© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE NORTHERN WAY (Circa 828 AD)
“Still further north, the inhabitants that dwell on
the edge of the Northern sea enter into trade without
seeing the travellers with whom they are bargaining.”
Geography of Abu al-Fida (c.1300).
Varangers–Way Wanderers. Hraerik and Hraelauger had never been Varangians, but their forefathers had. Their grandfather, Sigurd, had discovered the Northern Way; his son, Hraegunar, had tamed the Nor’Way; and now, with a strong wind and the tide, the two brothers, the third generation, set out with Brak from Hrafnista, in the northernmost part of Halogaland, following a route well ranged by their fore-fathers. They sailed up the coast, the Nor’Way until they reached the north cape, then struck east along the shores of Finmark.
Although spring had been well under way when they had left Oslo Fjord, their voyage north was a step back into winter, for, as they progressed, the air grew cooler and the days shortened until they found they were fighting winter once again. With the advent of heavy snow, Hraerik had his men run a rope from the forestem to the mast and back to the afterstem upon which they suspended an oxhide covering that was sloped outwards to the bulwarks, enclosing the entire ship from the elements. The cold brought extremes of weather, either so calm that rowing was required, or so stormy that sailing was impossible, their ship being tossed about, sometimes gaining, sometimes losing leagues. Finally, a fierce storm the likes of which Hraerik had never seen set upon them.
With the silent speed of an osprey, the storm swept down upon the sea, churning up white foam flecked waves that thrashed back at the striking heavens, buffeting about the Nor’Way ship and battering around the men within her, until day was lost to night and night to day, and all sense of direction was scattered to the raging winds, and the sense of survival in this howling din was shattered from strong hope to mere whim. Then, like some child abruptly bored with a new toy, the storm abated and, as suddenly as it had arisen, was gone. There followed a desolate calm, as though the elements had ceased to exist, and Fair Faxi was left bobbing before the White Sea.
The men soon had the storm gear packed up and they trimmed the sail for Kandalak’s Bay. Everything was back to normal, but for a dreggy sensation that remained from the crossing, like a bittersweet aftertaste. When a treeline came into view, all marvelled at its greenness and the jaggedness with which it cut the horizon. The storm was gone, but that peculiar calm remained in the men. They felt like Way Wanderers; they were Varangians now. Many people talked of the Nor’Way, even more benefited from it, but they were now among the few who had actually experienced it…an occurrence that stuck with a person for life, which, in the Eastern Realm, could be lost quickly enough.
Brak had them land Fair Faxi at a particular point of Kandalak’s Bay, where, he explained, trading could be done with a tribe he could only suspect of being some sort of Finn or Lapp, for he had only once actually seen any of them. They hauled Fair Faxi up onto the white pebbled shore, gathered up their wares and headed inland. A sparse village stood near the beach, nothing more than a smattering of hide huts in a forest clearing, but it was peculiar in that, though the hearth fires yet smouldered, it was totally deserted. Brak had the men unwrap the wares and lay them out on bear skins: a hide piled with swords, a hide with knives, a hide for spear and arrowheads; a hide with cloth, a hide with beads, and hides for various other sundries. Before each pile of goods he marked his price in the type and quantity of fur he expected for each item, ranging from a squirrel pelt for a string of beads to a half dozen sable pelts for a double edged sword. Then they left their wares and they returned to their ship and they rested, marvelling once more at how green the trees appeared, or begging Dvalin for another story about this strange land, or entreating Hraerik for a poem or two. Next day, when they returned to the village they found piles of furs placed before the price markings of the correspondingly depleted piles of goods. Brak quickly surveyed which items were moving and which items were not and shifted his pricing accordingly. He saw that swords were selling so he added two sables to the price, cloth was not so he took a marten off an ells length. He paid like attention to all the goods while the men gathered up the furs.
“You don’t count up the furs against the stock?” Hraerik asked.
“The natives can be trusted,” Brak answered. “You can count on them to be as honest as they are savage.”
“If they’re so savage, why do they hide from us?” Hraerik asked.
“When Hraegunar and I first traded with these savages, they did come out to meet us. In their innocent way they welcomed us and we broke bread, but a pestilence descended upon them and decimated their tribe and now they shun us. They still wish to trade, but they avoid us like a plague. It seems to keep them safe.”
Once again the men returned to their ship, but now they had furs to sort and grade and bundle. For three days this phantom trade was carried on. The fourth day, when they went inland, the village was gone. Only the piles of furs and the piles of wares remained in the middle of the clearing. Judging by the speed with which the trading was completed, Brak said that Hraegunar had preceded them by about two weeks.
