Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
4.0 THE ROAR OF FAFNIR, THE FIRE BREATHING DRAGONSHIP (Circa 810 AD)
“Beside men-warriors there were “women-warriors” in the North, as Saxo explains. He describes shield-maidens, as Alfhild, Sela, Rusila, Ladgerda and the three she-captains, Wigbiorg, who fell on the field, Hetha, who was made queen of Zealand, and Wisna, whose hand Starkad cut off, all three fighting manfully at the Battle of Bravalla.”
The Nine Books of Danish History by Saxo Grammaticus
(Circa 810 AD) Jarl Brak was familiar with the Scythian Sea and he guided King Ragnar and his war fleet around the Greek Peninsula (Crimea) and past the city of Cherson. “The Khazars control Cherson now,” Brak told Ragnar and Ladgerda as they skirted around the peninsula just out of sight of the land. They sailed up the east coast of the peninsula and entered the Sea of Maeotia (Azov) and sailed north-east across it to the estuary of the Tanais (Don) River. They rowed up the Tanais and used their sail when the wind cooperated. “We have half-giants in Thule,” Ragnar told Brak, “that just put out their arms thus,” and he held out his arms, “and they then get a wind at their backs.”
“That would be a handy skill to have,” Brak replied. Ragnar took out the departure schedule the Guild messenger had given him and he pinned it against the forestem as he read the Gothic script of it. “The fire breather is called Fafnir,” Ragnar said, “and I think the Latin script calls it Justus. It looks to be a week away.”
“Fafnir, it is.” Brak said. “A little over a week so we’ll have time to prepare.”
“Can you read the Latin?” Ladgerda asked him.
“A little,” Brak admitted. “Most Romans speak Greek these days, so I know Greek better. We used to trade a lot with them, but the Khazars control all trade now.”
“Perhaps we can put an end to that,” Ragnar said, somewhat presciently.
When they got further up the Tanais, Brak had them turn up a small tributary in the afternoon. “We’ll have to camp here for the night,” Brak explained, “so that we can sneak past the fortress construction at first light. We should attack Fafnir from the north-east, from upstream, so we can attack with more speed,” and Brak began drawing the river and fortress in the wet riverbank. “That will give Fafnir less time to spew fire upon us. Also, if we camp upstream it will be safer. Nobody goes further upstream, but other Roman ships may come before Fafnir shows and we might be spotted here. No other Roman ships should have Greek fire spouts on them, but they are all armed.”
They set up their awnings on the shore, but could have no campfires because the smoke might be seen, so they ate their food cold. Ragnar and Ladgerda kept their awning on the shieldship and they enjoyed the privacy the strakes afforded them. In the morning they ate more cold food and set off with their ships before dawn. They rowed with masts unfooted and they could see the fortress construction high up on the west riverbank as they skirted up the east bank in the sheltering darkness.
They rowed a little past the fortress and set up a surveillance position up a tributary that would consist of Ragnar’s shieldship and a shuttle-ship that would watch for Fafnir and the rest would camp far enough upstream that they could have small fires. They had a good view of the river downstream from their surveillance camp and would be able to see Fafnir’s approach for many miles unless the ship approached in the early morning light as they had done.
“It is unlikely they’ll use stealth,” Brak assured them. “The Romans used to ship their gold via war fleets, but the Greek fire is such a, uh, powerful weapon that they now send gold shipments on just one fireship. It saves them money, but the fire breathers like to travel in the middle of rivers in broad daylight so they can’t be easily approached.” Brak was going to call the Greek fire a terrible weapon, but he said powerful instead, so as not to upset Ladgerda, because her husband, Ragnar, was part of the first assault group.
Ragnar had to stay with his shieldship at the surveillance point and they unpacked their sheepskin awnings and kept the ship covered in them at all times and they kept the sour wine at the ready, to be poured over the awnings at Fafnir’s first approach. Vinegar soaked woollen rawhides, according to the Alchemists’ Guild, were proof against Greek-fire, and the Romans had stolen Greek-fire from the Guild, so they would know. They had a double crew of sixty men aboard the twenty four oar ship so that half could row and half could pour as they attacked. The other warships would stay well back until the first assault team took out the forward bronze fire tube. Once the forward tube was out, the other warships could attack the bow, but the assault team had to sweep the deck as quickly as possible. Brak didn’t think the Romans could turn the rear tube upon their own deck, but it would be deadly for all if they did. The fireship could go up instantly in flames and kill all aboard, both Roman and Dane.
Ladgerda commanded the shuttle-ship so that she could stay close to Ragnar and she would try to bring him warm food, but it was always cold when she got back from the main camp. “I prefer cold food and a warm woman,” Ragnar would tell her as they shared their awning, “over the reverse.”
