It is the early years of the reign of Basil II, who became one most successful, and most feared, Byzantine emperors. But for now, Basil rules as a co-emperor with his brother Constantine, and makes war on a would-be usurper, Bardas Phokas, son of a General who Basil supplanted.
Basil’s most trusted troops are foreign mercenaries, the Varangian guard hired from the North. Rus and Norsemen, Viking raiders and wild horsemen from the steppes, they fall upon the elegant city of Constantinople like wolves on a garden party. Among them is the wily young son of an Irish slave, who comes to the notice of the emperor’s wife. But being noticed by an angry emperor is not safe at all.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Cecelia Holland is widely acknowledged as one of the finest historical novelists of our time. She is the author of more than thirty novels, including The Angel and the Sword, Jerusalem, Lily Nevada, and The Kings in Winter. Holland lives in Humboldt County, in northern California, where she teaches creative writing, and is current at work on a new historical novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Holland, Cecelia Forge Books
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
“Your brother’s an odd one,” Thorfinn said, counting the money.
“In a fight, he’s the best,” Conn said. “On any water.” He was used to people thinking Raef was his brother. He thought they were better than brothers. “Don’t play dice with him.”
Thorfinn looked up from the pile of coins in his hand. His hat was tucked under his arm and his bald head shone as if waxed. “He cheats?”
“Oh, no,” Conn said. “Or at least I’ve never caught him. But he doesn’t lose.” He looked away up the shelving river beach, where Raef had gone toward a swarm of waiting peddlers; he was standing in front of an old woman selling smoked fish. Tall and gangly, slightly stooped, Raef himself looked a little like a long narrow fish. Conn turned back to Thorfinn. “I’ll take his.”
Thorfinn dug into the leather sack and counted up more coins; the money was in different kinds, so he was looking at each one carefully. “Anyway. You two got me through that mess up in the lake, and I heard what you did at Hjorunga Bay. I take it you’re wintering here in Holmgard? The river’s already icing up, here.”
Conn said, “We might.” He had no idea what lay ahead of him; he had never been this far east before. Or this far north, which was the trouble now. This city lay in the middle of a frozen fen; therewas a foot of snow on the ground here already and more to come, by the feel of the wind. He put out his hand for Raef’s money and Thorfinn gave it to him.
“If you decide to go elsewhere, do it soon, before the winter takes hold. If you stay here, you’re welcome at my hall. Just ask in the market, you’ll find it. I keep a good hall, plenty of drink and meat, and a hot fire always.” Thorfinn pursed his lips, his pale eyes calculating. “Take care here. Don’t mess with the local girls. And watch out for the Tishats.”
“One of their words.” Thorfinn made a little vague gesture toward the town on the riverbank. “The commander of the city guard. Big, ugly bastard named Pavo. Scalplock down to his ass, hands like mauls. Everybody steps out of his way.”
Conn felt the hair tingle up on the back of his neck. He thought, Not me.
Thorfinn was watching him, his eyes narrow, a little smile curling the corners of his mouth. His gray hair hung in a fringe below the smooth dome of his head. His beard was still mostly dark, but streaked with gray, like strings of frost. “There’s something you can do for me, later today, if you would. I have to go up to the council oak, and present myself to the chief. If you’d go with me, I’ll see you’re well repaid.”
Conn nodded. “Raef and I, we’ll come.”
“Good.” Thorfinn laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “I’ll send Einar for you when the moment comes. Thanks. And tonight we’ll tell stories and pass a cup beside my hearth.” The hand on Conn’s shoulder rose and fell solidly. “Thanks, Conn.” He went on down toward his boat, in the shallows where the slaves had it half unloaded.
Raef was walking up the beach again, eating a smoked fish. “Did you get mine?” He held out another of the fish, stiff, greasy and golden, with horrible eyes, stinking of smoke.
Conn declined the fish and handed him half the coins. Their sea chests stood on the icy sand by his feet and in unison they stooped and lifted them up to their shoulders. Conn led the way up the shore toward the city, Raef on his heels, munching steadily through the fish.
