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Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey.

Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey.

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Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey.

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Jan 2, 2012


Ambrose and his friends flee for their lives from imperial Constantinople. The Grand Chamberlain wants them dead, and has dispatched an admiral and a fleet to dispose of them. The prince hopes to return to his native Wessex. Caught by pirates, they are enslaved on Crete, but manage to cause a slave rebellion and escape to Alexandria. The Byzantine fleet follows, and Ambrose is forced to flee across all of North Africa. They are forced to fight mercenaries, Tuareg raiders, and the open desert. Finally, a Muslim slave trader sneaks them into southern Italy, but even there the chase is far from over.

Jan 2, 2012

Über den Autor

After counselling teenagers and adults for over 40 years, Bruce Corbett retired to concentrate on his writing and photography. To date, he has written a collection of Science Fiction short stories and two Science Fiction novels. His greatest project, however, is his series of historical novels based on a fictional hero, Ambrose, Prince of Wessex, set in the time of Alfred the Great.

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Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey. - Bruce Corbett


Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Basil, once a stable boy and soon to be emperor himself, really did persuade the Byzantine emperor of the time, Michael III, to kill Bardas, his own uncle and co-emperor, a man who had won battle after battle against the enemies of the embattled eastern Roman Empire.

The Cretan menace was a very real one. Moorish pirates from Spain had gained a foothold on Crete and, in the absence of strong Byzantine opposition, conquered the entire island. Bardas was on his way to retake the island when he was murdered.

I was intrigued to learn of the treatment by the conquering Moslems of the 'People of the Book.' The Christians and Jews who came under the Caliph's rule were not pressured to change their religion. They were required to pay a special tax, but were, in turn, exempt from military duty.

I am not sure if the lighthouse at Alexandria still functioned in 867 AD. Some years before, the third level had collapsed. Ahmad ibn Tulun, the next conqueror of Egypt and relative of Hakim in this story, placed a mosque on the top a few years after Ambrose, recently escaped from Crete, was, in turn, forced to flee the Egyptian city. I therefore arbitrarily decided to make the lighthouse fully functional, both by day and by night.

By great good fortune, I did not have to manipulate the time line. The major events occurred, approximately where I state. Where I was unable to find out specific details, I did not hesitate to use literary licence. For the sake of clarity, I delayed making Basil co-emperor and I used the modern equivalents of the Greek military and civil titles. I hope that you enjoy reading this story as much as I did researching and writing it.

The author

Bruce Corbett


Historical Background

Some seven years before this story opens, Prince Ambrose of Wessex, along with Phillip, his faithful weapons tutor and guardian, are captured in a Viking raid on a village on England's south coast. While on the way to Europe as captives, a terrible storm almost sinks the ship, yet Ambrose, and Phillip struggle to save it.

The battered vessel makes a Frisian port. There, many of the Saxon captives are sold, although one foreign prisoner is brought on board. Thus, Ambrose and Phillip meet Polonius, at the time just another chained slave, but once a linguist and scholar of Imperial Byzantium.

The ship reaches the Danish home port and the three friends are put to work. Ambrose has a generous master. Phillip is treated brutally and is condemned to be a sacrifice to a Viking god. Rescued by Ambrose and Polonius, the three companions flee in a small open boat, north and then east, until they hit the coast of Norway. They land in an isolated village, and, after being treated hospitably, begin their overland trek to Sweden, to find a friend of Ambrose's old master. Once there, they meet Gunnar of the Rus and happily settle down as apprentice traders.

The arrival of pursuing Danish ships abruptly ends their plans and forces them to flee once again. Gunnar arranges for them to join an expedition sailing for Novgorod, a Slavic river town where Rus tribesmen have been invited to settle.

Ambrose, Phillip and Polonius set up a trading post there for Gunnar. Within months, however, they get an opportunity to join another expedition that will take them deep into the heartland of the continent.

On their way south, after a bitter fight against nomad raiders, they reach the town of Kiev. The Rus adventurers take control and set about expanding their new empire.

An entire nation of migrating steppe warriors erupt from the vast steppes to the east. The fierce nomads threaten to overwhelm Kiev, but Polonius' innovations and the fanatical fighting prowess of the Vikings earn victory for the Northmen. The story of these adventures may be found in Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev.

Within months after the Pecheneg attack, the Rus tribesmen send the war arrow up and down the river. The audacious warriors plan a punitive attack on Constantinople, the greatest city in the world.

The three friends join the attack on Constantinople and, after considerable adventures, return to Kiev in the fall. In the spring, they are sent south again, but this time as official emissaries for Kiev's Varangian leaders.

