© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
A FISTFUL OF LUCK (Circa 828 AD)
“The way I see it, Harald has all the luck he’s ever
likely to need, while our King hasn’t even a fistful.”
Ulf Bjalfason; Egil’s Saga.
A narrow greensward ran along the south edge of the fjord of Hraegunarstead between the mountains and the bay, a lush meadow the freemen called the bitter green. At its westernmost point stood a watchtower where a lookout monitored the mouth of the fjord for the arrival of ships, be they friend or foe. Whenever one of their longships returned, all the folk of Hraegunarstead would rush across the bitter green to welcome their elite home. In an instant it would be known which warriors were not returning from battle. Everyone ran across that meadow. Only the old folk walked. It was said the bitter green was watered by the weeping of new-found widows; it was a verdant green.
A week after the passing of King Gotar’s war arrow a longship was spotted sailing up the fjord toward Hraegunarstead. It was Hraegunar’s ship and the whole household rushed out onto the bitter green to welcome him home. Hraerik watched as his step-mother, Kraka, ran amongst the throng along the meadow to greet her husband. Her agility belied her age. The people stood about, apprehensive, gathered in small moving knots, facing west and swaying with the fresh spring breeze. The distinctive white and red sail of Hraegunar’s ship could be seen above the waves but, as it neared, no white shield could be seen suspended above it. Murmurs raced through the throng as the ship’s bulwarks rose up out of the waters and soon the oars could be seen chomping at the waves. Men could be made out on the foredeck and then men could be seen scampering about mid-deck, gathering up the sail and unfooting the mast. As the ship passed along the shore the crewmen at the stern kept their heads downcast, as though ashamed. The people on shore ran back along the bitter green, following the longship’s progress. Hraerik, too, ran with the throng, but Kraka, surrounded by the elders of the stead, walked slowly, as though in a trance. By the downcast nature of the ship’s crew, it was evident that something was amiss. Hraegunar’s ship was rowed till near the shore, then the oars were raised and it coasted up onto the beach, scudding softly into the salty sand. Ropes were let out and the multitude grabbed them up and hauled the ship onshore, as the Vikings stowed their oars. Hraelauger was at the forestem, below the fierce dragon’s head, and was the first to leap to land. Hraerik rushed at Hraelauger, grasped him by the shoulders, then hugged him.
“You’re alive at least,” Hraerik said. “That much I can tell by looking at your glum face. How went the raid?”
Hraelauger raised a finger to his lips, glancing back at Hraegunar as he ambled down the gangplank to the shore. Hraerik could see it was a foul mood he was in. Hraegunar hollered out directions to his crew, stamped across the sand to Kraka, kissed her on the cheek, then stormed off toward his longhall. Kraka, Hraelauger and Hraerik followed, leaving the folk of the stead on the beach with the crew. Inside the hall, Hraegunar shut himself up in his bedchamber and would let none enter and would not come out. His sons shared a high seat and a horn of ale, and Hraelauger told Hraerik about the raid.
“It was fey,” he started. “The beginning had dire portents, the middle was bad and the ending worse.” They could hear Kraka and her bondmaidens attempting to coax Hraegunar from his room. “First, we ran into Hrafn Ketil, King Gotar’s foremost man, on his way back from Denmark and he and father had words. When we got into Danish waters we found there was little there worth raiding. King Frodi taxes his people so heavily that they feel their labours not worth the effort. He taxes their every transaction: when they buy a cow, or sell a sheaf of grain or even get married, a share goes to their king. The Danes have forfeited their wealth to feed themselves and now have so little left it was unseemly to rob them. We carried on around Gotland and up to Sweden and we traded for iron bars, as usual, but the Danes had driven up prices so high we could only buy a half supply. And the ton-stone of the Swedes was in short supply as well, but we got most of it. Then, as if things were not bad enough, on our way back King Frodi’s sea king, Oddi, tracked us down and offered us battle. Though he had twelve wild berserks howling at the bow of his ship, father was ready to fight him, but Brak had a word with him and they both glanced back at me and they decided that we would make a run for it instead. He’s never run from a fight in his life and doing so has crushed him. Oddi chased after us and we rowed for our lives the better part of a day before we lost them in the dark. The Danes say that, using magic, Oddi travels over the sea without a ship, monitoring all routes, so we skirted the Danish islands in a weaving path, hiding in bays during the day and rowing nights. That’s why we’re late and that’s why father’s shut himself up in his room.”
“Who were these berserks?” Hraerik asked, gazing into his ale.
“King Frodi’s champions. The sons of Westmar, Frodi’s guardian.”
“They seem to have caused Hraegunar some grief.”
