Hereward 05 - The Immortals, страница 1
ABOUT THE BOOK
1073. Under the merciless sun of the East, a dark force has risen – a Norman adventurer whose bloody and unquenchable ambition rivals that of King William himself. He has conquered his land, he has built his fortress and he has amassed his army. And now he has taken Constantinople’s ruler as his prisoner . . .
It falls to Hereward to rescue this precious captive. For the great warrior-in-exile and his spear-brothers, it will mean mounting a raid that could prove the most daring of their lives. Assisting them in this task will be an elite and legendary band of fighters, the Immortals – so-called because they believe they cannot die in battle. But it will not be enough – for enemies hide within the bloated, bejewelled heart of Byzantium: vipers who would spread their poison, who wish to see the English dead and who will strive to turn a mission that was at best dangerous into one that is now suicidal . . .
In this action-packed adventure full of dazzling swordplay, betrayal, bravery and honour, James Wilde continues his bestselling tale of the life and times of a great English hero: Hereward the Wake.
About the Book
About the Author
Also by James Wilde
For Elizabeth, Betsy, Joe and Eve
FOR THE WARRIORS, wealthy merchants and nobles who fled the iron rule of King William after the invasion of England in 1066, Constantinople was the shining star in the east. Filled with immense wealth, secure behind its great walls, and accepting of strangers, the city could become, many hoped, a home away from home. Constantinople was poised at the point where east meets west in what is modern-day Turkey, with trade, and wonders, flowing into it from the Mediterranean and from Asia. But for all the comforting familiarities of the magnificent churches, the commerce, and the civilized values of art and law, those travellers would have found a world that was in many ways alien.
Constantinople was fading. After centuries as a seat of vast power, its finances were no longer on a sound footing and its army had deteriorated, relying heavily upon foreign mercenaries. The empire – essentially the eastern half of the old Roman empire – was beginning to crumble as enemies on every side began to nibble away at the territory under its control.
Those pressures were taking their toll internally. The court had become a nest of vipers, with any family that could lay even the flimsiest claim to the throne plotting to seize power. In the fifty years leading up to the English influx, Constantinople had seen twelve emperors. There were a great many claims.
When Hereward led his men into the city, Michael Doukas wore the crown. Only seventeen when he ascended to the throne on his father’s death, Michael was more interested in books than political power. Into that vacuum stepped his mother and his uncle, John Doukas, who effectively governed as regents. John was the Caesar, at that time a title awarded to an influential relative of the emperor and one of the highest positions at the court. Cunning and cruel, with a long history of treachery, he also made a great many enemies.
One of those foes was Anna Dalassene, the matriarch of the Comnenoi, another family with a strong claim to the crown. Her brother-in-law, Isaac Comnenos, had been emperor. When he became gravely ill, Isaac wanted Anna’s husband, John Comnenos, to succeed him. But despite Anna’s lust for power, her husband refused, and Michael Doukas’ father was chosen in his stead.
Anna Dalassene would never give up her desire to see her family rule the empire. That made her a dangerous rival in the eyes of John Doukas. He put her on trial for treason, and then had her banished to a monastery on the island of Prinkipos.
Soon after, however, the Caesar met his match. The emperor’s adviser, the eunuch Nikephoritzes, eventually turned Michael against his uncle, and John Doukas was compelled to retire to his estates. But even at a distance, the Caesar’s relationship with the emperor made him a force with which to be reckoned.
As the pressures upon the empire continued to grow, at court whispers of dissent mutated into a multitude of plots against the emperor. It was said that there was a knife in every shadow. But Emperor Michael had one thing in his favour, the ever-loyal Varangian Guard, his elite force of mainly English and Viking warriors who were perceived as the fiercest fighters in the world. Extremely well paid, celebrated, even adored by the people for their prowess, the Guard was the pinnacle of ambition for any half-decent warrior with an axe. But it was not easy to be accepted. Gold, and lots of it, was needed to buy a place in the ranks, and then the fighting men had to prove themselves. Still, the potential rewards were so great that many were prepared to try.
Constantinople was awash with simmering violence, intrigue and conspiracy, with dangerous enemies everywhere. As our story begins, Hereward and his spear-brothers must navigate a safe passage without knowing who can be trusted, who is friend, and who is foe …
The Anatolian plain, east of Constantinople, 16 May 1073
DEEP IN THE hot night, death howled.
The man and the boy fled from it across a moonlit plain of jagged rocks and brown dust. Ahead of them, their shadows carved paths towards a twisted tree surrounded by clumps of scrubby vegetation. It was not enough. There was nowhere left to hide.
