© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
BROTHER GREGORY’S BABY (Circa 840 AD)
“Prince, this tribute is not good. We have
conquered them with a weapon having one edge,
which is called the `sabre’; but their weapon
has two edges and is called `sword’, and (later)
they will have tribute from us and from other
Khazar Elders; The Nikonian Chronicle.
After the flight of the Hraes’, the Hunnish host swept into Gardariki and pillaged and burned the town. Although the Huns had won a great victory before the gates of Gardariki, all was not well in the Khazar Khaganate. The most noble houses of the Kara-Khazars, Emperor Theophilus’s secret Khazars, had long since fled the growing power of the Huns and, while Kagan Bek Hunn and Prince Hlod were away fighting Princess Gunwar and her Hraes’ army, it took all that Kagan Humli could do to hold his empire together. His power-base was severely eroded by the flight of the elite of his tribe, and he was dependent upon his kagan bek, King Hunn, to keep the other tribes within the fold. He was a king without an army, but, being the supreme holy leader of the Khazars, born of the purple, Kagan Humli yet wielded great power in the multi-ethnic city of Atil-Kazaran, so when the victorious Hunnish host returned to Khazaria, he showed his displeasure with the actions of King Hunn and Prince Hlod by forbidding the army from entering the city of Atil. When the kagan bek and his grandson appeared before the great kagan, the old emperor chastised them for the slaying of their own kin, Prince Hlod’s aunt, Gunwar.
“Fratricide is a crime most foul in even the most backwards of cultures,” the great kagan began. “Our Jewish faith strictly forbids the act.”
“Great Kagan, Prince Hlod slew his aunt in mortal combat,” King Hunn explained. “Princess Gunwar wore the armour of a warrior and brandished her husband’s famed sword, Tyrfingr, and she swung the sword well, for all around her lay the corpses of our finest soldiery. Prince Hlod attacked her in defence of his countrymen, and the deed, though distasteful, was one of courage, for which my grandson should be praised, not chastised.”
The Kagan Humli looked then to Prince Hlod for confirmation that all that had been said was true.
“My aunt was a warrior maiden, and I slew her before she slew me. All about her, our host was falling back, and our best warriors lay dead all around her. Had I not slain her, our vanguard would have fled the field.” Prince Hlod looked about him at all the Kara-Khazar officers still in the great kagan’s retinue. He then unsheathed the sword, Tyrfingr, and he held the pulsing blade in his hands, offering the hilt to his supreme commander. “This, her sword, is unmatched in any land. I offer it to you, my lord, as a sign of the unwavering loyalty of the Huns.”
The Khazar kagan took up the blade and studied it. “Our scimitars have but one edge, this sword has two,” he observed, and he stared deeply into the strange metal of the blade. “We must enjoy our victory over the Hraes’, for soon they shall return with more such swords, and it shall be we who will be laid low.” Kagan Humli then gazed upon Prince Hlod. “Take it! The sword is cursed.” And he handed the blade back to the young prince.
After crossing the Sea of Azov, the dwarf, Durin, and the cleric, Brother Gregory had sailed Fair Faxi up the Don Estuary, with its tiny precious cargo, to the Fortress of Sarkel. As Hraerik had done several years previous, the dwarf and the monk waited till just before dawn to navigate past the anchored Greek ships and the shore defences of the fortress. This time there was no sighting and no pursuit as the Hraes’ ship slipped past the Khazar outpost, but, in dawn’s early light, Durin saw a great Khazar encampment outside the walls of the fortress, as though an army had laid siege to Sarkel. All wondered at the spectacle as Fair Faxi slipped past the fortifications. They could not even suspect that the Kara-Khazars had fled the might of the Huns and were now travelling west to meet up with their allies, the Turkoi, and begin a great journey into Europe, where the Magyars were to become the Hungarians and the Kara-Khazars were to settle in the land of the Wends, remaining forever faithful to their Jewish religion.
Durin led the Hraes’ up the Don River and into the Khopel tributary, and once they reached its source they portaged across land to the Sura River and on up the Volga to the Kama tributary. One last portage across to the Northern Dvina and they were soon outside the walls of Arthor’s settlement of Hawknesta. A month of hard rowing and harder living had gotten the Hraes’ there with, to Brother Gregory’s surprise, Gunwar’s baby no worse for wear.
