© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CONFLICT WITH THE KHAZARS (Circa 838 AD)
“Hlod rode from the east, heir of Heidrek,
he came to the court claiming his birthright,
to Arheimar, the homes of the Goths;
there drank Angantyr arval for Heidrek.”
Anonymous; The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.
Hraerik wintered with his brother in the Vik and in the spring, he set out for a season of Southern Way trade. Fair Faxi led the small merchant armada that left the Vik, crossed the Skagerrak and Kattegat and traversed the Sound between Denmark and Gotland. There, a larger Danish merchant fleet, from both Liere and Hedeby, joined the Norwegians, and they sailed past Bornholm and along the Baltic Sea. A small Swedish flotilla joined them off the Isle of Oland, and a larger group of Swedes from Birka met them at the Island of Gotland. The merchant armada then crossed the Baltic, traversed the Gulf of Riga and entered the mouth of the Dvina River.
On the Baltic Sea, the merchants had been excited and optimistic; on the Dvina they were calm and sullen. All took up their shields–some had taken two–and wielded their weapons: bows, spears and slings, arms for fending off enemies at a distance. Hraerik saw the ruined city of the Sclavs up on a broad ridge behind the open battlefield where King Frodi had slain King Strunick a decade before. The city lay in ruins. “This is Lithuanian territory once again,” a Norwegian merchant whispered to Hraerik. “The Sclavs have all fled or died.” Hraerik could hear the fear in the man’s voice as he breathed the word Lithuanian. He had heard that same fear in the breath of men shouting ‘Biarmians!’ when he had first sailed up the Northern Dvina.
“Storm of darts!” someone shouted suddenly, and the quivering twang of bowstrings drifted out of the brush and across the water, and hundreds of arrows could be seen rising, arcing and then falling, as the Varangians quit their rowing and took shelter under shields. The waters about the ships came alive with the splashing of darts, and the decks of ships and the faces of shields danced with the soft thuds of arrows. Several slaves aboard the ships died and several more were wounded in the attack. As each ship passed the copse of trees by the river, it, too, suffered under the feathered barrage, until all ships had finally gone by and every one had sustained some kind of damage. Further upriver, the leader of the Danish merchants took his ship into shore at a clearing that had been marked by the Lithuanians. A grassy meadow fell serenely into the river at one end and at the other it was marked by a wooden statue of some unknown native god. The Danish merchant pulled his ship right up close to the riverbank, for the water was deep there, and he threw his offerings to the Lithuanian god on shore. All the trailing merchant ships followed the example set by their leader until the shore was piled high with goods, more a tithe than an offering.
“How do you know if you’ve left enough?” Hraerik asked the leader of the Norwegians.
“Why…they attack us again,” he answered, matter-of-factly.
“I wouldn’t pay the tithe,” Hraerik said bitterly. “I’d fight them first.”
“I knew that you would be averse to making an offering, so I had the men of my ship put out a double offering to cover you,” the Norwegian merchant confessed.
Hraerik looked at the man angrily.
“All the Norwegian merchants chipped in for your share,” the man called Thorolfr added. “If one ship doesn’t pay, all ships are attacked.”
Hraerik’s anger passed. “In Asia Minor, we arduously circumvent Roman lands to avoid paying a tithe.”
“There are many who travel a route further east to avoid the Lithuanians. There is a town there called Novgorod, meaning New Keep.”
Hraerik nodded. “I have heard of it. Traders there use it as a base for trading with the Khazars.” Hraerik peered into the heavy brush, his deep blue eyes penetrating the bush for Lithuanians. His dark brow and his coal black hair were now flecked with grey. He held a heavy Turkish composite bow in his hand with a feathered shaft nocked at the ready. Age had accentuated his sharp features, acutely adjusting the angles of his high cheeks, arcing his eyebrows up ominously, setting out his firm jaw. The heavy baggy black trousers he wore had a Turkish look to them, and his bright white silk shirt of the Hraes’ Trading Company was piped at the seams for added strength…Hvit Serk, White Shirt is what he was often called, as were his men. He had his bright red Roman cloak drawn up, so it hung from one shoulder in a bunch. He had one foot up on a ship’s rib and his black Danish boots were the only Norse clothes that he wore. Even his weapons differed from those of the Danes and Norwegians about him. Tyrfingr, of course, still hung at his side, and his round linden shield was hung from the ship’s top strake, but his bow was a Turkish composite hornbow that he had spent many hours mastering. Its superior range and power made it a weapon unequalled on the Asian plain, and Hraerik had tried to train his troops in Gardariki in its use, but old habits die hard. The strange, warlike little dwarf, Durin, who never left Hraerik’s side, added to the mystery of the man.
“Next year,” Thorolfr began, “I, too, shall lead my merchants through Novgorod. To Kiev, of course,” he concluded, nervously. Thorolfr knew he no longer addressed a countryman. He was talking to a citizen of the world.
