Saturday, August 24, 2019

Travel in the Early Middle Ages, Constantine's Legacy excerpt 2

This month's round robin is about travel. I chose one from my new book Contantine's Legacy.

This excerpt comes after the newly elected Pope Stephen asks Leonard to guard the emissary he is sending to the Emperor in Constantinople. All the pope's men are required in Rome to prevent any attack from the Lombardo king's men.

 Once at Ostia, they rode directly to the port. The Imperial galley was the largest ship docked there with a deck of oars and a tall mast for sailing. The Emperor's Silentiarius and his guardsmen boarded before Archdeacon Nicolaus. Leonard's team of Franks followed the archbishop.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Boarding last, once standing on the wood plank allowing access to the ship, Leonard paused, finding it odd to think of them as his men, not knowing when the transfer of power from Radulf happened in his mind. He wasn’t sure about traveling over water.

Silentiarius John had already advised him of the journey. “Traveling around the coast of Italia will add five days to our journey, longer than from Ancona, but is now safer than traveling through Lombardo held lands, especially for Imperial guards and messengers.”

As he stepped onto the galley, the movement below his feet unsettled Leonard, and the motion became worse once the ship started moving. John joined him and picked up a previous conversation. While John talked, Leonard only half listened. Once the galley began moving, a constant pounding gave the rowers a tempo, but it took time for him to adjust to the ship’s unfamiliar noises. A glance showed most of his men shared the same uneasiness.

John greeted the ship’s centurion, sharing a few moments of updating information before he introduced Leonard, Jocelin, and Nicolaus to the man. The centurion did not pay much attention to his remaining passengers, not even casting them an inquisitive glance. Their group all wore hooded, light cloaks over their armor, and looked or passed for monks perhaps on pilgrimage. Except, some metal clinks from their movements caused the centurion to raise his brows as they passed him. He said nothing and asked no questions.

A few hours later, Veran and Brice hung over the ship’s side emptying their stomachs. They continued expelling their stomachs’ contents until nothing could emerge. Then the exhausted, sick men fell asleep on the deck. While Leonard’s stomach felt queasy, it soon passed.

After visiting below decks to store gear, Jocelin came back to the top deck, his face showing disgust. “They have thirty slaves rowing and others resting or sleeping, I did not count how many. The stench is such as to make it preferable to sleep up here in the open air.”

After an investigatory trip below, Leonard returned to the top deck and agreed with Jocelin. The rest of the men followed their lead. He stood looking toward the shoreline the ship followed when Nicolaus came and stood next to him, interrupting his introspection on events. He wished he had Radulf’s counsel to guide him.

“I always find these views of the shore compelling.”

Leonard glanced at the cleric. “Have you traveled often by ship?”

“A few times, which is far less than I would like. It is peaceful, especially when they put up a sail and the rowing and pounding ceases.”

“I will look forward to noticing the difference.”

Nicolaus laughed, throwing a glance at the Franks standing or sitting at the ship’s sides. “For some, sailing can intensify the sickness.”

“I prefer a horse.”

“You are a Frank, and Franks are not known for their prowess on water. Your people are experts at fighting on land, but everything changes on the water.”

“It is hard enough keeping the land safe.”

“Certainly travel by water has its dangers—pirates, storms, Greek fire.”

“What is Greek fire?”

“Constantine’s ships have a secret weapon. No one knows all aspects of how it is made, but they can shoot fire at other ships.”

“To burn them?” Leonard asked, feeling vulnerable as he looked at the wooden ship and the deep water surrounding them.

“Yes. It burns even on water. The centurion predicts the weather will hold and we will make good time. The Silentiarius is a good Christian, so we can trust him. You have no need to worry.”
Check out the following blogs for more travel excerpts:

Diane Bator
Marie Laval
Skye Taylor
Victoria Chatham 
Judith Copek
Anne Stenhouse 
Helena Fairfax
A.J. Maguire 
Beverley Bateman
Dr. Bob Rich
Connie Vines


  1. Clear, descriptive, evocative writing, Rhobin.

  2. So interesting, Rhobin. Not being a good sailor, i know where my sympathies lie.Anne Stenhouse

  3. Thanks for setting this topic, Rhobin. I enjoyed your fascinating step back in time. I could sense the motion of the ship, and like Anne, I sympathise with your character!

  4. Well written and evocative of the sights, sounds, smell and queasiness of travel on the sea. I could especially relate to the promise of quiet and peace as a sailor who loves it when we get to turn the engines off and put the sails up.

  5. Nor am I a good sailor (except at Disneyland). Reading about the events of the voyage were descriptive and gave me a sea journey.

  6. I have enjoyed reading all the blogs this morning. Great topic, Rhobin. I thoroughly enjoyed your excerpt because the names and descriptions were so spot on for the period.

  7. Well written description of a sea voyage on a ship moved by oars in the middle ages. It gave me a definite fell for the era, and reactions and emotions of those on the ship. Well done. Beverley

  8. We get a real feeling for the ship and its passengers and the danger that may await. I liked that they wore cloaks over their armor. Mal de mer is an awful experience and I felt sorry for the guys who got sick. This feels like it will be a great story.