18 June 2014

The Wolf of the Argolid

Six months ago I offered a chapter from my unfinished Villehardouin novel. Here is the first chapter of that effort. It is 3-4 times the length of the usual entry, and quite violent.

Acro-Corinth, by Harriet Livathinos


The Archon stood on the wall of High Corinth looking out over the precipice. Fists on hips, he glared down at the city of Corinth.

``The Archbishop will submit.''

Wind swept across the snows of Mount Parnassos, whipped waves in the Gulf of Corinth, rushed up the escarpment of High Corinth, flattened his grizzled hair. A cloak lined with wolf fur flailed about his mailed tunic and leggings. A thousand feet below lay the vineyards and mulberry trees of the plains, the city of Corinth, the Isthmus narrow as a grape stem, the glittering ice-blue gulfs that washed the Isthmus on either side. This was the Wolf of the Argolid, Leon Sgouros, the most powerful man in Greece. Leon Sgouros, Archon of Nauplion after his father Theodoros. Lord of Argos, of the Holy Mountain of Agionori, of Nemea, of Agios Basilios. Lord of Athens. Lord of Corinth. The Wolf was in a rage. His face appeared impassive but the grey eyes glistened and the muscles in his face tightened like ropes. As his anger increased, his voice became lower. Only the person nearest him heard.

``True, Archon''.

Nikos Kamateros waved a manicured hand in agreement. He was careful always to be nearest to Sgouros. Kamateros was ambitious but cautious. Behind them, the others moved closer to hear. Here at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Byzantine Empire was rotting. Disasters at sea and on the borders had combined with degeneration in the imperial government until it was clear to everyone, powerful and poor alike, that Constantinople was impotent. In the provinces, archons and landowners competed for local control. Those who found themselves losing joined another archon who was winning. So Kamateros had joined Sgouros after his brother had taken hold of Sparta. Kamateros was accustomed neither to courts nor to wealth, but he had quickly learned the leisurely assured manner of a man born to the best. He dressed in expensive simplicity; his soft leather shoes were lines with silk; his beared was combed, oiled, discretely perfumed; his hair was held in place by a plain gold fillet. His mastery of formal Greek with its grammatical shadings and convolutions was perfect. Sgouros used Kamateros for his polish and patience, as one uses a knife for its sharp edge.

Kamateros spoke in an off-hand manner. ``The city has submitted. The Archbishop will have to follow.''

He shrugged deprecatingly.

``But he simply has no support. He is of no significance.''

The others murmured their agreement.

``He matters.'' Sgouros spit an olive seed out into the wind. ``The boy. Get him.'' He poked a finger into his fistful of olives, then held his hand out.

``Boy, Archon?'' Kamateros carefully took an olive from the pile in Sgouros's gloved hand.

``In the Archbishop's household. You saw him. In the little robe just like the Archbishop.'' Sgouros looked over the olives and picked up a small gleaming one. He turned to Kamateros, a smile glazing his face.

``Bring me the catamite.''

Sgouros started walking along the top of the wall. Kamateros kept up with him, walking alongside. The ground sloped down. Kamateros observed that his face was directly level with Sgouros's boots. He moved as if to pick one of the early spring flowers.

``With respect, Archon, he is not a catamite. The child Michael is his nephew's son. Unfortunately. No one can say that or anything else against the Archbishop. God knows, we have tried to find something.'' Kamateros appeared distressed. ``There is nothing we can get him on. His life is absolutely pure he gives away everything. It is true that he has nearly depleted the treasure of the Cathedral, and we have tried to charge him with embezzlement, but everyone knows he has spent it on the poor. If the monastery did not own his clothes, he would have given them away, too. He has nothing. Only the boy, whom he adores.''

``The nephew's son? That nephew?''

``That nephew.''

Sgouros spit. ``So bring me the boy.''

He jumped down from the wall into the courtyard and walked toward a cistern, oblivious to the scrawny chickens pecking around, the hunting dogs which yawned and scratched and nipped at each other. Several unwashed children sat outside the kitchen door with their morning bread. A dozen men in leather cuirasses scaled with metal and armed with short broad swords, lounged nearby. More armed men sat by the gate with their saddled horses. Two women tended the fire under a large pot.

``Tell the Archbishop,'' said Sgouros, reaching for the rope at the cistern, ``tell the Archbishop I have decided to honor him by making the boy my page.'' He pulled the bucket over the rim of the well, took a mouthful of water, spit itout, splattering the nearest shoes.

``Archon, the Archbishop would give his life for that boy.'' Kamateros raised a hand in warning.

Sgouros slammed down the water bucket. ``Tell him'' he said very quietly, ``that I have no interest in boys. Or girls. None of his flock will lose their virtue, should they have any. Tell him that the Despot of the Morea will be honored to have the boy as the chief ornament of his court. And that I will have him.''