Sailing southeast across the White Sea, they found the mouth of the Northern Dvina. The river is a northern dancer leaping into Asia from above, with a powerful arm extending from the White Sea into the north-western plain, a second arm reaching east for the Kama River, then a stub of a leg stepping over the source of the Volga River and a longer leg dragging through a puddle of lakes and rivers trailing west to the Gulf of Finland, the whole Northern Dvina system draining a land of immense pine forests and vast tracts of wilderness, rich in furs and rumours of silver. The first arm of the river crossed through the land of the Biarmians, a fierce Finno-Ugric race that had no interest in trade and, therefore, no tolerance for traders. Hraegunar had always lamented the Biarmians for their sloth and violence, but Brak put it succinctly when he told Hraerik, “They are a fierce people in a wide wilderness and are quite used to taking what they want.” Everyone knew trouble waited upriver. It was only a matter of when.
Hraerik was at the rudder of Fair Faxi, with the sail trimmed to catch a bit of crosswind, while the men rowed upriver. Brak and Dvalin were at the forestem watching for Biarmian boats and ambuscades. Hraelauger yarded in his oar and went back to have a word with Hraerik.
“Dvalin doesn’t look well,” Hraerik said as his brother approached. Hraelauger studied Dvalin and Brak at the other end of the ship. They were both drawing out maps in the air with their fingertips, apparently discussing the branching of rivers.
“He doesn’t eat.” Hraelauger replied.
“It’s the sickness,” Hraerik said. “It consumes from within.”
Hraelauger studied the dwarf and shook his head sadly. He then studied Hraerik for a moment and asked, “What do you think of becoming Gotar’s man?”
“Gotar gave me Fair Faxi to bind me to him, to make me his man, to pay me for my advice. Should my advice be wrong, he shall take my life; if I am right, he’ll relinquish his designs upon the Nor’Way and will consider me a man of great luck, a commodity well worth hanging on to.” A spell of silence came over the brothers and they both watched Brak and Dvalin for some time. “Hrafn Ketil died this morning,” Hraerik said calmly. “I felt it so surely, the death blow set me back a step. It was Oddi that did the killing. The strand hogs are feasting on our fellow Norwegians this fine afternoon.”
“It’s better a few than all of us,” Hraelauger consoled.
Hraerik looked out over the river. A breeze ruffled the waters and the current put a pattern into the waves. “Oddi must pay for this,” Hraerik said. “Oddi and those twelve berserks. They were there today, of that I’m sure.”
“Oddi has only helped us. Hrafn Ketil was after the ‘Way; now he’s out of the way.”
“Hrafn Ketil was only reacting to events that even now continue to unfold. Were it not him, it would have been some other. We should not begrudge him his ambition and allow our animosities to cloud our recognition of present enemies.”
Hraelauger was surprised at the clarity of his younger brother’s thoughts. There are moments in one’s life when the preconceived character of a sibling suddenly changes, when a younger brother becomes older, or an older brother younger, and Hraelauger judged it to be just such a moment. “Perhaps Gotar was right,” he thought. “Perhaps he has been too long in my shadow. Or was it Fair Faxi and the crossing that has changed Hraerik, allowing him to show compassion for an enemy?”
“With Oddi clearing the seas of pirates,” Hraerik continued, “Frodi shall succeed in establishing his Southern Way. Then our Nor’Way will share in Hrafn Ketil’s fate. We must destroy Oddi.”
“Are we doing this for Gotar?”
“We’re doing it for the Nor’Way. Oddi for us and the twelve berserks for Hraegunar. Gotar be damned. I’ll not be any man’s man.”
“And the man’s daughter?”, Hraelauger chided.
“There my sense of direction strays, as though I were in a heavy fog. My thoughts become murky,” Hraerik replied, resting his crossed arms on the rudder shaft and staring wistfully across the waves.
“Biarmians!” Brak shouted, shattering Hraerik’s reverie. “Storm of darts,” he yelled from the forestem. “Take cover,” and everyone caught up their shields and took shelter under them. Immediately a hail of arrows whistled down about them, some striking the ship, most splashing harmlessly into the river. A second volley rose up out of the underbrush of the river bank followed by the whine of many bowstrings, the sound carrying out over the water as the arrows reached their zenith and began their soft hissing descent. The river came alive with the splashing of darts and the ship’s deck danced with a spattering of arrows and one man’s shield sported a fletched shaft, but nothing else came of the shots, and the Biarmians, tiring of their sport, did not pursue the Varangians. Brak guessed that they had happened upon a war party on their way to a raid. The man whose shield had been hit, a huge dull fellow named Amlod, praised Odin, founder of the Skioldungs that none had been killed, but many of the men looked at him as though he had been chosen, as though he had been marked. Brak assured the men that they would not be seeing that lot again, at least not until they were on their way back. He then took Hraerik and Hraelauger aside and explained his intentions toward the Biarmians.