With luck and skill, the three emissaries reach an agreement with the Emperor of Byzantium. They head north again with the good news, only to discover that Kuralla, now Polonius' wife, has mysteriously disappeared.

A Slav outlaw risks his life to bring them news of her whereabouts, and they quickly take an expedition north to rescue the beautiful Kuralla. After hard travel and battle, they succeed. They no sooner reach Kiev, however, than they must sail south again. The emperor of Byzantium awaits their return.

Welcomed by the Emperor in Constantinople, the three friends find that the magnificent and decadent city is open to them. Ambrose becomes blindly infatuated with a married noblewoman, and only the timely arrival one night of Phillip and Polonius saves his life. Soon thereafter, Polonius finds himself a pawn in the imperial power struggle and the friends flee for their lives. This is where Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Emissary to Byzantium, ends and Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Southern Journey, begins.



ACHELOUS, (Governor): (Fictitious) Governor of Calabria, he is the man who surrenders the ship when a pirate fleet attacks the Byzantine convoy.

ABDUL: (Fictitious) Man who protects the Governor at Hakim's request, and later sails to Alexandria with Ambrose.

ACTAEON, (Captain): (Fictitious) Captain of the ship taking Ambrose and his companions from Constantinople to Italy.

AHMAD IBN TULUN: 868 - becomes a lieutenant in the service of the Governor of Egypt, then eventually seizes control of the province and establishes an independent state.

ANDRETTI, (Archbishop): (Fictitious) Once Brother Andre who took care of Ambrose when, as a child, he visited Rome.

ANGELO: (Fictitious) Is the Calabrian soldier who attempts to arrest Ambrose and his companions. Bested by Kuralla, he organizes a night attack on the travellers.

BABAK: Turkish general given Egypt as an administrative grant in 868. He stays in Iraq, but sends his stepson, Ahmad ibn Tulun, in 868.

BASIL: (The Bulgarian) Basil was a former slave who makes his way to Constantinople and works in the Royal stables. Noticed by the emperor of the time, Michael III, he becomes High Chamberlain and, eventually, co-emperor. In 867, he becomes sole emperor by killing Michael.

DEMETRIOUS: (Fictitious) Personal aide to Basil, in charge of the courier ship that was to return Ambrose and his companions to Constantinople. He then takes the rank of admiral and leads a fleet to Alexandria, Tripoli, and Italy, in an attempt to capture Ambrose and his companions.

ERSIN: (Fictitious) Hakim's sentry at the caravansary when the Tuareg spy arrives.

HAKIM: (Fictitious) Is the man Ambrose meets when they are imprisoned on the island of Crete. He later journeys across Africa with the friends. Babak, the famous Turkish general, is his grandfather.

JAMAL: (Fictitious) Arab pirate who fights Phillip on the voyage from Tripoli to Calabria.

JUDITH: (Fictitious) Is Hakim's beloved daughter.

KHALIL: (Fictitious) The first of the two Byzantine spies in North Africa.

KAMIL: (Fictitious) Is Hakim's right-hand-man in Alexandria.

KATEB: (Fictitious) The Arab mercenary who survives the Tuareg attack.

KURALLA: (Fictitious) Wife of Polonius, she is a Slav chieftain's daughter who watched her family killed while she was enslaved.

MANSUR: (Fictitious) The second of the Byzantine spies in North Africa.

NADR: (Fictitious) One of Hakim's caravan guards, who takes the boat out to attack the two dromons in North Africa.

NICHOLAS: (Fictitious) See Polonius.

ORESTES, Centurion: (Fictitious) Officer locked up with Ambrose on Crete.

POLONIUS: (Fictitious) Ambrose's friend, he is a Byzantine scholar who was sold into slavery and found himself a Viking slave. Once they escape, he travels from Russia to Constantinople, and then back to Italy via North Africa.

POPADOPOLOUS: (Admiral): (Fictitious) The admiral of the fleet travelling to Calabria. When his ship is attacked by a pirate fleet and surrendered by the cowardly Governor, the Admiral chooses to immolate himself and destroy the vessel, rather than let it pass into pirate hands.

RASHID: (Fictitious) Lieutenant of Hakim and commander of the caravan.

ROLF, (Captain): (Fictitious) Commander of the Guard who meets Ambrose's ship when he lands in Benevento.

SADDAM: (Fictitious) An Arab sailor who Hakim sends up the mast when they approach the African coast.

TARDU, General: (Fictitious) Was general of the Turkish army hired to destroy the Tuareg raiders.