As he pulled himself over the stones with his one remaining hand, the man mewled like a babe. He could not rest, not even for a moment. Those full-throated shrieks demanded vengeance.
His face was ruined. A gaping hole whistled where once his nose had been. One eye was milky. His ears had been sliced off and his bottom lip was split in two. Some of his hair had been torn out or seared away, and what remained of his features was a mask of scar tissue.
His name was Ragener, once a sea wolf who brought terror to his victims on the wa
On he staggered, glancing over his shoulder. The Turks swarmed in his wake, leaping like wolves at the hunt. There were six of them, dressed in felt boerk hats and belted yalma coats. He imagined he could see their single-headed axes glittering as they whirled above their heads.
Beside him, the boy seemed to care little. His face was like the moon above, pale and still, but his dark eyes were unnaturally large. Some would say Justin Verinus was no boy at all, but a ravening beast, and Ragener was inclined to agree.
‘Why did you kill that girl?’ the sea wolf spat. The words took odd shapes as they escaped from his misshapen mouth. ‘There was no need. You have doomed us both.’
His thoughts flew back to the torn body lying among the rocks as the boy sat beside her, peering up at the stars as if nothing were amiss. Ragener had spent the previous hour creeping into the camp of the Turks to steal some flatbread to assuage their growling bellies. Those black-bearded warriors had been lost to their singing around their blazing campfire, swathed in the spicy aromas of roasting lamb. All had seemed well. He and the boy would eat a little and be on their meandering journey into the east before they were discovered. That had been his hope. But barely had he shaken the boy roughly for his stupidity when the querying shouts had rung out from the nearby village. Once the warriors had been roused to pursuit, Ragener knew that any hope that remained was thin.
Justin loped on without answering. Not a flicker of emotion crossed his face.
‘To have come so far …’ the sea wolf all but sobbed, ‘all our suffering, and so close to our prize, for it all to be snatched away now.’ He could almost taste the power that would have been his if the boy’s father, Victor Verinus, had succeeded in his plot to murder the emperor and place Justin on the throne in Michael’s stead. But now Victor was dead, slaughtered by his rivals the Nepotes, a family just as bloodthirsty, just as cunning, as the Verini. Ragener spat. All he had left was the life of an outlaw, fleeing from his many enemies in the court at Constantinople, with only this beast for companionship and the thin hope of finding the one ally on whom they could still count. For a moment, he thought about snapping the boy’s neck to show his anger, but with only one hand he could not be sure he would come off best.
Clouds began to sweep in from the west on the dry wind. If only they could evade their enemies for a little longer, the bright eye of the moon might be obscured. But as he crested a low ridge, his foot clipped a rock. Over the top he spun, and rolled down the incline. He yelped as his bones cracked against stones, and then his head slammed against the hard ground and darkness engulfed him.
When next he looked up, he was lying on his back in the dust. Dark shapes loomed around him. Ragener choked off a cry of shock as he realized they were unmoving, yet still he felt his blood run cold. Though he was not a godly man, a muttered prayer crept from his lips.
Ten Turks hung from X-shaped timber crosses. All dead, a feast for the birds. Some had been flayed, others dismembered. What demon-haunted land is this? he thought. Whoever committed this atrocity did not fear those savage warriors, even though a multitude of them seethed across the east of the empire.
Ragener jerked his attention back to the ridge as one by one the Turks of the village war-band emerged. Their howls ebbed away and a silence fell across them that was somehow worse.
‘It was not me,’ he cried out, not knowing if they understood the English tongue. ‘It was the boy!’ He stabbed a finger towards where Justin crouched at the foot of one of the crosses. The lad was looking up at the sticky remains as if he had found a new game to play.
The sea wolf thrust himself back over the dusty ground, but when he looked up at the bearded warriors he realized that they had barely registered his presence. Their eyes had grown wide with fear as they gazed upon their tortured brothers, and they began to babble in their throaty tongue. If warning this was, it worked its hellish magic well, he thought.
The light dimmed. The clouds swallowed the edges of the moon.
As the Turks’ chatter was plucked up by the rising wind, Ragener watched their attention fall back upon him. The warriors still desired their vengeance, but at least now they would not linger over it. He could see in their glinting eyes that it would be a quick death and they would be away before they were found by whoever had caused this slaughter. He tasted bitterness at the vile life he had lived, but one regret haunted him above all: that he had not slain the English dog Hereward who had lopped off his hand.
Trying to hide his fear in the face of his enemies, he bared his teeth. What came after death must surely be better than this miserable existence.
Behind him, Justin began to laugh, a thin, reedy sound, like a bird at twilight. Ragener felt a surge of rage. If he could have slit the boy’s throat at that moment, he would have.