“They cost Hraegunar and me two good men last season,” he explained, “and I intend to get wergild from them. We’ve never had the chance to teach them not to test us. With the trading season so short, we’ve never had the time. This trip we’re not doing as much trading, so we’ve got some time to kill.”
While Brak went into details of a punitive action against the enemy, Hraerik wondered whom, exactly, their enemy might be. Since blowing into Asia on a storm, they had completed a trading mission and had experienced an attack without so much as having seen a living soul beyond their own party. Had not the trading gone as well as the attack had gone poorly, this fact would have been more unnerving than amusing.
Two days of rowing had narrowed the river noticeably. The ship soon reached an extreme bend, beyond which was a Biarmian burial mound set a short distance into the forest. Brak had the men row for it, and they anchored the ship off a small clearing in the forest before the huge earthen howe. With not an hour’s daylight remaining, Hraerik and Brak and twenty men splashed down into the shallow river, waded to shore and made for the mound with the sole intention of looting it, leaving Hraelauger and the others to guard Fair Faxi. The shore party filed through the woods for a short distance before reaching a second clearing in front of the burial mound. A rude stockade of sharpened posts had been erected around the site of the huge earthen howe, so Hraerik boosted up a youth named Ask, who, although he had one leg longer than the other and walked with a limp, was particularly agile in high places. Over the stockade wall he went and he opened the gate from within. The others poured inside and a force was left to guard the gate, while the rest advanced on the mound’s entranceway. A carved oaken statue of Jomali, the Biarmian’s main god, sat outside the tomb with a great wooden bowl full of silver upon his lap. Brak forbade anyone’s touching it. They entered the tomb down a long narrow tunnel and they soon reached the chamber where the bones and the ashes of the dead were deposited along with the many lumps and blobs of silver and gold that remained of their jewellery following cremation. The men set about scooping the ashes and precious metals into coarse sacks they had brought for the purpose. Some tried to sift the silver from the ashes, but soon had the room choking with dust and gave that up. The men sweated as the chamber warmed with their efforts and the dust soon coated their bodies. When the charnel house was cleared of everything save the bones, the men carried their sacks, two to a man, back out the tunnel. As they were gathering up their gear outside the mound, one of the men, the one called Amlod, tilted the silver out of the Jomali’s huge wooden bowl and into his sack. The Jomali immediately spouted forth a fountain of water and suddenly there came a great rumbling sound from the top of the mound, followed by a deluge of water that rushed down its face, collapsing the tunnel in a sea of mud and sweeping the men all the way out to the stockade gate. The guards there helped their confederates gather up the loot, but when they opened the gate they could see, by the fast failing light, Biarmians streaming into the clearing. Hraerik had half of his men take up all of the spoils and instructed Brak to lead them back to the ship, then he prepared his remaining men for a strike against the growing band of Biarmians. It was past dusk, but, in the lingering light of the northern clime, the grey figures of the native warriors could be made out as they slinked into the still clearing. Hraerik led his men out from the stockade, drew his untried sword, Tyrfingr, and charged the Biarmians. Brak led his group toward the river and, as they filed along the edge of the clearing, he could just make out the two clusters of fighting men as they melted into each other.
The Varangians and Biarmians crashed together, engaged in a violent death struggle, and above them all, rising and falling like a sputtering beacon, was Tyrfingr, aflame from hilt to tip in the hearth glow of that strange star stone. Hraerik’s ferocious strokes left trails and echoes of light in the night sky, and Tyrfingr veritably wailed as she was swung through the air; the spectral aspect of the blade and its terrible effect on their limbs and armour soon had the band of Biarmians turning in flight. Hraerik ran after them, still swinging Tyrfingr and bellowing his rage, even though his own men, too, had turned and run for their lives. Hraerik chased the natives across the clearing and into the woods, then he stopped and returned to the battleground, where he doused the blade of Tyrfingr in the corpse of a dead Biarmian and sheathed her in her scabbard. He then sorted through the rest of the dead and found only one Varangian among the many bodies laid about. In the starlight he could see that it was Amlod, the man who had robbed the Jomali of its silver. He hoisted the body up over his shoulder and trudged through the woods to the river. He saw Hraelauger on board Fair Faxi gathering together a rescue party, while Brak was cursing the greed of whoever it was that had dumped the Jomali’s silver and now wouldn’t own up to it.
“I’ve the man here,” Hraerik shouted, as he waded out into the river. “I think he’s atoned for his greed,” Hraerik said, passing the body up over the bulwark.
“He died a warrior’s death,” Brak said solemnly, as Hraelauger pulled Hraerik up into the ship.