UMBERTO: (Fictitious) Is city commander, or Gastald, of the fictitious city of Arlena.

Nb. Italicized words are in the glossary at the end of the story.


Chapter 1

The Enemy Is Sighted

Ambrose's gaze swept northward toward the hazy shore in the distance. Over thirty fat merchantmen and two more sleek Byzantine warships were silhouetted against the shoreline. Suddenly the young prince sensed that he was no longer alone. He turned to see a couple standing hand in hand beside him at the rail. The unlikely duo, Polonius, a Byzantine scholar and Kuralla, his wife and the daughter of a chief of Slav tribesmen, stood with arms intertwined. As they gently kissed each other, Ambrose smiled at his two companions and spoke.

I still can't believe that, by the grace of God, I am finally on my way home. It has been almost six years since I have walked the shores of Wessex.

Polonius instinctively looked to the west, where the ship's wake could be seen fading into the calm waters. Save your prayers of thanks for a while, Prince. If the God-cursed High Chamberlain, Basil, figures out how we escaped and sends his minions south after us, we could still have a problem.

Right about now his thugs should be looking for us on a Viking ship somewhere on the vastness of the Black Sea. You're a pessimist, Scholar!

I'm a realist, Prince. I am guessing that our friend Basil feels we know altogether too much and will stop at nothing to silence us permanently.

Ambrose stared at the surrounding vessels for a few moments. I'm told that if the wind holds and there is no trouble, we should be in Calabria before the next moon wanes.

Calabria is still Byzantine territory, and still far from your homeland of Wessex, Ambrose. Much can happen before you see home.

Ambrose saw the worry on Polonius' face and he voiced the question. Polonius, there is something on your mind, and I think it is more than just the threat of Basil's thugs overtaking us. Out with it, Scholar!

The Byzantine scholar frowned. At last he spoke. Our beloved future governor of Calabria told me last night, just before he passed out, that a squadron of the Byzantine Mediterranean fleet was supposed to have rendezvoused with us when we were back at Andros. These are dangerous waters, especially when you have thirty fat merchantmen and all of three dromons and two courier galleys providing escort.

Polonius, is that not the Greek mainland I see to the north?

Aye, Prince.

And is Greece not the heartland of the Byzantine Empire?

Yes, Master.

Kuralla interrupted. The tension in your hand tells me that you are not telling us everything, my husband.

Polonius sheepishly lessened his grip on his wife's hand and smiled down at her. You are astute as ever, love-of-my-life. You are both looking the wrong way. Look south.

Ambrose stared southwards for several moments. At last he spoke.

"I assume from what the admiral said that the hint of colour I see is the coast of Crete. Polonius, is that not the island that the co-emperor Bardas was on his way to pacify when he suddenly died?

Polonius looked grim and scanned for any crewmen in hearing range before he quietly replied. Died, Prince, or was murdered by the same man who no doubt has already sent minions after us to shut us up?

Ambrose nodded. We can only pray to a merciful God that Basil will not think we are stupid enough to try and escape on one of his own imperial Byzantine warships. And did not our foolish Calabrian governor say that an entire squadron of Imperial warships is even now on their way to meet us? It is you, after all, who keeps telling me that Byzantium has the most powerful fleet in the world. The squadron may be a little behind schedule, but I don't doubt that, even as we speak, it is moving in our direction. What, exactly, aside from Basil's executioners, should we be looking for to the south, my friend?

Pirates, Prince.


In the absence of strong Byzantine leadership from our friend, 'Emperor Michael the Drunk', Moorish pirates seized a stronghold in Crete. Apparently it did not take them long to conquer the entire island.

Ambrose nodded. So that is why Bardas was getting ready to sail to re-conquer Crete.

Bardas was a real threat to the pirates, but he is in his tomb. The Spanish Moors on Crete no longer have to fear a serious attack from Byzantium.

Kuralla looked up at her husband and squeezed his hand. Is that what you are worrying about, husband-of-mine?

Well, yes. Probably even more than the fact that the second most powerful man in the Byzantine Empire wants us dead. I fear that Basil's star is ascending rapidly, and Emperor Michael the Drunk should be very afraid.

Ambrose stared south. Basil makes me a more than a little nervous, too, Scholar. I hope that you are wrong about the Moorish pirates, but, I have to admit, that is a good second reason for anxiety. Why do you fear them even more than our murderous friend Basil?

