Aachen, ad 793
They think it is a fragment from a shattered human skull. Bone white, it has the same dished shape, and is thin enough to be from a dead child. The clerks in the royal chancery glance at it with distaste as they pass my desk, giving me a wide berth. Possibly they imagine it is a gruesome memento from King Carolus’s disastrous campaign against the Saracens in Hispania ﬁfteen years ago. They know that I took part in that failed invasion and that, though wounded, I survived the bloody ambush of his army’s rearguard during the retreat through the mountains. If the clerks presume that my swordsmanship saved me, they are wrong. The real reason was my friendship with the Saracens after I had lived among them and gained their trust, even though I was a spy.
Doubtless they also puzzle why the king himself still consults me from time to time, bypassing the royal council. They would be surprised to know that their most Christian and devout lord, Carolus, believes that dreams are a guide to the future. He asks my advice because I am someone who has been known to interpret the meaning of dreams and is himself a dreamer. Yet I am increasingly reluctant to provide the king with clear answers. Experience has taught me that dreams are rarely false but they often mislead. When their truth is ﬁnally revealed, the shock is all the greater. In the year before the Hispania campaign I dreamed of a giant Carolus on his warhorse and he was crying tears of blood. I had no idea then that it signiﬁed he would lose a third of his army and his favourite nephew and my patron, Count Hroudland, in that wretched ambush. And even if I had foreseen what was to happen, I could not have changed the outcome.
So when a dream provides me with a glimpse of the future, the prudent course is to hold my tongue.
Recalling the past requires similar caution. The story I will set down touches on a royal secret being kept from Carolus, here in Aachen. Should he learn what I am concealing from him, I would be disgraced. So I intend the tale as a purely private record of a journey to distant, little-known lands. That is why I have placed the little bone-white chip with its ragged edges in plain view on my desk. People steer clear of bits of skulls – though that is not what it is – and this will keep my written pages from prying eyes.
I lay face down on the soggy ground, trying to ignore the throb of pain in my left shoulder. The wound left by a Vascon spear point had healed cleanly, leaving a puckered scar, but the change of season still brought on a deep-seated ache. The dampness seeping through my clothes from the leaf mould beneath me was making matters worse. The only sounds were random splashes and drips as the oak forest around me shed a recent rain shower. Though it was mid-morning, the underﬂoor of the woodland remained gloomy and dank. The spring foliage of the giant trees blocked much of the daylight and the air was heavy with the loamy smell of decaying vegetation. Directly in front of where I lay, a glade some thirty paces across was open to the sky. Whenever a cloud moved away from the face of the sun the fresh raindrops glistened on blades of new grass and gave the clearing a clean, inviting look. It was a deception. The centre of the glade was hollowed out. The pit was ten paces long, ﬁve wide and sheer sided. Dug to more than the height of a tall man, the empty space had been criss-crossed with a web of light withies to support a false covering of woven hurdles. The workmen had then spread a thin layer of turf sods that mimicked solid ground. In the very centre of the trap they had placed a pile of leafy branches cut from a bush believed to be the beast’s favourite food. The bait to the pitfall.
Very slowly, I raised my head and looked to my left. An arm’s length away Vulfard, the king’s chief verderer, was nestled. His leather leggings and jerkin, moss coloured and streaked with mud, blended perfectly with the shallow trench he had scooped out for himself. Even his weather-beaten complexion, darkened by a lifetime in the open air, matched the colour of last year’s leaf fall. His grizzled hair was cut very short, and his forest-green cap with its single eagle feather was placed beside him. He sensed my movement and turned to face me. Light brown eyes ﬂecked with yellow reminded me of the gaze of a canny dog fox and his ﬂinty expression told me that I was to remain absolutely still for as long as he decided was necessary. Otherwise we would waste the two weeks we had spent preparing for the beast: scouting the best spot for the trap, the breakneck dig and the tedious labour of carrying away the spoil, and a ﬁnal meticulous sweeping up to make sure that no trace of man remained. The labourers had ﬁnished their task just before sunset and had withdrawn from this remote corner of the forest. After they had left, Vulfard had gauged the likely direction of next morning’s breeze. Then he had placed his watchers. There were just three of us. Vulfard and I were hidden upwind. His son Walo was stationed a stone’s throw to our right where he could look down the track along which we expected the beast to approach. Walo’s task was to scare away any large animal that might blunder into the pitfall. We did not want a stag or boar crashing through the ﬂimsy covering. Our sole prey was the beast itself.
I relaxed and laid my head down into the crook of my arm, then closed my eyes. We had lain in wait for sixteen long, tedious and uncomfortable hours and nothing had happened. I was beginning to doubt that the beast existed at all. No one had actually seen the living creature. We were relying on reports of massive tracks left in soft mud; hoof prints larger than those of any known animal. Foresters had noted the stubs of branches ripped off seven and eight feet above ground, the splintered ends left pale and mangled. The best evidence of the beast’s existence was its dung. Great piles of it contained undigested twigs and leaves that allowed Vulfard to guess the creature’s diet and then devise a plan to catch it alive. The sceptics had laughed and said we were wasting our time. The unknown beast was nothing but a very large wisent, that breed of shaggy-headed, brutish wild cattle that roamed the forest. Wisents were rare but there were still enough of them in the forest for the king, who loved his hunting, to have killed one or two of them each season. It always put him into a great good humour.
