The clean scent of the sea mingled with the odor of roasting flesh in the air above Constantinople. Somewhere within the city, a fire had been started and the city was in chaos. On the seaward wall, however, the Varangian Guard stood firm even as the soldiers of the Blind Doge of Venice scaled the walls like ants.
Ormr, covered in a thick sheen of sweat beneath his armor, longed to pull the chainmail mask from his face, but resisted the urge. The gulp of fresh air wouldn’t be worth the arrow he was likely to take. It had been a long siege, but he was so far unscathed, and intended to keep it that way. Besides which, there was little enough time for such relief.
“Breathe it in, lads!” a big-bellied giant roared, shaking his axe and sword over his head. Ormr grimaced as his sword-brother, Harald Hafgeir, bellowed again and clashed his weapons together. “Miklagardr burns, but we have the sea air to keep us cool!”
“Only if all that hot air you’re spewing doesn’t cancel it out,” someone shouted.
Harald mock-growled and gestured with his axe. “Who said that? I’ll have your balls for my belt!”
“Here they come!” The call came from farther down the wall, interrupting Harald’s posturing.
The top of a scaling ladder clanked against the wall and Ormr snatched up his shield just as a sword point swung for his face. He deflected the blow and sent his axe looping out in reply. The Crusader at the top of the ladder jerked backwards, his helmet split open, blood covering his face.
Dropping his axe to the parapet, Ormr seized the top of the ladder and shoved hard. His tired muscles protested, but the ladder shifted and toppled backwards, carrying its cargo of screaming men with it. Even as the ladder fell, Ormr swept up his axe and pivoted, lopping off the hands of a Crusader on another ladder nearby. The man squealed and tumbled away from the wall, crimson gushing from the stumps of his wrists.
“Well struck, boy,” Harald said. The siege had already covered his helmet in gore, and rivulets of blood carved canyons across his smoke blackened features. With a grunt the fat Varangian struck the ladder with the length of his axe handle and sent it shivering away from the wall. Men fell and screamed as Harald laughed. “I would have had him though.”
“Maybe.” Ormr tightened his grip on his axe. His mask felt too tight and his skull ached beneath his bowl shaped helmet. There was an itch somewhere under his cuirass and his mail hauberk that he longed to scratch. ‘Phantom arrows’ his father had called those. The ghosts of wounds yet to come. Ormr shivered and slapped the flat of his axe against his shield.
“Don’t sound so grim, boy.” Harald slapped him on the back. “They’re only Venetians.”
“Venetians, Sicilians, Medes, matters not. They’re all capable of separating my head from my shoulders if they get close enough.”
“Pah,” Harald said, gesturing rudely. “Why fear the inevitable?”
“Now who’s being grim?”
“Not me! This is wonderful!” Harald’s eyes twinkled behind his mask. Ormr could imagine Harald’s gap-toothed grin and shook his head. “This is what I joined the Guard for!”
“Arrows!” someone shouted. Ormr jerked his shield up over his head and felt the thump of steelheaded shafts against its surface. Another scaling ladder swung towards the parapet as a man in a red splashed tabard, riding it like a horse, appeared with a spear clutched in his hands.
“Ho!” Harald barked, dropping his axe onto the shaft of the spear, splintering it. Ormr thrust his shield forward, crashing it into the face of the ladder-rider and sent him tumbling back.
Another swarm of arrows peppered the parapet. Varangians screamed as crossbow bolts sprouted from armored limbs, the broad, serrated tips puncturing armor like butter. Crusaders crested the wall seconds later. Shields crashed together in a furious symphony as Venetian swords chopped against Danish axes.
Harald drove his axe into a Crusader’s gut two-handed, lifting the man up and shoving him backwards into his fellows. He looked at Ormr. “Bugger! This for a game of fools, eh?”
“They’re on the walls, lad,” Harald said, pointing with his gore-covered axe. “Miklagardr is burning lad. All of it. They’re already in the city!”
Ormr looked out over the center of the world and cursed at seeing nothing but flames. On the wall, the Varangians continued to fight, but what had been a defense was becoming a retreat. Not a rout, never a rout, but they were falling back nonetheless.
Ormr looked at Harald’s grinning face. “Polutasvarf?”
