Sutcliff, Blood Feud
Yeah yeah, Constantinople. It's a shit hole. You don't believe me? You're thinking of Hagia Sophia and the flying candles, sunlight glinting off Bospherus, the Golden Gate? Bread and circuses, poets and priests and the Imperial purple?
Yeah right. Tell that to the Vangarians.
Constantinople's the stink of piss and dead fish down on the Kontoskalion on a winter evening, when the sleet comes rolling in off the plains and the gold ran out with the tide. Wine watered down to the rot-gut skins and whores too poor for the baths, dung-heap cockerels and mangy dogs and beggars that might have been soldiers, once. Up by Hagia Sophia, on the Tetrastoon with its porticos and fountains, that's where the perfume shops are, the goldsmiths and the candle makers and the silk merchants. Down here on the docks it's crumbling plaster and wind-worn awnings, fish and leather and slaves.
Fresh off the boat, bruised, hungry, and with a collar round my neck that's already started to chafe. I'm Slav. Which is pretty much synonymous with slave - in fact, it's where the word comes from, which says something about just how many people the Rus took off the plains and sold through the Constantinople markets to the merchants and nobles of the eastern Mediterranean and the North African coast. There's a theory that Constantinople's one of the places where the definition of slave changed, that the coming of Christianity meant slaves were perceived less as objects and more as people, but I'm telling you, when you're shivering on the dock in a welded on collar and a tunic even the rats couldn't be bothered with, the definition's moot.
I'd lay my last folle that attitude was more to do with economics than sentimentality, but you could say my faith in human nature's taken one hell of a knock. That's about to change, but I don't know it yet. So far as I'm concerned, my immediate future's more of the same, which means, bad luck, bad food, and wet feet. I've kind of worked out that if I hang around much longer I'm not going to get that much choice about where I end up, so when one of the sailors drops a bale of furs in the gap between ship and wharf, I'm running. Darting out of line, ducking behind the barrels, scrabbling like a half-starved rat for the nearest alleyway.
It could have ended worse.
That guy, the one with the limp and the satchel in his hand? That's Jostyn. He's pretty much got the starring role in this story.
Jostyn's a doctor. He's tall, rangy, and his hair's a sort of mottled brown and grey. He moves like one of those lone wolves you see sometimes up in the mountains, economical, sure of himself, alert. He's in his middle decades, but he doesn't look like it - if it wasn't for the limp, you could have put a sword in his hand and taken him for one of the Emperor's own. I thought he was Rus at first, because he spoke Norse like it was his own tongue, but I found out later he wasn't, he wasn't even Viking born, he'd just come south with a friend of his who was and stayed. I didn't think it was that important when I found out, it was well before Thrace. Then, I was just pissed off.
I barreled straight into him. They'd realised I'd run: there was a yell loud enough to rattle the hawsers and then the hunt was up, sailors pounding along the wharf, the little fat man who'd had charge of the coffers screaming like a fox in heat, men tumbling out of the wine-shops and brothels to see what the fuss was about. I was trying to keep my feet among the ropes and fish guts, and see where I was going and how close they were behind me, and it was dark - they have braziers all along the harbour front now, but not then. I hit him hard. We both went down, but it was me who slammed my head off the cobbles.
When I woke up he'd already got my head trussed in linen and the rest of me wrapped in his cloak. He and the little fat man from the boat were having a screaming argument - most of the sailors had gone back to the wharf, tide and cargo not waiting on any man. Well, Jostyn wasn't screaming, but the trader was, and I still think it was lucky there were a couple of the Blues there who knew the doctor from race days. Anyway, Jostyn flings down everything he's got in his packets - a scatter of solidii, some folles, and although it was more money than I'd ever seen in my life the fat man didn't take it well. I can see the whip looming. Jostyn adds this little silver figurine - I think it must have been Asklepios, now, that single snake and the rod - and fat man draws in his breath to yell some more. That's when Gladiator steps up.