Vulfard had disagreed with the doubters. He quoted a retired forester, dead these ﬁve years past, who had assured him that the gigantic beast and a few others of its kind had retreated into the furthest depths of the great forest and still lived.
A twig cracked loudly. The sound came from the far side of the glade. Startled, I raised my head, then remembered my instructions and froze in place. A hind was approaching. She was stepping delicately down the trail straight towards the pitfall. The swell of her belly showed that she would soon give birth to her fawn. She reached the edge of the glade and paused cautiously. At that moment there was a movement from my right. Walo, clad in forest colours like his father, had risen silently to his feet. Without a sound, he waved his arms. For a moment the hind failed to notice him. Then, with a sudden start she recognized danger and spun around and bounded away, disappearing back down the path she had come. Walo cast one quick glance towards his father, seeking his approval, then sank down again out of sight.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been troubled by the heartless way the labourers had teased Walo. He was an easy target. His arms and legs were too short for his body, and the slack mouth and the half-closed eyelids in a moon face made it look as if he was about to drop off to sleep at any moment. Nor did it help that his speech was slow and often slurred, and what he said was sometimes what you might expect from an eight-year-old boy, not an adult. His appearance made it difﬁcult to tell Walo’s age, but I guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. Vulfard was ﬁercely protective of his son. He had rounded angrily on the man who grumbled that Walo was too simpleminded to be made a lookout. The royal verderer had snarled that he would withhold the man’s wages on account of his insolence. Then he had sent the fellow packing. I feared that if Walo botched this task, the men’s taunts would make his life even more difﬁcult.
I must have fallen into a doze soon afterwards, for the next thing I knew I was jerked awake by a deep wheezing grunt. The sound was so hoarse and powerful that it seemed to reverberate right inside my own chest. I had never heard a sound like it, but the message was unmistakable. It was a challenge.
I could not stop myself. I twisted round and looked behind me. The sight was something from a nightmare.
An enormous animal stood among the tree trunks, some thirty paces behind us. How such a bulky and massive creature had managed to come so close and in such silence was shocking. Even Vulfard, the most alert of huntsmen, had been taken off-guard.
The beast had ambushed us. At the shoulder it stood taller than the very largest stallion. The body bulged with muscle and was covered with a coarse blackish-brown pelt. The creature was a grotesque version of farm oxen that I had known as a child. They had been domestic animals, plodding, slow and placid. The creature that now stood close behind us was larger, stronger, hostile, and inﬁnitely more dangerous. I stared with horriﬁed fascination at its horns. They projected from its brow in a long forward curve, half the length of my arm, then swept upwards to end in a deadly sharp-pointed hook. They were designed to pierce, gore, and then ﬂing aside a victim. They were weapons for killing.
Unbidden, the name of the beast surfaced in my mind. Vulfard’s informant had called it ‘aurochs’. In Frankish this meant ‘ancient ox’, an apt name for a throwback that belonged to a distant age when all manner of gross creatures walked the forest. I had failed to foresee that beasts that deserved this name might still claim mastery over their ancestral domain.
The huge beast gave a second resounding grunt. Louder, more aggressive than before, the challenge was even more obvious. The animal resented our presence. We were trespassers, and the carefully sited trap had gone disastrously wrong. We had planned for the aurochs to approach from the far side of the glade and we had placed ourselves downwind. But the beast had come from behind us, sensed our presence, and come to investigate. Now we were the ones who were trapped.
The beast tossed its head angrily. A great gob of drooling spittle ﬂew through the air.
My guts turned to water. I was so frightened that I doubted I could even get to my feet. For a stupid moment I thought that if I stayed absolutely motionless the creature would ignore me.
Then the aurochs swung its head from side to side, displaying the terrible horns in a further warning, and I saw the creature’s eyes. They had a mad, glaring look, a white rim around the darker, gleaming centre. There was no chance that the creature would leave us alone.
It was so close that I could see the slick wetness inside the ﬂaring nostrils of its broad black muzzle. The aurochs snorted angrily yet again, then gave another threatening side-to-side shake of the horns. The creature stamped down, pawing at the ground. The hoof dragged a deep furrow in the soft earth, and the monster lowered its head. It was about to charge.
At that instant, Vulfard saved my life. He was either very brave or very foolish. ‘Lie still, Sigwulf!’ he rasped, then he sprang to his feet, snatching up his cap. Spinning round to face the aurochs, he waved his cap in the animal’s face and taunted it with a shout. Then he turned on his heel and ran directly towards the pitfall.
It was impossible that such a huge animal could move so fast. One moment the aurochs was standing still. The next, it had gathered its huge haunches and sprung forward, head down, the great legs moving in a blur. The ground shook under me with the sudden thud of its hooves, followed by a waft of musty air as the animal raced past where I lay paralysed with fear. In a heartbeat it was closing the gap as Vulfard sprinted to escape the deadly horns.
He ran out into the glade. Now he was on open ground and totally exposed. Yet he kept his nerve. With perhaps three paces to the lip of the pitfall he glanced over his shoulder and, at the very last second, swerved to one side. The aurochs charged on past him, unable to halt its headlong rush.
As the huge beast stepped on the false ground the covering of hurdles collapsed immediately. With a great ﬂurry of broken sticks and earth sods the huge creature tumbled into the pit, bellowing with rage.
