Stewart Binns



The hour was growing late but the rapidly descending sun was still strong and the heat of a hot summer’s day had yet to subside. The undulating hills of Greece’s western Peloponnese gave little hint of human activity except where an occasional shepherds’ track cut a path over the high ground. Only in a few places had men made more permanent marks. Lonely chapels — simple stone sanctuaries, topped by Byzantine crosses — were totems of peace and truth in a world mostly bereft of such treasures.

High above the rugged hills, an old man sat on a rocky perch contemplating the far horizon to the north-west. He looked towards his homeland, a distant land he had not seen for over fifty years. His eyes watered as he peered at the waning red orb of the setting sun.

Several hundred feet below, amid the forests of pine, a column of mounted men turned into an open meadow. The stone chapel at the edge of the glade had small round windows, a solid oak door and a simple wooden hut behind the nave for the resident priest. The men dismounted after a long day in the saddle, and stretched their legs. They were an awesome group of men: fifty Varangians and fifty Immortals, supported by a baggage train of servants, cooks and grooms. All were in the service of two of the most important men in the civilized world: the revered Prince John Azoukh, formerly a Turkish slave, now a royal prince, and Prince John Comnenus, the son of Alexius Comnenus I, Emperor of Byzantium, a man on whose shoulders rested the hopes of an ancient lineage and a mighty empire.

Leo of Methone had been listening to the approaching commotion for nearly half an hour. He had been educated in Athens, had worshipped in Rome and had even prayed at the altar of the great church in Constantinople. He knew to fear the tread of advancing armies.

It was late August in the year of Our Lord 1117. Anxiety gripped the Byzantine Empire, an empire begun in pagan Rome over 1,000 years earlier that now stood between Christianity and the heresy of Islam.

Leo had hidden in the undergrowth long before the soldiers arrived at his peaceful clearing. He was greatly relieved to see that they were men of the Emperor’s army rather than a band of brigands, but astonished when he recognized them as Imperial Guards and realized who was leading them. He knew from his dress that the man at the head of the group was of the royal house, but the presence of the dark-skinned man next to him confirmed that the two lords were the renowned ‘Two Johns of Constantinople’.

Leo’s heart was pounding from exertion and anxiety. His mind raced: why is the young heir to the throne of Byzantium here? It is known throughout the Empire that his father is dying and that his sister, Anna Comnenus, will do anything to take the throne and rule with her husband, Bryennius. So why leave Constantinople on a journey of many weeks at a time like this?

Leo’s train of thought was broken by the Captain of the Imperial Guard barking his orders: ‘Troopers of the Princes’ Guard, dismount! We camp here tonight.’

John Comnenus watched with amusement as Leo the priest approached him. His dark-brown cassock was scuffed with dirt from his hasty retreat to the undergrowth, he was covered in thorns and seedlings from his prickly hiding place, and his sandals squelched from the soaking they had received as he waded the stream behind his church.

‘Good evening, Father. May we spend this night with you?’

Leo had never spoken to a prince before. He summoned all the composure his ecclesiastical education could afford him. ‘Your Highness, it would be a great honour. But I have little to offer you other than God’s house… and…’ He hesitated, nervous about his presumptuousness, ‘… my blessing.’

The young heir smiled broadly, supremely confident in his status and authority.

‘That is all a weary man needs. Besides, we travel well with all the trappings of court. Will you join us? The butt is Cypriot, from my father’s vineyard; our cook is a Venetian and he can conjure a feast from old leather and the bark of a tree if you give him gentle oil and keen spices.’

Leo recognized immediately that what people said was true: John Comnenus was a man of great charm and humility.

‘Sire, you are more than generous. But I am a poor priest of the countryside; I know nothing of the sophistication of towns and cities, and certainly nothing of the manners of a royal table.’

John Azoukh answered for John Comnenus.‘It is we who should be humble. We are guests in your beautiful meadow. Let us eat; the chill of the night air will soon be upon us.’

An hour later, over a hundred men sat in the cooling twilight to enjoy their food and wine. Leo said grace, then sat and gazed at the scene before him. Behind John Comnenus stood his equerry and men-at-arms: three tall men in blue tunics with gilded trim, their burgundy cloaks held by heavy bronze clasps of the royal house of Comnenus. With the light from the campfires flickering across their bearded faces and intricately worked armour, they had the ostentatious trappings of court soldiers, but their rugged demeanour was of men hardened by the ferocity of battle.

Prince John Azoukh sat beside the heir to the Purple of Byzantium. Twenty-eight years old, the same age as his royal companion, his was a remarkable story. As a small child he had been taken as a slave by a general of the Imperial Army, who, charmed by the little boy’s humour and intelligence, had given him to the Emperor Alexius as a present.

Leo could see why the Arab slave had endeared himself to the family of Alexius: his soft black curls were the perfect complement to a clear olive skin, gentle dark-brown eyes and a strikingly handsome face. But his most endearing quality was his infectious vitality. The Emperor had recognized his charms but also his intelligence; he grasped numbers and languages quickly, wrote poetry and played the flute beautifully. John Azoukh, the slave, was brought up at court as if he were John Comnenus’ brother; they became inseparable.

John Comnenus also had many qualities but was more reticent and considered. He was shorter than his Moorish companion and not the most handsome of men, but wearing his crimson smock, gold wristlets, gleaming bronze breastplate and a ready smile, he had the aura of a benign leader. There was much anticipation that Prince John would continue the wise and honest rule of his father. Byzantium was an empire of many cultures and peoples. Its noble families had intermarried with the aristocracies of the many lands they had conquered, creating a mingling of ‘old blood’ and ‘new blood’. For 500 years, since the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, Byzantium had kept alive the traditions of the Graeco-Roman world, and Christian civilization.

To the right of the Prince were the Immortals. First raised by the Persians centuries before, these men from Byzantium’s eastern provinces were renowned for their loyalty and fierceness in battle. Behind them, arranged in neat rows of tripods, were their pointed mail-fringed helmets, long pikes and round shields, and tethered lines of immaculate grey horses, freshly fed and groomed.

Forty years earlier, in 1071, the Byzantine army had been in disarray after the disaster of the Battle of Manzikert. Muslim armies had besieged Byzantium to the south and east, Asian barbarians had threatened from the north and, in the west, powerful forces from northern Europe were rivals for power in Christendom. However, Alexius I had reorganized the army and reinvigorated the Immortals.

The Varangians, to the left of the Prince, were no less impressive. Not so uniform in appearance, they carried a terrifying assortment of weapons, including their redoubtable weapon of mayhem, the double-handed battle-axe. Only with years of practice and a massively powerful upper body was it possible to wield it with deadly intent; it struck fear into the hearts of all their enemies. Although these men were foreign mercenaries, they were intensely loyal to their oath of allegiance and had served the throne of Constantinople for over a hundred years. Some were Vikings from Scandinavia; many were Normans from Sicily or North Africa. There were Celts from Europe’s northern wilderness. A few were English. Legend had it that, fifty years before, a handful of housecarls from the army of King Harold of England, who had survived the final redoubt at the Battle of Senlac Ridge near Hastings, had fled to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard rather than submit to the rule of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy.

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