``Despot of the Morea.'' Kamateros raised his eyebrows at the new title. ``Today, Despot, as you desire.'' He bowed.

``Not today,'' said Sgouros. ``Now!''

Four armed men at the gate dashed to the horses, tugged them through the narrow turns of the gate. Kamateros heard the hooves striking on the stones outside.

Sgouros ignored them. He sauntered across the court to the stairs which led to his rooms. He still had the handful of olives. Halfway up the stairs, he noticed the olives, extended his hand and let them drop into the dust. The chickens left off scratching at the kitchen midden and scrabbled pecking for them.

He went on up the stairs to a broad porch supported on stone arches, and went through an arched doorway into a room whose tiled floor was piled with bundles. Two arched windows looked down to the courtyard; opposite them, more windows looked out on the meadow of High Corinth where Pegasus once pastured. At each end of the room were arched fireplaces with hearths large enough to roast a sheep. Sgouros unfastened his cloak, let it fall. Except for the bundles, the long room was sparsely furnished. To one side, a sleeping couch was piled with furs and pillows. A trestle table, chair, several stools stood before one of the fireplaces. Another table spread with pieces of glassware stood under a window. The morning sun shown through the glass, staining the table with deep reds and purples, pale blues and greens. Sgouros carried the glass with him wherever he travelled: it was the only thing for which he had been known to show liking. He stalked across the room, the nails in his boots signaling each step. He picked up a red bowl and looked at it intently, turning it against the sun.

Kamateros picked up the cloak.``Despot of the Morea? Or of the Morea and Athens?'' He spoke casually but the information was of no little importance to him.

``And Athens. Find a title. Make it good.''

Sgouros turned, smashed the bowl against the side of the fireplace. Ruby fragments splintered into the sunlight. Kamateros winced.

``There was a crack.'' Sgouros turned, his voice now reasonable.

``I want a palace to suit the Despot. The Archons of Corinth can make contributions. And the merchants. And the Jews. They will want to be proud of the Despot's house. And the Archbishop. Go to the Glassmaker's Guild.''

``With pleasure, Despot.'' Kamateros bowed, slipped out.

Thus the Archon began his day. During the morning, he accepted the submissions of eight nearby communities. The village gerontes, shabbily dressed, were exhausted after the long trudge up the mountain to High Corinth. When Sgouros had begun his rise to power, the gerontes of the first villages met him shabbily dressed to impress him with their poverty. But after his men ransacked one village, burned another, and left the priest of a third village impaled on his staff, subsequent gerontes dressed shabbily in order to give him the best they had. These brought wine, two wolf skins, antique robes and embroidery, dried fruit, cheeses, several sheep and goats. It was not abundant, but such tribute came daily and presaged regular contributions.

Sgouros went out to the meadow to look at his horses, small Arabians acquired with their groom when his hired pirates intercepted a ship sailing for Sicily. His entourage followed him, furred and muffled, carrying jeweled handwarmers, apeing the court of Constantinople. As close as High Corinth was to the sun, it was no match for the winds of Parnassos.

Ioannis Doukas, an aggressive eager younger son from a too-large family in the north, followed Sgouros holding a second fur-lined cloak selected from that day's tribute. ``Not a bad place, Corinth. Clean. Not a lot of cash about these days, but very few really poor because of the Archbishop.''

Sgouros looked up frowning. Doukas did not notice his expression. ``Of course, the regular tolls from the Isthmus. And the import-export tariffs. The Venetians, of course, pay no tariffs that really should be reconsidered. Then the whorehouses. And the silk. We really must look into the silk industry thoroughly, Archon.''

``We should indeed. You have a new robe,'' said Sgouros abruptly, reaching out to finger the fabric. ``Expensive.''

Doukas stroked the quilted sleeve of his blue and green brocade. ``A gift from the Silkweavers' Guild, Excellency.''

``Yes,'' said Sgouros turning. ``Yes, of course. You could be Port Authority and Inspector of Silks, too.''

He walked on. ``How much?''

Doukas slipped up beside him, too close, too anxious. ``From the tolls on the Isthmus alone, Archon, four hundred gold hyperpers a year.''

Sgouros nodded his head thoughtfully. ``You have all the figures?''


The young man laughed and shrugged good-naturedly. Unnoticed by him, Sgouros made a gesture. As the guards closed around Doukas, the other members of the entourage backed away.

``Whip him!'' said Sgouros. He walked off.

Doukas yelled, ``Wait, Archon!''

A scaled glove smashed his mouth. As he grabbed for his bleeding face, two slaves jerked at his clothes, ripping the brocades open, half-strangling him. They threw him face-down on the ground. Doukas struggled to get up. Slaves stepped on either wrist, two others held his ankles, tugged. One of the guards took a whip from his belt, multi-thonged, each thong ending in a piece of metal. He grasped the handle, opening and closing his fingers to get his grip, raised his arms above his head, and then bought the whip whistling down.