The town sprawled across the bank in the low sun, taking up most of a snowy bench along the river, the place studded with big oak trees. An earthworks hemmed it all against the river. Conn noticed that the base of the earthworks was paved with stones, like the Danewirk. He wondered who they held outside, here, who their enemies were.
Within the crescent of the earthworks, most of the buildings were sunk down into the ground, the ridgelines of their roofs coated with a filthy glaze of old snow. One end of each roof was overhung with a cloud of smoke. The hazy sky was colorless as iron, the sun used up burning a hole through the middle, so it gave no warmth and little light. Conn felt the coming of the winter like a roof shutting down over him; in a few days getting out of here at all would be hard. At his elbow, Raef put the last of his fish into his belt pouch and sorted through the money in his hand.
“This is a new one.” He held up the smallest coin, turning it to show Conn the faces on either side, all wreathed in strange runes. “I’ve never seen this one before.”
“Don’t lose it,” Conn said. “It’s gold. It’s more than a penny. You can’t buy anything with it, it’s too much.”
Raef tucked the coin into the pouch on his belt. The ground was rising slightly underfoot, the snow on either side trampled to black muck, the boards of the walkway booming hollow. Ahead, a hammer banged. They were coming up to a forge. In front of a fat brick cone of a furnace, a clot of men stood around watching the smith pound away at a chunk of red iron. The smell of the hot iron reached Conn’s nose and he tasted it in his throat; he thought of the blade it would be and his hands tingled. He thought regretfully of the sword he had lost at Hjorunga Bay.
The boardwalk was leading them into the city, which was smaller than Hedeby, maybe fifty roofs, with stretches of open snowfield and naked trees between, pens for animals. They passed a shambles, with scraped hides nailed to the walls. It felt good to be walking, after so long on the boat, and the town spread out around him wide as the whole world, a web of smells and sounds and new sights.
A woman with a red-patterned shawl around her head came toward him, holding a basket of bread, and calling in a long voice. A baby slept wrapped into the cloak on her back. A row of slaves trudged along the boardwalk, hauling familiar bales of cloth and wool: part of the cargo Raef and Conn had just brought in here from the west. Under a gaunt tree a little way off a man knelt down, fumbling with something on the ground.
Near the center of the space within the earthworks, they came into a broad, crowded market. All around the edge people were selling baskets of bread and fish and nuts, while other people roamed around before them looking everything over. Most of them were using the other language, which he had heard already coming through Ladoga, out on the Swedish Sea. The cackle of voices was like geese flocking and the swarms of people never stopped moving.
A few little club-headed horses stood under the leafless broad-spreading branches of a massive oak tree at the center of the space, and several men were sitting or standing just in front of it, passing around a jug. Likely this was the council oak Thorfinn had mentioned. Conn stopped a big-bosomed girl selling warm meat pies from a tray in her arms, and dickered with her awhile, enjoying her soft roundness, before he took the pie and enjoyed that.
Raef said, “What did Thorfinn say? Did you ask him where we can go next?”
Conn licked meat juice from his fingers. “He has a place here. We can stay with him, he says, all winter if we have to. I’d as soon go south, I hate long nights.” He turned and looked after the soft roundness of the pie girl walking off.
Raef gave a little shake of his head. “Last night was damned cold.”
“He wants us to stand behind him, later, he has to present himself here. I said we would. We can certainly stay the night at his hall.”
“Let’s stow these chests there, then.”
They were leaving the market behind, drifting down a broad lane through a stand of sunken houses, the sharp ridged rooflines taller than they were; the log trusses were carved in patterns like vines. Under the eaves were stacks of firewood, rows of barrels, sleeping dogs. All the doors faced south. Steps led down into the houses. All around the snow was trampled into crisscrossing tracks, like a web. They passed one little house made all of wood, even the roof, the door hanging open; Conn looked in as they went by, saw the firepit in the middle, and decided it was a bathhouse.
Before the next set of steps a woman bundled in a shawl stooped to sweep the snow off the hard ground with a handful of straw. Hung between the trusses above her doorway was a swag of yellow cloth. Beside the wall lay a garden turned over for the winter, blanketed with more straw, all covered now with a hat of snow.