As the Hraes’ beached their ship a large force of Varangians came out from the settlement to meet them. Arthor, tall, lean and enduringly grizzled, stood out at their forefront. “Hrae! Durin!” he shouted in cold greeting. “It has been a long time!”
Not long enough, thought Durin of the man that had captured his father. “Too long, Arthor!” Durin lied. “I have with me one Brother Gregory,” he said as the two groups closed together, “a Goth from Gardariki.”
“A Christian? So far north?” Arthor asked. “Well, how do you do brother? I’ve never met a Christian before. Heard a lot about you Christians, though.”
“Only good things, I hope,” Brother Gregory said, watching the tall Varangian, more or less eye to eye.
“Not a one,” replied Arthor staring back at the monk. They stood eyeing each other for a time, with Durin wondering what was to become of this confrontation of giants, and then Arthor decided that this Christian was clearly a man of mettle and he warmed to him somewhat. “But, then again, I have to deal with the blackest bunch of merchants this side of the Nor’Way, so what can one expect.”
“I pray I can prove them all wrong,” Brother Gregory responded gruffly.
“Come into our trading post,” Arthor said. “We have sweet meats and bitter ales.”
All afternoon and well into the night the Hraes’ enjoyed the hospitality of their Varangian hosts. To avert any questions as to whose child was travelling with them, Brother Gregory passed the baby’s nursemaid off as his woman and let Arthor assume that the child was his. He then told the Varangian leader that he had a most urgent and secret message for Hraerik’s brother, King Hraelauger of Norway. With the infant between them, the monk and the nursemaid spent the night together under the furs of the bench Arthor had appointed them.
The next day, arrangements were made for Brother Gregory to take Fair Faxi across the Nor’Way to Hrafnesta in Halogaland. Durin would not make the journey. Brother Gregory assured the dwarf that he could complete the delivery without him. “The Northmen have little respect for dwarves,” Durin explained to the monk. “I must return to my people. I have been away from them for too long.” The two men stood on the bank of the Northern Dvina, and when Durin looked off to the east his countenance had lost its youthful demeanour and a great tiredness had set upon it. His youthful adventure had come to an end. It was time for him to lead his people. Soon, a dugout boat paddled by dark-haired dwarves came down around a bend in the river and came near, but not up to, the bank. Durin waded out to the canoe, turned and waved goodbye to Brother Gregory and the Hraes’, then climbed into the boat as many small hands reached out to assist him. The dwarves then turned around to face the stern of the canoe and began paddling back upriver. The stern had become bow and the bow stern as the dwarves took their leader back to Giantland. Durin never looked back.
Soon after, Brother Gregory and the nursemaid took Gunwar’s baby aboard Fair Faxi, now crewed by Varangians accustomed to the rigours of the Nor’Way crossing. The skeleton crew rowed up the Northern Dvina without incident. The aggressive Biarmians were busy with their hunting, not expecting any merchant river traffic until the Varangian expedition in Bulgar was to return home a month later. The lone Nor’Way ship was travelling early, but its captain anchored the boat in the White Sea for two weeks waiting, what seemed an eternity, for just the right weather for a crossing. With Brother Gregory growing more impatient by the day, the handsome, blond haired young Varangian took the trouble to explain to the monk the fickleness of the Nor’Way winds.
“While the weather may seem right for a crossing,” he began, “as soon as you head out, sure as Loki is a devil, it will turn on you. A storm will come up from the other direction and blow you back right where you started, if you are lucky. If not, a calm will set in and strand you out on the cold Northern sea where you will perish. We wait for a storm going our way. A storm to take us all the way.” And the captain waited and watched the weather until, well into the second week, heavy dark clouds began forming on the eastern horizon. He then ordered the crew to fasten in place the heavy ox-hide awnings that soon covered Fair Faxi from stem to stern, and they rowed the ship north, out and into the gale.
Brother Gregory had never experienced anything like the fury of that storm. Huge waves crashed against and carried along Fair Faxi, and it took all the strength the old double braced hull had to hold the boat together. Three days they rode upon the storm and when it ceased they were past the North Cape of Norway and Brother Gregory was a Varangian. After rowing a week in the late summer’s calm that followed, the men of Hawknesta were near Halogaland and, with the circling of an island, they pulled into the tranquil blue harbour of Hrafnesta.
During the feast that soon followed their arrival, Brother Gregory inquired as to the whereabouts of King Hraelauger. A powerful young chieftain of Halogaland, Grim Hairy-Cheek, overheard the monk’s question and asked him why he was seeking audience with his cousin, the king.
