzantine emperor of the time, Michael III, to kill Bardas, his own uncle and co-emperor, a man who had won battle after battle against the enemies of the embattled eastern Roman Empire.

The Cretan menace was a very real one. Moorish pirates from Spain had gained a foothold on Crete and, in the absence of strong Byzantine opposition, conquered the entire island. Bardas was on his way to retake the island when he was murdered.

I was intrigued to learn of the treatment by the conquering Moslems of the 'People of the Book.' The Christians and Jews who came under the Caliph's rule were not pressured to change their religion. They were required to pay a special tax, but were, in turn, exempt from military duty.

I am not sure if the lighthouse at Alexandria still functioned in 867 AD. Some years before, the third level had collapsed. Ahmad ibn Tulun, the next conqueror of Egypt and relative of Hakim in this story, placed a mosque on the top a few years after Ambrose, recently escaped from Crete, was, in turn, forced to flee the Egyptian city. I therefore arbitrarily decided to make the lighthouse fully functional, both by day and by night.

By great good fortune, I did not have to manipulate the time line. The major events occurred, approximately where I state. Where I was unable to find out specific details, I did not hesitate to use literary licence. For the sake of clarity, I delayed making Basil co-emperor and I used the modern equivalents of the Greek military and civil titles. I hope that you enjoy reading this story as much as I did researching and writing it.

 

The author

Bruce Corbett


 

Historical Background

 

Some seven years before this story opens, Prince Ambrose of Wessex, along with Phillip, his faithful weapons tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village on England's south coast. While on the way to Europe as captives, a terrible storm almost sinks the ship, yet Ambrose, and Phillip struggle to save it.

The battered vessel makes a Frisian port. There, many of the Saxon captives are sold, although one foreign prisoner is brought on board. Thus, Ambrose and Phillip meet Polonius, at the time just another 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. Phillip is treated brutally and is condemned to be a sacrifice to a Viking god. Rescued by Ambrose and Polonius, the three companions flee in a small open boat, north and then east, until they hit the coast of Norway. They land in an isolated village, and, after being treated hospitably, begin their overland trek to Sweden, to find a friend of Ambrose's old master. Once there, they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders.

The arrival of pursuing Danish ships abruptly ends their plans and forces them to flee once again. Gunnar arranges for them 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.

On their way south, after a bitter fight against nomad raiders, they reach the town of Kiev. The Rus adventurers take control and set about expanding their new empire.

An entire nation of migrating steppe warriors erupt from the vast steppes to the east. The fierce nomads threaten to overwhelm Kiev, but Polonius' innovations and the fanatical fighting prowess of the Vikings earn victory for the Northmen. The story of these adventures may be found in Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev.

Within months after the Pecheneg attack, the Rus tribesmen send the war arrow up and down the river. The audacious warriors plan a punitive attack on Constantinople, the greatest city in the world.

The three friends join the attack on Constantinople and, after considerable adventures, return to Kiev in the fall. In the spring, they 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, now Polonius' wife, has mysteriously disappeared.

A Slav outlaw risks his life to bring them news of her whereabouts, and they quickly take an expedition north to rescue the beautiful Kuralla. After hard travel and battle, they succeed. They no sooner reach Kiev, however, than they must sail south again. The emperor of Byzantium awaits their return.

Welcomed by the Emperor in Constantinople, the three friends find that the magnificent and decadent city is open to them. Ambrose becomes blindly infatuated with a married noblewoman, and only the timely arrival one night of Phillip and Polonius saves his life. Soon thereafter, Polonius finds himself a pawn in the imperial power struggle and the friends flee for their lives. This is where Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Emissary to Byzantium, ends and Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey, begins.

 


CHARACTERS

 

 

ACHELOUS, (Governor): (Fictitious) Governor of Calabria, he is the man who surrenders the ship when a pirate fleet attacks the Byzantine convoy.

ABDUL: (Fictitious) Man who protects the Governor at Hakim's request, and later sails to Alexandria with Ambrose.

ACTAEON, (Captain): (Fictitious) Captain of the ship taking Ambrose and his companions from Constantinople to Italy.

AHMAD IBN TULUN: 868 - becomes a lieutenant in the service of the Governor of Egypt, then eventually seizes control of the province and establishes an independent state.

ANDRETTI, (Archbishop): (Fictitious) Once Brother Andre who took care of Ambrose when, as a child, he visited Rome.

ANGELO: (Fictitious) Is the Calabrian soldier who attempts to arrest Ambrose and his companions. Bested by Kuralla, he organizes a night attack on the travellers.

BABAK: Turkish general given Egypt as an administrative grant in 868. He stays in Iraq, but sends his stepson, Ahmad ibn Tulun, in 868.

BASIL: (The Bulgarian) Basil was a former slave who makes his way to Constantinople and works in the Royal stables. Noticed by the emperor of the time, Michael III, he becomes High Chamberlain and, eventually, co-emperor. In 867, he becomes sole emperor by killing Michael.

DEMETRIOUS: (Fictitious) Personal aide to Basil, in charge of the courier ship that was to return Ambrose and his companions to Constantinople. He then takes the rank of admiral and leads a fleet to Alexandria, Tripoli, and Italy, in an attempt to capture Ambrose and his companions.

ERSIN: (Fictitious) Hakim's sentry at the caravansary when the Tuareg spy arrives.

HAKIM: (Fictitious) Is the man Ambrose meets when they are imprisoned on the island of Crete. He later journeys across Africa with the friends. Babak, the famous Turkish general, is his grandfather.

JAMAL: (Fictitious) Arab pirate who fights Phillip on the voyage from Tripoli to Calabria.

JUDITH: (Fictitious) Is Hakim's beloved daughter.

KHALIL: (Fictitious) The first of the two Byzantine spies in North Africa.

KAMIL: (Fictitious) Is Hakim's right-hand-man in Alexandria.

KATEB: (Fictitious) The Arab mercenary who survives the Tuareg attack.

KURALLA: (Fictitious) Wife of Polonius, she is a Slav chieftain's daughter who watched her family killed while she was enslaved.

MANSUR: (Fictitious) The second of the Byzantine spies in North Africa.

NADR: (Fictitious) One of Hakim's caravan guards, who takes the boat out to attack the two dromons in North Africa.

NICHOLAS: (Fictitious) See Polonius.

ORESTES, Centurion: (Fictitious) Officer locked up with Ambrose on Crete.

POLONIUS: (Fictitious) Ambrose's friend, he is a Byzantine scholar who was sold into slavery and found himself a Viking slave. Once they escape, he travels from Russia to Constantinople, and then back to Italy via North Africa.

POPADOPOLOUS: (Admiral): (Fictitious) The admiral of the fleet travelling to Calabria. When his ship is attacked by a pirate fleet and surrendered by the cowardly Governor, the Admiral chooses to immolate himself and destroy the vessel, rather than let it pass into pirate hands.

RASHID: (Fictitious) Lieutenant of Hakim and commander of the caravan.

ROLF, (Captain): (Fictitious) Commander of the Guard who meets Ambrose's ship when he lands in Benevento.

SADDAM: (Fictitious) An Arab sailor who Hakim sends up the mast when they approach the African coast.

TARDU, General: (Fictitious) Was general of the Turkish army hired to destroy the Tuareg raiders.

UMBERTO: (Fictitious) Is city commander, or Gastald, of the fictitious city of Arlena.

Nb. Italicized words are in the glossary at the end of the story.

