CHAPTER   ONE 

 

   For me the whole story begins when a mendicant knocked on the cell door where four of us were wining and dining and making merry.   

Yet, even for a mendicant he was strange because, though barefoot, over his ragged clothes he wore bright ornaments, which sparkled in the full moon and made the snow seem full of shards of coloured glass.   

   As I mentioned before, there were four of us. I was one, me, Dimitris Spartinos, a monk, then there was a slave of mine named Voleas, also, Kanavos, who was everybody’s friend, and our lady, Marion.   

   We opened the door and the mendicant pleaded for full help and refreshment, since it was getting near Yuletide (the event took place at the time of the feasts for the saints Nicholas and Varvara) and also because our dining board, which was brightly illuminated by a blazing fireplace and the lights all around, bore witness to an amplitude which could afford good hospitality.   

   It was not so much due to our walks of life (Kanavos being a singer, Voleas a slave, myself a monk, and Marion, a communal whore), but because the mendicant seemed strange and acted so, that we allowed him into the cell where he partook of our victuals and made himself warm.   

   It was not by chance that the four of us had happened to be there. Twice a year, I was granted permission by Antonios, the hegumen, who was my natural uncle, to leave the dependency of the monastery where I dwelt, and engage myself in feasting and revelling. In Loziki, our village, that November had been extremely hot, an odd thing, and the peasants had been neglectful in their preparations for winter, but instead, having lost their good sense due to the spells of the burningly hot weather, had engaged in revelries, prolonging the obscene rites of the grape harvest, and depleting their supply of raki an hour too soon.   

   My uncle, being a man of foresight, had made arrangements for victuals and firewood, for provisions and clothing, to last the whole winter, and the moment the first snow fell and the peasants started shivering like cicadas, he sent for me and merrily dispatched me off to my companions. I was not one to waste time. I packed my mule with salted fish and roasted meats, grape-must and assorted vegetables, took Voleas with me and went down to the village. The dependency, where I had been living for the last ten years, was hidden from view from the plain by a cluster of plane trees. From the plain the monastery looked ominous, especially in the moonlight. And in
Marion’s cell, as ever, we were revelling obscenely.   

When the mendicant came to his senses, (he was a man of no name), he recounted his story. We had already drained the last of our raki and had started doing honour to the unfermented wine. But what he recounted was so horrible and unheard of that we almost sobered up. And I remember him relating to us the following:  

   «I shall not reveal to you my family name and origin. And even if you were to know it, it would be of no avail to you, since whatever worth and honour it may bear is known only beyond the islands of the white sea. A misfortune of life, which other men call unrequited love, brought me, a month ago, to a nearby shore which was white and covered with pebbles, at a place which I heard some fishermen call Popolia. It was scarcely a day that I had been on that shore, that I found myself surrounded by grim-looking peasants. And after they had denuded me of my garments and footwear, they refused to even touch my ornaments, saying that their faith forbade it. And I was led to an inland village for their leader to see. There, at a three-road junction, near a fountain and a tree, there was a tall monk and, next to him, an imbecile child. The child was incapable of speech, he could only gasp heavily, and the monk broke apples with his fingers and gave him to eat. And all the time, the monk would bend over and make as though he were listening to the child’s growls and then he translated them in a language that was comprehensible. The child would utter something which sounded like «ghu» and the monk would interpret that as: «There’s an enemy among us, have him killed». Such were the things that took place at the village. And on the trunk of the tree they had one of the notables tied up, a castellan, his rank recognisable to me by his military dress and insignia, for the state of Byzantium maintains these symbols of rank uniformly, throughout its domain. And all around there were crowds of people from the village and, also, other peasants, and all of them showed obedience only to the monk. No-one paid notice to me or harmed me, for, the moment I had arrived, I had been shoved before the child and he had smiled at me. I was allowed to watch. And, before my own eyes, the monk announced to the people that the castellan was old and unfortunate, and a spy, too, and that he should be slain. And, as all the others were hesitant to do so, he gets a blade and rips the castellan’s stomach open. And as the man was giving up the ghost, the monk took his blood and sprinkled it on sick people, and they said that it would heal them. And the monk took with him young and old people from the village and they departed. This is the story of the child of God».   

   «There is no child of God other than Jesus, the one I acknowledge as Christ», I say to the mendicant. «Well said», the mendicant says to me, «yet those people call the imbecile ‘the child of God’ «.   

   Kanavos, who had travelled around a lot and had seen exquisite places, asks him: «Have you seen symbols, have you seen signs and words which may constitute heresy or sedition?»  