Doukas screamed. The nearest horses, disturbed by the sudden movements, bolted toward the far wall rimming the precipice. The guard continued to beat. He was still beating when Doukas stopped screaming. The slaves released their grip, stepped away. When the guard tired, another stepped forward.

Sgouros had his midday meal, drank, slept. In the afternoon he went out to the horses. They were huddled against the far wall of the pasture, pacing back and forth, still nervous at the smell of blood and urine. The wind kept the flies away. Sgouros hardly noticed as he walked by.

* * * * *

The Wolf's father, Archon Theodoros Sgouros of Nauplion, was a rough burly man, hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-wenching. He had a taste for intrigue, enthusiasm for physical action, and a justified reputation for brutality. Through thoughtfully-placed bribes, given and received, forced loans, torture, disappearances, and a few assassinations, Theodoros extended his control of Nauplion to most of the adjacent villages and coasts: Aria, Asine, Drepanon, Iria, Candia, Myloi, Kiveri. When fate sent a plague of pirates, he wrote the Emperor for aid. The Emperor, needing the tax revenues for which Theodoros was responsible, sent him first a pirate with thirty ships who worked on contract for the government, and then the Grand Admiral, Nauarchos Michael Stryphnos, brother-in-law of the Empress.

The pot-bellied Nauarchos and the stocky Archon found themselves to be men of close sympathies. They scoured out the pirate lairs along the coast of the Argolid and on the islands toward Athens: Salamis, Aegina, Makronesi---dividing between themselves what they took from the pirates. With a certain practicality, they came to terms with two of the larger operators. For half the takings, the pirates were allowed to continue undisturbed, though naturally Nauplion and the coast were off-limits. Then, after reconsideration, Stryphnos and Theodoros took their pirate allies prisoners at a drinking party, blinded them, and abandoned them somewhere on a barren beach on the southern coast of the Peloponnesos. Then they took up where the pirates had left off, and soon made up for their absence. Theodoros build a chapel on a small island in the harbor at Nauplion, dedicated it to his patron saints, the Agioi Theodoroi, warriors both, and stored his gold and plunder there.

Behind the island, the city of Nauplion stood on the cliffs of a short peninsula surrounded by sea and marsh. Its ancient walls of enormous stones had been built by the Titans, the teachers said
"who else could move such stones?''

Successive rulers had added more and higher walls. The city was impregnable. Limited by vertical cliffs, Nauplion's stone houses took up nearly all the space ins de the walls, and where there was no more room to spread out, the houses stretched up and arched over the streets, so that the streets below became tunnels with barely enough room for a donkey with bundles on either side to pass.

His mishandled birth left Leon with a twisted foot. He was late in learning to speak, and when he did, he stuttered. The brawling, hard-drinking Theodoros was irritated by the defects of his one legitimate heir, and when drunk or angry, which was most of the time, he berated the boy for his weaknesses.

``Look at him!'' he would say, slamming his goblet onto the table, the wine sloshing out. He waved a hand crowded with pirated rings toward the stone-faced boy. ``Philip of Macedon had a god for a son and I have a cripple!''

Leon Sgouros grew up in the archondiko which overlooked the small square before the city gate. From its front windows, a watcher could observe nearly everyone who entered or left the city. The archondiko was crowded with his father's henchmen and their newest women; no one particularly cared that the solitary boy spent much of his time crouched by a window, one hand on his crippled foot, watching the gate, watching who went in and out, who went or returned from market, and what they bought or sold, and how often, and with whom each spoke.

In the course of events, Nauarchos Stryphnos was appointed Governor of Athens, a shabby town of mud and stone huts propped up against the marble columns and walls of a happier time. Stryphnos had nothing but contempt for Athens which had offered him only bad wine and worse antipathies, and preferred to live in Thebes where there was a wealthy community of silk merchants, a few foreign traders, poets who couldn't find patrons in Constantinople, and government officials. Thebes was inland, so Stryphnos had no need for ships, unless he was going to the islands for the summer or Constantinople for Easter. He selected what he wanted from the navy food stores, and sold off the rest---the tar and ropes, planks and oars, even whole ships---to pirates, and when they returned to plundering the coasts, Stryphnos plundered the provinces to produce donations he claimed were ``for the ships.''

Nauplion alone resisted him.

Then Theodoros died unexpectedly in his own house in the course of an evening of eating and drinking. The girl who was darting her tongue in and about his ear gasped in horror to feel his neck suddenly rigid, see his florid face abruptly dark, his jaw jut open. Theodoros slumped, thudded against the table, and collapsed on the floor beside the overturned chair, a gobbet of meat in his throat, brocaded robes soaked in wine. The gold fillet on his head fell off. It rattled against the tiles and rolled a few feet away. The drinkers paused with their cups in mid-air, the talkers stopped in mid-word, the flute girls and dancers screeched and clustered at the far end of the room. In the silence, Leon strode through the door with the deliberate hard stalk that concealed his limp.