Gladiator's as tall as a horse and as muscled as a wild boar, and he's got a scar that runs from his collar bone right down to his hip, where Jostyn stitched him up. He's one of the few men ever to get his wooden foil in the arena, and although these days he just works for one of the trainers over at the barracks he still looks like a killing machine.
Later I find out he's the kind of man who over tips at the bar and feeds stray kittens, but back then I was scared shitless. Luckily, fat man felt the same way. He scrabbles up the coins and looks like he wants to spit in Jostyn's face, but in a couple of moments he's gone. And then it's just Jostyn and me.
He says something. They've been talking in Norse, but he switches to Greek, and the only words I'm going to admit to knowing are boy, no, and bread. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't been quite as good at picking up languages as I was - these days, I can manage the Guard's Norse patois, Greek, Latin, Arabic and enough Aramaic to get by, with a smattering of words from places I'm never going to see. But I reckon as Jostyn would've have sent me out to the farm and I'd have lived out my days there with Cloe and Michael and the goats, happy enough. Back then, though, I don't know him from Zeus and there's no sense in giving away all your figs when the tree's half dead, so I shake my head and he sighs, and then he levers me up. I'm wobbling all over the road and he's limping, and the climb up from the docks to the Mese is steep enough, and then there's a full half-league before you get to the Hippodrome and the Street of the Golden Mulberry Tree. But we managed.
I still don't know why I didn't run then. He wouldn't have stopped me.
It's hard to tell how much of that first night is memory and how much is details I filled in later, like the panels in a manuscript before the scribe grinds his paints. I remember the way the house towered into the night, tall and narrow, and the golden light of the lanterns reaching out from the doorway - Lady Alexia always did like to throw back the dark, much as Livvy does today. The rising babble of the house slaves, and then the sound of Lady Alexia's voice, clear and sharp as a bell, and the silence after. I don't remember what she said. Jostyn said something in that Greek so formal it's hard to parse, which was the language they used between themselves. I'm sure I remember the patterns on the tiles in the entrance room, the fish swimming up through the haze of light, and then the warmth of the brazier. It seems to me as if I heard the sound of the garden waterspout, too, pattering through the soft chatter of the women like the sound of the river had, in the village where I was born. But I don't remember biting Jostyn, and he carried the imprint of my teeth on his hand for days afterwards, so it may be that I was wrong.
I remember waking up, in the little room off the surgery, and lying in that narrow cot under one of Anna's uneven rugs - she never could get the hang of a tensioned weft - and blinking up at that little window above the cross, wondering why the sunlight came through faintly green, as if I was swimming in the eddies where we used to catch carp. My head ached, and my knees were stiff, so it took me a couple of moments to realise my ankles were weighted to the bed. For a moment I thought he'd shackled me to the frame, and then I looked down, and it was Livvy.
Some children are born plump and sweet as partridges, but not Livvy. She was always thin and fair and grave, with her mother's long chin and Jostyn's tawny hair, but her eyes are her own, narrow and black, with a tilt to the corners as if there's a joke she's not yet prepared to tell. When I look at her now, even though I know her hair is as grey as mine and both of us ache with the coming of winter, I still see her as she was in that moment. She sat cross-legged, her robe kirtled up to her knees and her chin on her hands, unblinking as a cat.
I must have gaped at her like a landed fish. I'd never seen anything like her.
Then Jostyn said from the doorway, "Livia!" and she yowled like a gorgon. I wouldn't have believed anything quite so small could make such a loud noise. But Jostyn just picked her up by the scruff of her neck and bundled her out of the door. It must have been past third hour, because I could hear someone scolding her in Latin, and that was when Marcellus arrived from the monastery. So I was looking at Jostyn, and he was looking back at me, his head a little on one side, and he said, "I see you've met my daughter."
I said, "Yes."
Then it occurred to me we'd both spoken in Greek, but he just smiled a little. He said, "Do you think you could eat some broth, before the blacksmith comes?"