Perhaps Vulfard had mistaken the precise location of the hidden pit. Or misjudged the length and reach of the long horns. The verderer was unbalanced and teetering on the very edge of the pit when the aurochs dropped forward. With amazing agility for such a bulky creature, the aurochs twisted sideways in mid-air. The tip of the right horn snagged the verderer’s jerkin, just below the armpit. One moment Vulfard was on the edge of the pit; the next he was dragged down with the enraged beast.
Aghast, I lurched awkwardly to my feet and ran forward, my legs already wobbly with fear. Reaching the edge of the pit I looked down. Nothing could save Vulfard. He had landed alongside the animal and managed to push himself upright in the gap between the side of the pit and the aurochs’ hindquarters. For a brief moment he was clear of its horns. But the enraged monster squirmed round and I watched as it drove a horn straight into Vulfard’s chest. The horn spiked Vulfard like a pig on a roasting spit, passing right through him. With a savage twist of its head the aurochs tossed Vulfard high into the air. The verderer spun, then fell back. The aurochs caught him on both horns, then tossed him again. I prayed that death would come to Vulfard quickly, so badly broken was his body. It ﬂopped limply as the aurochs ﬂung its victim upwards again and again. After several lunging, maddened attacks the brute allowed the wreckage of what had once been a man to drop into the churned mud of the pitfall’s ﬂoor. To my horror the aurochs then backed away into the small space available, lowered its head and deliberately spiked the corpse again. Lifting Vulfard on its head like some grisly trophy, the aurochs shook its head from side to side as a terrier might shake a rat in its jaws. A terrier would have growled its anger; the aurochs bellowed and bellowed hate and frustration.
Only when Vulfard’s mangled corpse was a bloody pulp did the aurochs ﬁnally drop its victim into the slime and mud. Little by little, the frenzied bellowing died away, and from where I stood above, I could see its ﬂanks heaving in and out. Then the beast raised its huge head to me, its mad, white-rimmed eyes glaring malevolently.
In the terrible, empty interval that followed I became aware of Walo standing on the opposite side of the pit. He too had been looking down at the gruesome death of his father. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was shaking violently. For a desperate moment I thought that Walo would hurl himself down into the pit to try to retrieve his father’s body or avenge his killer. Instead, as the aurochs ceased its bellowing, Walo threw back his head and, between great sobs of anguish, let out an awful, long-drawn-out howl.
My summons to the royal chancery had arrived three weeks earlier. The compline bell in the dome of Aachen’s basilica was tolling when a nervous-looking young clerk with rabbit teeth knocked on my door. He stared at the ground and mumbled his words because I had not had time to slip on the eye patch I usually wore in public. The Franks and my own Saxon people believe that someone who has eyes of different colours bears the mark of a person touched by the evil one. One of my eyes is blue, the other a greenish hazel. This oddity saved my life as a teenager when my bitter nemesis, King Offa of Wessex, invaded and seized my family’s insigniﬁcant little kingdom. Offa slaughtered my father and brothers but, fearful that ill luck would follow my murder, he spared my life, choosing instead to exile me to the court of the king of the Franks and the most powerful sovereign in Europe whose rule now extends from the Atlantic coast to the dark forests beyond the Rhine. That exile had a cruel streak. Offa anticipated that I would suffer all the disadvantages and sorrows of a winelas guma, a ‘friendless man’, a prey to all who would harm or exploit him. Against all odds I had prospered. My service in Hispania had been rewarded with an annual stipend and the gift of a small house on the edge of the royal precinct.
The young messenger on my doorstep also made it clear that he preferred not to come into the house. I guessed it had something to do with the fact that I shared my home with a foreigner of sinister appearance. Osric’s dark Saracen skin, sardonic manner, and the twisted leg must have made him an alarming ﬁgure to the desk-bound gossips in the government bureaucracy. Osric had once been a slave, charged by my father with my upbringing. Now he was my trusted companion and friend.
I stepped back inside the house, put on my eye patch, and collected a heavy ankle-length cloak. At that late hour the braziers in the chancery ofﬁces would have been allowed to burn out, and the place was notoriously draughty. Then I followed the messenger along the footpaths that criss-crossed Aachen’s royal precinct. We had to go carefully in the fading light as the place was still a construction site. Piles of sand, brick or cut stone were dumped here and there, apparently at random. Temporary workshops and storehouses sprang up overnight, forcing one to make a detour. A familiar track was suddenly blocked by recent scaffolding, or fenced off by a barrier to stop one falling into a trench being dug for the foundations of a new building. For as long as I had known Carolus, the king had been pressing forward with his grand design to make himself a new capital in the north, the equal of Rome, and he was sparing no expense. His treasury, the tribunal building, and the garrison block were complete. But the towering council hall, large enough to seat an audience of four hundred, was still a shell, while his most ambitious structure, the royal chapel, was not yet ready for its ceremonial consecration. It had acquired bells and marble columns and a pair of great, ornate bronze doors that had been locally commissioned and made a fortune for the foundry owner. But an army of workmen still had months of labour before they ﬁnished cementing into place the brightly coloured mosaics that would dazzle the congregation.
We met no one on our way to the chancery except for a few late-comers hurrying towards the basilica. From inside came the words of a psalm energetically sung by a large choir, and I caught a faint whiff of the burning incense. I hastened my pace a little and tried to stay in the shadows, not wanting to draw attention to my absence from the service. With each year Carolus was becoming more and more devout and he expected his entourage to be the same. Those like myself who had little or no religion risked his displeasure if they failed at least to make an outward show of faith.