He did not break the rhythm of his step when he reached over and picked up the coronet and placed it on his own coarse curly hair. Without a glance at his father's sodden body, Leon stood the archon's chair erect and sat on it.

``I am Archon,'' he said to the henchmen, and to the slaves, ``Clean this away.''

By next morning, few of Theodoros's followers were to be seen. Some had taken flight; an equal number had been garroted or blinded. Theodoros' bastards were strangled, their bodies thrown from the walls. The women were sold or drowned. The once-noisy and crowded archondiko was silent and nearly empty. The loudest noise in Nauplion came from the gulls and hooded crows that clustered above the rocks at the water's edge.

Nauarchos Stryphnos had his spies. His wife wrote to her sister, the Empress Euphrosyne, that Leon Sgouros was dangerous. The Empress pushed the Emperor, Alexios III, to take action. Alexios, in turn, ordered Stryphnos to take the imperial fleet against Nauplion. But Stryphnos had no zeal for fighting, the imperial fleet had few ships and those few had rotten saild and worm-eaten planks. The sailors shanghaied in the taverns of Piraeus to man the ships know something of sailing but nothing of fighting when sober. When the tiny make-shift imperial fleet approached Nauplion, Sgouros sent fireships out into its midst, and stationed archers on the rocks beneath the walls to pick off anyone who tried to come ashore. After the first ship burned, the sailors on the other ships mutinied and sailed back for Piraeus. Most of the other ships were taken by pirates. The gulls and crows gathered again. And everyone---Sgouros, peasants, sailors---saw that this was the best the Emperor could do to protect his Empire.

After this. Sgouros quickly obtained the submissions of the next villages: Agios Adrianos, Midea, Chonika, Berbati---and appointed new archons for them. There was little objections. He accepted anyone who offered him allegiance, paid well, and listened to all suggestions and plots. He multiplied the fortune Theodoros had left, and spent only to reward tale-bearers. There were no more flute girls, no more drinking parties. If he took any amusement, it was sometimes after dinner, if he could goad others to fight. His one affection was for glass---clear, hard, gleaming glass: cold amethyst, ruby, sea-green, gold-trimmed, blue-edged glass from Syria or Corinth or Egypt---and those who brought him tribute were careful to bring him another piece or two.

Then Sgouros considered nearby Argos whose two hills he could see from the archondiko: high-pointed Larissa crested with ancient walls and monasteries, and low, shield-shaped Aspis with schools and a hospital. Between the two hills, the walled city spilled onto the plain. Argos controlled the routes across the northern mountains to Corinth, and across the western mountains into the Morea. And control of those routes meant mastery of half the Morea. After that, there were a few other archons to consider---Kamateros in Sparta, Kantakuzenos in Methone, Branas in Kalamata, Voutsarades in Arkadia---but there were only those four and none offered any cause for concern. He considered that he could, in fact, take Methone from the sea---it had no walls---and then go on to Kalamata. Sparta would be easy, and he could starve Voutsarades out. Something would have to be done about Nikos Kamateros once he had Sparta. An accident.

So he set Kamateros to Argos with a well-financed embassy, and on the following day, posted a band of men at the western springs where the Argos aqueducts began. Other armed bands appeared before each of the city gates. Sgouros rode up to the eastern gate. It stood wide open. The Archons of Argos were there with gifts. The two who had earlier sent private gifts he elaborately and publically rewarded, the other two he took as hostages. The next towns and small fortresses---Nemea, Agios Vasilios, Agionori, Angelokastro, Arachneon---sent their archons and gerontes to him within the week.

With Argos secure, Sgouros took his forces up through the mountain passes to the ancient trading city of Corinth. Corinth controlled the Isthmus, by land and by sea. At the Isthmus, ships were docked on one side, unloaded, and dragged on rollers across the six miles of Isthmus. Their cargo was carried across in ox-drawn wagons, and the ships were then relaunched and reloaded on the other side. It was a tedious process for which captains and shippers paid dearly, but for most shippers it took less time and was considerably safer than going the long way around the end of the Peloponnesus and chancing the open waters, the rocks and storms of Cape Malea. Genoese pirates worked out of Methone, Genoese and Arabs sheltered in ports on Crete, there were Greek pirates in Mani and on Cythera. Corinth was cheaper than pirates.

Once Mediterranean ships ported sails and armories stocked tents woven in Corinth; lords and ladies from Constantinople to Champagne wore Corinthian silk and linen and wool; scholars at the Universities of Paris and Toledo used Corinthian paper for their final drafts, and Corinthian glass was prized in courts from the lands of the Hibernians to the lands of the Persians.