I wasn't going to say no to food, although I didn't like the idea of the blacksmith, having seen the muscles on the travelling smiths in the village. But Anna was already bustling through the door with a clean tunic and a bowl of fish stew and that flat white bread Nikostias bakes in the shop on the corner, and I was hungry. I was old enough to dress myself too, and I said so with some indignation, but Anna had already dropped the cloth over my head. And by the time I'd struggled into it I could smell the broth.
I remember wondering if I could wriggle through the window once I'd done, but by the time I'd cleaned out the bottom of the bowl Jostyn was back, and with him a man in a leather tunic with the freckled burns up his arms that showed his trade. He was carrying a hammer and a chisel. That's when things got dicey - Jostyn had to call in Simonides, in the end, to help hold me down. I thought they were going to take off my ears. I thought they had, when the hammer came down and the screech of metal rang through my head so loud it was dizzying, but it was my neck, not my head, that felt lighter. When I prodded, the collar was gone.
Jostyn gave it to me. Then he gave me the tablet. I didn't know what the hell it was. I couldn't read. He had to explain that what I was holding was my manumission. I still don't know why he did that - I mean, it's not as if Jostyn was against slavery, not like the Scotti monks, and that was well before Livvy met Rebecca, who freed her slaves after seven years. Maybe it was something from his past, if I reminded him of someone he knew, I don't know. Anyway, there I was, collar in one hand, freedom in the other. I knew there was no going home. You could still see the smoke from half a day down the river.
Jostyn said, "If you're willing to work, there is a place for you here."
See, I'd already met Livvy. I said, "What about food?" I had sod all to trade. I must have looked like a vicious marmoset, all black eyes and skinny fingers.
Joelyn laughed. He hid his laughter, Jostyn, head down, smiling into his beard, but he laughed. He said, "You drive a hard bargain. Food, then, and a clean pallet."
I said yes.
It didn't take long for me to realise that however hard he drove us - his dresser Simonides was so used to being woken up in the middle of the night he never doused his lamp - Jostyn drove himself harder. If you wanted to put your faith in sigils and charms, there's enough pieces of the true cross for sale in the stoas and market places to build a roundship, but if you want a doctor who knows what they're doing, it was us or the monks, because the Jews kept to themselves and most of the others were quacks. Livvy says that's ungenerous, but if you saw what some of the army doctors considered surgery you'd know what I meant.
Jostyn was good enough have bought a house and set up shop on the first hill, next to the palaces. But Lady Alexia had been born in that house on the Street of the Golden Mulberry Tree, and Livvy too. And Jostyn was as likely to roll out of bed for a woman with nothing to offer but promises as he was for a nobleman's eunuch with a pouch full of gold. He said, the one paid for the other, and as that's pretty much what Livvy says as well, I keep my mouth shut. The one thing he didn't do if there was any choice was the army, not the regulars nor the Emperor's own, the Guard - they had their own doctors anyway, but there were a couple of times when I heard Simonides send men down to Agathos.
I can still imagine Jostyn at his desk to this day, back straight, head bent, the candlelight gleaming on his hands and that little bronze statute of the fawn Livvy has on her desk, now. His worktop was always a mess of papers and books and ointments, but he kept meticulous notes. Livvy still uses them, although these days, she has more of her own.
It was because of Livvy I learnt to read. Oh, I sold it differently: I stood in front of Lady Alexia and said, if I knew what I was buying, I could get a better price from the apothecary and the markets, and that Simonides had enough to do without making out the lists for the salves and ointments. But every time I went through the garden in the morning, I could see Livvy's head bent over her tablet, the nape of her neck so pale it looked almost fragile but her fingers so sure on the stylus. She used to tell Anna stories, perched up on the bench while Anna washed out the linens: Dido founding Carthage, Aspasia debating the law codes with Perikles. Lady Alexia used to read them out loud, after dinner. I figured, if Livvy could learn, I could. And like most boys, I was more interested in swords and voyages than settlements and laws: I wanted to know more about Theseus and the Minotaur, and what Jason did after he'd won the Golden Fleece. I'm grateful to this day Lady Alexia was kind enough to allow it, although I wonder know if she knew which way the wind was blowing, even then. Livvy's got enough to do without worrying about the household accounts, or if every bill's been paid.