   On hearing this, the mendicant takes off one of his ornaments and shows it to us. It was roughly made and vulgar, without grace or worth. It depicted a cross inside a circle and around it the letters MPKRGE were inscribed. – «This», he tells us, «is the signal and the password. They let me have this in return for the clothes I gave them and because the child smiled at me, so, when and if I come across them again, I shall be left unharmed».   

   Then the mendicant fell into a quiet sleep and when day broke we saw that he had departed.   

   In the morning, while having something hot to drink, we discussed the matter. This is what Kanavos said to me and what Voleas advised. – «Perhaps we should impart these things to knowledgeable ears. Do not forget, Spartine, that your House has suffered greatly at the hands of this regime and the time may have now come for things to be set right».   

   We agreed to tell my uncle. We bade
Marion farewell and entered the monastery.   

   I had not always been a monk, nor did my uncle have any idea about religious matters. And, anyway, the monastery itself had no monks and it was many a time that the katholikon had no priest or psalm singer. We are the Spartini, an old and noble family. We own a great, self-sustained estate at old Loziki, at least twenty thousand acres in area, lying between lands that belong to the monasteries of the
Holy
Mountain, on one side, and

Lake
Volvi, on the other. Regarding the rest of our landed property, in Saloniki and elsewhere, I shall say nothing. But my family was smitten by great misfortune a decade ago.   

   When Voleas, Kanavos and myself went to my uncle, it was getting near the Christmas of 1338. Well, ten years before, when I was sixteen, soldiers had entered our estate, had abducted my father and slain a lot of our people, because our family had been on the side of King Andronicus, who had failed in retaining the crown. His grandson had prevailed and became king. But my uncle, Antonios, who, until then, had been considered by everyone as the black sheep in the family, was on good terms with the new authorities. He devised a scheme to convert our palace into a monastery and, for this purpose, he travelled to
Constantinople, where he managed to obtain the required imperial and patriarchal decrees. It was thus that our fortune and lives were saved. All of us male members of the Spartinos family became monks. But we lived quite detached from others and so I, for one, did not mind much. I never had to give up the use of weapons, which had held a fascinatioon for me ever since I was an eight-year-old boy, and I excelled myself in the hunt. Living in isolation at the Upper dependency, mostly in the company of my tutor and a large number of books, there were very few things that could distress me. How I spent my childhood, I will relate elsewhere, if I resolve to do so. But notice should be made, lest it be forgotten, of what a strange period that had been, without even a trace of cogitation. An endless number of chores marked my day and infinite labours were imposed upon me for the purpose of shaping my character. But maybe this is what education is all about – tormenting labour.   

   My uncle was a strange man, unlike any other at Loziki. He was usually a man of few words and could be terrifying when he was in his cups. His private life remained hidden from us but it was evident that he knew a lot and, despite his old age, he was still learning.   

   My uncle listened to us carefully. When we had finished, he told us that the mendicant’s story vaguely reminded him of something, but he believed not a word of it. – «It is easy to prattle in the company of idle revellers», he said andsent us off to our work.   

   But as if by an inexplicable coincidence, peasants from Akrotiri, one of our subsidiary farms near the

Strymonic
Sea, arrived on the following day to state their protests. They reported that they had been assaulted by strange maniacs, who had painted a symbol all over the walls of their houses and had taken away two young men. And, as you must have realized, the symbol was similar to the one shown to us by the mendicant, which set my uncle thinking. So he sends for me and tells me:   «Dimitri, these are rough times and the roads are unsafe, but missives do not reach their destination easier than men. You shall go to Saloniki and report to your elder brother every detail of what has come to our attention. If there is a covert rebellion in the area, the Spartini, who have no connection with it whatsoever, must report it to the authorities. Otherwise, it is possible that our enemies may somehow implicate us into perilous adventures. Take two gold hyperpyra and a good horse, take fashionable garments and your slave and go to your brother, Vasili. You are to trust no man, nobleman or commoner, but one – Andreas Palaeologue. It is to him that you shall report everything, with your brothers mediation».   

   I was bold enough to remind him that my brother was a man whom he, my uncle, abhorred, as he, in my uncle’s own words, had been involved in an unspeakable, indescribable, and heinous crime. 

   My uncle explains to me that his gesture has an educational purpose. For the sake of making our House greater, even traitors and negators of their family, as long as they command a post, can and must assist.   