 

Chapter 1

 

The Enemy Is Sighted

 

 

Ambrose's gaze swept northward toward the hazy shore in the distance. Over thirty fat merchantmen and two more sleek Byzantine warships were silhouetted against the shoreline. Suddenly the young prince sensed that he was no longer alone. He turned to see a couple standing hand in hand beside him at the rail. The unlikely duo, Polonius, a Byzantine scholar and Kuralla, his wife and the daughter of a chief of Slav tribesmen, stood with arms intertwined. As they gently kissed each other, Ambrose smiled at his two companions and spoke.

 "I still can't believe that, by the grace of God, I am finally on my way home. It has been almost six years since I have walked the shores of Wessex."

Polonius instinctively looked to the west, where the ship's wake could be seen fading into the calm waters. "Save your prayers of thanks for a while, Prince. If the God-cursed High Chamberlain, Basil, figures out how we escaped and sends his minions south after us, we could still have a problem."

"Right about now his thugs should be looking for us on a Viking ship somewhere on the vastness of the Black Sea. You're a pessimist, Scholar!"

"I'm a realist, Prince. I am guessing that our friend Basil feels we know altogether too much and will stop at nothing to silence us permanently."

Ambrose stared at the surrounding vessels for a few moments. "I'm told that if the wind holds and there is no trouble, we should be in Calabria before the next moon wanes."

"Calabria is still Byzantine territory, and still far from your homeland of Wessex, Ambrose. Much can happen before you see home."

Ambrose saw the worry on Polonius' face and he voiced the question. "Polonius, there is something on your mind, and I think it is more than just the threat of Basil's thugs overtaking us. Out with it, Scholar!"

The Byzantine scholar frowned. At last he spoke. "Our beloved future governor of Calabria told me last night, just before he passed out, that a squadron of the Byzantine Mediterranean fleet was supposed to have rendezvoused with us when we were back at Andros. These are dangerous waters, especially when you have thirty fat merchantmen and all of three dromons and two courier galleys providing escort."

"Polonius, is that not the Greek mainland I see to the north?"

"Aye, Prince."

"And is Greece not the heartland of the Byzantine Empire?"

"Yes, Master."

Kuralla interrupted. "The tension in your hand tells me that you are not telling us everything, my husband."

Polonius sheepishly lessened his grip on his wife's hand and smiled down at her. "You are astute as ever, love-of-my-life. You are both looking the wrong way. Look south."

Ambrose stared southwards for several moments. At last he spoke.

"I assume from what the admiral said that the hint of colour I see is the coast of Crete. Polonius, is that not the island that the co-emperor Bardas was on his way to pacify when he suddenly died?

Polonius looked grim and scanned for any crewmen in hearing range before he quietly replied. "Died, Prince, or was murdered by the same man who no doubt has already sent minions after us to shut us up?"

Ambrose nodded. "We can only pray to a merciful God that Basil will not think we are stupid enough to try and escape on one of his own imperial Byzantine warships. And did not our foolish Calabrian governor say that an entire squadron of Imperial warships is even now on their way to meet us? It is you, after all, who keeps telling me that Byzantium has the most powerful fleet in the world. The squadron may be a little behind schedule, but I don't doubt that, even as we speak, it is moving in our direction. What, exactly, aside from Basil's executioners, should we be looking for to the south, my friend?"

"Pirates, Prince."

"Pirates?"

"In the absence of strong Byzantine leadership from our friend, 'Emperor Michael the Drunk', Moorish pirates seized a stronghold in Crete. Apparently it did not take them long to conquer the entire island."

Ambrose nodded. "So that is why Bardas was getting ready to sail to re-conquer Crete."

"Bardas was a real threat to the pirates, but he is in his tomb. The Spanish Moors on Crete no longer have to fear a serious attack from Byzantium."

Kuralla looked up at her husband and squeezed his hand. "Is that what you are worrying about, husband-of-mine?"

"Well, yes. Probably even more than the fact that the second most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire wants us dead. I fear that Basil's star is ascending rapidly, and Emperor Michael the Drunk should be very afraid."

Ambrose stared south. "Basil makes me a more than a little nervous, too, Scholar. I hope that you are wrong about the Moorish pirates, but, I have to admit, that is a good second reason for anxiety. Why do you fear them even more than our murderous friend Basil?"

"With luck and with the false trail we laid, it should take Basil a week or two to determine that we didn't go north, and every minute that goes by, we sail further from his evil grasp. A hundred ships a day pass through the Dardanelles, and we could have sailed on most any of them. His agents will be scouring the docks, but no one will be able to report us boarding any vessel in Constantinople harbour. That is why we slipped away secretly on such a small boat and met the fleet so far from Constantinople. Even if he does figure out that we boarded a Byzantine military vessel, he has to send his minions after us, first to find and arrest us, and then dispose of us, all without any witnesses, and all this without the emperor finding out. Our more immediate potential problem, therefore, is the Cretan pirates. Crete was part of the Roman and Byzantine Empire for a thousand years. Today, however, the only Christians who visit that beautiful island to the south of us, do so in chains."

"Polonius, you are not answering my question. Why do you fear the pirates so much?"

 "Admiral Papadopoulos told me that the pirate fleets based on Crete are becoming much bolder. They have recently become a serious threat to Byzantine trade in this very region. That is why the co-emperor Bardas was putting together that expedition to return the island to Byzantine control."

Ambrose looked much more sober. "Surely even fanatical pirates would not take on five warships, especially with squadrons of the Byzantine Mediterranean fleet headed our way? Besides, how would they even know to attack us?"

"Master, three dromons and a pair of courier galleys can hardly adequately defend thirty merchantmen against any kind of serious attack. As to security, with those hundred ships a day travelling south through the Dardanelles, any one of them could have carried a Moorish spy. This fleet would be a great prize!"

Ambrose nodded sombrely. "I concede the risk, Scholar, but I assume that is why we are rendezvousing with a squadron of the Mediterranean fleet."

"Prince, it is likely that even the most powerful individual pirate vessel would be frightened off by five Byzantine warships, but the Cretans can apparently launch hundreds of ships if they knew a Byzantine convoy was coming. The pirates could even have arranged for an incident to distract or delay the Byzantine squadron that was supposed to meet us two days ago."

Ambrose sighed. "I think, my friend, that you are telling us these waters may be more dangerous than they seem."

"My prince, I only hope that . . ."

"Sails ho!"

The cry brought Admiral Papadopoulos, accompanied by the ship captain and his chief officers, on the run. Other crewmen paused at their tasks, but sharp commands from the under-officers sent the well-trained crew members back to work. Phillip also appeared from below-decks, and he joined his companions on the stern fighting deck. The cry of 'sails ho' in the pirate-ridden Mediterranean was always cause for concern.

Admiral Papadopoulos seized a speaking trumpet and called out to the lookout perched precariously near the top of the main mast. "How many sails and where away?"

The cry from high above was faint, but the words were clear enough. "I count almost twenty, Admiral. They come from the south!"

"May God curse Mohammed and his damned lackeys!' The admiral turned to the captain standing at his side. 'Captain."

"Aye, Admiral?"

"Signal the cargo ships to veer straight north. The dromons are to form a perpendicular line across their rear, and both galleys are to close on us."

"Do you want me to have the men prepare for action, sir?"

"No, not quite yet. There will be time enough for that if the strangers prove hostile."

"Aye, sir!"

A corpulent man dressed in a flowing robe suddenly appeared on deck. His personal escort, a half dozen army officers in shining breastplates and armour, accompanied the man.

"Admiral! Why is the ship changing tack? Your manoeuvre woke me from the first decent sleep I've had since I boarded this tub!"