Most of the time, though, I was out in the city, carrying Jostyn's prescriptions and notes, picking up Anna's herbs and spices, bringing back fresh fish and bread and the beeswax candles Lady Alexia insisted on using. That's when I learned the back alleys and the wine-shops, the waterfront and the markets: the beggar's guild and the thieves' code, which houses treated their whores kindly and which did not. Which monasteries held to their vows, which landlords watered their wine until you could barely taste the grapes, which bakers mixed their flour - Constantinople. Gilt, and the rotten wood under. Here, every punter knows how to drive a racing chariot better than the man behind the reins, every petty chieftain just out of Kiev's an Emperor in the making, and if you've got the cash I can sell you a bridge.
I guess every city's the same.
Inside the House of the Physician, though, I knew how much I owed. If it wasn't for Jostyn, chances are I'd be keeping my balls in a jar by the bed, and if it wasn't for Lady Alexia I'd still think paper was something you burned. Plus, there was Livvy. But I hadn't realised how deep that thread ran, until the Guard lost one of their own and burnt him a ship right there in the narrows. Looking back, I think that's what decided him, although at the time it was just something the Varangians did, nothing to do with me.
Jostyn was always a man who'd rather look at the horizon than the earth at his feet. You'd catch him sometimes when the longboats shipped out of the harbour, in spring, standing up on the point watching them leave, and once or twice at night I'd see him sitting under the fig tree in the garden, his hands still and his eyes looking at some other place altogether. But I had no idea. Not until that day, the day after the burning, the day I came home and Jostyn was stood in the entrance hall with Lady Alexia smiling the kind of smile that tells you she's too proud to cry. He's got his old cloak on, and a new pair of sandals, and his staff, and a satchel over his shoulder, and I know he's not just going out to a patient because Simonides is patting Anna on the shoulders and she is crying. So's Livvy.
That's how I ended up going to Thrace.
Yeah. Well. I never said I wasn't sentimental. Ask Livvy.
See, the thing is, Jostyn's not exactly old, but he's no spring chicken, and Anna's muttering something about coming back blind if he comes back at all - none of us will ever forget what the Emperor did to the Macedonians, but although that was only a year ago then the Bulgars were still massed on the border. And while I'm no Varangian, I do know how to use a knife. I reckon as I'm the best option Jostyn's got. I say so. Anna shrieks and Lady Alexia snaps around, but Jostyn's looking at me like there's something between us that's more than a place to stay and a job to do. Then he nods.
I'm still not sure why. He didn't say much of anything at all, that journey we took along the coast and up into the mountains. But I'm not really one for words either - the only reason I'm talking to you now is because you brought the good wine. I knew how to trap rabbits for the pot, but so did he. Maybe he thought, if he didn't come back, there'd be someone to tell Lady Alexia. I know I'd want Livvy to know.
But then, I've already got my cloak on, and the knife Simonides gave me is tucked into my belt, and so we walk out of the city along the harbour road and through the postern at the Golden Gate just as if we're going out to the farm. But where the road forks, we keep going, heading along the coast on the Via Egnatia, the old Roman road. The sea is on our left and the mountains a faint blue line in the distance, blurred by dust - it's spring, but the Emperor's already campaigning, and the road's busy with traders and patrols. Jostyn just wraps his scarf around his head and keeps walking, and so do I. When night falls, he finds us beds at a monastery, which come with bread and stewed mutton. Anna would have wept, but we were both hungry, and it was good enough. The next day, he gets us up with the sunrise, and we're on the road again. That's the way it goes, although the monasteries get scarcer as we get near the mountains, and instead there are way-inns, the old Roman mansio, with shared beds and watered wine.