At the entrance to the chancery my guide plucked up the courage to tell me that he was eager to attend the last of the service, and – as I had anticipated – it was Alcuin of York who wished to see me. I assured him that I knew where to ﬁnd Alcuin’s ofﬁce. With a grateful bob of his head, the young man hurried off, leaving me to ﬁnd my own way.
I had ﬁrst met Alcuin of York thirteen years earlier, on the day I had trudged into Aachen as a footsore and callow youth accompanied by a limping slave. Alcuin was scholar, churchman and tutor to Carolus’s own family. Royal conﬁdant and mentor, he was the man the king consulted on delicate matters of state. Indeed, I had known Alcuin long enough to know that he would still be on his knees in the front rank of the congregation, and there was no point in hanging about in a chilly corridor. So, briskly, I made my way to his ofﬁce and, wishing that King Offa could witness my self-assurance, I did not bother to knock but pushed open the door and boldly walked in.
It was more a monk’s cell than a bureaucrat’s work place. A simple wooden cross hung on one whitewashed wall. Directly opposite was a large plain desk with an uncomfortable-looking wooden stool placed so that anyone looking up from his work would directly face the cruciﬁx. Apart from the shelves that lined the remaining walls, the room was bare of furniture. Three candles of expensive beeswax had been arranged on the desk in an iron sconce. In a sign of economy, just one candle was lit to illuminate the sheet of vellum, pen and ink bottle left there. Alcuin had evidently been working late and had only left the room to attend compline. He would be back shortly.
I closed the door behind me and restrained an impulse to read what it was that Alcuin had been writing. Instead, I sauntered over to the shelves and picked up an item that had caught my eye. It was totally out of place in such austere surroundings. It was a tremendous drinking horn, almost a yard long. I recognized the shape from drinking vessels of similar style used at palace banquets. But they were half the size of the one I held in my hands and were made of glass or cow horn. I brought it closer to the candle ﬂame, trying to identify the material. The dark surface had been polished to a high shine, and there was a broad silver band around the open end. I peered inside. It would hold an impressive quantity of liquid, and when I sniffed, I distinctly picked up the smell of ale. At that moment I heard the scuff of footsteps on the ﬂagstones outside. Hurriedly I replaced the great horn on the shelf and turned, just as Alcuin came in.
It was typical of Alcuin that he did not seem to notice the cold of the evening. He was wearing only a plain dark brown gown and had sandals on his bare feet. Gaunt and of a little more than ordinary height, he would have been approaching his ﬁftieth year. His hair had thinned and receded, accentuating the severely intellectual look of a high forehead and the narrow, clever face. Pale skin and faint freckles told of his northern origins, and grey eyes retained the sharply penetrating gaze that I remembered from previous interviews. I thought he looked tired and over-worked.
‘Sigwulf. Thank you for coming so promptly,’ he began, apparently unconcerned to ﬁnd me loitering in his ofﬁce. He did not suggest that I remove my cloak so I anticipated that the interview would be brief.
‘You’ve heard about the gifts from Caliph Haroun, I presume,’ he said. He had a distinctive way of speaking. Each word was carefully selected and precisely delivered as if he was delivering a lecture. I listened closely. Alcuin had a well-earned reputation as someone who came straight to the point and I was intrigued to know why I had been called to his ofﬁce at this late hour.
‘I’m told that the knight keeps good time,’ I replied. The caliph’s most talked-about gift was a mechanical clock. On each hour, the tiny ﬁgure of a knight in armour emerged from a miniature pavilion and dropped a metal ball that chimed against a metal dish. No one had ever seen such a marvel of ingenuity.
‘Let us hope the knight does not rust. We have no craftsmen capable of repairing him,’ Alcuin observed drily.
There was nothing unusual about Carolus receiving gifts from foreign rulers. The palace kept inventories of the various items and their value – jewels, coin, inlaid armour, furs, carved ivory, rolls of expensive cloth and so forth. A few pieces were selected for display but most were consigned to the royal treasury, a windowless building with walls three feet thick that had been built against the side of the as-yet-unﬁnished council chamber.
‘What do you know about this caliph?’ Alcuin asked me.
‘Only common knowledge,’ I replied cautiously. ‘His capital is a city called Baghdad. It’s very far away, beyond Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He lives there in great splendour and is hugely wealthy. The quality of his gifts is proof of that.’
Alcuin gave me a patient look as if to rebuke me for my ignorance. ‘Haroun al Rashid is one of the three most powerful rulers on this earth.’ He spoke as if to a promising but lazy student. ‘The other two being the emperor in Constantinople and, of course, our own Carolus. The most signiﬁcant of Haroun’s many titles and honoriﬁcs is Commander of the Faithful. He regards himself as supreme overlord of all Saracens.’
‘Surely the emir of Cordoba contests that claim,’ I murmured. I had received my shoulder wound during the failed expedition by Carolus’s army into Hispania in support of a rebellion against the emir. I recalled that the rebels, Saracens themselves, had appealed for help from distant Baghdad as well as from Carolus.
‘You are correct. The emir of Cordoba refuses to acknowledge the caliph’s authority. I won’t trouble you with the details, but Haroun’s forebears killed every member of the emir’s family they could hunt down after seizing the caliphate. The sole survivor ﬂed to Hispania where he established his own independent dominion. The two dynasties hate one another.’
I glimpsed the direction Alcuin’s comments were leading. ‘So Haroun sends valuable gifts to Carolus as a gesture of appreciation and friendship.’