"Ah, Governor Achelous. I am so sorry that your sleep was disturbed. It couldn't be helped, however. The lookout reports that there are approximately twenty possibly hostile vessels making straight for us. Under the circumstances, I didn't think you would mind if we veered away from them."

The big man blanched. "Ah . . . of course not, Admiral. In fact, I insist on it! Your sail is not even up! Break out all the sails you have. Order a fresh crew to the benches, and I want you to make for the nearest Greek port as fast as you can!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Governor."

"What do you mean you can't do that? I just commanded you to!"

"Governor, once we reach Calabria, you will be supreme ruler.  All southern Italy, except, of course, the parts the Arabs and the Lombards have stolen, will be at your beck and call. Right now, however, we are still in Greek waters, and here I command. I will therefore ask you to please stay out of my officers' way so we can deal with this possible emergency as efficiently as possible."

Even as the officers quarrelled, Ambrose could see the top edges of many sails push over the southern horizon. The speed of their approach was extremely suspicious. Only fast ships that pushed their rowers to their limit could move at that speed. No pure sailing vessels could ever move at that pace with the gentle and intermittent winds they were experiencing.

The thirty cargo vessels clumsily changed course on command and lumbered slowly northward, their sails barely filling. Behind the large fleet, the three escort dromons and the two courier galleys formed a neat line across their rear. Though the Byzantine merchant ships were now moving northward under both sail and oars, yet the southern waters filled with a cloud of ever enlarging sails. The sight of the hulls appearing out of the water just confirmed to Ambrose that the second fleet was closing quickly.

Admiral Papadopoulos approached Ambrose's party. "Prince Ambrose, there is now little doubt that we are being pursued by a fleet of Moslem galleys. The Emperor's written instructions that you showed me were quite clear. It is my duty to keep you safe at all costs. If you wish, I will have the captain pull alongside a cargo vessel and you can transfer ships."

"Just what are your plans, Admiral?"

"I will pray to Almighty God that our missing dromons suddenly appear in our midst. Meantime, I intend to flee for as long as we can. The cargo vessels are tubs, however. They have little hope of escaping those galleys. If Allah's scum attack, the naval escort has no choice but to fight. With luck, we will at least buy the merchantmen the time they need to escape."

The Governor, standing close by, overheard and interrupted again. "Admiral, your few ships have no hope against such a force. Look behind you! There are dozens of the hell hounds!"

"Governor, without us the cargo vessels are sitting ducks. May I remind you, sir, that in those ships resides the hope of your Italian province and your future. The vessels are loaded to the gunnels with silks and spices. They even carry the money with which you will pay your army. What would you suggest we do, allow the pagan devils to pluck the merchantmen like ripe pomegranates?"

"Admiral, you have no hope of stopping twenty-odd galleys with your pathetic line of three dromons."

"Three dromons and two courier galleys, Governor."

"All right, have it your way! With your three warships and two puny galleys. Flee, Admiral, so we can live to fight another day!"

"Governor, if the cargo vessels are seized, it is because all of my ships are sunk. I am a commander of the Imperial Byzantine Navy, and those cargo vessels are my responsibility. We will fight!"

The portly Governor went red in the face. "You, sir, also have a responsibility to protect me and my party, to say nothing of Prince Ambrose and Ambassador Polonius! It is the express command of the emperor himself that you protect the ambassador and his party. I saw the document myself, stamped with the emperor's personal seal!"

Admiral Papadopoulos pointedly turned away from the arrogant political officer. "Prince Ambrose, you see the danger approaching rapidly. What is your decision?"

"I thank you for the offer, Admiral, but the odds are no better on a lumbering tub. I think, sir, that our sword arms are weak from lack of use. It seems like a good day to exercise them."

"And the lady Kuralla?"

Kuralla answered for Ambrose. "I will stay with my husband, Admiral. Make no mistake, I am an accomplished archer and can defend myself with a sword."

The admiral smiled. "I doubt it not, madam. Well, we can use all the archers and swordsmen we can muster.' He looked back at the fleet of pursuing galleys. 'I daresay there will be enough targets to go around."

The Governor looked aghast at the admiral and the passengers. "Admiral, how can you even dream of fighting such a fleet?"

The admiral stroked his beard. "Governor, there are two possibilities."

"I am listening, Admiral."

"Either the Caliph has declared war again and let loose his fleets, or we face the Cretan pirates."

"Does it really matter who sends the hell hounds to enslave or kill us, Admiral?"

"Yes, Governor, it does. If the caliph has again broken the truce and we are facing one of his battle fleets, then we are in very serious trouble."

"Those are hardly comforting words, Admiral, and if it is a pirate fleet?"

"Then we have a good chance."

"And by what twisted feat of logic do you think you can defeat a fleet of some twenty war galleys?"

"Governor, it is really very simple. If this is a pirate fleet, then we are not faced with mindless fanaticism. Ship for ship, the pirate galleys are no match for a dromon, and they greatly fear our Greek-Fire. The Cretan pirates are businessmen who will calculate the odds. If we make them pay too heavy a price for the treasures, then they will withdraw from battle. Look to the south. Do you see pennants of the Caliphate flying from the galley masts?"

"Well, no."

"Well then, God be praised! It seems that there is a chance for us."

Polonius suddenly spoke. "Admiral, why don't you bring the fleet a few more points into the wind?"

"That will allow them to catch us even sooner, Ambassador."

"Admiral, I am looking at their hulls. They seem very narrow. Are the Moslem galleys generally built with a deep hull?"

"No, Ambassador Polonius. They are of shallow draft and rely on the strength of their rowers more than the kiss of the wind."

"Then what happens if the wind is strong on their beam?"

"They have to lower the sails or they will turn turtle. But that gives us little advantage. They are so narrow and light that the oars will propel them faster than any sail could. And they don't care about the rowers. They use slaves. They will whip them until the poor wretches either catch us, or die."

"But Admiral, your ships have deeper hulls and can track well with a quartering breeze. The rowers have already struggled for over an hour or more to catch us. Free or slave, the men manning those oars must be exhausted. I have spent time on a rowing bench, and I can tell you that, past a certain point, it didn't matter what the overseers did to me. That kind of galley is lightning fast, but only for short distances."

The admiral watched the sails of his little fleet for a full minute. "You know, Ambassador Polonius, I think that you are right. It may not be enough to get us away, but it cannot hurt. Captain, order the signaller to send the appropriate commands to all the merchant ships in the fleet. They are to join us on a new heading."

The Governor's face went red again. "Admiral, this talk of changing tack is nonsense! They are going to catch you whatever course you steer! You are crazy to want to fight against such overwhelming odds. If you insist that the naval vessels are going to stay behind so they can be sunk, then I demand you put me on the fastest cargo vessel you have - immediately!"

Admiral Papadopoulos sighed. "Of course! I don't know why I didn't think of that. In fact, if you wish, I will give you a very important assignment."

The Governor looked suspiciously at the senior naval officer, and then his gaze swept to the stern and beyond. "I am listening, Admiral."

"I will order the larger courier galley, the Sicilian Ram, to pick up the payroll from the Long Swan and then come and get you. After you are aboard the galley, you will be free to make top speed for the safety of the nearest safe harbour. If you succeed in escaping, you will have saved the army's payroll and your soldiers will be paid this season. Are you up to the task, Governor?"

The admiral's sarcasm was totally lost on the frightened man. "Well - yes, I can do that. In fact, it is my duty!"

