Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Fiction & Literature, #Action Suspense, #Historical
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2015
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
I am Alfraed, son of Ridley. the leader of the English Varangian Guard in the Emperor’s court in Constantinople. I was named after the last descendant of King Harold Godwinson who was killed at Battle Hill in 1066. Aelfraed had come with my father and fought for the Emperor Alexios. Aelfraed was dead these many years and the Emperor had recently died. My father had decided that, as he was getting older, we should return home back to the land which was now called England.
We stood aboard the Genoese ship which would take us to Frankia and I watched the land of my birth fade into the east. Constantinople, or Miklagård as my father’s men named it, was the only place I knew. I did not want to go. I did not want leave my pampered life. I had been happy in that exotic city. All my friends lived there. I had many friends and a wonderful life. I was familiar with all of its ways and now I was being dragged reluctantly to a new home in the west. It was unfair! I glanced at my father who was now white, shrunken and frail. He had once been the most powerful English Varangian serving the Emperor but now time and age had caught up with him. He had fought in his last battle. He had led his last warriors. I had to return with him to the home he had left so many years earlier. I owed my pampered and exquisite life of joy to him but he was taking me away from all of that.
He had been a sad, quiet and lonely man for these past twenty years. His wife, my mother, had died giving birth to me and he had withdrawn into himself. I think that he found it hard to talk with me. He was used to warriors. The only people he had ever loved were Aelfraed, my mother and me. The only time he spoke to me was to tell me the tales of the two of them as Housecarls fighting first the Welsh and then the Normans. I knew of all the battles in which they had fought and heard of every enemy they had slain. I knew of their journey down the Rus rivers where they had fought Pechengs until they had entered the service of the Emperor where they had fought the Normans. Once Aelfraed had fallen in battle it seemed that my father did not record the battles. They seemed not to matter. Only those where Aelfraed had led seemed worthy of remembrance. He was a modest man. I only knew of them through his oathsworn who followed him as he led the English Varangians to fight the Emperor’s enemies. Six of them followed us now. Two were too old to fight, Ralph and Garth. Like my father their fighting days were done. They acted as companions and servants to my father. The other four would not have much longer to fight but they, like the others, were keen to return home to England to die. All of them were now Christian; the Emperor had insisted. Inside, however, I knew that the seven of them still held on to pagan ideas. They were forever touching amulets. The seven of them were a throwback to a bygone era. I did not feel like I had much in common with any of them.
We were travelling in style for my father had acquired a vast fortune while serving the Emperor in Constantinople. He had maintained a friendship with two merchants whose lives he had saved and they had invested his money well. We were rich even by the standards of Constantinople.
What concerned me was the home we were returning to. My father had been driven from England as an outlaw. He had neither land nor title. William the Bastard had taken Coxold, which my father had held, because of his opposition to him. He was now dead and my father deemed that Henry, who now ruled, might have forgiven his rebellion. We would travel through Frankia to Normandy where the King of England spent most of his time.
And what of me? I was nothing like my father. I had my dark looks from my mother. I had my education from Byzantium. I could speak English, Norman, Norse, Greek and a little Italian. I could read Latin as well as Greek. Unlike my father I could ride a horse well; he just sat on one. I rode mine. I could use a lance and a sword. I had been considered one of the finest swordsmen in the city. All of that was behind me now. All of my friends were in Constantinople and I felt like I was just watching over seven old men to make sure that they did not fall overboard before we landed in Frankia.
I trudged to the cabin I would share with the others. My life could not get any worse. What future did I have in a land I did not know amongst strangers and with all of my friends on the other side of the world? A world filled with barbarians and only one step away from a pagan hell of indescribable proportions. For the next weeks my world would be bordered by the sea and the small Genoese ship which was taking me inexorably away from the place I wanted to live. Every day I woke to the torment of knowing that the life I had known was over.
“What’s the matter, Alfraed? It is an adventure we go on. You are a young man; you should be excited.”