“Then he shows profit from his error,” Hraerik replied. “We’d better push off or we’ll be sharing in his gain.”
They rowed Fair Faxi hard upriver all night, their torches lighting up the darkness, glowing puddles in the blackness of the water; and always the men watched for starlit ripples in the dark water behind them–for the boats and the canoes of the Biarmians that never came.
In the morning they prepared the dead Amlod for burial, paring his nails and cutting his hair and washing him and wrapping him in a sailcloth along with his weapons. Brak, meantime, had the men tie lines to the coarse cloth sacks full of ashes and silver and gold and then had them suspend the sacks in the river from the bulwarks. The waters were soon cleansing the dust from the riches, so that when they lowered the corpse of Amlod into the river and let the body slide beneath the waves, Hraerik eloquently claimed that they were, in effect, burying him amongst a lesser multitude.
A week of rowing took Fair Faxi up the western arm of the Northern Dvina, and Brak now steered her up the fork that was the other arm, the one grasping for the Kama River and the land of the Permians. Another Finno-Ugric tribe, the Permians were related to the Biarmians by language, but not by culture. They were surprisingly civilized and they handled all northern trade for the Burtas, a Turkish tribe who had the large market town of Bulgar, south, on the Volga. The Burtas in turn handled the northern trade of the Khazar Khaganate, which controlled the eastern trade of the Byzantine Empire.
Hraerik first realized the ship had passed from Biarmia into the land of the Permians when he saw people wandering about the shore in broad daylight. Natives were seen paddling their skin boats along the river’s edge and, although they all watched the longship pass, their stares were due to curiosity rather than fear or anger.
Another week of rowing brought the Varangians to Hraegunar’s eastern station, Hawknesta, which was run by an old family friend, Arthor, a thin pole of a man who gained his considerable size solely through his immense height. He had long blonde hair, streaked white, a grey beard with moustaches that near hid his mouth, hazel eyes that glinted like wet rocks in sunlight and a thin red nose that ran a good length of his face. Brak introduced him to the sons of Hraegunar and he welcomed them most graciously to his humble station.
“You’re late arriving,” Arthor commented. “All the other ships have been portaged across to the Kama. They’re halfway to Bulgar by now.”
“We haven’t come for the Bulgar trade,” Hraerik said. “We’re here to explore parts further east.”
Arthor seemed taken aback somewhat by this announcement. “The lands to the east are filled with giants and dwarves,” he stammered. “Why would you want to go there? No one has gone into the Eastern Realm since the Danish King Gorm lost most of his men there in the time of your father’s youth.”
“I have a promise to keep…an obligation to fulfil.”
“Well, first you must rest and refresh yourselves,” Arthor said, regaining his composure. He led the men into his longhall. When Dvalin was brought into the hall on a litter, Tyrfingr’s sickness having sapped him of his strength, Arthor nodded, said “Ah”, then looked deep into his horn of ale. “Dvalin was captured by Gorm and led what was left of his party back from the Eastern Realm,” Arthor explained, as though Dvalin was not present, of any importance whatsoever. “The dwarf amused your father, so I gave him to him. And now you wish to return him?”
“He is dying, Arthor, and I have yet to fulfil that part of a bargain we struck.” Hraerik walked over to the bench on which Dvalin lay resting. He squeezed the now thin frail hands of the dwarf, first one then the other. Dvalin opened his eyes weakly when Hraerik stroked a cheek with the backs of his fingers. “This is very important to me. He is too ill to guide us and we need directions.”
“Before I can guide you to this land, I must tell you of the fate that befell King Gorm’s brave expedition,” Arthor started. Everyone relaxed in their seats and on their benches, for Arthor’s sparkling hazel eyes now glittered far off in the dark past, and they knew the tale would draw on. A slave girl wandered about with a pitcher of ale, refilling horns as the need arose.
“King Gorm, you see,” Arthor began, “was a reserved monarch, believing that everyone had their station in life and everything had its place. He was an honourable king of the highest order; yet insofar as tales go, he surpassed even myself in the spinning of yarns. As chance would have it, one of our own men, a stout Varangian named Thorkill, was captured by the Danes and, in return for his freedom, he led King Gorm and a hundred of his men in three way-wrought ships across the Nor’Way. They arrived here pretty much as you now have: late and wanting to explore areas untouched by man. He, too, asked for a guide and, as I had already portaged all of Hraegunar’s ships across to the Kama and had nothing to do but await their return, I consented to lead their party east into the land of the giants.”
