Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
Jestyn the Englishman had once been Thormod the Viking’s slave, but after saving Thormod’s life he became his shoulder to shoulder man and sworn brother in the deadly blood feud to avenge Thormod’s murdered father, a feud that would take them all the way to Constantinople.
With over forty books to her credit, Rosemary Sutcliff is now universally acknowledged one of the finest writers of historical novels for children. Winner of the Carnegie Medal and many other honours, Rosemary was awarded the CBE in 1992 for services to children’s literature.
To all those who answered the author’s distress
signals, and without whose help and advice this
book would never have got written at all.
When one thinks of the Northmen, the Vikings, one generally thinks of them following the seaway westward, raiding the coasts of Britain, colonizing Orkney and Iceland and Greenland, maybe even reaching America. One does not think so much of the other great Viking thrust, south-eastward – the men of Sweden and the Baltic shores of Denmark forcing their way along the vast rivers that link the Baltic with the Black Sea, to Constantinople, and on to carry their trade and sometimes their dreaded raven war-banners the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. Yet this south-eastward thrust of the Viking Kind, sometimes in the peaceful ways of trade, sometimes as a fighting aristocracy, the trading posts and settlements they founded as they went along (which presently became cities such as Novgorod and later Kiev), the gradual mingling of their own blood with that of the wandering Slav tribes who were there before them – all these were the beginning of Russia, more than twelve hundred years ago.
Khan Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was a real person, one of the first rulers of what was beginning to be a nation; he was later made a saint for bringing his people to Christianity (but why he did not bring them to the Muhammadan faith instead, you will know when you have read this story). He really did, for an agreed price, lead his six thousand Vikings down to Constantinople, to help the sorely-pressed Emperor of Byzantium Basil II deal with rebellion at home and an enemy on his frontiers, in the year
. 987. And it was some of these six thousand, remaining behind when the rest went north again, who became the famous Varangian Guard, the Emperor’s bodyguard, serving him and his successors until the last of them – by that time they were mostly English –
died at their posts when Constantinople fell to the Turks almost six hundred years later.
All the big background events and the big background people of this book are real. But the small foreground people, Jestyn Englishman who tells the story, Thormod Sitricson and Anders and Herulf, Hakon Ship-Chief, and Demetriades the Physician, fat Cloe and the Lady Alexia and the rest are all of my making; and so is the blood feud which in one way or another bound them together.
|arval||A funeral ‘ale’ or feast; as Bride-ale was a wedding feast|
|Basil II||963–1025. The greatest of the Macedonian Emperors, known as ‘the Bulgar Slayer’. The last of the Bulgarian wars ended in the Byzantine victory of 1014, when 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners were blinded|
|Blues and Greens||Rival factions in the chariot-races held at the Hippodrome. So called because of the colour of their caps|
|byrnie||A shirt or breast-plate of mail|
|Epona the Great Mare||A mother goddess, associated with horses and mules, worshipped by the Celts, and in one form or another by all Horse People, including Roman cavalry|
|King Malachy mazelin||Maelsechlainn II. 949–1022. King of Ireland nit-wit|
|Mesé||The central street in Constantinople|
|Miklagard||The Norse name for Constantinople|
|Vladimir||980–1014. Prince of Kiev. His baptism led to the conversion of Russia to Christianity|
|wadmal||Coarse wool used for cloaks and the sails of ships|
|wankle||Weak in health, delicate|
|Wyr Geld||‘Man Money’: the price of a man’s life|
IN THE LENGTHENING
spring evenings the light lingers behind the dome of St Mary Varangarica, St Mary of the Barbarians, long after the lanterns are pricking out among the shipping and along the crowded wharves and jetties of the Golden Horn. It is a sight that I never tire of, when life spares me time for looking at it: the clear green twilight over the roofs of Constantinople.