"Captain Actaeon! Signal the Sicilian Ram to come within hailing distance."

"What orders, Admiral?"

"They are to pick up the gold strongbox from the Long Swan, and then to come alongside us. See that the Governor is transferred aboard the galley just as soon as it arrives with the gold.' The admiral winked at Ambrose. 'The fate of Calabria's entire treasury depends on the Governor's swift action!"

Captain Actaeon saluted. "Aye, Admiral."

The governor's military aide snapped to attention. "Governor, may I have permission to stay aboard here and fight?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Your job is to fight, and mine is to save the treasury. Of course you have permission to stay. We must each do our duty . . . Captain, when is that damn galley going to get here? There is no time to waste!"

The Governor watched impatiently as the crew of the Long Swan went through the labourious process of transferring enormously heavy strong boxes to the Sicilian Ram. The little vessel then headed back towards the flagship. The Moslem fleet was getting ominously close, however, and suddenly the lithe courier ship turned tail and raced after the lumbering merchantmen.

The Governor watched in shock. He looked as the enemy ships rapidly closed the remaining distance to the defensive line of dromons, and he looked at the disappearing Sicilian Ram. His lip quivered. He turned to the admiral.

"Admiral, my ship is fleeing!"

The admiral turned to the ship captain. "Captain, what do our signal flags read?"

"Sir, they read - Number 47, Sicilian Ram, - go to - flag ship."

The governor's voice squeaked. "Well, Admiral, your commander doesn't seem to be obeying your instructions very well! . . . Do something!"

"Captain, who commands the Sicilian Ram?"

"He is new to the navy, Admiral. He is a political, from an influential family."

"May God curse all political appointees, except, of course, for our good Governor here. Captain, take a note. The captain of the Sicilian Ram is hereby found guilty of cowardice in the face of the enemy. As soon as he is apprehended, he is to be turned over to the Governor here for punishment. Governor, is that pleasing to you? You can cut off any part of his anatomy that you want, assuming his father does not make too much trouble for you."

The Governor stared at the pirate ships quickly closing the gap. "It will not help much, Admiral, if I am tortured or killed! What are you going to do to protect me?"

"We are going to stand, unwavering, between you and the enemy, and we are going to fight to the death, Governor. You may hide below decks with your women, or you can draw that beautiful sword you are wearing and fight like a man."

The Byzantine fleet changed course enough that the pirates were forced to lower their sails. They didn't slow however, in their headlong rush after the fleeing vessels.

Ambrose, Polonius, Phillip and Kuralla climbed down from the rear fighting deck and moved closer to the mainmast so they would be out of the way. The admiral finally gave the command and the battle flag was quickly hoisted. The Byzantine sailors were amongst the best trained in the world, and Ambrose and his companions watched in awe as the ship was expertly prepared for battle.

Portable ballista were brought on deck and efficiently pieced together. Teams of marines gingerly deposited wooden boxes nearby. Ambrose knew, without being told, that the dreaded Greek-Fire was soon going to be used. Long brass tubes were thrust through holes in both the bow and the stern of the fighting vessel, and triangular stands with buckets on gimbals were set up beside the ballista.

Polonius spoke quietly to his three friends. "There, in those boxes, is the magic weapon of the Empire."

Ambrose smiled. "What would you give to know the secret, my friend?"

"We would give everything we have, Prince. Notwithstanding that you are Michael III's personal friend, he would order you killed the moment he even suspected that you knew the secret. Exactly what is in Greek-Fire is the single most closely guarded secret in the Empire."

 

 

Chapter 2

 

The Sea Battle.

 

 

The captain's hut, which normally took up a major portion of the stern fighting deck, had disappeared. In its place, the crewmen had set up a pair of ballista. Ambrose watched the efficient marines carefully open the wooden boxes that lay near the giant machines.

The prince spoke. "I think, Kuralla, that we are about to get a firsthand demonstration of the Byzantine secret weapon."

She responded. "It looks as if they intend to use the metal tripods to hang fire buckets."

Polonius smiled in response to his wife's intelligent guess. "You are right, as ever, my love. They are preparing to launch Greek-Fire. It is most effective if it is lit before it is launched."

Kuralla looked alarmed. "Is it not dangerous to have a fire on a wooden deck, husband?"

The thin man squeezed Kuralla's hand. "That's why the metal frames, my Love. As for the amphorae they are unpacking, well, let's just say that they had better not let one fall out of the ballista's basket after they have lit the fuse."

Kuralla asked a question. "Would there be any hope for the ship if one of the amphorae fell onto the deck?"

Ambrose was remembering the fierce battle as the Rus and their Slav allies swept down on Constantinople less than two summers before, when Polonius replied, "I am sure I have told you the story many times, my love. It was actually how the Rus defeated the home fleet of the Byzantines. The lead ships of Dir and Askold's fleet were struck by the burning pots. Rather than fight the blazes or abandon ship, the brave men had been told to steer the doomed ships right into the line of Byzantine vessels and grapple. While the Byzantines tried to deal with flaming wrecks and fanatical warriors, wave after wave of Rus and Slav vessels came out of the smoke. Their crews ran the length of the burning ships and reinforced the original attackers. Within minutes, the Vikings had managed to seize or burn the entire home squadron of the Imperial fleet. There was no hope, however, of saving any of the burning Viking ships once the Greek-Fire struck them. Those who tried found that the more water they poured on the flames, the fiercer the fire grew!"

Kuralla watched silently as two marines carefully lifted out a large clay amphora and gently lay their burden in the deep basket of the ballista. "Husband, I have often heard from both you and Ambrose what a terrible weapon the Greek-Fire is, but even now, I find it hard to believe that such a little pot of chemicals can do so much damage."

Ambrose stared over the stern for several moments. A half dozen long and lean galleys were quickly drawing closer. "It appears that our friends are about to catch up with us. I have a feeling, Kuralla, that you are about to get to watch the Byzantine secret weapon put to use."

Ambrose looked at the approaching wolves of the sea. The three dromons, ordered to stay behind the lumbering cargo vessels, were just loafing along. The rowers manning the oars were rested, and the rest were armed and ready. Lines of archers stood at the ready on both the bow and stern fighting decks. They waited patiently for their captain's orders.

Ambrose looked again at the oncoming Moslem fleet. The galleys seemed to be almost on them. The first of a hail of enemy arrows struck the stern of the dromon.

Admiral Papadopoulos spoke quietly to Captain Actaeon. Although he was close, Ambrose could barely make out the orders.

"Captain, I think it time to take fire and brimstone to the heathen. On your command."

"Aye, Admiral. Aim the ballista . . . Wrap the wick . . . Light it . . . Prepare to launch!"

A senior marine, stripped to a light tunic, stood ready with the release-rope in his hand. A second crewman wrapped an oil-soaked cloth around the amphora's neck and then stepped back. The third man lifted a blazing torch from the fire bucket and, in one quick motion, lit the rag.

The team commander stood by, calculating angles and distances, and waiting for the captain' signal. A thin streamer of oily smoke wafted towards the enemy vessels. After the captain dropped his hand, the team commander waited until the vessel finished its roll, then shouted.

"Launch!"

The amphora arced high into the air. The crew, having practised the manoeuvre and fired equivalent-weight rocks a thousand times, were expert. The amphora struck on the side of the bow of the leading galley. The substance immediately burst into a sullen flame, but the flames did not roar high into the sky.

Ambrose and his companions made way for the archers who ran to the stern tower and started to empty their quivers. The prince watched the fire slowly spread.

"I remember when our ships were burning like that, Polonius."