Arthor drew a long draft of ale, then rested his arms back on his knees, cupping the horn in his hands. He looked out into the dark hall and recalled, “Gorm was a king of a different sort. Rather than gain fame through war, he had a flame that flickered inside him–a burning desire to explore. If he heard of a race in the Baltic reaches that no Dane had ever come across, he rushed out to find them. When he heard that some Celts had discovered some strange land far to the west, he sailed to them to learn of it. And, when Thorkill told him about the land of the giants, he was soon sitting across from me in the very high seat you now occupy, Hraerik. And Thorkill sat beside him, there where Hraelauger now sits. And like you, Brak, their foremost man occupied the third seat.
“We set out with the next dawn, following this branch of the Dvina to its source and crossing a short land bridge into Giantland. We re-launched our boats into a river no man has seen since that time. It was small at first, but it soon foamed and churned its way, formidably, to the east. The trees grew in size with the river and soon there was no doubt we were in Thor’s old stomping ground. When the river seemed more a lake, with the right bank close by and the other lost far off in a veil of ominous mists, we sighted a dark, decrepit, twisted little town that smacked of disease and death. As we neared, a short thick palisade of vertical logs could be made out surrounding the crumbling ruins of huge halls and spiralling towers. Lances were set into the logs and upon these sat the severed heads of several men, freshly paled with death. The bank of the river was high and the land rose steeply up to the town, which festered upon a low plateau backed by shattered cliffs. Huge fierce dogs guarded the sloping meadow in front of the town, but they did not bark at our approach. We thought at first they were friendly, but as we drew alongside the high riverbank we saw that they were growling ferociously through clenched jaws, a milky froth dripping down from their maws, their heads lowered deceptively, hoping, desiring that we step ashore. King Gorm had us pass half carcasses of beef over to the shore on our oar blades, and the savage dogs devoured our supplies in no time. This repast calmed them some and they soon took to sleeping. Leaving a number of men to tend the ships, we threw out gangplanks and crossed to the shore. We filed past the sleeping dogs and climbed ladders that led up the plateau and we entered the town through a high gate, as yet not having seen a mortal soul. Inside the palisade, we saw huge shadowy figures of townsfolk lurking about the darkest corners and alleyways, but none approached us and we felt compelled to keep our distance from them, not being sure if they were men or ghosts. Had it caught fire and burned itself to the ground, the town could not have looked more desolate, for the timbers of the buildings were black and rancid with filth and the streets were putrid with waste. Odours foul and disgusting darted and tangled with each other as we worked our way through the streets.
“Thoughts dance about your head in a situation such as that and you become incredulous at the fact that you are still placing one foot in front of the other in a progressive fashion, when to turn and run for it would be the prudent thing to do, while a slow reversing of the step would require all the courage one could ask of a man. When Thorkill told us we were most likely approaching the stone chambers of the giant Geruth, the foot I hated most was the one that made the next step. Yet, we went on. We stopped at the entrance to a great stone chamberway carved into the face of the limestone cliffs that stood as a backdrop to the fetid little town. King Gorm said a few words on courage and the need for exploration of the world around us. What drove a man, I asked myself as he was speaking, what drove a man to leave a kingdom, his women, strong meads and dark ales, tender meats, roasted and boiled, only to seek out danger in some cesspool of a keep in some strange far-off land? Surely such knowledge as is required shall unfold eventually in relative safety. Thorkill interrupted my reflections, giving us all a warning not to touch anything in the hall of Geruth, no matter how enticing, for one’s hand would remain stuck fast to that object as if bound by invisible fetters. How Thorkill could perceive this threat none of us knew, but he was, in effect, ordering us not to plunder the place. I was growing more disdainful of this exploration business with every forward step. Trade offers profit at some risk and war at least offers booty, but exploration was all risk and no reward as far as I could make out. Two brave Danes called Broder and Buchi led the way, followed by King Gorm, Thorkill, myself and the others.
“Inside, the hall was a shambles. Filth and destruction was everywhere. Down either side of the huge torch lit room there were chambers fenced off with iron works within which resided all manner of monsters: misshapen giants waving spiked clubs, ghoulish spectres in hooded gowns and beasts beyond description all sat uneasily upon garish iron seats while cloaked figures stood outside each barred cell fearfully brandishing whips. As our eyes adjusted to the lighting we saw the floor crawling with snakes; massive furnishings lay smashed and broken all about; walls and columns were smeared with filth and gore, and the ceiling was studded with spikes. The odours virtually danced across our faces till our noses stopped themselves up in protest and our eyes watered in their support. Yet, despite these offences to our senses, both physical and beyond, we carried on.”