Conn felt the cold of the oncoming winter in that thick blanket of straw. In the way these houses crawled down into the ground to stay warm. He shifted the weight of his sea chest, in which he had nothing save one cloak and an extra pair of shoes. “There’s got to be some way to get south of here.”
Raef said, “Not if the river freezes up. I’d say, two more nights like last night, we might not have gotten this far.”
“Ah, you stonehead. Always down.” Conn cuffed his arm. “There must be some way out of here. If we stay with Thorfinn we’ll have to ship out with him in the spring.”
“He’ll go west,” Raef said. “I don’t want to go backwards.” In the last few years he had grown much the taller of the two of them, but he was lean as bone and jittery as a reed in the wind, and he stooped, as if to stay at Conn’s height. He veered off suddenly toward the nearest tree, where a wooden post stood tilted back against the trunk. Four faces were carved into the top, each looking a different way. A broken bowl lay on the ground before it. “So that’s what it is,” he said.
“Some kind of god,” Conn said.
Raef took a little piece of the fish out of his belt pouch and bent and put it down at the foot of the post. Conn crowed at him.
“You are spook-ridden as a Christian, you know that.”
Raef shrugged. “It’s their place,” he said.
“Sure. Look, there’s Einar.”
He yelled, and by the string of horses, whose line ended at this tree, several other men yelled back. One of them strode forward, lanky yellowheaded Einar, who had sat on the bench behind him on Thorfinn’s boat, and who talked too much, and who now gladly greeted them, and slung his arm around Conn’s neck.
“What’re you doing? What’re you doing? Come drink with us.”
“Later,” Conn said, disentangling himself from Einar. He was glad to see that the strangers with Einar all looked dansker. “We’re supposed to stand up with you for Thorfinn. Where’s his place, anyway?”
“Right over there—” Einar tottered a few strides away, pointing. “That one with the red sun on the door.” He slapped Conn across the back. “You’ll be there, too? That’s good. We can use you. Helgi will be glad, too. I’m really glad Thorfinn thought of that. Come back, once you’ve stowed your gear, there. We’ve got a whole cask of this kind of mead these people cook up. It’ll put the fire in you. Bring a cup.”
“Maybe,” Conn said. He started off toward the door of the red sun. Raef had been in Holmgard for only a few hours and already he was itching to move on. Since he left the far western island where he had grown up, he had been moving, driven like an ember in the wind; he had no idea what he was looking for but the need to find it would not let him rest. When he was sailing, at least, he knew he was going onward, but now he was stuck here, probably for the whole winter, and it already seemed too small to him.
Thorfinn’s hall was deep in the ground, but its rooftree stood higher than Raef’s head, and when they went down the front steps it was like walking into a cave. On either end of the long dark space a fire burned in a stone hearth, and smoke filled the top half of the room; there was no other light, and it all stank of sweat and old food and piss. The sleeping benches along each wall and three big cloth looms took up most of the space. Raef knew why so many people were out in the street in spite of the cold. He and Conn left their sea chests on an empty bench as close to the door as possible and went back up to the ground.
“I’m still hungry, where’s that pie girl?”
“Over there’s a cooker.”
They went back into the market; up ahead on their right was an open brazier and a man squatting behind it turning strips of meat laid across a grill. An old woman selling bread had set up next to him and people were waiting in a crowd two and three deep in front of them. Raef stood with his head down, jingling the coins in his hands. Conn dickered with the Sclava behind the grill, pointing and gesturing, and got them each some chunks of greasy meat piled on a piece of bread.
“Do you want to go find Einar?”
“Not yet. He’s hard on the ears, Einar.”
Raef laughed. He stuffed his mouth with the bread and the sour, stringy meat, warm and good.
They went down to the river again; Thorfinn had moved his boat on down the shore, where several other boats were drawn up almost to the top of the bank. The peddlers had gone. Where Thorfinn’s boat had been before, three stacks of wool and cloth stood on the beach and a steady stream of slaves came and heaved them up on their shoulders and bore them away into the city.