"Dir and Askold were no fools. By sacrificing the first wave of ships, they were able to close with the Byzantines. Their little manoeuver was expensive, but it cost the Byzantines the only ships they had available to stop our attack."

Kuralla pointed her finger at the nearest Moslem galley. "Look, Polonius. The crewmen are pouring both sand and water on the patch of fire."

Polonius smiled. "It didn't work for us, either."

The stricken vessel veered away and its crewmen could be seen attempting to douse the fire. The flames did not spread rapidly, but they also seemed unaffected by anything the pirates did.

Polonius spoke again. "The Vikings learned the hard way that the fire cannot be put out. Adding water was the worst thing the pirates could have done. That ship is finished."

It seemed that the Moslem crewmen agreed with Polonius, for a second sleek galley drew in its oars and drifted beside its stricken companion. As soon as they were close, the Moorish crewmen leapt for the safety of the new vessel. Screams of the chained galley-slaves could be heard as soon as they realized that their masters had abandoned them to the fire.

The arms of both ballistae snapped again, and new amphorae arced high. Both fell short of their targets however, and the crew groaned. Circles of flame marked the spots where the missiles struck the water. Five more slim galleys sliced through the water towards them.

Captain Actaeon, protected by a line of sailors carrying over-sized shields, continued snapping out orders. "Load ballista! Archers, Aim for the Commanders. If they're not visible, take out the rowers. Centurion, get more quivers topside! Fire ballista! . . . Reload!

Port crew, new target is the galley pulling alongside. Starboard crew, I'll have the skin off your backsides if you miss those bastards again! . . ."

Ambrose suddenly realized that he was only watching a small piece of what was really happening. Looking in all directions from the relatively low height of the dromon's middle deck, he saw a scene from a nightmare. Some seven enemy galleys were blazing, and the screams of their dying slaves could be heard over the sounds of battle.

 A dozen more galleys were performing an intricate dance that might ultimately allow them to ram into a Byzantine fighting vessel, or to kiss its side long enough for a cargo of eager warriors to leap aboard. The dromons, too, danced and pirouetted, avoiding bronze rams but attempting to bring their own lethal weapons into play.

Even as Ambrose watched, one of the abandoned galleys, streaming smoke, slipped out oars and started moving again. It turned into the path of a second pirate galley and accelerated until it drove its bronze beak deep into the vessel. Although the ram was under water, Ambrose realized that the second ship was dealt a mortal blow. Oars in both galleys snapped like twigs, and the second galley started to roll onto its side as the sea rushed in.

Phillip, shield on his arm, stood between Ambrose and the enemy. Even the taciturn giant was shocked by what he saw. "God's blood! What brave bastards! At least they got some revenge on the heathens who chained them and then left them to burn to death."

"Look, Phillip, to the left! That galley has slipped under the arc of the ballista, and there is no other dromon in position to shoot at it! Only the archers are left to stop it!"

Polonius spoke. "Not quite, Prince. Look, the bronze tube is moving!"

Even as Polonius spoke, one of the massive tubes mounted in the bow fighting tower of the dromon belched a viscous substance that flooded down onto the galley's deck. Unlike the amphora's small stubborn blaze, this caused a virtual wall of flame. The Moorish warriors and archers, crammed in the bow in readiness for boarding, instantly became human torches. Even Ambrose, no stranger to cruelty and brutality, felt sickened and had to turn away.

When he looked towards the bow of his own vessel, however, he saw another galley heading for their midship. Swarthy and heavily armoured men stood in the bow with long hooks.

Ambrose yelled out in warning. "Captain! There is another coming at us from the side!"

Before any crewmen could react, the galley rammed into the double oar banks. There was instant chaos as the huge oars leapt and snapped.

Before the crew could recover from this disaster, a horde of fierce warriors threw themselves onto the deck of the dromon. With bloodcurdling screams, they savagely attacked anyone foolish enough, or slow enough, to be in their path.

A troop of Moorish warriors ran at the narrow steps that led to the stern fighting deck. Ambrose, Polonius and Phillip, standing near the railing, raced up the steps and, turning, prepared to defend the stairway with their lives.

Even as Ambrose drew Victory-Maker and stood ready for battle, he heard the deep reverberations of the command horn. While the midship area swarmed with enemy warriors, he realized that the Byzantines were not panicking. The rowers who had manned the upper oar banks, which were open to the elements, retreated below-decks. The archers on the rear fighting deck and in the bow fighting tower merely changed position and proceeded to target the attackers.

Screaming enemy warriors made it to the staircase Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius were defending, but none succeeded in reaching the top. Phillip's great sword, almost as tall as the Saxon warrior, whirled in huge sweeps that instantly maimed or killed anyone in its reach.

One athletic attacker leapt for the railing of the fighting deck and, once his fingers connected, vaulted onto the upper deck. Before he could so much as draw his scimitar however, two of Polonius' daggers struck his face. The man died instantly.

Ambrose looked balefully at Polonius. His own sword was drawn but unbloodied.

"Polonius! How can I get some practise if you insist on killing them with your throwing knives?"

Polonius flashed a quick nervous smile. "I am sorry, Prince! People trying to kill me make me very nervous, and I guess I just wasn't thinking clearly."

"Look! They are starting to retreat to their own ship, and I have not had a chance to blood my sword!"

"Master, I despair that you have not heard anything I have ever told you. Civilized men fight only if they have to, and if they do fight, they fight to win; not for glory, and never, never, for fun!"

"Polonius, how can I fight for fun, if you insist on killing my only enemy?"

Polonius gave his young friend a look of mock annoyance. "It is no wonder you Saxons are exiled to live on some island hidden in the northern mists. In spite of all my teaching, even still, you are an incurable barbarian."

The archers continued to stand in their disciplined ranks. Volley after volley of arrows thudded into the ranks of the Moslem warriors and the soldier-rowers poured onto the deck in disciplined ranks to cut and hack at the pirates. The raiders were brave, but it was clear that, with no further reinforcements, they would soon be overwhelmed. The attackers had become the attacked.

Ambrose noticed that the much lower stern of the enemy vessel was drifting close to his position. He heard the crack of whips tearing at bare flesh. Without thinking, the Saxon prince vaulted over the rail and onto the galley's quarterdeck. The instant his feet hit the deck, Victory-Maker slashed at the surprised crewman manning the steering oar. The man fell dead, but two other enemy crewmen and a ship's officer all drew their scimitars and started to move towards the Saxon prince.

Ambrose's blade, taken off a foreign battlefield many years before by Canute, his former Viking master, was of a supple steel unmatched by any blade from either the land of the Vikings or the Saxons. Its light blade wove an intricate pattern that held all three warriors at bay, but their multiple blades slowly forced him backwards. He knew that when he ran out of space to retreat, he would be in serious trouble.

Suddenly Phillip's mighty blade swept past Ambrose, decapitating one of the enemies. A blur of knives next flashed past the prince.

Polonius' aim with his deadly throwing daggers was renowned on two continents, and the two pirates had no chance. Both toppled over, leaving the enemy quarterdeck to the thin Byzantine, the Saxon prince, and the giant Angelisc thane.

The thunder of feet told the three companions that Byzantine marines had followed. With the steering oar in enemy hands, entire lines of archers shooting down into the low galley, and the hard-fighting marines advancing from the stern in shield-wall formation, the Moslems had no chance.

Polonius stood beside Ambrose on the newly captured quarterdeck and tried to catch his breath. "Would you like to explain to me, young prince, just why we decided single-handedly to take a pirate galley?"