Until we reach Berea. There was a battle here, once, although it's hard to imagine anyone fighting over this scrubby outcrop of rocks. Today it's a garrison town in the shadow of the mountains, dusty and battered. There's a fort and a hospital, and the kind of tents soldiers use on campaigns, mostly empty, and a river, the crossing so fouled by pack mules we're both muddy and wet when we climb up to the gate. Jostyn hails the guards, and they let us through with the usual fuss, and he heads straight for the hospital. I wonder if he knows someone there, and hunker down to wait in the shadow of the wall, but it's not long before he comes out. He doesn't say anything, just stalks across to the commander's house and ducks through the threshold. He stays in there a while, and if I couldn't hear the sound of his voice, level and patient the way he is when he's explaining something, I would have been worried. I kept my hand on my knife. The regular troops are bad enough, but the Varangians weren't far away.
Then he comes out, and there's something settled about his face, easier, like he's found out what he needs to know. He smiles down at me, jerks his head, and sets off for the tents.
I'm crapping myself. He takes us right into the heart of the camp. Not just to the regulars, but past them, to the little cluster of tents where the axes and the flags by the fires show that we're in the middle of the Vangarian Guard, the Emperor's Own, the Northmen. Most of them are in the mountains, but there's enough of them there for me to stumble along at Jostyn's feet with my eyes on the ground, trying to make myself as small as I can and hoping not to be noticed. Jostyn says something in Norse to the men at the fires, and then he heads for one of the tents, but before he gets there a full-on straight-off-the-boat Viking ducks out. The long hair, the beard with the warrior's plaits, the axe, the leggings, the byrnie. I'd swear to any god you cared to name I was surprised he wasn't wearing the helmet with the horns.
Yeah, I know.
That's Helgar. He looks like a bear, screams like a berserker, and drinks like a dry camel, but the first thing I see him do is wrap his long, grubby arms around Jostyn's waist and lift him right off the ground, yelling in Norse all the while.
I reckon as it's back to the slave market for me. I've still got my hand on the knife.
Then they bring out the beer.
And that's when I find out that before he busted his knee and took up the doctoring trade, Jostyn Englishman carried his sword with the Varangian Guards. Even before they were the Guards, right back when they were the barbarians from Kiev and every wine-shop in the city shuttered their doors, the day the Emperor came back with his personal Viking guard. These days the Varangians have their own quarter of the city, but back then people thought of them as a ravaging wolf-pack, littering the streets and scratching their graffiti in the churches. Sitting there by the fire in that campsite in Berea, with the flames glittering off axeheads and the pommels of the great two-handed longswords of the Viking Kind, listening to Helgar lift his ale horn and growl "To Thormod!" so loudly the tents must have shaken, I wasn't sure they were wrong. Helgar wore a cross on his sleeve, but the amulet around his neck was a hammer.
Beside me, Jostyn's face was just as quiet and still as if he was writing at his desk, back in Constantinople.
There's no place in the army for a man who can't fight. You can see them begging down in the forums and along the Mese, old soldiers with missing limbs and dead eyes, like gladiators too broken down for the games. I know the Guards take care of their own, but what that usually means a place in a wine-shop or a slow ship back to the farm. I'm guessing there was no farm to go back to, for Jostyn. From what Helgar said, he'd been carried out of Berea on a waggon and the next time they'd heard of him he'd been Alexius Demetriades' dresser. "My friend the doctor!" Helger toasted, while a older man, dusty from the road, slipped into place at Jostyn's side and nodded. "To the salving of broken heads!" suggested the man beyond Helger, and the man beside Jostyn said quietly, "I heard you were wanting to go back into the mountains."
"Yes," said Jostyn.
"A long walk," said the man beside him. He had a harsh face, sharp as a hawk's and bark-brown, but his hands were as sure on the knife in his lap as Jostyn's were, mixing salves. He was whittling something, a bird.