Raef walked down to the river’s edge, muddied and scummy from the constant coming and going of men. The farther bank was marsh, flat to the horizon except for an occasional elm tree; oaks would not grow on such soggy ground. Another boat was just rowing up from the lake beyond the next bend, to the south, not a clinker-built Western longship like Thorfinn’s but a single hollowed log, its sides built higher with planks, wallowing in the water, oars at either end.
The sand under his feet crunched with ice; he saw petals of ice in the shallows, even now, with the sun as high as it was going to get here for the next four or five months. In places where the water was still, he thought he saw a thin film on the surface, the flakes of ice knitting together like a cold garment. The sky was yellow, not just from the smoke of the city fires. It would be dark soon, and the noon hardly by.
The log boat pulled in, and Conn found the captain and they stood talking awhile. The captain was going straight south again in the morning, but he already had a full crew. Raef stood staring at the log boat, wondering if he even wanted to sail on something so miserable.
The captain’s voice boomed. “If any of my men decide to stay here, I’ll take you on. But don’t depend on that. And I’m only going to the other side of the lake.” He turned back to his log boat, bellowing to his crew to work faster.
Raef followed Conn up toward the boardwalk; the wind down the river was cutting sharp and low clouds were moving in from the northwest. Conn said, “What do you think of that log? That’s our only chance, I think. If we don’t leave that way, we won’t be getting out of here.”
“I hate those boats. They’re worse than rafts. They handle like dead bodies.” They passed the forge again, where a few men still gathered around its fire.
“There’s Thorfinn,” Conn said.
Raef looked up; their old captain stood up ahead of them on the boardwalk, watching them come, and he waved his arm impatiently at them to come faster. The peaked hat perched on his dome of a head made him look even taller than he was. Raef hung back a little, not liking such a summons. Einar and Helgi were already standing by Thorfinn, and two of the other men who had been with them earlier. Conn was walking on ahead of Raef now, striding easily up to join them, belonging among them at once.
When Raef reached them Thorfinn was saying, “I don’t expect any trouble. Just stand behind me and look like warriors.” He glanced briefly at Raef, making sure he was coming, and led them off.
“My name’s Bjorn.” The older of the two strangers put his hand out. “This is Vagn.” He indicated the dark scrawny boy beside him, who grunted, looking elsewhere. Raef shook the outstretched hand, and said his name; he noticed a Christian cross on a thong around Bjorn’s neck.
They went up into the marketplace. The whole crowd there had collected around the great oak tree in the middle, watching a knot of men beneath the spread leafless branches. Thorfinn led his crew into the midst of the loose mass of people; Raef, going along on Conn’s heels, saw the pie girl, selling her wares briskly. Conn stopped, because Thorfinn had stopped, near the front edge of the ring of onlookers around the oak tree. Over their shoulders Raef could see the council there.
There were twenty or thirty men standing or sitting around in the thin shade of the winter-naked branches, but it was easy to pick out the important ones, the nine at the center, with their gold chains and splendid fur cloaks trimmed with more gold and the fawning people around them. None of them were dansker. They sat on benches under the oak tree. One held a staff, trimmed with gold, of course, which he swayed back and forth importantly, and rapped often on the ground.
Another man sat in the back, a little to one side, as if he were not really with them, but his eyes moved constantly around him, seeing everything, and Raef knew he was the chief. He sat with his hands in his lap, doing nothing. He had long fair hair under an ornate cap, a square blond beard.
The crowd watching was mostly Sclava, the local people, men in long tunics and women in shawls and aprons. The Sclava maidens were prettier than most, he thought, fair and blue-eyed, their skin smooth as the skin of a fruit. The older women, as everywhere, were worn and wrinkled and used up. Something white flickered in the corner of his eye; over there a man with a white cloth on his head stood watching from the other side of the crowd, visible among the dark clothes of the people around him like a quartz in a stream.
“Thorfinn Hrolfsson,” a strange voice bellowed, from under the oak tree. The man with the gold-handled staff stepped forward and banged the butt of his stick on the ground. He spoke dansker, not well. “Come forward to this council!”