"We didn't, my friend. I did."

"The truth, Ambrose-of-the-Saxons!"

"Would you believe me if I told you that I needed some sword practise?"

"Prince, you are brave and sometimes impetuous, but, in spite of your previous words, even you are not that foolish. I know you will fight when you must, but you are no berserker who actively seeks death on the battlefield."

Ambrose suddenly grinned. "Aye. You are right, sir scholar. The real truth is, my stomach was in knots, but I wanted to do my share of the battle. I heard an overseer's whip crack below deck on this galley, and I remembered what it was like to be a slave. Look at those poor bastards cowering down there. If the ship sinks, they go down with it. If their masters win, they will just be whipped to the next battle. I thought that maybe today I could rescue a few Christians."

"And so you decided to do it all by yourself?"

"Polonius, what I did was foolish, as I quickly realized when the pirates started to gang up on me. You and Phillip saved my life yet again."

Phillip suddenly appeared at his prince's side. "Look, Prince, the pirate fleet runs! We have won."

The three friends stared in wonderment at the scene before them. Each of the dromons had been battered, but some eight enemy galleys were adrift and on fire. Three others had disappeared, and one, the one they stood on, had been captured intact. Only three galleys had made it past the dromon line, but they were in hot pursuit of the cargo ships.

Admiral Papadopoulos must have seen the danger at almost the same time, for a series of flags broke out on the rear mast of the command ship. Polonius was unable to read the signal for Ambrose, but the message was clear.

The admiral himself yelled down to the travellers and the crewmen who had joined them on the enemy deck. "Mop up any resistance, Ambassadors, and then follow us! We are going after those last ships before they sink the merchantmen!"

There were no enemies left alive on the galley. Any pirates who had tried to hide amongst the slaves had been instantly seized and torn apart by the very men they had condemned to a living death.

The young under-officer snapped to attention in front of the Saxon prince. "Sir, we have to catch up with our fleet! What are your orders?"

Ambrose turned to Polonius. "My friend, you have the gift of the gab. Can you get us some willing recruits for the oars?"

Polonius smiled. He unconsciously rubbed the scar where a slave collar had once rubbed his skin raw.

"After which they will be free?"

"Of course, Scholar. Nothing else in life would have made me leap onto this galley."

"In that case, Master, it will be my pleasure."

The Byzantine scholar first turned to the young officer. He noted the man's horsehair plume. "Centurion, please have your men form up on the quarterdeck. I want no one to go near the slaves."

The centurion looked at Polonius, but seemed to hesitate. Ambrose knew that Polonius looked more like a scarecrow than a warrior. He had also, however, seen as the ambassador kill two men in as few seconds. Ambrose watched the indecision harden into resolve. His voice snapped the orders and the marines, well trained, responded immediately.

Polonius stood on the narrow walkway normally used by the slave drivers. He called down to the slaves in Greek. "How many of you are Byzantine or Greek?"

Almost half of the crew responded. The master linguist then switched languages. He tried Slavic, Latin, and even the Viking tongue.

"I will speak to you in Greek, and will later translate what I say. You have been rescued by the Imperial Byzantine navy. Tomorrow . . . you will all be free men."

The young under-officer beside Polonius squirmed. He signalled Ambrose over and spoke quietly to him.

 "Ambassador, it is the custom for slaves from captured ships to be returned to Constantinople. Those who can prove their Byzantine citizenship will, of course, be freed, but the rest will be auctioned off. At least they will surely find better lives than that of galley slaves."

"And are there any guarantees that some might not once again find themselves chained to an oar?"

"Ah, no, Ambassador, I suppose not."

"Do you want to wait for the other galleys to rally and attack us, or would you rather we caught up with the fleet?"

The officer looked nervously southwards. "I would definitely prefer to catch up with the fleet, Ambassador."

"A wise choice. And do you want to take the risk of being torn to pieces like the galley's former masters, or would you prefer trustworthy rowers?"

"I think that trustworthy rowers would definitely be preferable, Ambassador."

"Good. The cost for that is small. It is the freedom of a few rowers. Do you think that is an excessive price to pay for our safe return?"

"Ah, no sir."

 "I was once a slave, myself. I will not condemn anyone to the bench again if I can help it. In exchange for their freedom, the rowers will work themselves into utter exhaustion."

As Ambrose talked, Polonius walked the slave drivers' platform and yelled down to the slaves. "Slaves. I promised that by tomorrow you will be free men. Today however, we need your help. I know you are exhausted, but we must catch up with the Byzantine fleet. It is even possible that we have to fight again. There will be no more whips used on this ship, but we need you to row with all your hearts."

One of the human scarecrows near the stern called out. "You have a slippery tongue, Greek, but we know the fate of slaves in Byzantine hands. I have no more wish to be sold on the slave block in Constantinople than I had to be sold in Al-Fustat. Why should we trust you?"

"You ask a fair question. I will give you two reasons. One, there are still some Moorish galleys not far south of here. Your former masters would, no doubt, like their galley back. I hope you will agree that my offer is better than any your former captors will make you. Two, while you row, my companion here will start unlocking your chains. When he is through with that, he will distribute any spare weapons we find aboard. In turn, you, as free men, have made a commitment to help us for twenty-four hours. After that, the ship is yours and you are free to do as you please. What do you say?"

The same spokesman called out again. "Greek, if your friend will start on the chains now, we will row."

"Agreed. Phillip, would you please start on freeing the poor devils? I will explain what I said in a few more languages, and then I will set the beat on the rowing drum."

"Aye, Polonius. 

The Moorish galley rapidly followed in the wake of the dromons. Seeing themselves pursued by the powerful battleships, the captains of the last three pirate galleys broke off the chase. They headed due east and raised their sails in an attempt to outrun the avenging dromons.

The sun was setting as the lean galley caught up with the lumbering cargo vessels and the escort dromons. The low galley drew in its oars and slid against the admiral's ship. The marines, led by the young centurion, leapt back aboard their own ship. Phillip, Ambrose, and Polonius quickly followed. Kuralla, furious at being left behind on the dromon, first berated Polonius and then held him tight.

The four companions climbed the steps to the stern fighting deck, where the admiral and captain awaited them. Admiral Papadopoulos smiled at the travellers.

"Welcome back, sirs. Prince Ambrose, that was a valiant thing you did today, if a little foolhardy. I am only glad that it turned out well. The Emperor is not an understanding man when his instructions are flouted, and his instructions were to take good care of you . . . Sir, your galley is pulling away! Captain, prepare to order an assault on that galley before it is out of range!"

Ambrose spoke up. "Admiral, there are no slaves aboard that galley. They have the right to go or stay as they choose!"

"Prince, you are from a far land. That vessel is a war prize."

"Admiral, those men agreed to fight on your behalf. Free men, they pulled their hearts out trying to catch up with you. We promised them that, if they helped us without reservations, for one full day, that they could take the ship and leave as free men. Sir, they kept their end of the bargain."

The admiral sighed. "I suppose someone may have also unchained them and turned over the ship's weapons to the rowers, as well?"

Ambrose smiled. "Of course, Admiral. All of them, in case we had to fight again."

"Well, I suppose it would be expensive to retrieve those weapons, and that is a very fast ship. Very well, Prince, the ship can leave unmolested. Just see that you don't go around freeing too many enemy galleys."

Ambrose grinned. "You may rest assured, Admiral, that I have little wish to repeat today's performance ever again!"

 

 

Chapter 3

 

The Boat Is Taken.