   I ordered Voleas to make the necessary preparations and, at dusk, made my way to
Marion’s cell. I heard her singing as soon as I got on the road.
Marion is singing a sad, nostalgic song about separation. She is clad in a dress of tough, Dalmatian cloth bought at Ragouza. The moment she sees me she takes off my clothes and offers me the soles of her feet to wet with my tongue. I hold her tightly and take her sweetly, feeling the light of my life slowly fading away.  My nature has been moulded by abstention and expectation, but when it breaks out it becomes fierce. Then she took me in her arms and dressed me in my finery. I can still remember how she praised me for being handsome when I was not wearing the monk’s habit, and as she was fastening my gorget at the back, she kissed me softly on the nape. Although she was past her prime, her face was very much like a child’s. And she always managed to look very pale, using elaborate, secret ointments and powders. She had a taste for the magical and the mystical, and always painted her eyes and lips in black and dark colours.  And when she lay in bed with me, she was not impassive but spoke incessantly.  Such was Marion, the woman who had captured my fancy.   

   It was the evening of a holiday and Kanavos showed up late, exhausted but in good cheer. As there were two chords missing from his lute, rendering it useless, I set the two of them down for a friendly chat. I say to them: «My good friends, I am about to depart for
Thessaloniki. Pray, come with me, as I have ample funds and we shall all have a merry time». I was unaware at the time of what I was getting involved in. They, too, were very glad at my invitation, but
Marion was unable to come and Kanavos had been looking forward to the festive season when business would be picking up for him.
Marion took us both in her arms and we all had a good night’s sleep.   

   I was woken up in the morning by Voleas and started getting ready. I took flashy garments with me and some short-range, defensive weapons – after all it was not as if we were going to a war. I woke
Marion up so as to speak to her while I was making my preparations. Perhaps I should explain here my relation to this woman. There were several rumours concerning her but I shall attempt to give the most credible testimony. Since her early childhood,
Marion had been dedicated to a local convent, where she had been put to running errands. But her striking beauty had soon led her on the path of a wandering and carnal life.  And I, being twenty years old at the time and knowing her by reputation only, became enamoured of her. And since we both led a life of confusion and servitude, we only managed to meet on extraordinary occasions. So I say to her: «I am filled with intricate fears regarding this journey, and, also, with indescribable joy. If life is to keep me away from Loziki, I shall send word with Voleas, and, pray, do not hesitate, do not lament, but pack your things and come to meet me».  – » That I will», she says to me.   

   We rode up, past the dry lakes, and there I saw a splendid sign. A falcon was hunting birds, but suddenly, as if its strength had been drained out of itsbody, it stopped and dropped heavily down to the ground. Voleas told me that it was a good omen. The falcon represents death and the birds are the people.  However, in my opinion, the falcon was myself and the birds were my affairs.   

   We did not enter the castle through the main gates. We rode down to the seaside and when we got near the Monastery of the Hexapteryga, the Six-winged Cherubim, we went through the check point and spent the night outside the castle, at a seaside inn. On the morrow, I put on my good clothes and we entered the city on foot and I met with my brother, Vasili.   

   Vasilis was with the commissariat of the Imperial Cavalry and worked at a large warehouse, behind the Church of the Asomati, the Incorporeal Angels.When the weapons depot, the Zavareia, was destroyed, the site was used as a warehouse for war supplies. He was glad to see me and inquired as to the purpose of my visit. Vasilis is the middle brother, me being the youngest – there is also the eldest son, Vlasis, who had been our father’s pride. Vlasis lived in
Constantinople, aiming at high goals. You should bear in mind that I had never met Vlasis – who was my elder by about twenty years. Vasilis was a cripple – in one of the past wars, outside the castle tower, he had been stabbed at the knee with a broadsword and had lost his right leg. But he could walk better than me, on just one crutch, and was even able to dance! This is what he tells me, regarding the case at hand: «Little Spartine, these symbols and these magic things are unknown in Saloniki. And our uncle is correct in saying that if we are the ones to report the matter, the Spartini will benefit greatly. Let us, therefore, visit all the lords, one by one, and tell everything».   

   At this point, I reply to him: «No, Vasili, our uncle’s orders and instructions are to report only to one lord, by the name of Andreas, and to no-one else».   

   Vasilis was not very content with the idea and, at first, was against it, as he wanted us to impart the information to a man who would not only be powerful but, also, benevolent. In the end, I managed to persuade him.   