“Father would have fought them had I not been along. He’s getting old. It would have been his most glorious battle. You poets would have written a drapa or two of the battle that would have been fought that day. All the skalds would have sung praises of father’s bravery. Now he fears he shall die a straw death and it’s all my fault.”
Hraerik sensed how deeply Hraelauger was holding himself responsible for the way things had unfolded so he tried to change the subject. “Gotar has sent the war arrow around,” he started.
“We heard when we touched in at Agder. The news is up and down the coast. King Gotar intends to attack King Frodi. Exactly what he intends to gain by it I can only suspect.”
Hraerik rose and refilled their cup.
“What’s that about your waist?” Hraelauger asked. “It’s new, is it not?”
“Dvalin and I have forged a sword,” Hraerik answered proudly, unbuckling his heavy scabbard and passing it over to Hraelauger. “I’ve named her Tyrfingr. It must never be unsheathed without being the death of a man,” he warned his brother.
“Father says he’ll not be going to the war thing,” Hraelauger started, taking up the sword and studying the hilt. “He has his Nor’Way trade to attend to and he wants to leave right away. This steel is strange.”
“Don’t draw out the blade,” Hraerik said, putting a hand on the guard. “Who will go then? Somebody has to go.”
“Father’s still angry with Brak for advising him to flee the Danes, so he may not be travelling the Way this summer. And I’d like to attend the war thing. I’ve a score to settle with those berserks and a war thing sounds like a proper place to start. What is this metal?”
“I had to accept the war arrow in Hraegunar’s stead, so I’m duty bound to go too. It’s star steel. Dvalin showed me how to work it.”
“You must tell me more of this star steel, but here…father comes.” Hraelauger handed Hraerik back his weapon.
Hraegunar emerged from the chamberway and stamped half the length of the hall. He stomped up the dais and threw himself upon his high seat. Brak followed close behind, taking up the third high seat and Kraka, herself, brought them horns of ale. The two hoary old merchant warriors sat beside each other and fumed.
The young men waited an appropriate amount of time. “I want to go to the war council,” Hraelauger announced, “and I want Hraerik to come.”
“Brak is going to the war thing,” Hraegunar replied. “You are plying the Nor’Way with me, and Hraerik is to look after the stead.”
“Hraerik accepted the arrow and he should be allowed to attend. We won’t be gone that long if it’s still your intention to withhold your support from King Gotar.”
“You must learn,” Hraegunar expounded, “that the success of a trading company depends upon maintaining your trade routes.”
“Next year you will teach me this?” Hraelauger asked, flashing the broad grin of a favoured son over his drinking horn. His winsome looks softened Hraegunar.
“I suppose it’s important that you learn to deal with kings as well. You shall represent Jaederen Province. Brak will steer you clear of strands.”
“Hraerik shall tend the stead! With his temper, he’s not likely to stay out of trouble in a court such as Gotar’s.”
“Yes, father,” Hraelauger said.
“And make no deals to support Gotar. King Frodi has all the luck he’s ever likely to need, while our king hasn’t even a fistful.”
Hraelauger turned to Hraerik. “I tried,” he whispered. He took a long draft of ale, then passed the horn to Hraerik.
“I’m still going,” Hraerik murmured over the edge of the horn and he drew his share of the brew.
Later, Brak called them over to his bench and they made plans for attending the war council in three weeks time. It was decided that only Brak’s and Hraegunar’s longships would be used on the mission, as Hraegunar required the full complement of his dozen merchant ships…Way-Ranging ships of the special Nor’Way construction…on his trading expedition. Messengers were sent out to the other steads with orders for raising troops and ships, while the folk of Hraegunarstead gathered up supplies and prepared the two ships for the journey. Hraegunar’s longship required repairs on damages it had sustained during the raiding, so Hraelauger started work on that while Hraerik oversaw the unloading of the iron and ton-stone. Once the repairs were made they would leave for Rennes Isle, where the host of Jaederen Province was to assemble. Hraegunar, meanwhile, planned to set off next day on his Nor’Way crossing.
Night had long fallen over the fjord before Hraegunar’s preparations were completed, yet, once everyone had retired, Hraerik had difficulty getting to sleep, disturbed at being excluded from the war thing. Hraerik kept Hraelauger up and told him all about the forging of Tyrfingr and of his promise to Dvalin.
“Where is the dwarf, anyway?” Hraelauger asked. “I didn’t see him playing at his hearth.”
“Dvalin’s been making himself scarce since Hraegunar’s return. Had you been looking for him you would have noticed a trace of him here, a trail of him there. He was like the wind today; sensed but not seen.”