 

 

Ambrose watched the fleeing pirate galley arcing around to the south. Suddenly, he saw a sea of white dots behind it and he cried out.

"Sweet Mother of God! Admiral, look to the stern! It looks like all the Moslem fleets in the world have found us!"

"God curse the heathen bastards! Maybe we are facing more than a pirate fleet, after all.' The admiral sighed. 'Signal the merchantmen to continue north, but to pick up the beat."

The captain stood at attention. "And the dromons, Admiral?"

"We have little choice, Captain. We will again hold the rear and do our duty."

"This time we are not facing two dozen galleys, Admiral. If this is the pirate fleet, it is all of it, along with all their cousins, and there is still no sign of our own warships."

"Then there will be more glory for us, Captain."

"Shall I wake the Governor, sir?"

"No, let the good Governor sleep while he can. There is no safety for any of us today, and I do not want to hear his bleating until I have to."

The new pirate fleet, some sixty strong, swept down on the three dromons. The ballistae arms snapped and the tubes and the flaming amphorae did their deadly work, but the pursuing fleet just accepted its losses and continued to close. Once the three warships and the remaining galley was neutralized, the entire fat fleet would be ripe for the plucking.

The nautical dance of death began again, but this time the odds were grossly uneven. Finally a pirate galley made it past the flagship's defences, and its entire crew swarmed aboard the ship. Worse, several galleys tied on to the galley, and the original galley became a conduit pumping armed warriors onto the Byzantine warship's deck.

The Moslem warriors swarmed over the sides in such numbers that the Byzantine rowers were forced to retreat before the screaming masses. The rowers were veterans however, and though their original formation was broken, the fiercely disciplined soldier-sailors managed to form solid fighting lines in the bow and stern. From both the bow and stern fighting decks, the Imperial archers kept a steady stream of shafts flying at the ever-growing mob of frenzied attackers.

The enemy rush to both ends of the dromon, even with continual reinforcements, was finally halted by the never-ending blizzard of arrows. The pirates were no cowards. Paradise was assured them if they fell in battle against the unbelievers, and they fought heroically. As other galleys arrived, yet more reinforcements poured onto the dromon's deck. Ambrose, seeing the line of marines thinning dangerously on the left flank, called out to Phillip and Polonius.

"The line is about to break on the left! If the devils break the line, then the Byzantines could be in real trouble! Follow me!"

As an Imperial marine choked on his own blood and slipped to the deck, a raging giant and a young man took his place. Phillip swung a sword almost the length of a man, and Ambrose's blade moved with the speed of an adder's tongue. From behind the two men, an occasional flashing dagger flew at attackers. All three men were experts, and the push through the Byzantine flank was stopped cold. A dozen Moorish bodies lay on the deck as evidence of the effectiveness of the fighting trio.

Ambrose saw the rush break on the swords of the marines, and he realized that, with the discipline he had seen exhibited by the Imperial marines, there was hope for the ship yet. The archers continued to harvest the enemy warriors, while the line of sailors that kept the fighting decks safe was being reinforced from the below-decks sailors who had by now abandoned their oars.

 Most important, no more galleys were emptying their men onto the dromon. Instead, they were now streaming past, eager for the spoils ahead that were just waiting to be plucked.

If the Byzantines could clear the deck, any new arrivals would have to fight their way up the steep sides of the taller dromon. Ambrose was just calling to the officer to start an advance when he heard a shrill blast from a signal horn, and then a bleating voice from the bow fighting tower.

"As Governor of Calabria and senior officer aboard, I hereby surrender this ship! Sailors, lay down your arms!"

Everyone, both Moor and Greek, turned in surprise. The glittering band of officers who protected the stairs to the bow fighting tower cast down their weapons on command. After a moment's hesitation, the archers, who had been decimating the attackers with their continual and accurate fire, threw down their bows in disgust. With a final clatter, the shield-wall of marines in the bow added their weapons to the collection.

Polonius turned to Ambrose in shock. "The God-damned fool! That fat coward has just lost us the ship and condemned us to slavery!"

The Governor, surrounded by his array of unarmed officers, climbed down the steep staircase. He pushed his way towards the stern where the ship's officers and their marine detail firmly held the elevated deck. The pirates, bemused, closed ranks behind him and followed.

As the armed pirates approached Ambrose and his little group, the four friends angrily threw down their weapons. Kuralla dropped her bow. Polonius dropped his belt of throwing daggers, and finally the prince, too, threw down the precious sword his adopted father had given him so long ago in Denmark. Victory-Maker hit the deck with a clatter. Phillip stood defiantly, surrounded by dead men who had foolishly approached too close.

Ambrose spoke quietly to the giant. "They have archers, old friend, with their arrows nocked. If you want to see Angleland again, you had better put the sword down, and quickly."

The gruff weapons-master fairly growled. "I wore the thrall's collar once, Prince. I have no wish to wear it again."

"Me neither, Phillip, and I don't intend to wear it for long. No doubt Polonius has some pearl of wisdom gleaned from the ages to comfort us on this matter."

"The thought of wearing chains again does not stimulate my philosophical musing, Prince, but a famous Greek, Meander by name, did once say. 'The man who runs may fight again.' Let us hope it is true, as well, for those who surrender."

Ambrose sighed. "My friends, we escaped the chains once. We will do it again. Phillip, put down the sword before they spit you!"

The weapons-master's blade, a broadsword that most people could barely lift, finally crashed to the deck.

As the Moors advanced, they carefully collected all the weapons lying on the deck. At last Governor Achelous stood looking up at the high rear fighting deck.

"As senior officer, Captain, I have ordered the surrender of this ship. Throw down your sword, sir!"

The captain stared down at the corpulent bureaucrat. "Admiral Papadopoulos told you before, sir, that you only command after we dock in Calabria.'

 The captain trembled with anger. He pointed a finger at the Governor.

'You are both a coward and a fool, sir! One concerted push would have driven the hell hounds into the water before the other galleys could have been recalled. Your cowardice has cost us our ship and our honour! Worse than that, you have condemned good men to needless slavery! You're too stupid to see it, you pompous fool, but the bastards were about to break!

Governor Achelous, you are a disgrace to Byzantium! The best thing you can do for your emperor is to slit your wrists and die with dignity."

The Governor's face went bright red. "Captain, that is quite enough! We had no chance! I made the decision in order to save lives from being needlessly wasted. Surrender and you will be well-treated. The emir assures me that our captivity need be neither long nor harsh. You need not belly ache. Our beloved emperor will certainly ransom the ship's officers, as well as me. In fact, I shall insist on it."

"And what about my men? What about our passengers? What about the women?"

"Captain, the ambassadors have their own leaders to help them raise a ransom. As for the women, well, they will just have to take their chances!"

"Two of the women are yours! Do you really not know what you are condemning them to, or are you just too selfish to care?"

"Captain, I bought them in the slave mart. They were born slaves. They are no more than exchanging masters."

At this point, a man wearing a green turban and glittering armour stepped up to the Governor. Behind him was a rank of spearmen, and behind that were several dozen archers, all with arrows nocked. The enemy commander spoke in rough but comprehensible Greek.

"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate One, I accept the surrender of the ship. Captain, you have heard your Governor. Surrender your weapons immediately! Save your lives and that of your crew. We will allow you to be ransomed. The Governor here has already come up with an acceptable price. There is no need for more to die today."

The captain stared long at the enemy ranks and the officers standing just below his position. The pirate archers stood patiently, arrows nocked. At last the captain spoke.

"I must consult the admiral. He is below decks."