   Naturally, we did not meet with many lords, but only the one, Andreas Palaeologue. He was a skinny, over-cautious man, who found difficulties and obstacles in everything. He would say: «I cannot be exposed, I have responsibilities. If these prove to be lies, where would I be standing?  « 

   Then my brother reminded him of the signal and the symbol MPKRGE. – «My lord and master», he said to him, «let me remind you that this word appeared, many years ago, at the Monastery of Akapnios, and by its power the descendants of your family line have been reigning, ever since that time. If this word is being used for seditious purposes, then it is a rebellion that must be taken most seriously». – «Well», says the lord Andreas, «you may depart and I shall take care of the matter».   

   Vasilis accompanied me to the seaside inn, where we partook of the most delicious dishes, all local specialties of Saloniki. He says to me: «Dimitri, I am not content». – «Nor am I», I reply. «There is something I do not like, but maybe this is the way lords and generals are – indifferent to things that appear significant to others». – «No, it is not so», says my brother. «And if you happen to become acquainted with a real lord, you will understand. The lord, Andreas Palaeologue, does not desire to become involved in the matter and I am certain that he must have his reasons for that».   

   I inquired and learnt what had taken place at the Monastery of Akapnios, so many years ago. Vasilis knew nothing more than what was being rumoured around the streets of the city. One evening, at vespers, at the katholikon of the monastery, when Michael Palaeologue, the patriarch of our reigning Royal House, was still a general, many people saw the word MPKRGE appear. It was instantly interpreted as: «Michael Palaeologue, King of Romans, Greatly Exalted». The event was followed by a number of strange and magical events, which, indeed, led to his becoming Emperor.   

   Vasilis knew no more and he bade me farewell to return to his humble abode. I have forgotten to mention that, in order to gain the favour of those in power, we had rented our palace in Saloniki to illustrious members of the Palaeologue family and donated the income, for charitable purposes, to the Monastery of the Hypomimniskon, the Reminder – these things having been arranged by my uncle, as he had deemed proper. Thus Vasilis had been left without a house befitting his station. Yet, he never gave vent to any bitterness he might have felt for being slighted in such manner. Vasilis had promised me a treatise on the subject of Symbols, by Georgios the Geometrist, in case I were interested, and told me to send over Voleas, on the following morning, to collect it.   

   I retired to bed with a great burden on my mind and in the morning I was awakened, with a slap on the face, by the terror-stricken Voleas. – «Lord Spartine,», he says to me, » we must rush off, taking only what we can carry in our hands». I became angry. – «I shall not leave my clothes behind, you scoundrel», I said to him. At that, he started shouting. – «This is no time to speak of clothes! Your brother was murdered last night and now they’re after you. Let us be off and I shall tell you all I know, on the way!» By God, I barely had time to put on a hat and get my weapons. We mounted our mules and got on the road to Hortiatis. As soon as we got to a small copse, beyond the hamlet of Prophet Elias, we went in among the trees and talked. We waited until it got dark before we started off again.   

   Voleas slurred his words, due to his great fear. He knew where my brother’s house was and had chanced to get there as the neighbours were carrying out Vasilis’ body, stabbed to death, taking it to the parish

church of
Aghios Paramonos for burial. He managed to get sight of five tall and stalwart cavalrymen, who were questioning the bystanders as to the whereabouts of the dead man’s brother, one named Dimitris, who was wanted for crimes against the regime. I lost my wits.  I did not know whether to mourn for the loss of my brother or fear for my own life. But it was more than clear that the supposedly indifferent lord, Andreas Palaeologue, was part of the conspiracy and had ordered our extermination so that nothing would be revealed in Saloniki, until the proper time came. And as I realized that, due to my inexperience, I had revealed to his excellency more than I should have (about Loziki, and my uncle, and the mendicant), I decided it was crucial to warn my uncle, at Loziki, of the impending danger and to make myself scarce for an indefinite period of time, until we could see how the wind was blowing.   

   So, we thought it would be best that Voleas should rush to Loziki and warn my uncle, at any cost. Also, he was to bring back to me adequate funds, so that I would be able to spend a long time alone, up on the mountains. He was to tell
Marion the news so that she would not worry. We agreed that I would travel over the

mountain of
Ghalatissa during the night, and wait for Voleas, for as long as it might take, at the familiar to us cell of Aghios Nikolaos, near Langavikeia. Indeed, in the evening we travelled together along a by-road, which made our going tough, and parted our ways outside of Ardhameri.   