"I have a promise to keep," said Jostyn. Only he said it in the Norse way, oath.
("To our little Emperor!" said a man with a moustache that curled all the way to his chin. "May he never run short of gold!")
"I hear Anders Herulfson will never take the swan's way home," said the man with the knife.
("To the other Emperor! May he never set foot outside the walls!")
"He died an honourable death," said Jostyn, very quietly. "The thing is done."
"I thought so," said the man with the knife. He let the shavings fall away, and there in his hands was a little brown bird, one of the kind that nest in the walls, in spring. Then he said, "I know where they buried him, Jostyn Englishman. I am thinking there is more than one debt to be paid. I remember you and Thormod Sitricson, in Kiev."
I could feel the shiver through the cloak Jostyn wore. It was not yet summer, and the wind can be sharp, from the mountains. But the fire was bright.
Jostyn said, "I would be grateful, for the knowing."
"Save your gold," said the man with the knife. "I would have lost my own shieldbrother, at Abydos, were it not for yours. So. There is a thing you need to know, where the road rises up past the old waystation -"
So it was that the next morning Jostyn and I set our faces away from the sea and climbed up into the foothills of Thrace along the old road, along which the Bulgars had swept so often, down onto the plain, and the Persians before them, and before them the Avars - the road the Emperor had marched up with his half-tame Varangians, twenty years and more before. At first, there were olive trees among the scrub and half-wild goats, where once the land had been farmed, and there was a ruined church and two kindly monks piecing it back together, but then there was just the road. The hills can be kind, in spring, when the snow has almost melted and the burning heat of summer is yet to come. There were rabbits and quail, and the new grass was greening the slopes, and the showers were light. Three days out, we turned past the waystation, where the mile-stone still stood as if the legions would one day march past again, and up into the high valleys. There was a ridge, and then another one: an outcrop of rock that looked like a ship's figurehead against the sky, a night's camp, and then we came down into a valley where the stream flowed small and shallow from the headland, and beside the stream was a dead almond tree.
Jostyn sighed, then, and said, "This is the place."
There was nothing there but rocks and scrub, but he walked forward as if he knew the ground as well as the road between the Hippodrome and the harbour. He said, as if he was talking to himself, "Here. This is where we saw the first Bulgar...this is where Swain fell, and we started up the hill. And here is where we made our stand, Thormod and I, under this outcrop..." He stood there for a moment, very still. "This is where he died."
There under the thin grass of the hills, the earth was no more than a hand-span deep. Jostyn's Thormod was buried under the almond tree, above the place where the stream curved deep and quiet into the rock. Over his body the grass grew thick and tall, as it always did when the soil had been disturbed, and amongst the grass was a plant that flowered in little white stars, the way light shines through a pierced lantern.
I left Jostyn there. I climbed up to the ridge above the valley and watched a pair of peregrines circle in the pale blue of the sky, until the sun was nearly set, and then I went back. He'd been gathering wood. There was a pile of it, set on rock away from the almond tree, enough for a pyre. I think he'd waited for me to come back to light it: a man should have more than one mourner at his funeral. I remember the way the sparks flew up into the sky like fireflies, and the taste of the honeycakes Jostyn must have carried the full length of the road.
In the morning, we turned the last of the ashes into the stream, and headed back over the ridge to Berea, and then on to the city.
It's easy enough to say. But even the way Jostyn walked, afterwards, was different - as if he'd carried a weight he hadn't know he was carrying. Even the lines of his face seemed lighter, and once or twice, I heard him whistle.
We seem to have finished the wine, and my throat is dry. Livvy will be home soon - wait here, under the fig tree, and I'll fetch another flask. And look - the swallows are back.
You know, I've always wondered what would have happened, if Thormod Sitricson had not died in that valley in Thrace. One thing's for sure. I wouldn't be here. And sometimes, when I light a candle for Jostyn and one for the Lady Alexia, at St Mary's, I light one for Thormod too.
I figure she won't mind, Our Lady of the Barbarians.