“And how do you propose to fulfil your promise to him? Hraegunar has the only ships that will handle the Nor’Way crossing and he is taking them all on his expedition.”
“Dvalin foresees me crossing in the near future. If he is wrong, that is his mistake. I shall do my best and no more, for I already have the sword.”
“And you’ve still not even seen the blade?” Hraelauger asked Hraerik. “Not even tested its bite?” he asked further. “Knowing that trickster, Dvalin, I should not be surprised if you draw the blade in time of need and it turns out to be blunt.”
“Don’t worry, brother. She’s had test enough in the hands of Dvalin on one of the slaves. He sent our bellowsman straight to hell, poor fellow, with a wound cut so keen it’s probably healed by now.”
“I just meant for you not to put too much faith in an untried blade. Still…,” Hraelauger murmured, stroking the hilts of the sword, “I’ve never seen such metal as this.”
“Hraegunar mentioned Gotar’s luck as being but a fistful next to Frodi’s fortune. If Denmark is in such ruin, how does Hraegunar gauge the Dane’s success?”
“Rumours are flying that King Frodi has reopened the Southern Way. That is what he has been spending his gold on. And that is one of the reasons we did some raiding…to hear it for ourselves.”
“It appears he has, but he’s having trouble making it work. The Baltic is filling with pirates and they plunder his ships. Yet, with Oddi’s help he could pull it off, and that could very well destroy our Northern Way. Father figures that King Gotar is planning to either destroy Frodi to protect the Nor’Way and, therefore, lay claim to it himself, or force Frodi to give him a share in the Southern Way trade. We’re not sure what he is up to, but either way we lose.”
“What can we do about it?”
“Not too much now. First and foremost I’ve got to come up with a way to withhold our support from King Gotar without losing too much face. Father just keeps saying ‘tell him we aren’t going’, but the consequences of refusal are dire. I must figure us a way out of this, but first we must sleep,” Hraelauger said.
Hraerik sank back into the straw of his bed, but could only sleep fitfully. Hraelauger was snoring soundly when Hraerik cried out in the middle of the night. Hraelauger got up and woke his brother, saying, “What is it, Hraerik?”, then shaking him, “What troubles you?”
Hraerik woke very slowly and, rubbing his eyes, looked about as if he had expected to wake up in some other place. “I had a nightmare,” he answered. “It came to me as a poem, but it seemed so real.”
“What was it?” Hraelauger asked, and he hunkered down beside Hraerik’s bed. “Dreams can be portents and I have an important journey ahead of me.”
“The dream danced like a drapa running through my mind; it started with the beating of kettle drums–war drums–then I was out over the ocean. There was a fierce battle raging, then next I was on a lone sand bar with our wrecked ships strewn about its shores and in the middle of it an eagle was perched, picking over the carcase of a wolf.” Hraerik sat up and rested his crossed arms on his knees then looked at Hraelauger. He took a deep breath then said, “And the wolf was King Gotar.”
“I see now what father meant,” Hraelauger said. “It’s revealed in your dream. Gotar’s fistful of luck may be just enough to get us all killed. Now you really must come to the war thing. You may be our only way out of this slaughter.”
The next morning Hraerik went down to the smithy shed and helped Brak open the crates of Swedish iron bars. “I’m sorry the shop’s in such a state,” Hraerik apologized, waving toward the temporary bellows system he had rigged up.
“Yes, a veritable shitstorm has hit our smith works, but that’s alright,” Brak replied, toeing his boot through the bloodied sand floor. “We’ll get her straightened up and get the iron into the stone boats before we head out to the war thing. We could only afford a half order of iron thanks to King Frodi’s needs. That means half the steel, half the swords and half the profits. At least the Swedes allowed us our full complement of ton-stone for the Nor’way trade. The Alchemist’s Guild will pay us well for that.” Brak stood at the great stone anvil, both hands upon the flat of it. “With the prospect of us losing access to Swedish iron, Hraegunar had made arrangements with the guild for my training in making Indian steel in Damascus. I was to be going across the Nor’Way, but I was not coming back this season. Now Gotar’s war plans have changed all that,” Brak complained bitterly.
The Swedish iron that they had acquired came from a mine in Uppsala that was renowned for its iron purity. It was essentially carbon free, which would seem detrimental if one’s goal was to make carbon steel, except that normal iron had too much carbon, giving it a brittle quality. Brak, a trained steel smith, had learned of a process for adding just the right amounts of carbon to the pure iron to produce low carbon steel suitable for the forging of the finest swords and weapons. The Trident Swords of Jaederen were a commodity sought by many in the northern clime.