Arthor had been carrying on with his tale through several horns of ale and now his daughters, twelve in all, of varying ages, entered with the evening’s repast. They were lovely young girls in various stages of maturity, with long beautiful heads of hair ranging in colour from black to blonde. They first served their guests, then soon joined them in the feasting, a woman for each high seat and then the nearer benches until there were none left for the men at the furthest places. A sweet young girl with hair the colour of burnished copper sat beside Hraerik, while a tall brunette graced Hraelauger’s high seat. An older woman, still pretty, with blonde hair flecked silver, sat at Brak’s high seat and Brak smiled warmly. They had shared the high seat spread before. Arthor nodded graciously, pleased with the seating arrangements, and continued with his recollection.
“We crossed the length of the great stone hall and, at the far end of it, below a shattered section of cliff, high upon a dais sat the giant Geruth. He was sitting upon a lone high seat, a throne, staring off into the darkness, curiously unaware of our presence, and his abdomen had a huge gaping hole clean through it which he would inspect from time to time. Beside him, just a bit lower down, sat three grossly malformed giantesses resting upon couches. Their bodies had been smashed by the collapsed section of cliff, as could be ascertained from the fragments lying about them. They stared about as though still in shock even though the rock had fallen…who could tell how long ago. Thorkill explained that Thor, on visiting Giantland, had angered Geruth, who hurled a red hot ingot at him and Thor, using his gloves of iron to catch the bolt, returned it in kind, piercing the giant’s body and bursting a section of the cliff behind, the shards of which shattered the bodies of his wives. Thorkill again warned us against plundering, though we had yet to see anything we would want to approach let alone touch.
“We trailed across the front of the giant’s dais and off to the left we found a large anteroom haphazardly strewn with objects. There was a huge gold arm ring, an ivory tusk from some unknown creature and a great drinking horn, exquisitely carved and trimmed in gold and jewels. We filed past these treasures, all wanting to grab them up, but none of us doing so in front of the others until the last man compulsively snatched up the arm ring and slipped it on all the way up to his shoulder, it was so huge. The man in front of him then grabbed up the tusk and threw it over his shoulder while the third last man gathered the great horn into his arms. Such is the power of riches that, no matter how grave the consequences, some cannot resist the temptation of possession. No sooner had the last item been filched when the arm ring turned into a striking adder, the tusk turned into a huge crescent sword and the horn turned into a great coiled serpent. The man with the adder about his arm was struck dead and before he even hit the floor the adder had turned back into a gold arm ring and it rang and it rang as it rattled round and round and we held our breaths expecting the monsters to be roused. The huge crescent blade then bit into the man carrying it as he laboured under its great weight, and he stood awestruck as it settled into his body as if some giant feather floating to the ground; he was dead by the time it reached his groin and it fell with a clatter as his remains collapsed on either side of it. This racket was added to the ringing noise and it seemed sure that soon all hell would break loose. When the great coiled serpent struck at the third man, it took his whole head in its jaws with deceptive quickness, right on down past the shoulders, and it sucked at him like a child might suck on an icicle until it had consumed his flailing body whole and you could see that the struggles continued inside the snake for some time, but we all just stood there, silent and dumbfounded. It then swallowed up the other two bodies, growing in size with each gorging and we feared it would next turn on us, but it must have been sated, for a look of contentment came to its cold slitted eyes and it turned back into the great drinking horn, gracing three brand new jewels about its mouth. Finally, the arm ring stopped its resounding racket, the sword turned back into a tusk and we stood stalk-still in the midst of that anteroom waiting for the giants to strike. When none came, Gorm led us on. I, for one, did not want to go on, but I certainly wouldn’t go back. I would have been perfectly content to stand frozen in the silence and shadow of that huge anteroom for an eternity, if need be, as long as I needn’t go forward or back. Yet Gorm led us on and I hated my feet for taking me further and I swore to the gods I would cut them off if I ever made it out of that place alive. Never before had they taken me into such a godforsaken place, and, for this, I could never forgive them.
“When we came upon a great treasure room, Thorkill again admonished us against plundering, as if we needed any further warning. This inner chamber contained gilt weapons and armour too large for use by human beings and piled everywhere were heaps of gold coins and well-worked jewellery, but the weapons awed us the most. Swords were stacked against the stone wall, elaborately worked with gold and silver, standing near as tall as a man; not as tall as I, mind you, but near as tall as some. Jewelled breastplates, antique in fashion, Greek in style, were so large one could have bathed in them and the helmets you could have sat comfortably upon. Only the bucklers were of human size, but I suspect they covered the forearm alone, as gladiators were wont to be equipped in the most raucous of Roman times.