All winter, rumours had been circulating in Gardariki and then Khazaria that Hraerik was a man no longer of this world, that he had been killed investigating the Fortress of Sarkel. He had been expected to return in a month, and, when he failed to do so, Brother Gregory and several Goths set out to learn what had become of him. Questions placed in the proper ears in Khazaria elicited stories of a Varangian ship’s destruction on the Don River earlier that fall, and, once the news travelled to Gardariki that it had been Hraerik Bragi Boddason in command of that ship, the news returned to Khazaria. King Hunn was overjoyed at the news of Hraerik’s demise, but none was happier than his grandson, Prince Hlod, Hanund’s son. The former Queen of Denmark had not forgotten that it was Hraerik who had exposed her infidelity and his brother Hraelauger who had killed her lover. She had never failed to remind her son just who it was that had deprived him of a kingdom, and Prince Hlod had, early on, made plans to regain his lost position and tarnished prestige.
In the winter, Prince Hlod went about his grandfather’s kingdom garnering supporters to his cause, and in the spring, they set off for Kiev. In the main city of the Varangians, Prince Hlod addressed his father, Angantyr Frodi, in his high seat hall. “I have come to claim my inheritance,” he began. “I’ll have half of Hraerik’s lands and treasures, for he deprived me of my rightful place.”
“You’ll have your third when I am dead!” King Frodi answered him angrily, referring to a bastard’s share of an inheritance. “We, too, have heard the rumours of Hraerik Bragi’s death, but they remain rumours, and if they should become fact, my sister Gunwar, your aunt, shall inherit the lands and wealth of my Kagan Bek.”
Then General Ygg stepped forward. “There is no proof that he be your son, my liege. He is more likely the result of cuckoldry. He buries your friend before he is dead. Send him away thankful he yet has his head!”
“You’ll have your third when I am dead,” King Frodi repeated himself.
Then Prince Hlod said, “I shall have my share of Hraerik’s wealth, for there is treasure enough in cattle and steed, in weapons and stead, in bright rings and burnished blades for a nephew and his aunt. Through the Mirkwood Forest shall I wend with warriors plenty, until I get my rightful share.”
Finally, King Frodi said, “Broken bucklers and shattered lances shall be your lot, your share, your inheritance should you take up arms against the Hraes’. If Hraerik is dead, he shall rise up from the grave to fight for his lands and his love, fair Princess Gunwar. Now leave us! Thankful you’ve yet a head!” shouted the Great Kagan of Kiev.
The tithe the Scandinavian merchants had paid the Lithuanians must have sufficed, for they did not attack again. Soon the river caravan was in the relative safety of the land of the Dregovichi, and all the merchants cheered as they cleared a bend in the river and saw the settlement of Surazh. There, they beached their boats in a clearing, spent a night cleaning themselves and resting in the longhalls King Frodi’s troops had built, then, next day, they loaded their goods upon wagons King Frodi’s craftsmen had prepared, pulled by mules King Frodi’s retainers supplied, and they set off for the settlement of Smolensk, three days travel away. Hraerik, however, had Fair Faxi mounted upon wheeled axles and towed by a team of mules along the portage route.
At Smolensk, Hraerik met the kinfolk of Alfgeir, the Danish merchant and friend that Hraerik had buried years before, and there were toasts and greetings and memories shared in that reunion. Again, the merchants spent a night in longhalls built by King Frodi’s troops. In the morning they purchased monoxylan built by craftsmen of the local Slav populace, the Radimichi, then loaded up their wares and, with fresh ships, the river caravan set off again, this time down the Dniepr.
Hraerik looked like a ghost from the grave as he stepped out of Fair Faxi and onto the dock at Kiev. The rumours that he had been killed had circulated throughout the city, and, being Kagan Bek of both Gardar and Gardariki, as well as having been popular with both Varangians and the local Slavs, the Poljane, Hraerik had been mourned by all. King Frodi had gone down sadly to the shores of the Dniepr to welcome the arriving Southern Way merchants only to find the very element of his grief alive and leading them. He was beside himself with joy as he hugged his brother-in-law warmly. King Olmar, too, was overjoyed to see Hraerik, and a happiness blazed within him too powerful to burn for just a friend, but he submerged it and merely shook Hraerik’s hand.
On meeting his grandfather again, Hraerik wanted to cry out in the repatriation, “Grandfather! At long last, my Grandfather!”, but he did not. King Olmar’s coldness towards him was apparent, and the old monarch must have known all along, ever since he had taken Boddi’s cloak pin from Hraerik and given it back again, that Hraerik was his blood kin. “What a terrible thing it must be to be a king and not acknowledge your own grandson, for politics or whatever reason,” Hraerik thought to himself.
High upon the palisade of the centre fort of Kiev, Princess Alfhild watched Hraerik and a dwarf step onto a quay, and the sight took her back to a bright sunny day when Hraerik had won himself a ship through his words and had saved the dwarf Dvalin from humiliation. She realized, now, how close she had come to loving Hraerik, and she cried because she knew that soon it would be time to avenge her father, King Gotar, by withholding her support from him. Gotar had raised her to be the consummate politician, and she would not fail him in her final task.