With luck and with the false trail we laid, it should take Basil a week or two to determine that we didn't go north, and every minute that goes by, we sail further from his evil grasp. A hundred ships a day pass through the Dardanelles, and we could have sailed on most any of them. His agents will be scouring the docks, but no one will be able to report us boarding any vessel in Constantinople harbour. That is why we slipped away secretly on such a small boat and met the fleet so far from Constantinople. Even if he does figure out that we boarded a Byzantine military vessel, he has to send his minions after us, first to find and arrest us, and then dispose of us, all without any witnesses, and all this without the emperor finding out. Our more immediate potential problem, therefore, is the Cretan pirates. Crete was part of the Roman and Byzantine Empire for a thousand years. Today, however, the only Christians who visit that beautiful island to the south of us, do so in chains.

Polonius, you are not answering my question. Why do you fear the pirates so much?

Admiral Papadopoulos told me that the pirate fleets based on Crete are becoming much bolder. They have recently become a serious threat to Byzantine trade in this very region. That is why the co-emperor Bardas was putting together that expedition to return the island to Byzantine control.

Ambrose looked much more sober. Surely even fanatical pirates would not take on five warships, especially with squadrons of the Byzantine Mediterranean fleet headed our way? Besides, how would they even know to attack us?

Master, three dromons and a pair of courier galleys can hardly adequately defend thirty merchantmen against any kind of serious attack. As to security, with those hundred ships a day travelling south through the Dardanelles, any one of them could have carried a Moorish spy. This fleet would be a great prize!

Ambrose nodded sombrely. I concede the risk, Scholar, but I assume that is why we are rendezvousing with a squadron of the Mediterranean fleet.

Prince, it is likely that even the most powerful individual pirate vessel would be frightened off by five Byzantine warships, but the Cretans can apparently launch hundreds of ships if they knew a Byzantine convoy was coming. The pirates could even have arranged for an incident to distract or delay the Byzantine squadron that was supposed to meet us two days ago.

Ambrose sighed. I think, my friend, that you are telling us these waters may be more dangerous than they seem.

My prince, I only hope that . . .

"Sails ho!"

The cry brought Admiral Papadopoulos, accompanied by the ship captain and his chief officers, on the run. Other crewmen paused at their tasks, but sharp commands from the under-officers sent the well-trained crew members back to work. Phillip also appeared from below-decks, and he joined his companions on the stern fighting deck. The cry of 'sails ho' in the pirate-ridden Mediterranean was always cause for concern.

Admiral Papadopoulos seized a speaking trumpet and called out to the lookout perched precariously near the top of the main mast. "How many sails and where away?"

The cry from high above was faint, but the words were clear enough. "I count almost twenty, Admiral. They come from the south!"

May God curse Mohammed and his damned lackeys!' The admiral turned to the captain standing at his side. 'Captain.

Aye, Admiral?

Signal the cargo ships to veer straight north. The dromons are to form a perpendicular line across their rear, and both galleys are to close on us.

Do you want me to have the men prepare for action, sir?

No, not quite yet. There will be time enough for that if the strangers prove hostile.

Aye, sir!

A corpulent man dressed in a flowing robe suddenly appeared on deck. His personal escort, a half dozen army officers in shining breastplates and armour, accompanied the man.

Admiral! Why is the ship changing tack? Your manoeuvre woke me from the first decent sleep I've had since I boarded this tub!

Ah, Governor Achelous. I am so sorry that your sleep was disturbed. It couldn't be helped, however. The lookout reports that there are approximately twenty possibly hostile vessels making straight for us. Under the circumstances, I didn't think you would mind if we veered away from them.

The big man blanched. Ah . . . of course not, Admiral. In fact, I insist on it! Your sail is not even up! Break out all the sails you have. Order a fresh crew to the benches, and I want you to make for the nearest Greek port as fast as you can!

I'm afraid I can't do that, Governor.

What do you mean you can't do that? I just commanded you to!

Governor, once we reach Calabria, you will be supreme ruler. All southern Italy, except, of course, the parts the Arabs and the Lombards have stolen, will be at your beck and call. Right now, however, we are still in Greek waters, and here I command. I will therefore ask you to please stay out of my officers' way so we can deal with this possible emergency as efficiently as possible.

Even as the officers quarrelled, Ambrose could see the top edges of many sails push over the southern horizon. The speed of their approach was extremely suspicious. Only fast ships that pushed their rowers to their limit could move at that speed. No pure sailing vessels could ever move at that pace with the gentle and intermittent winds they were experiencing.

The thirty cargo vessels clumsily changed course on command and lumbered slowly northward, their sails barely filling. Behind the large fleet, the three escort dromons and the two courier galleys formed a neat line across their rear. Though the Byzantine merchant ships were now moving northward under both sail and oars, yet the southern waters filled with a cloud of ever enlarging sails. The sight of the hulls appearing out of the water just confirmed to Ambrose that the second fleet was closing quickly.

