The Fiction of Philip Kaveny
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This was to be Igor’s greatest day. His three dragon ships named Freya, Fritha, and Frigga treasure laden from a raid on the north shore of Erin, glided heavily through the blue green crystal. The sides of the fjord reached for the sky as the tips of the Vikings oars barely flicked the surface of the water. Prince Igor stood at the prow of the lead dragon ship. He was 18 years old with beautiful auburn hair that hung in a single braid that reached to his waist. His eyes were steel gray and he could almost see past the edge of the earth. Igor was a half a head taller than the rest of his men. His muscles were strong and sure, his chest thick and his waist muscled like a wooden wash board. It was a great day and not a single Viking had died in battle, since all had paid their tribute in gold.
Basil looked sadly at the silver mirror but there was no Ruziicka looking back at him only his own sad face. He motioned and the scribe continued, as Basil filled both their glasses. It was all so surreal for Zeno; he was being waited on by the emperor
Yet as he looked at the leaden northern sky he sensed that something was out of kilter. Igor motioned for his silver banded ram’s horn. Igor placed the horn to his lips and with all the strength in his great chest he blew into it. The sound careened from one wall to the other and then lost itself several heartbeats later.
Now the scribe became an actor capable of many voices reading the dispatch as if it were a play with many parts, and the voice made both Zeno and the Emperor see things inside the eye of their minds.
“Sven, why is there no answer?”
Igor’s voice cracked.
Igor blew until his lungs would burst but the great gale of sound lost itself against the timeless walls off the Fjord. Again and again he blew into the rams horn but still no answer.
“Faster, faster men,”
Igor’s voice rasped silent.
Beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, Sven’s hand pounded against the side of the boat so hard blood ran from his fingertips, as he roared.
“Row like freemen, you are not galley slaves, Row, row, row, my brothers. “
Heavy as the dragon ships were they leapt out of the water like racing skulls or Eskimo kayaks. The men had rowed seven leagues that day and yet they rowed as one. The dragon ships leapt even higher and then the wind caught their sails so that the three hulls planed across the water. The lap stakes banged against the waves and the caulking of the hulls worked from between the fitted boards.
The exhausted scribe had to rest and sit; he was putting his life into making the dispatch real. A silence profound and deep filled the room all waited.
Then Zeno said against all of efforts, as if somehow he was enchanted.
“Men rowing ships who are not slaves. Men rowing ships to exhaustion without being whipped, and calling each other brother,”
Then he looked at Basil and asked,
“How can this be?”
Now the scribe’s breath was back and he continued to recite the story,
The Dragon ships covered the last thousand paces in less than a hundred of Igor’s heart beats and then they were around the last bend. A small wisp of dark black smoke curled towards the sky. Igor silently evoked the name of every god he knew. Then the rowers reversed the stroke, breaking the momentum of the dragon ships. Among the grim faces him on the dock he saw the face of his small son Ivan and Sylvia’s grandmother Orfa staring out from the dock.
“Sylvia! Sylvia! Sylvia! Where, where, are you?”
As the ship crashed into the dock the small boy stepped back but he held his father’s gaze. Igor leapt from the boat before it could be moored. Still nothing was heard from the mouth of the small boy.
“What happened? One of you tell me?” Demanded, Igor,
Finally Orfa, standing with Ivan, Igor’s 3 year old son, spoke.
“Drape your ships with black crepe for you will revel no more. Sylvia Est Morte. We have hung the brigands that killed her and the others. Yonder smolder their corpses. But Sylvia Est Morte”.
Orfa spoke in a metered wail.
Igor felt a whole open in his soul. It flushed like a whirl pool into Hades. He reached for his sword and held it to his gut, falling forward. Only Sven’s quickness saved him from gutting himself.
“No, No, No, Igor you must live to see the crows eat the eyes of these brigands, Lord.”
Sven held Igor’s body until it stiffened with rage.
Orfa, Sylvia’s grandmother, spoke in a grim taunting chant:
“Away you were heroes, away you were, and she is dead. You went south to the end of the world to whore and plunder and you are back and your houses are silent, warriors, warriors, heroes. Tell that to your motherless children.”
Sven rose his sword menacingly to her but she held her ground.
“Death is no threat to me you lout. I welcome death, if you dare! If you dare not, put that blade away lest I spit in your face. She was my granddaughter and now she is gone. What will you do now, Vikings? A man who cannot protect his home is no man.”
The scribe then added as if reading from notes,
“The party that has killed Sylvia and the others had done so by mistake. They had meant to steal her and hold them for ransom that would be the treasure that Igor was bringing back. However, they were clumsy and were caught. In the shuffle to rescue them Sylvia fell off the horse she was tied to and died instantly.”
Igor’s lieutenant asked,
“Where did this scum come from? Who is their lord? We must make him pay the price, we must kill his wife, and butcher his flocks we must go to his land and sow it with salt so no crop grows. We must revel in their destruction.”
“No need to go there, Borguild, their lord has come to you with a thousand warriors. He came after we hanged his men. Igor he is your grandfather’s brother so he is in your bloodline and his men await you at the town,” said the crone.
The scribe seemed to sense the importance of what he was doing, and the Emperor shared a second bottle with him as he was giving life and breath to the dead embers of history.
There was only a gross of men on all the ships but they embarked with their weapons. It had all changed; victory had floated away from them and now was only replaced by sadness. So Igor and his men went out to face his great-uncle Borguild and his thousand in battle. The little boy, Ivan, watched and held the hand of the old woman. Igor could no longer look his sons in the accusing eyes. Ivan watched silently as his father led his men off against insurmountable odds.
They knew that the odds were against them but some thought at least there would be glory in this kind of vengeance and death. The men that awaited them but were at battle rest and did not have their arrows drawn back.
Borguild, Igor’s great-uncle spoke to his great-nephew.
“Your wife has been murdered by my grandson. His corpse and those of his men hang in chains in your village. Sylvia’s ashes are blowing in the wind and your son has no mother now. You have a choice, face my thousand men now in battle, because he was my kin or, or, take this Wergild (blood money). He is dead so you are in line for my throne if I do not kill you in battle”
Borguild held a sword in one hand and a pouch of gold in the other. Igor looked around him slowly and took the gold and his men walked away. For his life Igor would never know why he chose wergild to oblivion. As he walked backed to the village he picked up Ivan in his arms and threw the gold into the water.
The old woman put her hand on his and said softly.
“Now you see the other side of glory. Life will not be easy and this boy will hate you forever. It was not in the Runes for you to die this day. Borguild will keep his bargain and you will never ever forget her.”
Indeed, Borguild died the next winter and kept his bargain. Igor’s kingdom stretched across a small corner of the North. Igor did seem to care about anything for the first years of his son’s life. By the time that twelve summers had past Ivan could look his father in the eye. Ivan would leave to trade and plunder but Ivan never would accompany him. By the time Ivan was seventeen he stood a head taller than his father. The crone was very old now, but she acted as a mother for Ivan. Only once did some question Ivan’s manhood and it was over in an instant. He had his mother’s height and grace and all of his father’s strength.
Basil looked at Zeno, as the exhausted actor, scribe sat on the floor exhausted from his performance, not caring whose displeasure he incurred, though he had nothing to worry about from his audience.
Then Basil asked Zeno this question,
“Why, did Igor take the gold and not die in battle, can you tell me why he did not die with great glory against insurmountable odds?”
He hesitated and added,
“Tell me that and you are the wisest man in my Empire”