Wulfstan was the youngest of my father’s oathsworn. He was not yet forty summers old. He had been with my father for ten years having lost his lord who had hired out as a mercenary for the Normans. Of all of my father’s men he was the one I could talk to, a little at least. “We are leaving the greatest city in the world, Wulfstan, to go to the back of beyond. We go to a place where people still live in mud huts and they have yet to hear of baths!”
Wulfstan chuckled, “Those that are lucky have a mud hut. Most of them lie beneath a bed of straw at night.”
I believed him, briefly, “Truly?” The grin told me that he was teasing me. “Your humour is wasted on me! Besides if it is such a wonderful place to live then why did you and father leave?”
“I left because my lord left and I was his man. Your father followed your namesake. A great hero.”
“You did not know him!”
“No but I served in the Guard and heard his name spoken with reverence. Your father is the last warrior left alive from the battle of Stamford Bridge and they helped to win that battle for King Harold.”
“It did him little good. He lost the battle for England did he not?”
Wulfstan looked west and nodded, “Aye and that is why my lord left England. The land of the Saxon became Norman overnight.”
“Then why are we returning?”
“Things are changing, the Bastard is dead and they say that his son is not as bad as his father.” He tailed off lamely. Then he turned to look at me. “Your father, as well as Garth and Ralph, wish to die in their own country. I understand that. It is the clay from which we are all made. All men wish to do so. You will do well there.”
I shook my head. What did this fool know? He could barely read and write. I doubted that he had visited the baths once and would be happy eating cabbage soup each day. “Why on earth should I do well? Do they have libraries? Are there baths where I can be bathed, oiled and massaged? Do they eat exotic delicacies from the four corners of the earth?”
He shook his head, “No and I must say that I do not see the need for such things. They are not what make you who you are. You are a fine warrior. Everyone knows that you were the best swordsman in the city. You would have been a strategos in a few years.”
“In England there is the opportunity for war; not with the barbaric Musselmen but with knights such as you. You can lead your own warriors and carve out your own empire.”
“I thought that there was peace there now.”
“There is never peace. There are wars against Anjou and the Franks. There are raids against the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. When there are not those wars then lord fights lord for little morsels of land. Fear not, Alfraed, if you choose the right men to follow you then you can become a mighty and powerful leader.”
“I will believe that when I see it. Besides we have the whole of the land of the Franks to cross first. Apart from you and I the rest are old men! We will not make it twenty miles from the coast. We will be attacked and robbed.”
“Do not dishonour those warriors. They may be old but they are skilled. If anyone is foolish enough to attack us then they will learn to their cost that white hair does not make an easy victim.”
That evening as we ate our meal my father actually took the time to talk to me. He normally talked at me and told me what I was doing wrong. I was glad he spoke because it meant I could ignore the slops that they had served up as food. “I know that you are not happy about this voyage, Alfraed.” I flashed an angry look at Wulfstan who merely shrugged and continued eating the foul smelling fish stew before us. “Do not blame Wulfstan. He is my oathsworn and his loyalty is to me.” He sipped his stew seemingly oblivious to the smell which was almost making me sick. “We had to leave the new Emperor. I am old and I am not the leader I was.” He chuckled, “Some would say that I was never a leader.”
Ralph shook his head, “Do not say that, strategos. You were a good leader.”
“But I was no Aelfraed was I?” They all shook their heads. “But that matters not. I saw weaknesses in the defence of the Empire.”
“Weaknesses? The walls are high and powerful. No enemy can ever breach the walls of Constantinople.”
“Strength lies in men and not in walls. The warriors who come to fight now do so for the coin they can take. They are not loyal. We go where gold will not buy men’s hearts. I would have warriors around me like the ones here, around this table.” He nodded at each one of his men. They all gave a slight bow back. “But the real reason is that I am dying and I would be buried in my land close to where I was born. Life is a circle and I am coming back to the beginning here at the end.”
“But what of me? I was not born in that land.” I pointed to the east. “I was born there! England is not my land; it will never be my land.”
