‘No, Father. Our “Christian God” has not revealed himself to me too often — not even here, close to Heaven!’

‘Your words are a path to Hell and an eternity of suffering.’

‘I know, Father, but my cynicism is born of bitter experience, both of men and of God. Aren’t we supposed to be in His image? Look into men’s hearts, what do you see, good or evil?’

Leo responded with the philosophical certainty of a priest. ‘With God’s help we can be all the things He wants us to be.’

‘Well done, Father, you know all the right answers; I wish I had your faith.’ He paused and smiled. ‘You should hurry; the sun is making its way towards the west. Go safely. I will see you with the Prince tomorrow.’

His mind racing, intrigued by all that had happened in just a few hours, Leo made his way down the mountain as rapidly as he could.

As he reached the thick forest of the mountain’s lower slopes, a dank mist swirled up from the valley. Increasing fatigue and the dark of the night slowed Leo’s progress.

He found a sheltered overhang in the rocks to rest.

Leo slept fitfully and, when he woke with a jolt, he was cold and wet. His head and neck ached and his legs, made numb under his weight, tingled as the blood rushed to them. He longed for the soft straw and warm furs of his little hut in the clearing below.

The glow behind the mountain suggested about half an hour before dawn. He got to his feet and turned towards the path. As he did so, he saw, standing at a bend in the track just a few paces below him, the mysterious Northerner he had left only a few hours ago.

As Leo’s eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed that the old man had effected a remarkable change in appearance. His long hair was tied back, his beard was neatly trimmed and he had the unmistakable appearance of an officer of the Varangian Guard. He wore a blood-red tunic trimmed with gold and a heavy, ruby-red cloak fastened by an ornate bronze clasp. Over one shoulder, held by a finely tooled leather strap, he carried a large circular shield adorned with the motif of the winged lion of Byzantium. Slung over the other shoulder was a heavy battle sword with a fine gilt handle and delicately worked sheath. Along his heavy belt were leather pouches for two shorter stabbing swords, a small close-quarters axe and a jewelled dagger. Then Leo’s eyes focused on the most fearsome weapon he had ever seen. The shaft was the diameter of a man’s wrist and its head stood almost at shoulder height. Although all Varangians carried a two-handed battle-axe, this was a double-headed version with two huge crescent-shaped blades. Leo wondered what mayhem it had caused and stared in awe at a man who seemed to have shed thirty years overnight.

‘Follow me… and try to keep up!’

Leo did his best, but the old man moved more quickly than seemed possible for someone of his age.

Two hours later, they were close to Leo’s chapel.

As they approached the perimeter guards, the Northerner stopped, drew himself up to his full height and bellowed in the clear, clipped tones of a man used to giving military commands: ‘Be alert in the camp! A former Captain of the Varangian Guard approaches. I am Godwin of Ely.’

He strode into the camp with Leo scurrying in his wake. The picket guards stood aside, clasped their weapons and snapped to attention. As the two men entered the clearing, with the sun just beginning to crest the hillside behind them, the Princes’ men got to their feet. A discernible murmur travelled through the ranks as the older men recognized the gilt and braid of a Captain of the Old Order of the Varangian Guard and saw the double- headed axe, carried effortlessly and balanced halfway down its shaft by a powerful hand.

Leo shuddered as he looked at the faces of the guards when the old man strode past them. Who was this man who could command such instant respect from elite soldiers such as these?

John Comnenus rose as the two approached, but before he could offer a greeting, the visitor addressed him.

‘Greetings, sire. I am your humble servant, Godwin of Ely.’

John Azoukh turned as he heard the greeting, his beard dripping with water from the leather bowl in which he had been washing.

The old man bowed and turned to him. ‘Greetings, Prince John Azoukh. I am honoured to meet you.’

‘Good morning to you. You have surprised us; we did not expect you so soon.’

‘I was told the heir to the Purple of Byzantium wished to see me. To delay would have been impolite.’

As the old man spoke, John Comnenus noticed that his breathing was not as controlled as it had first seemed and that sweat was dripping from his forehead and hands.

‘Please join us. Stewards, bring a chair.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

‘Tell me, I am right, am I not, you wear the uniform of a Captain of the Varangians of the Old Order?’

‘You are right, my Prince. I was Captain of the Varangians during your father’s early campaigns. I am an Englishman and I joined the Guard in 1081, the year your father became Emperor.’

‘Godwin of Ely, noble Englishman. Please sit with us.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

As stewards brought food and water, Godwin sat with the Two Johns of Constantinople and Leo took a place on a rock a few feet away.

‘I have come with greetings from my father. He often thinks of you and the many battles you fought together.’

‘Your father is a great man; it was an honour to serve him. How is he?’

‘I am afraid he is dying. His stomach is putrefied, it is slow and painful, but he hangs on through fear of what will happen next.’

‘I am saddened to hear that; it is not a fitting end for a man of valour. The only consolation is that he has the strength to bear it like few men I’ve ever met.’ Godwin looked at the Prince with a sympathetic smile as their eyes acknowledged one another with genuine warmth. ‘You have brought the Talisman of Truth. How may I assist you?’

‘My father told me to come here, to give you the Talisman and ask you to tell me a story. He said it would help me find the wisdom to know what is right and what is wrong.’

Godwin moved uneasily in his chair, as if a great burden had been placed on his old shoulders. ‘I hoped I would never have to tell that story again.’ He paused, as if preparing for an ordeal. ‘My time should have come at least ten summers ago. Every year, as the autumn winds rushed around my home, I felt death coming, but it passed me by. With each spring, I began to realize that I was being granted the extra years for a purpose. When the good priest clambered up the mountain to see me, I knew what it was he carried.’ Godwin spoke quietly, with all the solemnity of his great age, then his eyes brightened a little, as if to ease the tension he had created. ‘Sire, would you grant me just two favours in the telling of my story?’

‘Of course.’

‘I need one of your fine cavalry horses. I can only tell you the story from where I can remember the detail — on the top of my mountain — and I doubt that I can get back up there without the help of a horse. Also, I need Father Leo to hear my story. My time isn’t far off and a kindly priest may be useful to me in facing the unknown.’

Leo smiled. ‘Godwin, all men need a priest when they face God; only heathens face the unknown.’

‘Precisely, Father!’

Now, all four men were smiling.

Prince John Comnenus called to the Captain of his Guard. ‘We leave within the hour.’

As he approached, the Captain bowed in turn to the two Johns, and then he turned to Godwin and spoke to him in almost reverential terms. ‘Godwin of Ely, I am privileged to salute you.’ The Captain clenched the hilt of his sword and nodded his head.

Godwin grasped his sword and nodded back.

Several hours later, the Princes’ Guard was camped in the high meadow beside Godwin’s mountain home. Ripples on the lake forewarned that the wind would soon rush off the mountain and chase away the setting sun. Although the air was not yet cold, it soon would be.

The stewards did their best to make sure the four men were comfortable. They had made a roaring fire and collected a large supply of wood. Godwin and John Comnenus sat on sacks of straw and leaned back against the

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