Then Alexia brings the candles. It is a task she never leaves to our daughter, or to the house slaves. And the spring twilight beyond the window deepens into full dusk, and this small crowded study at the top of the house warms out of the shadows, so that when she has gone again, I can see it twice over – once in reality, once by its disjointed reflection in the glass window-panes: the cherished books on the shelves, the locked cabinet where I keep my most precious or most dangerous drugs, the white oleander in its painted pot, newly broken from bud into flower. In the window glass, too, I can see myself, as though I looked at another man sitting at the table with its litter of books and specimens and writing materials – there is always so much to learn, so much to record, so many notes to take. A big man, I suppose, lean and rangy and scarred as an old hound, with a mane of hair brindled grey and yellow. Jestyn the Englishman, so most men call me, though indeed I am but half Saxon and half of an older breed.
Alexia always brings the candles a little too soon. Maybe she is afraid that I shall be trying to work without enough light to see by. Maybe she is afraid that in the dusk I shall start remembering and grow home-hungry. It is true that dusk is a good time for remembering, and of all times a spring
twilight is apt to turn the heart homeward. And I do remember so many things, small unimportant things: gorse, honey-scented along the headlands, and the crash and cream of the long sea rollers beating on the jagged Western coast, curlew crying over the high moors, the smell of a new-born calf brought in from the herd. But I have learned, as Alexia, born and bred under these skies, has not had to learn it, that Home is not Place but People. Kinship, the ties that we make as we go along. My ties are with her, here in this tall crumbling house in the Street of the Golden Mulberry Tree, in a shallow scooped-out grave in the Thracian hills, among the poor folk in the hospital where much of my work is done. I have no ties, no kinships in the land where I was a boy. I do remember, but without any longing to go back over the road.
My father was a wandering smith out of the far south-western horn of Britain, where the folk claim no kinship with the Saxon kind, but are of the older breed I spoke of. Smithing is a fine trade for a man with wandering in his feet, and a smith is sure of work and welcome wherever he goes. My mother was a Saxon farmer’s daughter who left her own folk to follow him when he went back into the west again. So I was born in a village of the high moors far over beyond the Tamar River. And my first memory is of squatting in the sun-warm dust before my father’s smithy, playing with the little clay horse daubed with ochre spots that was the darling of my heart, and hearing the ding of my father’s hammer on the anvil; and of my mother coming out from the living-place behind the smithy, and scooping me up, saying, ‘Come, Baba, it is time for sleep.’
Why that evening above any other, I’d not be knowing, but it was that evening I noticed for the first time that she spoke to me in a tongue she used to no one else, and that no one else in the village used at all. I thought for years that it
was some kind of private language that was for me because she loved me, until I came to understand that it was the Saxon tongue. Why, I have never known; maybe it was for some kind of last link with her own world and her own people. At all events it has stood me in good stead, for I have needed both tongues in my time, and when I needed a third, I found it easier, I think, to learn that also, than a child who has been reared speaking only one.
When I was five summers old, my father was kicked by a horse that he was shoeing, and died of the hurt. Then my mother might have taken me and gone back to her own world. But maybe her own world would not have taken her back; and one of the Chieftain’s hearth-companions had looked long in her direction, and so she went to him instead. I grew up under my stepfather’s roof, and ran with the hounds and the pigs, and joined the other boys scaring the birds from the newly sown barley, and began to take a hand with the cattle as I grew older.
My stepfather must have hoped that my mother would have other children for him, but she never did, and I think, for that, he hated me. He was not cruel to me, but on the night she died, while she lay in the house-place with her hair combed and her hands folded, and the candles burning at her head and feet, he opened the house-place door and said to me, ‘The door is open.’
And I walked out through it and away. And did not see the priest come to sign her with the cross and speak the prayers for her soul. I was just twelve years old.
Like enough, I could have found shelter with someone else in the village, if I had asked for it. But I did not think of that. I was not thinking very clearly of anything at all; and maybe the wandering that had been in my father’s feet was in mine also. It was getting near to dawn, and there was nothing and no one to wait for, so I started walking.
The dark was paling to ash grey as I came down to the old trading track that ran below the village, and a soft buffeting wind from the west was combing the white-tufted moor-grass all one way; there was beginning to be a thin flurry of rain, and I turned eastward along the track, simply for the sake of having it behind me.