“If we lose access to the iron,” Brak continued, “we’ll need knowledge of this Indian steel. And only the alchemists in Baghdad can teach me. Even the Greeks and Romans have not learned of it,” he added as the two began straightening up the shop.
“Do you know how it works?” Hraerik asked.
“The metallurgists I talked with in Baghdad told me it is a method of controlled burn out of excess charcoal from pig iron, but how it is done I have not been able to ascertain. When we soak our Swedish iron in coals in the stone boats of the firing mounds we are adding charcoal to the iron to make varying qualities of steel. The Indian process does the opposite. One places bog iron nodules in a stone chimney filled with coals and additives and the firing process removes charcoal from the pig iron to form blooms of the finest steels. The additives can even prevent the steel from rusting.”
Hraerik took his scabbard from out of his belt and placed his new sword, Tyrfingr, on the anvil stone upon which it had been created. “Here is a steel you have never seen before,” Hraerik challenged his teacher. “It is from a star stone and Dvalin taught me how to forge it. He says it shall never rust and shall never dull. But the blade must always be sheathed in the blood of its last victim, so don’t pull it from its scabbard.”
Brak took the sword up from the stone and studied the hilts. “Ahh….Dvalin. You are right when you say I have never seen such steel, but I have heard of it,” and Brak quickly pulled the blade free of its scabbard and studied it. “And the dwarf put the edge on it?” Brak asked as he just as quickly sheathed the sword. “There was a famed Alchemist, a smith named Merlin, who pulled a sword from star stone such as this and he gave it to his Briton king. It is but a legend now. With the sword this king was able to keep the Saxons and the Angles at bay and keep his kingdom safe from conquest, but the sword had a glow such as yours has, and it eventually poisoned the blood of its master and the Briton king fell in battle. This was hundreds of years ago and it is only legend now. But it is the scabbard that keeps the poison glow at bay and the fable of the blood….it keeps the sword in its scabbard. In those ancient times they had no knowledge of the glow or its consequences. It is the additives in the star stone steel that cause the glow and during battle the glow can become alarming. That is when it is most dangerous. Limit your blows and use stabbing strokes. That is its safest use. They had no knowledge of this back then and the sword Excalibur was buried with the master it had poisoned. A sword such as this should always be buried with its master.”
No one knew how old Brak was. Sigurd had brought him back from the east with him, and he was old then. And Brak continued on as Hraegunar’s man. And now Hraegunar was old. In all that time, Brak had not seemed to age at all.
Some said he was an alchemist, some said he was a metallurgist, but Brak only laid claim to being a steel smith. Not a black smith or an iron smith, but a true “secret of steel” steel smith.
“Do you even know what an alchemist is?” Brak had asked Hraerik the first time the boy had asked his mentor if he really was one. And Brak went on to explain that alchemists could specialize in many areas: science, philosophy, geography, medicines, mathematics, metals, chemicals, potions, but originally, most importantly, going back as far in time as tales allowed, they were refiners of gold. They were masters of the acids and chemicals and processes to turn base gold into the purest of metals. The rich and powerful have always loved the lustre of pure gold, the purer, the better, so alchemists have always been the favoured guild of kings and queens. But when alchemists learned to turn copper into bronze, they soon became the favourites of princes and warriors. Some metallurgists specialized in weapons: swords and spears and arrowheads, while others specialized in armour: helmets and bucklers and breastplates. And the more powerful the weapons became, the better the defence against them had to become. So, while lustre of gold drew alchemists close to kings, lust of life drew them closer to princes. This race between sword and buckler continued on into the age of iron and carries on now into the age of steel. So, while some might call Brak an alchemist, he always called himself a steel smith.
In the most ancient of times there was a saying that smiths could turn tin into gold, for the best bronze swords and armour would turn one king’s gold into another king’s treasury. But, in the time of the pharaohs the verse turned to myth and in Babylon it was said that alchemists could turn lead into gold. And the myth persisted and grew as iron replaced bronze, but it changed once more as steel replaced iron and Romans replaced Greeks and Brak knew it had something to do with the flow of ton-stone from the Northern lands that the Guild had entrusted him with maintaining. And he still planned to stay in Damascus and Baghdad to find out just what. His stay might be shorter than planned, but he would find out what.