But one dawn two generations ago, in 1147, the watchers in High Corinth sighted red sails in the gulf, rimming the horizon as far as they could see. By noon, the dragon-prowed ships were beached and the great, blond Normans were leaping ashore. The Normans came on with clear purpose. The went directly to the workshops of the glassmakers, the embroiderers, the weavers, bound them together in coffles, and drove them onto ships bound for their cities in Sicily. Then the Normans raided the city treasury, the banks, and the churches for the gold and silver plate on their altars.

The Normans brought through the aqueducts, smashed carved fountainheads, stuffed rubble and bodies into wells. They battered holes in wine butts with their spears and topple jugs of olive oil. They looted the graceful small houses, started fires with broken furniture piled around the columns, trampled the gardens, defecated in the pools of water lilies and ornamental fish. They smashed out the stained glass rondels and alabaster panels which illuminated the small Corinthian churches, ripped silver glass lamps down from their chains, snatched golden vessels from the altars. Then they returned to the dragon ships and sailed away.

Corinth rebuilt its import and export businesses, reestablished its weavers and glassblowers and potters. Marble buildings from the Roman conquest, dingy and much repaired and overbuilt, were repaired once again to use for public affairs. But the fashionable had left for Thebes and Salonika, and the city was crowded with refugees who looked to its walls for protection from pirates and bandits.

Over-busy Corinth had as its Archbishop a man whom nearly all admitted to be a saint and, if his example was not much followed, he was deeply respected, particularly by the refugees he fed, the fatherless boys he educated at the Monastery of Ag. Ioannis, the poor girls whose dowries he provided, the sick who were received in his hospitals.

For all of these, he drew from the cathedral treasury and sold off pieces of church property. When his elders and deacons remonstrated with him, he explained patiently, ``Don't you remember what the holy Apostle wrote to us here in Corinth: `So that now your abundance may supply their need, that there may be equality, so that the one who had gathered much had nothing over and the one who had gathered little had no lack.' ''

``Yes, yes, Papa Nikolaos, but don't you think you might have taken that out f context?''

``Not at all,'' smiling guilelessly. ``It is we Corinthians who have lost our context.''

``But Papa Nikolaos,'' they would continue, ``what will happen when you have sold all the land.''

``Then our beloved church will truly be in the image of our Lord.'' He smoothed the front of his much-patched robe.``But, of course you do recall that the Apostle promised He would always make us rich enough to be generous?''

He sold his episcopal ring of gold and amethyst to pay for more medicines and doctors for the poor. And the elders and archons would shake their heads and sigh to one another that Papa Nikolaos just did not understand the realities of the situation.

While the Corinthians waited for Sgouros, Archbishop Nikolaos tried to rally them to resistance. He preached in the public markets, visited the archons and leading merchants individually. ``Think of who we are,'' he pled. ``How can you do nothing? We were not given the spirit of slavery. This city was home to the blessed Apostle! You cannot give it to be plunder for a murderer and a coward---you cannot give our children to be the prey of wolves!''

But most of those who understood the realities of the situation had already made discrete arrangements with Sgouros, as they had earlier understood the realities of the situation with Theodoros and Stryphnos, and with various pirates before them.

``We appreciate your concern, Archbishop,'' they said, ``and Lord knows there's no one whose views we respect more than you, but don't you think you are being over-emotional about this?''

A few did resist. A band of older students from the monastery school and their teachers, led by the Archbishop's nephew, attacked Sgouros' troops deep in the narrow mountain passes they called the Dervenakia. But the students were few and unaccustomed to weapons. Those who were not killed were taken as prisoners back to Corinth, tortured for the names of their accomplices, and given a hasty trial on charges of treason. The next morning the Corinthians found the heads of their young men piled in a pyramid in the marketplace.

The Archbishop adopted his nephew's child, the boy Michael. Entranced to have become the father of this treasure, and at such an age, he prepared the child's food himself, told him tales of the blessed Apostle and Bellerophon, of young Joseph and Alexander, sat beside him singing melodies his own mother had sung to him, took him for walks beside the sea, began teaching him how to write. The boy was slowly brought out of his grief by the old man's tenderness, and followed him devotedly to visit another sick man, take a gift of cloth to a woman with a new baby, persuade a baker to give bread to a needy family, negotiate another land sale with the bankers.

When Sgouros established himself in the fortress of the High City of Corinth, Corinthians eager to prove their good will told him about the Archbishop's preaching, about the nephew. Sgouros listened without reaction, remembered without comment, rewarded them with the gifts Kamateros carefully selected. He bowed to the Archbishop in the street and did nothing.

After Corinth, Sgouros took his army down the narrow bandit-infested coast road to Athens. Megara surrendered after a token demonstration of force. Elefsina and Daphni sent out delegates to welcome him. Then Sgouros met his first setback.

Athens, too, had a notable Archbishop: scholarly, querulous Michael Choniates who had come to Athens thirty years earlier, who loved perhaps the glory of her ancient name even more than he loved his Lord, and who had spent the years grieving over the loss of that glory. In the name of that ancient glory, imbued with the ringing syllables of Perikles, Choniates walked the shabby streets and alleys of the old town speaking to small groups where he found them, cried out in the market places of the outlying villages, tramped across fields whenever he saw a plowman or herdsman, urging each of them to fight.