Alcuin rewarded me with a slight smile. ‘Sigwulf, I’m glad that you are still reasonably quick on the uptake.’
‘My friend Osric tells me that the Saracens have a saying: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” ’
A worm of doubt was stirring in my mind. Did my summons from Alcuin have something to do with Osric?
Alcuin’s next statement made matters no clearer. ‘Custom and diplomacy dictate that Carolus responds to Haroun’s generosity by sending valuable gifts of equal rarity back to him. The king has consulted me for my recommendations.’
‘Not an easy task,’ I said blandly.
Alcuin gave me a sharp look. Perhaps he thought I was teasing him. ‘This will be more than a matter of sending the caliph a parcel of sword blades,’ he snapped.
Frankish sword smiths were renowned for the quality of their weapons and a consignment of sword blades was a standard item among the gifts that Carolus despatched to fellow rulers.
Alcuin quickly regained his usual even tone. ‘The caliph must have known about Carolus’s menagerie because Haroun’s gifts included an elephant.’
I gaped. The collection of animals in Carolus’s menagerie included wolves, bears, leopards, peacocks, lynx and even a panther sent by the basileus, the emperor in Constantinople. The thought that they might have been joined by a living elephant was tantalizing. I thought how dearly I would love to see an elephant.
Alcuin was enjoying my evident amazement. ‘Regrettably the creature did not survive the journey here,’ he added.
My imagination soared. I had heard about elephants. Everyone had. They featured in many tales about the fabled east, and my boyhood teacher, a defrocked priest, had described how the ancient Romans trained them as instruments of warfare. But no elephant, as far as I was aware, had set foot in Europe for centuries. They were wondrous beasts.
‘The death of this particular animal is most unfortunate,’ Alcuin went on. ‘The elephant had been specially selected. Its skin was very pale, almost white – a very great compliment from the caliph to Carolus. Apparently, white is the royal colour in Baghdad. Anyone who enters the inner city must be dressed in white.
‘What did the elephant die of?’ I asked.
‘You will have to ask the man who was in charge of its transport from Baghdad. He is full of apologies.’
If I had been more alert, Alcuin’s words would have prepared me for what was to follow. But I was still too intrigued by the idea of an elephant arriving in Aachen to notice what he had implied.
Alcuin had not ﬁnished. ‘I’ll introduce him to you at another time. You’ll like him. He’s most civilized and obliging. He’s a Radhanite by the name of Abram.’
‘A Radhanite?’ I repeated. I had no idea what Alcuin meant.
‘The Radhanites are Israelites by faith.’ Here I detected a brief glint of disapproval, ‘They spend most of their lives on the road, moving from one market to another, trading, trading, always trading. They’ve spun themselves a web of contacts and associates that reaches from Hispania to India.’
Reluctantly I abandoned my daydream of seeing an elephant, and tried to concentrate on what Alcuin was saying. ‘If a city or town prospers by trade, you can safely say that it has its share of Rhadanites, if only a family or two. In Carolus’s domain we are aware that they favour the trade artery of the Rhone and several families are settled in the riverside towns. But you never know where or when you’ve come across one. They merge into the background. It is said that they recognize one another by secret signs.’
He paused. ‘Our king has decided that he will match Caliph Haroun’s generosity by sending to Baghdad a selection of creatures as unique and special as a nearly white elephant.’ Up until now, Alcuin had amazed and intrigued me. Now he stunned me. ‘Sigwulf, the king has speciﬁcally directed that you be placed in charge of their transport to Baghdad.’
His statement was so unexpected that it was some moments before I found my voice. ‘What sort of animals will I be transporting?’ I croaked.
Alcuin treated me to a sardonic smile. ‘That I will leave to Carolus himself to inform you of. He will have ﬁnished chapel by now and have arrived back in the royal apartments. He is expecting to see you . . . without delay.’
The interview was over. Dazed, I fumbled my way towards the door and found myself back in the corridor. It was only as I closed the door behind me that I realized that when I had asked which animals I was to take to Baghdad, Alcuin’s eyes had ﬂicked towards the enormous, silver-mounted drinking horn.
The night sky had clouded over and the covered arcade that linked the chancery building with the royal living apartments was in near-total darkness. The middle section of the arcade was unﬁnished and littered with paving slabs, yet I found my way without stumbling or tripping. I had taken that same route many times, usually well after sunset, though the excursions had been much less frequent in recent months. They had occurred on the nights when I was summoned by Bertha, one of Carolus’s large brood of daughters. She had swooped on me soon after my arrival as a young man in Aachen, judging me to be naı¨ve, and – as I came to understand – exotically attractive with my strange eye colours and foreign background. The passage of time had cooled her ardour and I had slipped far down the list of those whom she took to her bed. Yet she still liked to tweak the string occasionally and would reel me in when she sought variety among her lovers. I knew very well that the relationship was increasingly unstable and very dangerous. If her father learned of the extent of his daughter’s wanton activities, he might decide to put a stop to them by making an example of someone he considered to have been particularly presumptuous and brazen with a royal princess. As an interloper within the Frankish court, I was the obvious candidate for exemplary punishment. I dreaded what penalty might be exacted – execution or castration were both possibilities – and I had already resolved to extricate myself from the relationship with Bertha. But I was wary. To deny her might make her vindictive, and, to be truthful to myself, I still found Bertha most alluring. She took great care with her appearance, staining her lips with berry juice and applying a delicate coat of powder to cover the ﬁrst blemishes in her once ﬂawless complexion. Doubtless she tinted the long ﬂaxen braids that her attendants spent hours brushing and arranging. But her body needed no such artiﬁce. As she matured, Bertha’s statuesque ﬁgure had become ever more voluptuous and desirable.