Thorfinn straightened himself, pulling his sleeves down, glanced around him at his men, and walked out into the open before the council. The men under the tree—they were all Sclava, Raef saw, like the golden-haired man in the fancy cap—stopped their mingling together to watch him come; in the back, the man in the fancy cap leaned forward to see him better. Before them, Thorfinn bowed down from the waist, and said his name.
He spoke dansker to them, although Raef knew he spoke Sclava well enough. He said, “I have come back with many goods for the markets of Holmgard. And I ask permission to be allowed to stay here the winter, and do some buying and selling, as I have done since my father’s time.”
Behind the rest of the council the fair-haired man in the cap stood up suddenly. When he did the other Sclava all fell still and turned to watch him. In a respectful hush, he stepped forward, coming around the side of the benches, past the man with the staff. He had eyes so blue Raef could see them from across the crowd.
“Thorfinn,” he said, his voice loud and strong. “There was talk you would not come this year. Some agreement with another fahrman. Is this going to make trouble for us?”
Thorfinn stood solid, on wide-planted feet. “I am here now, Dobrynya. That other thing, that’s a matter for the Varanger.”
“Varanger or no, we are all Rus’, and while I am posadnik of Novgorod I will not tolerate trouble in my city.”
Thorfinn said, “I intend no trouble. I have bought and sold here since my father’s time. Since your father’s time, Dobrynya. And this is business of the Varanger, not you. Holmgard, not Novgorod.” His voice was hard as a stone, but he was taking a purse from his belt. Raef heard it jingle with coins. “In token of my goodwill, then, I shall give you my tithes in advance.”
Dobrynya drew back, looking angry at that, as if he saw it for a bribe, but the man with the staff hurried eagerly forward, his hand out. All the other men on the benches craned their necks to watch, as the man with the staff took the purse, held it calculatingly a moment in his palm, and turned back to nod to them. The men under the oak tree clapped their hands.
“We welcome our good friend Thorfinn Hrolfsson,” said the man with the staff.
“Very well, then. I defer to the council,” said Dobrynya. “Only, Thorfinn, keep the peace, Holmgard, or Novgorod. We are all Rus’ here, remember.”
Thorfinn bowed again and stepped back, in among the men of his crew. Raef saw a light sheen of sweat on his neck, in spite of the cold: he had been worried about this. The council lapsed back into their own speech, and several people came up before them and spoke with feeling, waving their hands.
Thorfinn said, “Let’s go. I’ll empty a cup with all of you, back at my hall.”
He turned on his heel and tramped off through the onlookers, away from the council. Einar and Helgi followed after him, with the other two men, Bjorn and Vagn; Raef and Conn trailed them all. Conn said, “I’m not much interested in going back to that hall, are you? Yet, anyway.”
“There’s daylight left,” Raef said; he glanced up at the hazy winter sky. Thorfinn was getting farther ahead of them with each step. “What do you want to do?”
Conn said, “I want to find a woman.”
“Hold on,” Raef said. “Something’s going on.”
Thorfinn and his crew had left the crowd behind, and headed off through the empty market, but then suddenly from one side a swarm of men stepped out to block the way.
Thorfinn stopped in his tracks. Face-to-face with him stood a square-shaped man with hair and beard as red as a new brick, and a face all squinched up in the middle like a purse string drawn shut.
Conn said, “Come on. This is what he needs us for.” He strode up to join the men around Thorfinn.
“Get out of my way, Magnus,” Thorfinn’s voice boomed.
Raef followed a little slower, staying off to one side, so that he could look this over. Now he understood why Thorfinn was worried. Whatever the right of their dispute, Magnus had two men to each of Thorfinn’s. Some of them had swords. Raef glanced at Conn, saw him taking all this in; Conn folded his arms across his chest, his gaze on the red beard.
“You aren’t even supposed to be here, Thorfinn,” Magnus said. “We had an agreement, remember?”
Thorfinn set himself, his feet wide apart. “You broke the agreement, Magnus. I kept my end, but you never paid up.”