``Athenians of old showed themselves valiant in action,'' he cried, ``and they by their courage and their virtues have handed Athens to us a free city. Our children know that what has always made her great has been men who know their duty, men who have made up their minds that she should not find them lacking, men who give her the best contribution that they can. Athens comes to her great testing time and we who cannot bear the thought of losing her must nobly fight and, if needs be, must nobly die. We of Athens know the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible and we go out undeterred to meet what is to come. Ah, my brothers! Fix your heart and mind and eyes on the greatness of this our Athens, and love her, and future ages will wonder at us!''

They listened to him, the farmer and olive growers, the herdsmen and shoemakers, the basketweavers and soapmakers. When Sgouros's army entered the defile after Daphni, the farmers showered down stones and clods of earth on the invaders, flung nets attached to hooks, attacked with rakes and pitchforks, swung pruning hooks and vine root wrenched from the ground. Sgouros broke through, but a number of his men were wounded and he was unnerved by the intensity of the opposition.

Inside the walls of Athens, the same thing happened. Men and women fought together. They hurled tiles, stones, broken pots from the rooftops, flung out dippers of watered lye, built barricades of stones in the streets, and hamstrung his horses, yet they were no real match for the soldiers and had to retreat. Archbishop Choniates brought as many as he could collect up inside the walls of the High City. They had only stones for weapons, but the High City was impregnable.

Sgouros was enraged. He ordered the city burned, and all the farms within a day's ride. His horsemen collected bundles of giant reeds, stuffed into them live coals, and galloped the lanes and paths of Athens and her farms, hurling the smoking bundles into dry grain or thatched roofs. All that night, the exhausted Athenians hiding in caves beneath the High City, on the slopes of Lycabettos, in cisterns, in the rubble of ancient buildings, listened to the clatter of the horses' hooves, watched the glint of fire on armor, the bursts of flame as bundles of reeds were hurled into their homes.

The horsemen road out in every direction. The defenders in the High City watched the ruin spread west to the sea and to the horizon all around, saw the burning ships in the Piraeus, the explosions as stores of grain ignited, the billowing black clouds from the burning oil in the warehouses, the fires streaking the slopes of Hymettos and Pentelikos. And whenever the smoke lifted or the wind changed, the exhausted, begrimed Athenians saw the columns of the High City, gleaming pale golden in the morning sun, unconquered and untouched.

News traveled as fast as the smoke, and farther. In Thebes, Nauarchos Stryphnos, now Dux of Hellas, decided it was time to leave. Constantinople had fallen to French and German and Italian-speaking crusaders from the West; his sister, no longer Empress, was useless. Foreseeing the probable course of events, he left Thebes quietly and went with his immediate suite to the coast where he took a boat for the islands. After reconsideration, he continued to Nicea and then to Trebizond

* * * * *

Sgouros found the boy when he entered his apartment at dusk: a small scrubbed child of about eight in an immaculate white robe, embroidered in blue at the neck and wrist and hem. His eyes and nose were red, and he sniffed a little. Sgouros looked at him and laughed. Catching the cue from him, his retinue began to laugh. The child looked back and forth at them, bewildered.

``Your name, boy?''

``M-M-M-M-Michael, Excellency.''

He bobbed his head.

``Ha. Michael. And why are you here, Michelaki?''

The boy nodded, gulped, rubbed his white sleeve across his face. He took a deep breath and said,
``I am here to s-s-s-s-serve your Excellency.'' He said it quickly.

``Not bad.'' Sgouros looked around. ``Now, Michelaki. What did the Archbishop tell you?''

The boy thought hard. ``Do you m-m-m-mean my uncle, sir?''

``Your uncle.'' Sgouros lowered his voice a little, which made the child feel better. He screwed p his face, trying to remember exactly.

``My uncle told me that I was to---I was to,'' he remembered, ``to love God and s-serve my ruler and n-n-n-never forget what kind of family I come from.''

Sgouros spoke quietly. ``I will see that you never forget what kind of family you come from.''

he boy almost smiled. ``Thank you, s-s-s-sir.''

Sgouros looked hard at him. ``In honor of your family, you will be my page. You will bring me what I want. Quickly. I do not repeat myself. Do you understand?''

The child nodded quickly. ``Yes, s-sir. I un-d-d-d-derstand, s-s-s-sir.''

Sgouros waved at one of his henchmen. ``Michaelis, take the boy. Show him.'' Michaelis guarded Sgouros's back, slept beside his bed. He carried his knife in plain sight, and used it where brass knuckles or bare hands would not serve. The child recoiled instinctively, then tried to stand tall.