Hraerik used a flint and steel to fire up the forges while several grumbling slaves set up the bellows and Brak emptied the first crate of iron bars. Soon the two smiths were pounding out thin sword blade strips out of the pure Swedish iron. The strips would be laminated into full blades following carbon impregnation treatment in the stone boats that the dwarves of Finnmark had fashioned out of soapstone to Brak’s specifications. Three carbon steel strips would be forged into one blade, a center strip of higher carbon steel to keep a sharp edge and two lower carbon strips on the outside for greater flexibility, so they were working on the center strips first, so they could be placed in the first stone boat with coal powder, sealed with clay under a stoneboat lid and carburized longer. The sealed stoneboats would be placed in earthen mounds filled with firewood and exposed to the flames for several weeks. Then the carbon steel strips would be forged together using Damascus flux, heat and hammers. The resulting blades were some of the finest in Europe and were in high demand in the eastern reaches of the Nor’Way trade routes.
“If you know how to make the flux,” Hraerik asked Brak, “why do you trade for it in Damascus?”
“It’s more efficient to just buy it,” Brak replied. “A few fox hides and we have enough flux for the season. And it keeps me a customer with the steel makers there.”
Once they had the stoneboats all in the firing mounds, Hraerik, Brak and Dvalin started forging swords using carburized strips from the prior year’s stock. Dvalin pulled an outer strip out of his forge and placed it on the stone anvil, then Hraerik sprinkled flux on it and Brak pulled a center strip out of his forge and laid it atop Dvalin’s strip as Dvalin began hammering the two together. Brak sprinkled flux on the center strip as Hraerik pulled a second outer strip out of his forge and laid it atop to complete the triple lamination and all three smiths began forging the blade with hammers, Dvalin at the tip, Brak at the centre and Erik at the tang. When the strips were forged together into a common blade, it went back into Brak’s forge for reheating and came out for final forging, then Dvalin started tinking out a tip and edges while Brad forge welded a trident guard onto the tang as Hraerik began work on the heavy pommel ton-stone.
“I wanted to leave my forge set-up we made for the star stone so I could try it out on the ton-stone,” Hraerik explained as he tonged a white hot piece of the heavy metal from the fire. He began hammering it into a sphere and the more he hammered it, the smaller and denser it became. A few more firings and forgings and Hraerik soon had a very heavy pommel ready for Brak to forge onto the sword. “This is the densest pommel ever,” Hraerik started. “The high heat of these coals seem to work more of the impurities out of the ton-stone.”
Brak agreed, as he worked the heavy metal into a split he had chiselled into the end of the tang which he forged into an encircling loop. “The alchemists of the gold and silver guild use chemicals to refine it even more. I want to find out what they use it for,” he said as he completed the loop. Brak sat down on the long bench behind them and Hraerik joined him and they rested as they watched Dvalin finish tinking edges on the blade just shy of the hilts. Dvalin brought the cooling blade over to the bench for their inspection and approval then put the blade into his forge for one last firing before the quench. The bellows men pumped even harder at the approach of the dwarf and the resting Brak marvelled at the newfound respect the slaves seemed to have for the so recently freed smith. He surmised it had something to do with the blood in the sand floor. “I mean to find out what it is they are doing with this refined ton-stone,” Brak began. Long ago he had told Hraerik about the significance of the ton-stone. Sigurd had been a smith of uncanny ability and it was he who had started incorporating the trident guard on their Jaederen swords and it was he who had started using Swedish ton-stone in the pommels of their swords. The great density of the metal made it an excellent counterweight for the blade of a sword, giving it good balance while keeping the handle compact. But when Sigurd started trading the these swords in the east, the Alchemists Guild took notice. They had another use for this heavy stone, a metal quite as dense as gold.
Dvalin called them over to his forge. The blade was ready for quenching. Hraerik put on his heavy leather gloves then took them off, grabbed his tongs and went over to Dvalin’s forge. Brak was close behind him with a wet sheepskin and Dvalin had moved over to the soapstone quenching tub and checked the temperature of the whale oil in it then put his ear to the tub and waved them over. Hraerik tonged the sword out of the forge and darted over to the tub of oil and immersed the hot blade in the oil and a flame shot up and Brak sheltered Hraerik’s hands with the sheepskin. Hraerik pulled the warm blade from the quench and the flames went out. “It felt good,” he said, as Brak pulled back the hide. “No crack,” Dvalin said, taking his ear from the tub. They all took turns inspecting the blade for warps and cracks and, passing approval, Dvalin handed it to a slave for wipe down and grinding. Another slave pedalled the grinding wheel as the first slave got to work. And the smiths returned to their forges and began firing three more strips for another blade. It seemed a drawn out process, but it was quite fast for the quality of the blades they were making.
Once the stoneboats had been in the firing mounds for a week or so the smoke holes were sealed and fires died out and everything was let to cool slowly. Hraelauger had completed the repairs on his father’s ship and the warriors of Hraegunarstead sailed off to the war thing. Kraka once more traversed the bitter green, this time to wave goodbye to her son.