Hraerik’s reunion with the people of Kiev, was, of necessity, short-lived. The next morning, he carried on down the Dniepr with the Varangian merchants, who were joined by King Frodi and Slav and Rus contingents bound for Constantinople. This season, however, at the Dniepr Rapids, they came upon thousands and thousands of Magyar horsemen and their families migrating across the Asian plain. With the completion of the Fortress of Sarkel, the Khazars no longer required their services, guarding the Don Heath, so the Finno-Ugric Magyars, or Turkoi, as the Greeks called them, began a westward trek that was to culminate in the founding of the nation of Hungary, named after their native Dzungaria on the north-western border of Cathay. The Hraes’ viewed the invading tribesmen as enemies, and it was only with great difficulty that they managed to get their boats down the Dniepr. At Cherson, Greek and Goth traders joined the merchants, who then split into groups bound for Constantinople and the Caspian Sea. It was at Cherson that King Frodi and Hraerik, Kagan and Kagan Bek, parted company.
Hraerik and his group had to stop and wait for Goth merchants, who were surprised by the fact Hraerik was alive, and had been ready to forgo the season’s trade due to the premature news of his demise.
The citizens of Gardariki were overjoyed to learn the news that Hraerik was yet alive, Princess Gunwar being so overcome with excitement that she sailed forth to meet him on the Sea of Azov. Old Gotwar was caught by surprise with the news. She had wanted to go with her mistress, but her old age would not let her keep up with the feverish pace with which Gunwar readied herself, and the old woman missed the boat. Hraerik and Gunwar spent a beautiful night together aboard Fair Faxi, with a half moon and a full sail above them. Gunwar informed Hraerik that, since they had been apart so long, there was no way she was going to be kept in Gardariki, and that she would be travelling to Baghdad with her husband. Hraerik agreed on one condition: Gunwar would have to dress as a warrior, since Moslem women were not given the freedom that Norse women had. To this Gunwar gladly agreed. She said, “I’m as fine a warrior as most of the men of Gardariki, and certainly finer than any the Arabs have.”
When Hraerik and Gunwar returned to Gardariki, old Gotwar was waiting on the quay along with most of the citizens of Tmutorokan. There was a great feast prepared and ready, so the merchants planned on a two-day stopover in which to enjoy the celebration. Gunwar noticed that Gotwar seemed agitated and disturbed as she dispensed her medicines to her mistress. Later that evening, during the feasting, Gunwar fell ill. Gotwar claimed it was food poisoning and was life threatening, but Hraerik took note that no others had suffered like symptoms. The old priestess of Odin, using all the medical skills she’d acquired through her witchcraft, plied Gunwar with medicines and herbs until her mistress recovered somewhat from the illness. “Her entire system shall require a cleansing that may take several weeks, but you have my assurances that she will be alive and well upon your return from Baghdad,” the old crone told the leader of the Hraes’. For once, Hraerik felt thankful that he had spared the old woman’s life, and he set off for Baghdad with his merchants, while Gunwar remained in Gardariki to convalesce.
The trade in Baghdad went very well, but Hraerik was disturbed to learn that his friend, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut had been ill all the previous winter. His son, Fadlan, was taking over the family business for him. Hraerik again got the sensation that time was shifting. It was as though years, but not time, pass until suddenly some event trips time and it shifts forward to catch up with the years. Hraerik realized then that time is relative; years are but the continuum. Time had treated Hraerik relatively well; he was still young, though many in years.
At the end of the summer trading season, when the Varangian merchants attempted to return up the Dniepr, they found the rapid portages effectively blocked by the Magyars. Still under orders from the Khazars, the Magyar tribesmen refused to let any merchants pass. The traders that they managed to capture were stripped of their wealth and allowed to carry on to Kiev. The rest of the Varangians returned to Gardariki.
Hraerik was again separated from Gunwar, as he led the stranded merchants across the Sea of Azov and up the Don and Donets Rivers, where they portaged across to the Orel River, a tributary of the Dniepr. Hraerik had them carry a message to King Frodi requesting relief from the Magyar blockade, but he, himself, returned to Gardariki in Fair Faxi, before the Greek triremes stationed out of the Fortress of Sarkel could learn of his movements.
In Khazaria, Prince Hlod once again spent the winter garnering support for his cause from the Onogur, the At-Khazars and Kara-Khazars as well as the Huns. This time, though, he levied troops from the tribes loyal to his grandfather, King Hunn. He then sent messengers to Gardariki and Kiev informing the Rus of his intention of taking Tmutorokan for himself.
Hraerik, too, sent messengers to Kiev requesting, once more, that King Frodi raise an army to raze the Magyar blockade and send reinforcements to the defence of Gardariki. He regretted having led his Varangian merchants up the Don and sending them back to Kiev. He could have used those stalwart men in the defence of Tmutorokan.