The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
Zeno, Centurion of the Emperor Basil’s archers, cursed the name of his emperor under his breath. Then double cursed the Emperor Basil for commanding him and his hundred archers, who peered through the arrow slits in the great wall, to stand ready with their re-curved bows fully drawn and their yard long steel tipped poison dipped arrows flush against their ears. All their aching shoulders, arms, and fingers screamed to release the shafts that would pierce the heart of the lumbering Viking warrior Igor who stood a hundred paces before the great gate of Byzantium roaring like a bull with flaming hemorrhoids. Igor roared in that horrible barbarian language that they called Norse, which was an affront to the sensitive ears of the Greeks who called themselves Romans that guarded the great city.
Though Igor sounded like a raging bull, he looked more like a bear as he stumbled forward to assert his claim. Everyone gasped when he nearly dropped the shield, mallet, and the spike he carried in his hands which were as large as hams. Igor would now assert his claim for the Emperor’s daughter as his prize.
Yet something was not as it should be. Igor could see that the gate was not made of gold, silver, and ivory as had been sung in the fable. Rather it was made of nearly indestructible ironwood, which would neither burn, nor melt like iron, or shatter like stone.
The great gate was ten times Igor’s height and made of black oak girded with belts of hammered iron. The fire of a hundred sieges had scorched it, but somehow the gate had always choked out the flames.
In the last five hundred years since the first Rome had fallen and Byzantium was proclaimed her heir, the second Rome. The great gate buckled, but was never breached, like the Empire it protected that was its greatest strength. All, who tried to take the city Scythians, Persians, Huns, and Arabs (to name only a few of them) left some of themselves at the gate giving it a kind of ghastly chain mail. Of flint, iron, copper, bronze, and steel arrow and spear points, which for some inexplicable reason did not tarnish, as long as they stayed imbedded in the Great Gate of Saint Mark, but oxidized immediately, or crumbled to powder if drawn out.
As a grim reminder to those who might test the gate, the semi- skeletal remains of those that who most recently failed and were captured swung in iron cages and twisted gently in the wind, encrusted in black pitch to retain a kind of ghastly integrity. They were known to all as Basil’s scarecrows
Igor stopped for an instant and thought.
“Have I led a band of fools south for this? Did Ivan, that son of mine, lie to me, to be rid of me to claim his patrimony while I still live? Is there no Princess Zoë?”
But Igor was not long allowed the luxury of reflection as the clam shell locket that he wore on the finely woven red Dane gold chain gifted to him by the nuns of Angle Terra as tribute( for not ravishing their convent) bounced against the gray and red hair of his heaving chest. It burned with pale cold light against his huge pectorals. Igor felt a rush of fear cut through his heart. Perhaps, she Zoë (her image), was no longer inside the locket. His hands snapped open its secret clasp and he seemed to step out time as the rest of the world waited in a single heart beat that lasted for eternity.
For that instant time ran subjectively and Igor was a thousand miles north, cast back in time to the start of his journey, and he was lost inside the great whale’s belly of a mead hall on the darkest day of winter. The mead hall shielded Igor and the Vikings from the northern darkness and the eternal winter, which lasted half the year. Igor knew the voices and one of them was his own, then all the voices were lost in the moist smoke as it stalked like a snow leopard through the great whale’s rib beams that supported the peat roof of the mead hall.
Then Igor heard his own screaming voice cut through the smothering guts of the Mead Hall. He heard his own voice threatening his son Ivan with death over the locket that Igor now called his own.
“Ivan, if you will not sell me the locket then I will kill you for it,”
Ivan who was as tall, well-muscled, and handsome as Igor was huge and ugly gathered his strength to answer his hated father. Yet those who those both of them said Ivan was no more beautiful than his father Igor twenty-three years before when the great inconsolable sadness of Ivan’s mother’s Sylvia’s death befell him.
“This locket is all I have of my time in Byzantium with Princess Zoë. You will never own it. You will never see her. You will never touch her. She is too white, too pure for your eyes, you bloated ox!”
But Igor did not have to fight or kill Ivan for the locket simply because he had no fear of his own death, and neither the promise of heaven nor fear of hell could deny him what he wanted. Instead he put his own dagger to his own throat and threatened his own son with being the cause of his own father’s suicide. This was an act, which (if consummated) would lock the gates of Valhalla, to both Igor and Ivan, and cosign them both to swim for eternity to the great ice filled open sewer encircled the walls of Valhalla.