The king’s living quarters took up the entire ﬁrst ﬂoor of a substantial building in the north-east corner of the royal precinct. At the foot of the broad sweep of stairs I ignored the smirk on the face of one of the guards, recognizing him as one of the men who took bribes to look the other way when I was visiting Bertha. His colleagues searched me for hidden weapons and passed me on to an under-steward who was already hovering and waiting to take my cloak. Carolus’s household staff were well used to dealing with late callers to see their master. It was the king’s habit to take a long nap in the afternoon and then work far into the night. If Carolus was restless, he was known to slip out of his ofﬁcial apartments in the small hours of the morning and wander about the royal precinct, unescorted, checking on what was going on. On one heart-stopping occasion I had almost bumped into him as I was on my way to a tryst with Bertha, and I was still not sure if he had seen me hastily dart away.
After a short delay the under-steward led me up the stairs and to a set of double doors. He knocked discreetly before easing them open just wide enough to let me slip inside.
I had to squint. In contrast to Alcuin’s dimly lit ofﬁce, Carolus’s private audience chamber was ablaze with light. Clusters of tall, fat candles burned everywhere. They were suspended in holders from the ceiling beams, ﬁxed on great iron ﬂoor stands, held in wall brackets. Many were ﬁtted with polished steel mirrors. The effect was to heat the room, make it as bright as day and ﬂood one’s senses with the sweet scent of beeswax. The spacious room itself gave an impression of comfortable opulence. The windows were ﬁlled with panes of glass to keep out the weather. Linen panels painted with colourful pictures of hunting scenes decorated the walls. A day couch covered with cushions and a rich carpet was where Carolus could take his afternoon nap. Another expensive-looking rug served as a cloth on a broad table, and beneath its edge was a glimpse of table legs intricately carved into animal shapes. Half a dozen folding chairs were made of some dark, exotic wood, and – inevitably – there was a cruciﬁx. In Alcuin’s study the cross had been plain and unadorned, hung against a white wall. Here the cross was four times the size, standing on a base of pale green marble and placed where it was immediately visible to a visitor. Its arms were studded with patterns of semiprecious coloured stones that glowed in the candlelight.
Carolus loomed beside the table, his presence dominating the room. I had forgotten what a big man he was. He was taller than me by at least a head, powerfully built with heavy bones, wide shoulders, large feet and hands. His luxuriant hair had gone grey but was carefully trimmed and oiled, and he wore the long drooping moustaches so fashionable among the Franks. As usual, he dressed modestly for someone of his exalted rank though the materials were of the very best quality. The wool of his deep-blue hose and tunic was as ﬁne as silk, and the soft leather of his shoes and garters had been dyed pale blue, then over-stamped with leaf designs in silver. He wore very little jewellery – a heavy gold ring inset with a large red stone on his right hand, and a torc of twisted gold around his thick neck. Despite the warmth in the room he was wearing a waistcoat of short fur that I guessed was otter skin. It was left open at the front because Carolus, King of the Franks and Patrician of the Romans, had grown a noticeable paunch.
‘Sigwulf, I have a mission for you,’ said the king briskly. Like Alcuin, he too preferred to come directly to the point. In contrast to his advisor’s clear, quiet tones the king spoke in a surprisingly high, thin voice. It was unexpected coming from such a bulky frame.
I stood meekly, unable to tear my gaze away from the object that Carolus was holding. It was another of those huge silver-mounted drinking horns, the twin of the one I had just seen in Alcuin’s study. In the king’s massive grasp it seemed not quite as out of proportion.
‘This is from my grandfather’s time,’ said the king, observing my gaze and turning the great drinking horn this way and that.
I remained silent and waited.
‘Alcuin mentioned the elephant that the caliph had chosen for me?’ the king asked.
‘I am very sorry to hear that the creature did not survive the journey, Your Majesty,’ I murmured politely.
‘No matter. I will send in return a creature that is equally spectacular.’ Carolus hefted the horn as if he was proud of it. ‘Nothing the size of an elephant, of course. But two of these will be the equal!’
Carolus was boyish in his enthusiasm. I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘My verderer, Vulfard, tells me that it’s possible,’ he said.
He must have noted the puzzled look on my face or remembered that I was an outsider who had not grown up among the Franks. ‘Sigwulf, this is the horn of the largest, most dangerous animal in my kingdom. The man who hunts the aurochs requires skill and courage. If he succeeds, the horn is a mark of his bravery, a supreme trophy.’
The king’s large grey eyes scanned my face, his expression momentarily serious. ‘Sigwulf, you will take a pair of live aurochs to Baghdad for me, a bull and cow. They will be my elephants. Breeding stock for Haroun’s menagerie. That Saracen friend of yours will be a help.’
Carolus had an astonishing memory. It was one reason why his grip on more than half of Europe was so effective. He remembered small details and combined them with a shrewd judgement of people. Osric had played a vital part with me during the Hispania campaign.
Abruptly Carolus broke into a high-pitched laugh, almost a giggle. ‘I’m beginning to sound like the quarrelling hunters of the fable,’ he said, smiling at me to share his joke.