I had raised my voice to my father and I saw the anger flit across the faces of Garth and Ralph. My father smiled and shook his head, “You have England in your heart. We just need to find it.”
I slammed my spoon down and drank the beaker of wine. Ralph laughed, “And you will not find wine like that in England. You will have real ale! Then you will know you are home.”
If he thought he was cheering me up then he was wrong. My father wiped his mouth and said, “When I am home and when I am dead and buried then you can, of course, take my money and return to Constantinople. That is your choice. I do not think you will make that decision but by then you will know your heart.”
I was bored by the journey. Once my stomach had become used to the tossing and turning I managed to keep a little of the food down. It still tasted disgusting but it did not come immediately back up. The wine helped and, as we passed Sicily, now controlled by the Normans, I was pleasantly inebriated. That ended when we neared Naples. Wulfstan found me lounging on the deck and threw me my sword.
“On your feet, Alfraed. Your father thinks it is time you practised with your sword.”
I saw, behind him, my father and the other oathsworn watching me. I took the sword from its scabbard and waved it before me. “I do not need to practise. I am the finest swordsman on this ship. You said so yourself.”
He nodded and balanced himself on the balls of his feet. “Then you will be able to defeat me in two passes and then you can get back to your drinking.”
I stood. The rolling motion of the ship made it hard to balance and I wondered how Wulfstan was managing to keep so still. I noticed that the crew were also watching us. We were the amusement for the day. I decided to show them all just how good I was.
“Very well then, Wulfstan, but don’t come crying to me when I defeat you with a couple of swashes!”
He gave a slight bow and said, “I am ready for my lesson, my lord.”
I made a swing at his head. If it had not been for the motion of the ship it would have been a perfect strike; as it was I slightly overbalanced and felt the flat of Wulfstan’s sword strike me on the buttocks as I landed on the wooden deck. I heard the laughter and I began to colour. I tried my backward spin manoeuvre. I reversed my direction to hit him on his unprotected back. Unfortunately I fell over and landed flat on my face. There were hoots of laughter and derision. I looked up and saw that my father was not laughing. He was watching me sadly.
“Why don’t you stand still?”
Wulfstan gave an annoyingly patronising bow and said, “If it will make it easier for you then by all means.”
I watched as be braced himself. This would be easy. I put my arm behind me for balance and lunged at Wulfstan. His feet never moved but his body swayed out of the way of my sword and I found myself falling forward. As I lay on the deck my father’s foot came down on my hand. I looked up at him. “Unless you work at becoming the warrior you were and foreswear drink for the rest of this voyage you will never beat even an old man like me.”
He turned and walked away. Wulfstan put his arm down to pull me to my feet. “I am sorry Alfraed but your father wanted you to learn a lesson.” I was about to say something pithy when he held his hand up. “He told me that the warrior he followed, Aelfraed, had brothers who became like you. They were spoiled and arrogant. He did not wish his son to be so humiliated. Here it was only his oathsworn who saw you fall. You can begin to become a warrior again.”
“It was the pitch of the ship!”
“No, it was the drink and in your heart you know it.” He took the sword from my hand and sheathed it. “When you have sobered up then we can practise. The captain says we have many days before we make landfall.”
When I did sober up, and that was made easier and faster by the sniggers from the crew who had been watching, I decided that they were right and I swore to become fit once more. I had no baths to help me purge my body but I took to exercising every morning alone before sparring with Wulfstan. We used the heavy wooden swords I had used when I had been younger. A blow from one of those was enough to wake you up. The first two days saw me suffering at the hands of Wulfstan but I soon became quicker and remembered all the moves that had made me so famous. On the seventh day, as Wulfstan poured a bucket of sea water over me to refresh me I realised that it had been many months since I had truly exercised. I had been full of self pity at my father’s decision to exile us. I began to feel much better about myself and by the eighth day, as we neared our destination, I had Wulfstan running hither and thither. I had found my skills once more. I would be ready for this journey into hell!