Brother Gregory had given his word to Durin to entrust no one with the secret of Gunwar’s baby, so he told Chieftain Hairy-Cheek that he had an urgent message for Hraerik Bragi, if he was still alive, or his brother Hraelauger.
“You’ll be glad to know that Hraerik is alive, if you are a friend,” Grim told the monk. “King Hraelauger fetched him out of Frankland back to Vik Fjord more than a month ago.”
“Are they yet in Vik Fjord?”
“Hraerik Bragi battles with the Goths against King Alrek of Sweden and King Hraelauger is passing the war-arrow around all of Norway. They are raising a host to save Gardariki from the Huns.”
“Gardariki has fallen to the Huns, I’m afraid,” Brother Gregory said sadly. “That is part of the news I have for Hraerik and his brother.”
Grim Hairy-Cheek could see the grief welling within the priest after his telling of the fall. “Bring your woman and child,” he said. “You will share the high seat spread with us,” and he introduced his wife, Lofthaena, to the eastern couple. Though Brother Gregory was very tired from his travels, his deep dark eyes yet compelled people to listen to his words, and, after supper, he told all of the tragic death of Hraerik’s wife, Princess Gunwar, before the walls of Gardariki. All present at the feast knew Hraerik Bragi and many were related to him in some manner or another, so Brother Gregory’s story of battle in a far-off land affected them all very personally.
The day after the feast Grim Hairy-Cheek offered to take Brother Gregory to find King Hraelauger. It was an offer the captain of the Nor’Way ship recommended the monk refuse.
“It grows late in the season,” the Varangian captain stated. “If we are to make it back to Hawknesta this year, we must leave soon.”
But Brother Gregory wanted to follow Grim, and the young chieftain persisted in his offer, so a party set out from Hrafnesta for Trondheim and an inland journey through the Uplands, in the hope of meeting up with King Hraelauger on his way back to the Vik. Grim Hairy-Cheek, with his young wife, led the party, accompanied by Brother Gregory, his woman and child and the Nor’Way captain, along with many others, but, at every place they stopped, they learned that King Hraelauger had just passed through with the war-arrow and had left with most of the able-bodied men of that village. After two weeks of fruitless pursuit, the Varangian captain called for a halt to the enterprise.
“If we head back for Hrafnesta now,” he claimed, “we will have a chance to make the crossing back. If not, we shall remain in Norway for the winter.” Now the Varangian captain had a wife and child of his own in Hawknesta, and he did not relish the thought of leaving them to spend the winter alone in the east. So, after one more village and one more close encounter at Brother Gregory’s insistence, the party headed back for Hrafnesta.
“It is my own fault,” Brother Gregory told Grim, “that now the crossing has become too dangerous. You must take my child to Hraerik’s family farm in Jaederen and keep him safely there for me. Protect him at all costs. You know not the travails of his birth.” Brother Gregory then took his heavy iron cross from about his neck and he placed the chain around the baby’s neck and he tucked the cross into its swaddling clothes. “Keep this with him always. Hraerik will recognize it as being mine. We must return to the east, to the Glassy Plains, but we shall come back to claim him. His welfare you must guarantee me. You must pass him off as your own.”
In the short time Grim Hairy-Cheek had known Brother Gregory, he had grown to love him. “I shall follow your wishes,” he answered, “though it surprises me you can bear to leave such a fine child behind. He shall be raised in Jaederen and he shall await your return.”
“I feared coming to the west with my sad tale,” Brother Gregory told his new friend, “but you have made me welcome and you’ve assured me that there can be harmony between our realms.” The two men hugged each other warmly, as the impatient Nor’Way captain watched, and Brother Gregory placed the child into the arms of Lofthaena.
Grim Hairy-Cheek hesitated a moment, then offered, “Your ship is old and not fit for this late a crossing. I’ve just had a new Nor’Way ship built. Leave yours and take it instead. Hraerik will be pleased to get Fair Faxi back, I’ll bet.” Brother Gregory thanked his new friend warmly and the easterners took Grim’s new ship and they left with the tide and rowed out and around the island. At the North Cape, the Varangian captain waited patiently, once more, for the storm that would take them back to the east. But it was too late in the season and the storm never came. The impatience of the Varangian captain, worried about his wife and child in the east, overcame him and the staunch men of the Nor’Way ship sailed out into the Barents Sea and were stranded in a calm and perished.