Michael learned to serve the Despot of the Morea. Sgouros had not previously had a page and no one of his retinue but Kamateros had any preconceptions about what the position entailed. He was mostly ignored. Sometimes, when Sgouros remembered, he ordered the boy to fetch him wine or find his gloves, bring one of the dogs, or a towel, or more hot water for the bath. The work, in fact, was not difficult. Standing for hours waiting on the Despot's mood was. So were the small deliberate humiliations: the coarse remarks in the latrine when he was too tense to urinate in public, the imitations of his stuttering, the ridicule when he was discovered crying in bed, when he wet the bed.

Every day someone from the city below came to the gate of High Corinth with a clean robe for Michael and a whispered message from the Archbishop. A serving woman handed out the previous day's robe, brought in the new one and slipped it into Michael's pallet where he could find the familiar scent when he was finally allowed to go to bed. The child cried himself silently to sleep, he slept badly and ate little, his stuttering increased. Then one evening when Sgouros was sitting before the fire, Michael spilled some wine.

``Come here, boy,'' said Sgouros in a low voice.

The child went to him. Sgouros bent low toward him and spoke almost inaudibly, ``Where is my wine?''

``O-o-o-o-over --,'' he struggled. He was choking. Someone laughed. He tried to point to the table.

``Bring it,'' said Sgouros, his mouth tight.

The child went back to the table, took up the drinking bowl and set it on a hammered brass tray. It spilled again.

``Now!'' said Sgouros sharply, striking the table. Michael picked up the tray. His hands were shaking. He turned toward the Despot.

He took a step, another step, and dropped the tray. The great drinking bowl of sea-green glass shattered on the tiles. Pale green fragments flecked with gold flashed out across the floor toward the fire. Wine spattered the Despot's shoes, splashed darkly on Michael's white robe. Firelight reflected in small dark pools.

Sgouros lashed out with his fist, striking the child against the side of his head and he fell, blood pouring from beside his eye. He scrambled, trying to stand up. Sgouros kicked out at him. The child fell again, gulping, then Sgouros was over him, kicking methodically, again and again, his face without expression. The men in the room stood still, hands frozen in mid-air. The only sounds came from the olive wood snapping in the fire on the hearth, from the dull thud of Sgouros's books striking again and again.

Sgouros strode out, ordered his bed made up in another room. Someone directed the slave to clean up, but even before the flagstones were scrubbed of their stains, the news had reached the city below. Some few friends slipped through the unlighted streets to the Archbishop's monastery, told him what had happened, sat with him.

A few days later, armed guards hammered on the monastery door: Despot Sgouros commanded the presence of Archbishop Nikolaos at dinner. A sedan chair waited to take the Archbishop up the mountain. To the anxious monks who followed him to the door, the Archbishop said, ``Why are you worried? They may call us dead men, but we will live.''

He reached out to touch the hands of the nearest monks, waved to the rest, and then the curtains of the sedan chair fell down and hid him from their sight.

Sgouros met the Archbishop at the first gate of the High City. He knelt and kissed the Archbishop's ringless hand, then he walked alongside the sedan chair up to the second gate where he helped the old man out and let him up to the small palace newly furnished for the Despot. The Archbishop sat, a servant washed his feet with warm, scented water from a silver bowl, and dried them with an embroidered towel. Other servants presented each of them with a basin of scented water in which to dip their hands, then with more embroidered towels.

The two men dined alone. Neither spoke, neither touched his wine. Most of the dishes were sent away untasted. Finally, Sgouros sat up straight, put both hands on the edge of the table, pushed his seat back.

``So,'' he said. ``Constantinople has fallen. Salonika has surrendered.''

The Archbishop shook his head. ``The shame of it. The City fell to a blind man---Salonika to a man with white hair. Has the Empire no young men with courage?''

They both remembered his nephew; they thought of Athens.

``The real question is,'' Sgouros ignored him,``what to do when the Franks come here? They will.''

``Corinth is a holy city,'' the Archbishop said. It must not happen here, what those godless men did to the Queen of Cities. I have wept for Constantinople---Constantinople, eye of cities---she has drunk to the dregs the cup of trembling. I cannot bear to think of my beloved Corinth in such torment.''

His eyes filled with tears.

``I was a child when the Normans came, but I still remember.''

He bowed his head and put a hand to his eyes.

``How can I protect my people?''

``Your people,'' said Sgouros quietly. ``Yes.'' His mouth tightened.

They sat in silence. Slaves removed plates, set out trays of sweets and fruits for desert. Neither moved. Then Sgouros snapped his fingers toward the door. Two guards stepped in, saluted. Sgouros jabbed his thumb toward the Archbishop. The Archbishop sighed, as if weary from long waiting, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and stood. With his thumb he made the sign of the Cross three times over the table and the slaves and Sgouros. Sgouros had to signal again, and one guard put a hand on the old man's sleeve and turned him toward the door.