The enemy commander grinned and spoke. "Don't wait too long, Captain. I don't want an unfortunate accident."

"Centurion, have the archers stand down. Prepare the admiral's Honour Guard for his presence."

"Aye, sir! Bows down! Spears at the rest! Honour Guard, to the rail! March!"

The scene on the fighting deck changed rapidly. The ranks of archers melted away, to be replaced with the admiral's Guard-of-Honour. The admiral and Captain suddenly appeared at the top of the narrow staircase.

Admiral Papadopoulos spoke to the enemy commander. "What terms do you offer my men, sir?"

The dark man grinned again. "Terms? The terms are simple. Either you surrender the ship, or we kill you where you stand. You have the opportunity to save many lives today, Admiral. Which is it to be?"

"To surrender a ship is a great disgrace in the Imperial Byzantine navy, Emir. You do not give me very attractive terms."

The commander grinned again. "It was the will of Allah that I take this ship today, Admiral. Whether you are alive or dead tomorrow is of little import to me."

"Sweet Mother-of-God!' Polonius hissed at his wife and friends in the Slav tongue of the northern rivers. 'All of you listen! Keep your hands high and back as quickly as you can towards the bow. Move now!"

Ambrose, Phillip, Polonius and Kuralla did as they were instructed, but Ambrose was puzzled. Kuralla whispered the obvious question.

"What is it, my love?"

"I saw a lit torch, and I heard the sound of metal on metal!"

"What does it mean, husband?"

"There is still one tube of Greek-Fire that was not used. The Honour Guard has been placed along the railing to screen something!"

The enormity of what Polonius was saying suddenly struck Ambrose. "By the love of sweet Jesus! Do you think they are turning the tube around!?"

 "Do it unobtrusively, but keep backing, Master!"

The admiral was interrupted by his centurion. He listened for a second, and then turned back to the enemy commander."

"Emir, you give me little choice. Centurion . . . Pump!"

A viscous stream of fluid struck the admiral, the captain, and several of his men on either side of him. Seconds later, the fluid burst into fire, immolating the ship officers, several Imperial marines, and at least two dozen of the enemy warriors and clustered officers on the deck below. The Governor himself, screaming in terror, and the emir, only survived because they were close to the ship railing and away from the direct path of the flaming death.

Ambrose stared in horror as the men, both Greek and Moor, became human torches. Polonius had moved them far enough towards the bow that they were not struck by the torrent of liquid fire, but it was close.

The Moors immediately began the evacuation of the dromon. They knew that their coveted prize was now doomed. The surviving Moorish archers rained arrows on the stern fighting deck, until no Byzantine there remained alive. The remaining prisoners were quickly herded aboard the galleys, after being forced to grab what limited supplies or cargo they could carry in their arms. Ambrose's little group managed to make it aboard the galley together.

 

 

The pirate captors used their naked swords to herd the sailors into a compact group near the mainmast. As the prisoners shuffled along, Ambrose spoke to Polonius. "What say we play the role of imperious ambassadors?"

Polonius smiled. "Why not? We are, and it is probably our only hope of escaping the slave chains. There is the barest chance that we can also protect Kuralla that way."

Kuralla had been listening to her mate. "I will take my chances at your side, husband!"

Polonius held her hand. "We will use our papers to try and protect all of us, my love!"

Ambrose saw that they were approaching the Moorish officers. "Then speak up, my learned friend. Here are the ship commanders and your Arabic is better than mine."

"I should think so, my Prince. Your vocabulary is sadly limited and your accent is excruciating."

"Speak up, Scholar. I do not like the way they are staring at Kuralla!"

Polonius spoke in passable Arabic. "Honoured Emir, may I speak with you?!"

The richly dressed man in the green turban turned towards the group of prisoners. His eyes sought out Polonius.

"Oho, one of the Greeks speaks a human language!"

"I am not a Greek, sir. My friend and I are accredited ambassadors from the empire of Kiev. We were sent by our leaders to the royal court at Constantinople. The big man is our servant, and the woman is my wife."

"This is an interesting story, Ambassador."

"I have documents to prove everything I have told you, Emir. All great nations recognize the sacred status of emissaries, sir, and the Koran itself says that 'good deeds lead him who does them to paradise.'"

The emir smiled. "I suspect that the good deed you refer to has something to do with your freedom. This is interesting. You quote the Holy Book! Are you a true believer, Ambassador?"

"I am a man of the book and have read Mohammed's teachings, but I believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth."

"I see. Jesus was a great prophet, but there is but one God. Perhaps, one day, you will understand the error of your thinking.

Kiev. Ah, I remember now. You are one of the northern barbarians who swept down on mighty Constantinople last summer. I am surprised that any of you would dare show your face on a Byzantine vessel, after what your countrymen did!"

"We were attempting to conclude a peace treaty after our little visit to their shores a year ago."

"'Little visit' is somewhat of an understatement, Ambassador! But we were grateful. Your little visit, as you put it, meant that the Imperial Navy was recalled from these very waters.

You look surprised. Yes, even such a poor and humble servant of Allah as myself heard of your daring attack on the greatest city in the world. Interesting and entertaining as your story might be, however, you are a long way from the Dnieper River and home."

"True, Emir. We were journeying to the far-off lands of the Saxons when you, ah, interrupted our journey. In the name of the Merciful and Compassionate One, I ask for hospitality and your help in letting us continue our journey."

"By what right dare you attempt to demand hospitality in Allah's name, unbeliever?"

"I ask it in the name of diplomacy. I ask it as one of the Ahl al-Kitab. May I humbly remind you that the Prophet himself said 'he who wrongs a Jew or Christian will have me as his indicter on the day of judgment.' We both pray to the One God, Emir."

"You make an interesting case, Ambassador, but unfortunately, we are going to land only for a short time to drop off the loot and captives and take on a fresh crew of rowers. Then we are going out again to protect our waters against your new friends, the Greeks.

You fought against us, Ambassador. Your giant friend cleaved several of my men in two. The sword of your young companion has the speed of a cobra. You yourself killed several with flying knives. All that I have said was noted, Ambassador."

"I do not deny the charge, Emir. What would have happened if we had stood idly on deck and let you cut your way to the fighting deck? What would have happened to my wife?"

The swarthy captain threw his head back and laughed heartily. "We would no doubt have hacked you to pieces where you stood. Your wife's fate, however, would have been much more tender.' He suddenly grew more serious. 'In fact, Ambassador, it is still not yet decided.

I will tell you what, Ambassador. We do not have time to verify your story now or read your precious papers. Once we return to my village and I have time to read your documents and think about it, we will consider what you ask. I may even speak to the Ulema for advice. Until then however, I am afraid that I am going to have to treat you as captured slaves.

I will make you this promise, however. No harm will come to the four of you until I have had time to reflect on what you have said. I trust that this meets with your satisfaction.'

He turned to the bald man who stood at his side. 'Slit the throats of any seriously wounded unbelievers and throw the bodies overboard. Put the rest in leg-irons. Use no chains on the ambassador's woman, and pass the word that she is not to be molested."

"And the Governor's women?"

The emir shrugged. "He did not suggest a price for them, so I have to assume he does not care. Give them to the men for sport."

Polonius spoke. "Sir, if you chain us, then you release us from any obligations as guests."

The emir smiled, exposing perfect teeth. "Agreed, Sir Ambassador. As long as you wear the chains, you have no obligations to me save the obedience of the irons. If and when I agree to recognize your status, then your three days of hospitality will begin."



Return to Bruce Corbett Photography site

Return to Bruce Corbett Author site