Now Igor was back into the present and Princess Zoë was still there inside the locket as Igor was dragged by the hand of time back into his own history, as he stood alone in front of the great gate.
To his men watching, (his hundred fools who he had led south) who watched from a small ridge safely outside of Byzantine bowshot. Igor looked like a tiny figure on the great plain that stretched to infinity.
The walls of the city of over a million souls stretched to the periphery of the Vikings vision. Byzantium knew not the Vikings it seemed. Behind her walls that protected the harbor called the Golden Horn ships came and left every minute. It as if the siege of Byzantium were only a drunken dream in the Vikings’ minds.
Ollie, one of the Viking spear carriers, spoke.
“Igor should be crushed like an ant. Why did the Byzantines fall back behind their walls”?
“They could just send out the imperial guards and arrest us. This city is larger than our kingdom — it rules the world.”
One more voice in the chorus continued,
“We are no more than an insect on their shin.”
The voice, that of Igor’s captain added,
“It must not have been our time to die.’
Then he continued,
“I hope Igor’s heart does not fail. He is really far too old for this. He should be home fishing.”
Luckily the last hundred paces were down hill and Igor seemed to roll against the gate. From a secret window, Zoë looked down at Igor. She had never seen a man so ugly. His hair hung like a mane across his broad but sloping shoulders. There was nothing about him that spoke of royalty. She held a spyglass to her eyes. Now she could see the burrs in his matted red beard and scars from his score of battles that covered his heavy body, and his steel blue grey eyes which were set and resolute with purpose.
Then, she thought of her father’s words when she was implicated in his botched assassination, when her latest lover the prime minister died sampling an eastern shell fish delicacy that was to cause the Emperor to die in intractable pain in less than five minutes. Zoë was implicated as the Prime Minister rasped his eternal love for Zoë through his parched and purple dying lips. This was as close to the Imperial purple of being Empress that Zoë would get, as she remembered the calculated, almost celestial coldness in her father’s voice, only two days previous.
“Once too often you have tried to kill me, Zoë. I have had enough you. I want you a thousand miles north of here. You will become the bride of Igor, ‘Emperor of the North’. At this instant he is coming south for you. If refuse you will eat first at next banquet and the empire will mourn you for saving your father’s life. Better yet, perhaps, you will fall off the wall on one of your little midnight walks.”
As grim reminder that Basil meant what he said the bodies of all the co-conspirators, (most coming from Zoë’s private guards) some still living in various states of dismemberment, hung in cages not far from Zoë’s and begged for death in pathetic voices.
Zoë’s mind was strangely not on them because they had failed her and not made her the Empresses. Zoë’s thoughts were on her present and grim future as she asked herself a series of questions, since she knew Igor and Ivan were father and son.
How could Ivan, the man who she had sent away from Basil’s court five years before because she loved him so, be the son of Igor the man who stood before the Great Gate of Saint Mark?
Zoë’ remembered Ivan’s hands, his hair, his height, and his eyes. She remembered how she had snatched him from the Marshal of the Empire, who had bid Ivan’s weight in gold for the pleasure of knowing him in a Biblical sense. She thought of his hands, twice as large as hers and she thought of how quickly his hands learned to play the lyre. How easily he learned her language and taught her Norse in a way that sounded like a poem in the wind. He had grown too close to her too quickly and one night she had sent him out of the city and home, home to save his life.
Her words to him sliced across time.
“Take this small thing to remember me by.”
Into his hand she pressed her locket, shaped like a clam shell, opening with a hidden clasp and containing a perfect likeness of Zoë inside. It shone with a cold, precious light that would bring both fire and ice to Ivan’s heart. Princess Zoë’ knew that she would never see Ivan son of Igor even again, and she knew that every night of her life after their parting she would be wolf hungry, for his touch.
Now the same locket (that he had wrested from his son with threat of suicide) banged against Igor’s chest as he rose to his feet, spike, shield and mallet in hand, he pressed his forearm to hold the shield to the gate. The first blow glanced off the spike and smashed against Igor’s finger. He roared as his men on the hill held their sides laughing, and then it changed. Igor’s hands were sure; his chest was deep, and his balance steady.
With three blows, he drove the spike through the shield and into the iron and wood.
Igor called out a challenge as he drove in the spike.
“I claim Zoë’s for my own, give me what is mime or, your city will be in ashes.”
A door appeared as if by magic next to the gate and the Emperor’s marshal stepped through. He was dressed in his full ceremonial armor and spoke to Igor in his own tongue.
“What is this disturbance, you northern ruffians? Why do you insult the summer day with your buffoonery?”