It was still daylight outside. Most of the henchmen and servants were clustered near a cookfire in the courtyard talking excitedly. Some jumped up and bowed when they recognized the Archbishop. He raised his hands to greet them, but from behind men seized his arms. He heard somewhere in the distance the sound of a great tumult and then terrible screaming. Two other men, springing from each side, prised apart his eyelids, and he saw Michaelis grinning seize two glowing sticks from the fire, one in each hand, and then the brilliance seared into his eyes.

They took their hands away from him. The distant screaming continued, then stopped abruptly. After the first terrible pain came shock. His eyes, or what used to be his eyes, were impacted with images, white with pain. He swayed, then caught himself and stood quite still. The background noises became louder, moved closer. In the urgency of the voices around him, he heard that of Sgouros, slow and dry. Sgouros stumped around him with deliberation, then turned away.

``Obviously, Archbishop, as a blind man, you are unfit for holy office.''

He waved a hand toward his supported and called out, though his voice broke in mid-word, ``Anaxios!''

Unworthy. He spoke loudly in parody of the service of ordination, when the priest is presented to the people and they cry Axios! to affirm his worthiness.

``Anaxios'' the men around them called, raising their voices a little and forcing the cry. ``Anaxios!''

The Archbishop bowed his head. ``Yes, Archon.'' He spoke with dignity, but his voice trembled from pain.

`Despot'' Kamateros stepped close. ``Not Archon.''

Then turning to Sgouros he said casually, ``He is indeed unfit to be Archbishop, Despot, but perhaps he could be Doge.''

Sgouros began to laugh, a great deep laugh that flooded up from his belly and spilled out, staining everyone in earshot. As if at a signal, the group of men moved toward the Archbishop. He sensed their nearness, drew away from them, hitting the wall.

Kamateros had reminded them of their fears, of the terror of the Franks. Last year when the Franks attacked Constantinople the first time, the men of the City were nearly successful in repelling them. But the golden-prowed galley of the old Doge of Venice---blinded in a City prison, or in a street fight, rumor said, or perhaps it was merely the cataracts of old age---forced its way between the attacking ships to the harbor wall. He stood erect at the prow shouting them on, feet planted far apart, brandishing aloft in both hands the banner of the gold lion of St. Mark. The galley nudged the wall, he shouted again, two sailors swung him up onto the wall of the City where he stood bellowing like a bull, waving the banner, rallying on the attack. Though it was said by the Greeks that he, a blind old man, had leaped alone. And they were ashamed to be afraid of an old man and a blind one at that.

Someone quite hear the Archbishop shouted, ``Make him leap onto the wall.''

More shouts: ``The wall! The wall!''

He was shoved again, fell, and putting out his hand recognized a flight of stairs. He tried to stand up, stumbled and fell again. Rough hands jerked him to his feet, turned him around.``Up, up!''

He lurched, nauseated. The pain hit his eyes with full force. Instinctively, he put his hands up, then jerked them away from the more terrible pain. Two or three were goading him with their javelins. He staggered up step by step.

``Jump, old man. Jump up.''

He tried to jump, fell, felt himself hoisted up, took another step, stumbled, and knew from the rush of wind that we was on the wall, that between him and the precipice there was only wind. He stood up carefully, took some deep breaths, and turned a little, sensing his direction.

The men below him fell quiet. They looked at him, looked to Sgouros who had a half-grin on his face. The Archbishop seemed to gaze intently down at them. Then he turned around. They thought he was saying something, but all they could catch was a phrase, a murmur like, `` . . . nor height nor depth nor any other creature . . .,'' and he was gone. Two of them reached the place where he had stood just in time to see him strike the rocks below. They looked back to Sgouros but he was walking away.


  1. It is known to us who read you that you write beautifully. Thoroughly enjoyable and dramatic. I can't wait for the next chapter.

  2. Thank you. I think I have the next chapter. Over the years, chapters have gone missing.

  3. How can you do all these things simultaneously, so nicely and so effectively? Evge!

  4. Τα κείμενά σου θυμίζουν τους μεταβυζαντινούς κεντητούς Επιτάφιους, που πολλούς από αυτούς έφεραν οι πρόσφυγες μαζί τους μετά το 1922. Με σύρμα, ασημένια και χρυσή κλωστή πυκνά κεντημένες σχηματιζότανε οι ανθρώπινες μορφές με κυρίαρχη αυτή του Αποκαθηλωθέντος Χριστού. Δεν ξέφευγε ούτε μισό χιλιοστό σε κανένα σημείο. Έτσι ακριβώς κατορθώνεις να μελετάς τις ιστορικές πηγές και μετά να τις «κεντάς» με τις ασημένιες και χρυσές κλωστές του νου σου χωρίς να αφήνεις ούτε μισό χιλιοστό για τους …υπόλοιπους.

  5. Σας ευχαριστώ, Στέλλα. Μπορείτε να χρησιμοποιήσετε τέτοιες όμορφες μεταφορές.


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