The wind began to moan. Whorls of dust licked up along the ridge. The Turks gripped their swords tighter, eyes flickering from the rotting corpses to their prey. Summoning their courage, Ragener thought. All around, shadows began to pool. Only a sliver of moon remained. The warriors became silhouettes against the lowering sky.
Raising his blade, the first Seljuk took a step down the slope.
Justin’s high-pitched laughter spiralled up, drowning out Ragener’s whimpers. The sea wolf blinked away tears. There was no justice in this world. He deserved so much more than this ignoble death.
The growing gloom snatched away all but the barest details. The Turk edged down one more step, his movements becoming more confident.
And then Ragener heard a whistling beneath the wind that ended in a sticky thud. A shape flew through the air towards him. A moment later he found himself staring into dead eyes. The Seljuk’s head lay in front of him, leaking blood into the dust.
A maelstrom of sound and fury swept along the ridge. Cries of alarm rang out. The warriors began to stumble back and forth in confusion, yelling as they hacked at the air with their swords. Ragener squinted, trying to pierce the dark, but he was as lost as those raving Turks.
Another whistle. Another wet thud. Ragener was reminded of his father preparing the lamb for the pot as the cold weather drew in. Raindrops swept on the wind, spattering the sea wolf’s face. But then he smelled iron and knew it was not water.
The dying screams of the Turks became one voice, punctuated in the lulls by the boy’s shrieking laughter. A body tumbled down the slope, flapping like a landed fish. Another head rolled among the crosses.
Terrified, the sea wolf jerked his head this way and that. The dark swallowed whatever prowled around him. What devil is out there in the night? he thought, his prayers rising in a wave. For surely this slaughter could be the work of no man. Too fast, too brutal, leaving not even a whisper of feet on dust to mark its passing.
When the last scream was cut short, and the final warrior crashed on to the stained ground, only the moan of the wind rolled out across the waste. Even Justin had grown silent.
Ragener’s breath burned in his chest. Then, after what seemed an unbearable moment, a terrible silhouette loomed up on the ridge. The sea wolf whimpered, and waited for the end.
THE PLUME OF dust hovered on the eastern horizon. Beneath a golden sky, the band of warriors lowered their spears and watched the cloud billow beyond the waist-high grass swaying in the hot breeze. Voices stilled. Faces darkened. Since dawn the high plain had been empty. But now, as the day turned towards dusk, every man there felt a grim sense of foreboding.
‘What do you see, Guthrinc?’ As Hereward of the English shielded his eyes his arm flexed, rippling the circular tattoos of a warrior. Though he had been born in the old English Kingdom of Mercia, he was a Dane by blood and his blond hair near glowed under that merciless sun. He h
Times had grown hard, and their enemies seemed to multiply by the day. His helm was dented, his mail-shirt torn here and there, each scratch telling a story of some hard-fought battle. His shield was splintered and needed a new lick of paint, but the golden hilt of his sword, Brainbiter, still gleamed as brightly as ever.
Guthrinc had the best eyes of all the spear-brothers. An English oak who towered over the others, he had known Hereward longer than any man there. ‘One rider,’ he said. ‘And riding hard.’
‘Watch him. The Turks rarely venture this close to the city walls. But one day they will come in force, and then our new masters will regret paying so little heed to the enemy on their doorstep.’ Hereward turned back to the rest of his men, irritated by the bitterness that had laced his words.
An angry voice rang out at the rear of the war-band. Hereward scanned his men: Hengist the Mad, Sighard, Hiroc the Three-fingered, Derman, Herrig the Rat and the rest; fifteen in all. Tempers had grown thin since they had been forced to take the coin of the Roman army to put food in their bellies. These were some of the bravest warriors he had known. In England, they had taken on the vastly superior Norman forces at the Isle of Ely. Only betrayal by the monks had brought about their defeat. But in Constantinople the Romans treated them like children who could not be trusted to raise a weapon, or, worse, like slaves. For day after day, week after week, they had roamed the deserted lands, watching for an attack that never came.
Pushing his way through the spear-brothers, the Mercian was not surprised to find Kraki at the heart of this disturbance. Wild of beard and hair, the Viking was a seasoned warrior, a former huscarl in the hall of Earl Tostig of Eoferwic, with a dark mood that rumbled away like a summer storm. Now the scar tissue on his face was crumpled in a scowl as he jabbed a finger towards Turold, a young warrior from Wessex who fancied himself a scop. His songs soothed the other spear-brothers at the end of a hard day, and every man listened, entranced, when he spun his riddles beside the fire.