“It’s only fair, I says,” Harald said. He shook his axe at the Venetian ships in the Golden Horn and began to make for the steps. “Fair’s fair.”
“I’m sure the Emperor will feel comforted knowing that we collected our back pay as the Venetians nail him to his throne, yes?” Ormr followed the other man, casting glances to make sure they weren’t being followed.
“I would, were I him. Can’t go to Hell with debts on your conscience, now can you?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not intending to go,” Ormr grunted.
“That’s the spirit!”
A burst of Venetians spattered out as men in the ragged armor of one of the landless levees that had accompanied the Crusaders charged up to meet them, waving spears and billhooks.
Harald stopped and set his shoulders, bringing his shield forward to meet the charge, but Ormr pushed past him on the narrow stairwell and leapt down, splitting the skull of the closest attacker with his axe. As the body toppled, Ormr pushed his way in among the knot of men, shouldering them off the walkway and into the wall, using his weight to great advantage in the confined space.
Behind him, he heard Harald’s roars as the big man followed him into the fray. Ormr didn’t turn, and instead concentrated on keeping his head attached to his shoulders and his various internal organs unpierced. He swung his axe in a wide arc, spraying a gout of red across the dark stone of the walls. He kicked the falling bodies, and sent them tumbling and twisting down the steps.
“Haaa! That’s how it’s done, lad!” Harald laughed. He kicked aside a head and clapped a hand on Ormr’s shoulder. “Less trouble than women, eh?”
“Depends on the woman,” Ormr grunted in reply while shaking blood off his axe.
They left the wall without further confrontation. The city itself was bedlam. Fires raged through the merchant’s quarter, and smoke twined through the twisting streets, stifling the air. It was like entering the antechamber to hell.
Soldiers rushed through the smoke, hacking and stabbing at any figure of flesh that presented itself to them. Men, women, children, all fell beneath the blades of the Crusaders. Blood mad after a siege that had lasted too long, the flower of Christian knighthood sacked the greatest city of Christendom.
Some small pockets of Byzantine soldiery put up a resistance, but by and large the armies of the Emperor of Eastern Rome were nothing more than a memory.
Ormr and Harald watched the city’s death throes from within an abandoned bakery. Harald tore a chunk from a loaf of stale bread and chewed noisily.
“We could organize some sort of resistance I suppose,” Ormr mused.
Harald shrugged. “And what good would that do, boy?”
“More dead Venetians, for one thing.”
“Those are Hungarians,” Harald said, peering through a window. “I think.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ormr said, hefting his shield. “We could-”
Harald looked at him and made a gesture. “Miklagardr is done, boy. It was a good dream. A long dream. But it’s done.” Harald extended the bread. “Nothing-not even Rome-lasts forever. Eat. Then we’ll collect our back pay out of what loot remains and strike for home.”
“Home? And do what?” Ormr said, snatching the bread. “Raid the English? Collect taxes in the Orkneys?” He shook the bread in Harald’s face. “Maybe join the Doge’s army as a mercenary, to protect his new Byzantine money in the lands of the Saracens?”
“Whatever. We’ll be rich enough to do as we please, boy.” Harald slapped the bread aside. “I guarantee you, our comrades are heading in the same direction. We could even chew off a portion of this realm for our own, if enough of us are left.”
“Hah,” Ormr said, suddenly thoughtful. He settled back against the wall and watched the fires through the window. “Rhodes?”
“I was thinking Corinth, actually.”
“Hah.” Ormr peered closer at a fight going on not more than a few dozen feet away. “Carpathians.”
“They’re Wallachs, not Hungarians.”
“Mountain trash. They’re all the same.” Harald shifted. “They’re not leaving anytime soon, are they?”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
Harald rose to his feet and lifted his axe. “Let’s encourage them then. I want to get to the palace before all the good stuff is gone.”
The two Varangians burst through the door of the bakery, their axes catching the Crusaders unawares. Heads flew and blood splashed the walls.
Ormr shoved a body out of the doorway and looked inside the shop. Only the dead remained. Or so he thought. A body shuddered. A filth-encrusted hand shot up, through a sea of limbs, reaching for the air.
“Survivor,” Ormr grunted, grabbing the hand and pulling the man to his feet.
“Kill him. I’m not splitting the loot three ways,” Harald said, peering through the doorway.