“In the centre of all this weaponry hung a large bright purple royal cloak of Byzantine military fashion that Thorkill told us had belonged to Thor, but which he had forgotten during his battle with Geruth. For some reason Thorkill was drawn to this cloak, for he would study it, then move on to some other item, then return to study the cloak again. Thus did he marvel upon all the goods in the room, always returning to study the cloak once more. Finally, he tore it away from the wall and draped it about his shoulders. Suddenly the very rock within which Geruth’s hall sat began to shake violently. The three giantesses awoke from their stupor and wailed that we robbers be tolerated no longer. By this time we were running back through the anteroom, but Geruth still paid us no mind, preferring rather to inspect the opening in his stomach one more time. As we rounded the corner into the main hall, we could see that the handlers were losing control over their monsters. Some of the beasts leaped over the iron rails and began tearing their tamers to ribbons. Yet others tore their way right through the bars and soon the hall was full of them. They came at us from either side as we ran down the hall. I had my sword out by then and hacked at several of them. Gorm was beside me chopping the other way, with Broder and Buchi behind us shooting arrows as fast as they could let them fly. Thorkill was next, still carrying the cloak, and the rest were strung out behind us. Our two archers were dropping monsters all around us, yet more would take their place. We made the entrance at a full run and we hit the sunlight of the street with blinding speed. I could hear the monsters hard after us and the townsfolk in the street began screaming in terror and fleeing in panic. There were death screams everywhere and I made a new pact with my feet, falling most in love with whichever foot got closest to the town wall. We burst through the gate and I slid down the ladder with a hand and a foot on each sidepiece and my rump smacking every rung on the way down. I hit the ground still flying and I cried `feet don’t fail me now!’ I could hear Gorm close behind me–he ran real well for royalty–and I caught a flash of purple cloak tumbling down the ladder. Even as we ran across the river flat, those huge fierce dogs were waking up. The men at our ships had their oars in the water and the gangplanks still set upon the shore. The first of our party made the ships before the dogs got to us, but many others at the rear were torn to shreds. We pushed off from the land and rowed for our lives with the dogs leaping into the river after us.
“We disappeared deep into the mists expecting to reach the other bank and work our way back upriver, but no opposite riverbank attended us. Most of our party had leaped into the same ship, the nearest ship, and there was still room for more. We had lost forty or fifty men in the town and we soon lost track of the other ships in the fog. Gorm and Thorkill were aboard, as were Broder and Buchi and everyone seemed to think that I could tell them what had happened to the other riverbank and that I should know where the other ships were. The heavy mist hung around us like the purple cloak about Thorkill and nobody talked about either. I tried hailing the other ships–they were dangerously undermanned without us–but although I could hear shouts now and then they sounded as though they could have come from any direction. I stuck my hand into the current and told the men to row upstream. I figured if the others had their wits about them they would do likewise.”
Hraerik looked about the hall while Arthor had his horn refilled with ale. The meal had ended and many were settling into some heavy drinking, while others settled into their benches and slept. Hraerik admired the beauty of the slender copper-haired girl beside him, but refocused his attention on Arthor’s telling of this story, a story Brak had told him many times before. It was important to Hraerik that he get the details correct and the story committed to memory.
“We rowed upstream for several hours before we finally came upon a riverbank, but it was off to our left. I supposed that we had worked our way across the river as we rowed upstream, but somehow I had expected that the fog should have broken were this the case. It was the obvious explanation, yet I had a gut feeling that there was something wrong…something I had overlooked. But we stayed close to the bank and we rowed and soon we all let out a sigh of relief as we ran out of the fog. The river was much smaller now and ran between two low hills up ahead. Heavy woods ran right to the river’s edge and branches drooped lazily into the water. These were not the high riverbanks of our river. Something was definitely wrong.
“I had the men row over to the shore very gradually. I could feel that we were being watched, but the river was too narrow to move out a safe distance so I figured on moving us into a position where we could at least counter-attack if need be. Up ahead I spotted a sparse clump of brush that appeared to have been purposefully cleared. I sensed that there were men waiting there under cover of the foliage. As we passed by very close to the bank, I had a man thrust his oar out onto the shore and I dashed along the pole and leaped onto the bank and into the clearing. The woods came alive with men…dwarves, the whole lot of them. A half-dozen of the wretches scrambled out from various hiding places and dashed for a like number of tiny trails carved out through the underbrush. I picked out the largest trail, bent over low and set off after one of them. When I got back to the ship I had your Dvalin by the scruff of the neck, kicking and wailing his protests in some Elfin tongue. The men had turned the ship around to come back for me, so we let her drift downriver while King Gorm questioned Dvalin in as many languages as he knew. It was to no avail. Next, I drew a map of what I knew of the river onto the deck with a charcoal and pointed to where we wanted to go. He seemed to understand this. He went to the forestem of the ship and drew little maps in the air and kept pointing downriver. Gorm, Thorkill and I all agreed that there wasn’t much to lose by following the dwarf’s directions, seeing as how we were lost anyway, so Dvalin soon had us heading right back into the fog. We kept the river bank close to our right and we followed it. Now and again the dwarf would have us leave off the riverbank and we’d lose sight and sound of it for a while only to have it reappear once again. It was then that I realized that the far side of the river, which had been shrouded in mist when we came down, was riddled with tributaries. We had accidentally ventured up one of these when we were rowing upriver. We broke out of the fog once again and I knew from the river’s size and lay that we had sailed her before. Now that I knew where we were, I felt obliged to set the dwarf free, but Gorm would have none of that. I don’t know if he found Dvalin amusing or he just didn’t trust my navigation anymore.