   It must have been the day of the feast of Aghios Spyridon when I arrived at the cell, taking every possible precaution. The little cell was a ruin but I managed to make things tolerable. I used my war axe to chop wood, made a fire to warm myself and later rode down to Langavikeia, where I had the mule fed and got a few supplies from a dependency of the Monastery of Xenophon. I can remember that my only possessions were a sword, the axe, two knives and theclothes on my back. I had been divested of everything else. And I waited.   

   Several days went by and as Voleas did not show up, my head began to spin.And, since I had become suspicious of everything and everyone, I abandoned the cell and went to live in a hut, higher up, lest I should get trapped. Because what I feared most was that the cavalrymen had reached our monastery before Voleas did, had captured and tortured him into confessing where I was.   

   Eventually, Voleas showed up. He came, without provisions, without anything. He came empty-handed and on foot, beaten up and wounded. But he did come.  The news he brought made my heart stop beating.   

   As he had been boldly riding down the public road, he was overtaken by cavalrymen, the same ones he had seen at Vasilis’ house. Taking every precaution, pretending to be a stranger, he entered the monastery, where the cavalryemen were already engaged in conversation with my uncle. Voleas waited for the opportunity to speak with Antonios in private and obtain the assistance I had been expecting. But as soon as the hegumen saw him, instead of realizing the situation and making a secret signal to Voleas, he called out to him and told him to approach, saying to the cavalrymen: «Here is my nephew’s slave.  This is the one and he shall tell us, forthwith, where my nephew is».  Voleas was greatly shocked. He denied knowing my whereabouts and for this, he was badly beaten up. For all the tortures, Voleas was able to infer from their conversations that my uncle had sent me to Saloniki on purpose. And while he seemed to have no inkling of the conspiracy and the rebellion, the fact was that there were strong ties binding him to Andreas Palaeologue, such strong ties that the loss of his nephews were of no significance to him.   

   After these events, Voleas had been incarcerated in the cells for the lunatics. He managed to escape only because he, with his own hands, had carried out a great part of the repairs that had been made in order to convert our palace into a monastery. As he was making his escape, he went past
Marion’s cell and found only an open door banging against the wind. Not
Marion, nor her things. That is all there was to report to me.   

   On hearing this, I despaired. But Voleas was a slave with a sharp mind. He suggested, and I agreed, that we had to find support, and as everything had happened so suddenly, our support should have to be truly reliable.   

   Of the twenty-four silver ducats I had been given by my uncle, there were only eighteen left, plus a few copper coins. We could buy a mule and saddlery for ten or twelve ducats and with the remainder live on the road for another ten days. But where could we go? From the cell to
Constantinople, where my eldest brother was, it was ten day’s travelling, and maybe more. If we were to succeed in this, we should have to find Kanavos, get some money from him, if he had any, and only then should we endeavour to make the journey. But where could we find him? At that point, Voleas came up with a bold plan. I had full rights to my share of the estate at Loziki. Therefore, it would not be improper to return there, covertly, and take from the monastery a portion of what rightfully belonged to me.   

   At the time, I knew not who exactly to put the blame on and who to trust. I had been sent to report a story and had nearly got murdered. The only thing I knew then was that I should be cautious.   

   We had an icon of Aghia Anastasia at the monastery, which was believed to work miracles, and crowds of people went there to ask for help. We got in at dawn, mingled among the crowd of pilgrims, our hoods covering our heads and, in the biting cold, managed to get in unnoticed. We both knew the monastery inside out. The first thing I heard was my uncle’s thunderous voice coming from the katholikon. We entered his cell and I took his grand, steel armour, the one he had specially made for the jousts. We threw it, from high above, down among the bushes. In the meantime, Voleas had found cheeses and sides of pork, which he also threw out. Now we needed horses, weapons and money – but the noise I had made while searching, had gone beyond the limits. As I turned round, I saw my uncle, his face flashing in anger. In my situation, I was in no mood for games. I unsheath my sword and pull him inside his cell. I close the door and make him stand behind it, to block entry. Then I take the key, hanging from his neck and tied him up. He did not react but only tried to look me in the eye. I say to him: «You do well not to speak; guilt requires no words».   

   I took one purse of coins, of the four that were kept in his chest, and, with my sword bared, I went out, I find Voleas and, as the crowd stood aside in shock and our labourers and neighbours had hidden themselves, we take two horses from the stables and flee. 

[το πρώτο κεφάλαιο της αγγλικής μετάφρασης του Θεόπαιδου από τον Γιάννη Μουρατίδη. Μεταφράστηκε το 1997, εκδόθηκε το 2005]

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