This time I knew what he was talking about. The tale was of two hunters, preparing to hunt a bear, arguing so bitterly over who should get the bear’s pelt that they fell out before they got started and never managed to kill their prey.
‘First we must catch our aurochs,’ he said. ‘I’ve given Vulfard all the men he needs. You are to join him and learn how the animal lives in the wild, what it eats, how it behaves, and so on. You must get to know how to look after the beast so that it survives the journey, unlike that unfortunate elephant.’
The king walked across to the table and set down the aurochs’ horn. I thought my interview was at an end and prepared to take my leave. But then he said over his shoulder, ‘Sigwulf, take off your eye patch. You need both eyes for what I’m going to show you.’
Obediently I took off the eye patch. Carolus had known about my different-colour eyes since my ﬁrst arrival at his court.
When he turned to face me, he held an object I had not expected: a book.
Carolus could neither write nor read. Bertha had told me so. She had revealed that her father kept a stylus and wax tablet by his pillow so that he could practise his letters in secret but was making little progress. He knew how to write his name, of course. He had developed an impressive royal signature full of ﬂourishes and cross-strokes. He scratched it on ofﬁcial documents prepared by his secretaries, and although he might puzzle out a handful of words, reading an entire book was well beyond the limits of his capability.
Carolus’s initial boyishness had been replaced by something almost conspiratorial, as if he was about to share a secret with me.
‘Besides learning how to look after an aurochs, you will procure some other animals as my gifts for the caliph Haroun,’ he said.
‘At Your Majesty’s command,’ I answered. There was no mistaking his tone of voice; this was an order and I had no choice in the matter. He had no need to remind me that I was an exile from my homeland and depended on Carolus for my entire existence. I was completely at the king’s disposal.
‘Alcuin told you that the elephant that died was near-white? And that white is the royal colour in Baghdad?’
‘He did, Your Majesty.’
The king opened the book. ‘Besides a pair of live aurochs, I have decided to present the caliph with a selection of different and interesting animals, all of them white.’
There was a note of self-congratulation in his voice. I sensed that what he was about to say had not been discussed with Alcuin beforehand. It made me all the more attentive and a little uneasy.
The king was turning the pages of the book, searching for something. From where I stood I could tell that the pages were covered with coloured pictures though, as they were upside down, it was difﬁcult to work out exactly what they were.
‘The caliph has his own menagerie at his Baghdad palace.’ Carolus had a slight frown on his face and was talking to himself as much as he was addressing me. ‘Alcuin informs me that his animal collection is a wonder of the world. There are strange beasts from countries as far away as India and beyond.’
He was ﬁnding it difﬁcult to locate the right page. He reached the end of the book and began to search through it from the beginning again.
‘I must send animals that he does not already have. Animals that will amaze him, and ﬂatter him because they, too, are white. Ah! Here is one!’
He turned the book around and held it out to show me.
The book was a bestiary, a volume where the artist had drawn pictures of strange and remarkable animals. The illustration that the king had selected was of an ice bear.
‘Imagine the effect when Haroun sees a bear that is white, and so big and powerful!’ said Carolus triumphantly. ‘He will understand that in the north we have creatures every bit as remarkable as his tigers and lions.’
I swallowed hard, my mouth had gone dry. ‘Your Majesty, if I understand correctly, your wish is that I take an ice bear to Baghdad, as well as two aurochs?’ A worrying image had surfaced in my head. An animal accustomed to ice and snow would die from heat on the way to Haroun’s capital. An ice bear would never survive the trip.
‘Not a single ice bear, Sigwulf. A pair of them,’ muttered the king. He was already leaﬁng through the pages of the bestiary again. He quickly found what he wanted, and again held up the page for me to see.
‘And at least two of these. More, if you can get them.’
This time it was a drawing of a bird of prey. The artist had accurately sketched the elegant pointed wings, the neat head and ﬁercely hooked beak. He had tinted a bright yellow eye and the grey talons, but left the sleek body uncoloured so that the bird was off-white on the page except for a very light sprinkling of dark speckles.
Now I was on ﬁrmer ground. There were several such birds already in the royal mews. The Franks knew them as gyrfalcons or vulture falcons, and prized them so highly that their use as hunting birds was restricted to the king himself and his most senior lords. I felt a mild sense of relief, imagining that gyrfalcons were unlikely to suffer from the heat in the same way as an ice bear. Only one thing made me hesitate. The plumage of the gyrfalcons I had seen on their perch blocks in the royal mews ranged in colour from silver-brown to a bird that was nearly black. I had never seen one that was as white as the illustration on the page, and I wondered where I could ﬁnd white gyrfalcons.
The king provided the answer. He loved his hawking and was very knowledgeable about his birds of prey.
‘Sigwulf, my mews master will give you the names of the traders who deal in vulture falcons. You’ll buy only pure-white birds from them. You’ll have ample funds.’
‘Where will I ﬁnd these traders?’ I ventured to ask.
‘Far in the north.’ Carolus’s reply had the vagueness of a monarch who expected his orders to be carried out. ‘Whether gyrfalcons or ice bears, it’s all the same. The further north you go, the whiter are the creatures. They match the ice and snow.’
But the king had not ﬁnished. He was already leaﬁng through the bestiary once more, and this time he found what he wanted near the opening page.
‘And while you are getting the ice bears and falcons, I want you to track down this creature for me.’ He held up the page.