Magnus laughed, as if that was a joke. “Well, maybe I clipped a few pennies. But a deal is a deal, isn’t it? And I’m here now, Thorfinn.” He lifted his gaze and stabbed it at Thorfinn’s outnumbered crew, and his voice rang out hard and loud. “You men, there, I’ll give you a chance. You can stay with Thorfinn, and suffer with him, or you can come to me, and be with the winners. The best of food and drink in my hall!” He leered at Thorfinn. “We’ll see how many of you are left standing at the end of the winter, Thorfinn.”
Then abruptly the golden Sclava lord, Dobrynya, was pushing in between them. He was a stout man but he moved lightly as a deer. Both Thorfinn and Magnus stepped back away from him; Magnus staggered in his haste and almost fell.
Dobrynya said, in a high strong voice, “I will warn you both again—I will allow no fighting in my city. We are all Rus’ here, and I will throw any man out who fights. You, Thorfinn, this way, and Magnus, that way, and go now, all of you.” Standing alone between them, magnificent in his bright clothes, he thrust his arms out at them, driving them apart. “Start now, or I will get Pavo and his whip.”
Thorfinn turned on his heel and walked off toward his hall. Behind him, Raef heard the red beard say, “Dobrynya, this is a Varanger thing. Let us deal with it.” He did not catch what Dobrynya said back. Beside him, Conn said to Thorfinn, “What is Varanger?”
“We are,” Thorfinn said.
“Then who are the Rus’?”
Thorfinn crowded his shoulders together. “Everybody—Varanger and Sclava together. That’s what Dobrynya calls us when he wants to wield power over us. Come on.” He bustled them all along toward his hall.
Copyright © 2008 by Cecelia Holland. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Varanger by Holland, Cecelia Copyright © 2008 by Holland, Cecelia. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"[Holland has] the hard, sharp lines of a master storyteller. She seems remarkably skillful at portraying the masculine mind."
"We have come to expect rich, vivid historical novels from prolific Cecelia Holland, and this one, set in ninth century Constantinople, more than fulfills that expectation. We observe the legendary Byzantine duplicity through the eyes of our honorable barbarian hero as he tries to unravel the intrigue. Swiftly moving, plausible, and with just the right amount of historical details to make scenes come clear, the novel is an engrossing tale."
Publishers Weekly on The Belt of Gold
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
High City was another great read by Cecelia Holland; all have been. This was the vest to date. Excellent characterizations and battle descriptions and a wonderful storyline.
Late in the tenth century, with his beloved cousin Conn dead lying in a cave under Kiev, Raef Corbansson feels survivor guilt and isolation. He knows his cousin who was his best friend and who saved his worthless life. Raef feels that was such a waste as he should have died not Conn (see VARANGER). Raef becomes a rower on a ship where no one seems to speak the same language. They shipwreck near Chrysopolis with his crewmates captured by an invading army. Raef rescues his oarmate and helps save the Armada loyal to Byzantine Emperor Basil under the command of Michael Lecapenus win the battle.
Raef and the victors travel to Constantinople to celebrate, but he cannot as Conn and the magic inside him both haunt him. Emperor Basil is irate when Raef refuses to join his army and pledge dying loyalty to him especially his refusal to track down and bring home in chains if necessary the runaway Empress Helena who has joined the enemy; he soon faces a treason charge. Lecapenus and Laissa the whore help his escape from an emperor, a city and an empire he sees as corrupt.
The superb fifth Dark Ages Viking saga (see VARANGER and Conn¿s father¿s escapades in THE SERPENT DREAMER, THE SOUL THIEF and THE WITCHES' KITCHEN) is an exhilarating historical thriller that continues the adventures of the survivor of the second generation. This time much of the novel rotates between an anguished yet heroic Raef with no time to grieve and the absolute demanding Basil. Fascinatingly, Raef¿s saving the armada becomes yesterday¿s news as the Emperor demands what you will be doing for me immediately. Fans of the tenth century saga of a traveling Irish barbarian will fully relish this direct sequel to VARANGER; newcomers will better appreciate Raef¿s anguish if they read the previous entry first.