“Dvalin guided us out of that maze of mists and rivers to the land bridge next to the Dvina. We camped there several days waiting for the other ships, but none came, so we portaged across and returned to Hawknesta. Gorm had us keep the dwarf as he wanted a guide that could lead him back to search for his missing men. But the season was growing late and Thorkill became anxious to lead King Gorm back across the way before Hraegunar returned from Bulgar. King Gorm had me keep Dvalin until the time he should return, then set off with what remained of his men back across the way. Buchi fell in love with one of my daughters and proposed to stay, as did several others, rather than chance the crossing in an overcrowded ship.
“When Hraegunar got back and learned that Thorkill had led a Danish king across the Nor’Way, he was so furious I had to protect Buchi and the others from his wrath. Hraegunar then swore that if Gorm wanted to return to search for his men, he would have to ask him first and Hraegunar took Dvalin back with him, across the Nor’Way.
“King Gorm has never returned to search for his lost ships and men and nobody has ever wandered out of those eastern reaches. I have always felt that this tale could never really end without the return of Dvalin to his homeland, even though he be on his deathbed, therefore, I shall once again act as guide into the land of the giants.”
Although, for many, the night had been late, the rising for all was early. Brak went around to all the sleeping benches and roused his Varangians. Hraerik sat up and the room swam momentarily. He looked down at the young woman sleeping, cuddled up beside him. Her mouth was open in a soft satisfied pout and her burnished copper tresses danced in front of her face as she breathed. She rolled onto her back and the furs tumbled away, exposing the high-prowed breasts of her youth. It had been her first time and his too; the first time Hraerik’s rank and position had allowed him a woman, anyway. Hraerik covered her up.
A fuzzy greyness crept across the eastern horizon as the Varangians loaded up Fair Faxi. The sun was cresting pinkly when they pushed her off and a fresh young woman with copper locks waved Hraerik goodbye from the shore.
Dvalin’s condition had worsened during the night. He drifted in and out of consciousness. “He’s fast fading,” Arthor observed. “and we’ve still some way to go.”
Hraerik pulled a man off the bench nearest Dvalin and began rowing, setting a pace that soon had them all sweating. They rowed in rotating shifts all morning, the pace slowing, somewhat, when Hraerik rested and picking up when Hraerik resumed. Brak got the brazier of charcoals going and boiled up some meat in the ship’s kettle. As with the rowing, they ate in shifts. By late afternoon they reached the source of the Dvina and the land bridge between it and the river of Giantland, but Dvalin beat them in the race for his homeland. He had passed on to the other side an hour earlier. The sun had been warm upon his face, the sky had been very blue and cloudless above him and he had felt little pain.
Hraelauger had been the first to find that Dvalin had left the mortal coil and he wondered what Hraerik would now do. Many of the men were superstitious and, having taken Arthor’s tale to heart, were reluctant to venture into the giant’s realm. Arthor, for one, seemed quite relieved that Dvalin was dead. He let everyone know that now he was none too enthusiastic about returning to that misty river.
Hraerik was at first determined to return Dvalin’s body to his people, but when they grounded the ship and he stepped out onto the land bridge and faced east, he at once sensed the calamity of the place. Some great disaster had attended Dvalin’s people far inland, long ago. Arthor shifted about uneasily as Hraerik gave him a long scrutinizing stare. Hraerik looked back east and a strange prescience overcame him–a feeling that promised an explanation, an accounting of what had happened long ago, as though Dvalin’s spirit longed to finally speak out, but Hraerik fought it off. He had fulfilled his part of the bargain he had struck with Dvalin; he did not want to know what secrets lurked beyond the bridge to Giantland, he did not want to feel the cryptic apparitions of a people not his own, a race in its death throes. Dvalin, himself, could not have moved Hraerik to listen to the horror that lurked on the other side. The feeling would haunt him.
“Stay here with Fair Faxi,” Hraerik relented. “I’ll take Dvalin over the land bridge, build him a bier and commend him to his own gods at the headwaters of his people’s river.” Hraerik did not even know who ‘his own gods’ were.