Admiral Papadopoulos approached Ambrose's party. Prince Ambrose, there is now little doubt that we are being pursued by a fleet of Moslem galleys. The Emperor's written instructions that you showed me were quite clear. It is my duty to keep you safe at all costs. If you wish, I will have the captain pull alongside a cargo vessel and you can transfer ships.

Just what are your plans, Admiral?

I will pray to Almighty God that our missing dromons suddenly appear in our midst. Meantime, I intend to flee for as long as we can. The cargo vessels are tubs, however. They have little hope of escaping those galleys. If Allah's scum attack, the naval escort has no choice but to fight. With luck, we will at least buy the merchantmen the time they need to escape.

The Governor, standing close by, overheard and interrupted again. Admiral, your few ships have no hope against such a force. Look behind you! There are dozens of the hell hounds!

Governor, without us the cargo vessels are sitting ducks. May I remind you, sir, that in those ships resides the hope of your Italian province and your future. The vessels are loaded to the gunnels with silks and spices. They even carry the money with which you will pay your army. What would you suggest we do, allow the pagan devils to pluck the merchantmen like ripe pomegranates?

Admiral, you have no hope of stopping twenty-odd galleys with your pathetic line of three dromons.

Three dromons and two courier galleys, Governor.

All right, have it your way! With your three warships and two puny galleys. Flee, Admiral, so we can live to fight another day!

Governor, if the cargo vessels are seized, it is because all of my ships are sunk. I am a commander of the Imperial Byzantine Navy, and those cargo vessels are my responsibility. We will fight!

The portly Governor went red in the face. You, sir, also have a responsibility to protect me and my party, to say nothing of Prince Ambrose and Ambassador Polonius! It is the express command of the emperor himself that you protect the ambassador and his party. I saw the document myself, stamped with the emperor's personal seal!

Admiral Papadopoulos pointedly turned away from the arrogant political officer. Prince Ambrose, you see the danger approaching rapidly. What is your decision?

I thank you for the offer, Admiral, but the odds are no better on a lumbering tub. I think, sir, that our sword arms are weak from lack of use. It seems like a good day to exercise them.

And the lady Kuralla?

Kuralla answered for Ambrose. I will stay with my husband, Admiral. Make no mistake, I am an accomplished archer and can defend myself with a sword.

The admiral smiled. I doubt it not, madam. Well, we can use all the archers and swordsmen we can muster.' He looked back at the fleet of pursuing galleys. 'I daresay there will be enough targets to go around.

The Governor looked aghast at the admiral and the passengers. Admiral, how can you even dream of fighting such a fleet?

The admiral stroked his beard. Governor, there are two possibilities.

I am listening, Admiral.

Either the Caliph has declared war again and let loose his fleets, or we face the Cretan pirates.

Does it really matter who sends the hell hounds to enslave or kill us, Admiral?

Yes, Governor, it does. If the caliph has again broken the truce and we are facing one of his battle fleets, then we are in very serious trouble.

Those are hardly comforting words, Admiral, and if it is a pirate fleet?

Then we have a good chance.

And by what twisted feat of logic do you think you can defeat a fleet of some twenty war galleys?

Governor, it is really very simple. If this is a pirate fleet, then we are not faced with mindless fanaticism. Ship for ship, the pirate galleys are no match for a dromon, and they greatly fear our Greek-Fire. The Cretan pirates are businessmen who will calculate the odds. If we make them pay too heavy a price for the treasures, then they will withdraw from battle. Look to the south. Do you see pennants of the Caliphate flying from the galley masts?

Well, no.

Well then, God be praised! It seems that there is a chance for us.

Polonius suddenly spoke. Admiral, why don't you bring the fleet a few more points into the wind?

That will allow them to catch us even sooner, Ambassador.

Admiral, I am looking at their hulls. They seem very narrow. Are the Moslem galleys generally built with a deep hull?

No, Ambassador Polonius. They are of shallow draft and rely on the strength of their rowers more than the kiss of the wind.

Then what happens if the wind is strong on their beam?

They have to lower the sails or they will turn turtle. But that gives us little advantage. They are so narrow and light that the oars will propel them faster than any sail could. And they don't care about the rowers. They use slaves. They will whip them until the poor wretches either catch us, or die.

"But Admiral, your ships have deeper hulls and can track well with a quartering breeze. The rowers have already struggled for over an hour or more to catch us. Free or slave, the men manning those oars must be exhausted. I have spent time on a rowing

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