It was a woodland scene. A beautiful maiden was seated beneath a tree laden with ripe fruit. The artist had shown her wearing a long, soft ﬂowing gown and her hair hung loose around her shoulders. She looked exceptionally demure. There was an impression of grassy sward and bright ﬂowers around her bare feet. In the background were low bushes. At the far left of the picture appeared the edge of a forest, and among the tree trunks lurked two men dressed as huntsmen. One was holding a spear, the other a rope noose. They were obviously hiding in ambush and about to pounce. Their intended prey was not the vulnerable-looking young woman, but a graceful four-legged animal that at ﬁrst glance was either a young stag or a ﬁne pure-bred horse. It was shown in the very centre of the composition, part kneeling and part lying on the grass and had laid its head trustingly in the young woman’s lap. This placed her in some danger because from the centre of the animal’s brow protruded a wicked looking spike, a single long horn with a distinctive spiral.
The animal was white.
A large blunt ﬁnger tapped the page. ‘Find me a unicorn.’
The king was so certain of what he wanted that I knew it would be wise to conceal my astonishment. Of course I had heard about the unicorn, just as I had heard about elephants. But I had never heard of anyone who had actually seen a living unicorn any more than someone who had seen a real elephant. Dimly I recalled my teacher telling me of a wild beast with a single horn that the Romans put on display in their circus games. As I looked at the vicious spike on the forehead of the creature in the picture it occurred to me that the same Romans also should have trained such an animal for war. It would have been at least as deadly as an elephant.
‘As Your Majesty commands,’ I said with a conﬁdence I did not feel.
Immediately he detected the uncertainty of my response. ‘Is there a problem?’
I took a deep breath. ‘Your Majesty has mentioned that white animals are commonly found in the lands of ice and snow. Their colour matches their surroundings. But it seems to me from this picture that the unicorn lives in places where the climate is quite warm, a place of forests and ﬂowers and fruit-bearing trees.’
Carolus took another look at the picture of the unicorn, and for a moment I thought he was about to change his instructions. But obtaining a unicorn was too close to his heart for him to abandon the idea entirely. ‘I admit that a unicorn will be difﬁcult to obtain. By all accounts it is a notoriously shy and timid beast. So just one example of the animal will be sufﬁcient. I don’t expect you to bring back two of them.’
I dared one last attempt to get him to re-consider. ‘Your Majesty, would not a professional huntsman have a better chance of capturing a unicorn? Someone like Vulfard?’
I had gone too far. The king brought down his heavy eyebrows in a scowl.
‘After Vulfard has secured the aurochs,’ I amended hastily.
The king regarded me for a long moment, and, despite the warmth of the room, I felt a sudden cold chill in the air. ‘I think you, Sigwulf, would be more suited than Vulfard for this enterprise. The unicorn has a weakness: it cannot control its animal passion. If it sees a young maiden, it will emerge from hiding and lay its head adoringly on the maiden’s lap. Then it can be taken.’
The goosebumps rose on my skin. I wondered how much Carolus knew about my affair with his daughter. This interview was getting more difﬁcult by the minute, and it was time to leave the room. I bowed again and began to sidle towards the door. He stopped me with a single barbed phrase, ‘Sigwulf, there’s one more thing to discuss…’
I braced myself. This surely had something to do with Bertha.
‘Have you had any more dreams that I should know about?’ he asked.
I swallowed with relief. Carolus knew my dreams. They were strange and vivid and, if interpreted correctly, foretold the future. But interpretation was very difﬁcult, often contradictory, and to help me I had used the Oneirokritikon, an ancient book on how to interpret dreams, written by a Greek named Artimedorus. The copy that had come into my possession was in Arabic and Osric had translated it for me. But less than twenty pages of our translation survived – the rest had been lost during the war in Hispania – and we kept them hidden beneath a ﬂoorboard in the house.
‘I’ve had very few dreams in recent times. Nothing of note,’ I answered truthfully.
He nodded, seemingly satisﬁed. ‘Well, if there is something I should know about, please tell Alcuin. He will keep me informed.’
I left the audience chamber feeling distinctly queasy. I had always thought of Carolus as a benign and understanding overlord. Now I was not so sure. This time he had been self-absorbed and imperious, even threatening. Perhaps that was the inevitable result of more than twenty years on the throne, ruling such a vast kingdom. Day after day he was dealing with a multitude of problems and had to manage a circle of courtiers with their competing rivalries and jealousies. I was glad to be out of his sight.
I collected my cloak from the under-steward and, deep in thought, descended the stairs. The wind had got up and was driving a chill, slanting rain between the pillars of the arcade at ground level. The corrupt guardsman gave me a sly wink as I walked past him, and his gesture conﬁrmed my worries: I had allowed myself to drift dangerously close to the intrigues and conspiracies of court. I should be thankful that the king had jolted me out of my seductively comfortable life. In Aachen I was achieving nothing of note, and the mission he had given me was my chance to put my abilities to the test, engage myself in something worthwhile, and indulge my curiosity for seeing new countries and my love of travel. Not least, it was the ideal excuse to put a safe distance between Bertha and myself.
Stepping out from the shelter of the building, I turned and looked into the wind. The night sky was velvety black. Tilting back my head I let the cold raindrops splatter on my face and trickle down my neck. It was time I woke up.
Excerpted from Saxon: The Emperor’s Elephant by Tim Severin. Copyright © 2013 by Tim Severin.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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