One day they were watching the river and a Roman cargo ship ferried a group of people across the waters and Brak watched them disembark and he told Ragnar that it looked like Khazars leading a Slav embassy, perhaps Kievan Poljane, on their way to Khazaria. “I think they are taking a Slav princess to Atil,” he added. “The Khazars have their way with Slav royalty,” Brak said, as if it no longer happened in Volsunga.
“Take some men,” Ladgerda said, “and go save her,” and she looked up at Ragnar.
“I have to stay here and watch for Fafnir,” Ragnar said. “I’m leading the first assault wave. Take Brak and some men and go after her.”
“I’m in the first assault wave too!” Brak protested.
“I’ll cover for you,” Ragnar offered.
“Fock it!” Ladgerda said. “I’ll take some men and go save her!” And she gathered two dozen warriors about her on her shuttle ship and they sailed across the river and up a little creek for as far as it would carry them and then they began tracking the Khazars for hours before they came upon them camping and attacked them. There were a dozen Khazar troops and a few Poljane protecting the young princess, but the Thule warriors made short work of them and it took Ladgerda a while to calm down the young princess who was standing in front of the warriors and keeping them at bay with a bodkin, a long needle that she had pulled out of her long blonde hair. One of their Volsunga guides could speak a bit of Poljane and he told Ladgerda, “She doesn’t believe that a warrior like you is a woman. She says you killed two Khazar soldiers.” Ladgerda bared her breasts in front of the girl to convince her of it and the young princess finally agreed to come with them. She put the bodkin back into her hair and walked regally along with them. The warriors gathered up the fallen and cleared up the camp so it looked as though nobody had ever fought there and they put everything in their ship and took it back to their main camp. It was dusk by the time they got back and Ragnar was ready to send out a search party when they beached their ship.
They always used the men with the sharpest vision to watch out for Fafnir from treetops and early one afternoon a shout came down from the branches that a Roman bireme had been spotted and the sun had played upon its bronze forward fire tube. The ship was alone and being rowed at a leisurely pace. Only two warships were back at the main camp so, four warships came out from under branches at the forward surveillance point and rowed out into the Tanais River and south at full speed. The river current and a fair wind added to their speed and they were almost past the unfinished fortress when the Byzantine fire officer at the forestem of Fafnir spotted their masts and billowing sails. A rope ran from the forestem to the mast and to the stern stem which suspended the sheepskin awning over the shieldship to the topstrakes and over the oars and men sat on the rope and poured vinegar over the awnings as the ship raced south. Under the awnings, the first assault group donned their shaggy shirts and shaggy britches and plunked their shaggy toques atop their helms and began pouring sour wine all over themselves. They then doused their shaggy shields and prepared to fight.
Ragnar was all shaggy and soaked as he peered past the forestem out from under the awnings and directed the rudderman at the stern. Brak was on the other side of the forestem advising Ragnar on the approach. He was all shaggy and wet as well. The Roman fire officer was directing his men as they loaded Greek fire into the bronze firetube and they could hear great bellows being pumped from below deck as the whooshing carried out over the waves. The Roman fire officer and crew were dressed in shining golden armour of the latest scale mail and Brak told Ragnar, “Their scale mail shirts are of a linen and glue laminate that is stronger than steel but so light it floats and is yet fireproof! I want to get me one of those and so should you!”
Then Fafnir roared and an arc of Greek fire shot upwards with a great “Hraaaeee” sound and the flames arced over the waves at the shieldship but fell just short and to the left side and landed on the water, still burning fiercely. The shieldship swerved to avoid the blaze on the billows and the oars just ploughed through the flames. The fire officer at the bireme’s forestem threw his helmet onto the deck and hastened his crew in recharging the firetube and re-pressurizing the bellows system. Brak warned that the Romans would have one more shot before they would be able to attack them. “That is the Hraaee,” Ragnar exclaimed, “from the Hrae’s Ship’s Round!” And they both looked out as a second shot soon followed, and Fafnir roared once more, “Hraaaeee,” and a long trail of liquid flame arced heavenward. Ragnar and Brak both jumped up on the topstrake at either side of the forestem and roared back. “Hraaaae,” they shouted, imitating the roar of the fire-tube, as the fiery fluid flew towards them, then they grabbed at the awnings, jumped to the deck and pulled them closed just as the flaming emulsion hit. The Greek fire landed on the wet awnings and the vinegar in the soaked sheep’s wool boiled but would not burn nor allow the sticky flaming gel to adhere, and the flaming mass of Arabic petroleum rolled off into the waters. Small bits of flaming liquid penetrated the awnings here and there, but the Volsung craftswomen had done their jobs well. The first assault crew threw back the awnings and launched grappling hooks up at the closing bireme and they tied off the ropes to their stout rowing benches and pulled in their oars just as the shieldship started snapping off the oars of Fafnir and the ropes sprang taut and thrust the two ships together. The assault crew threw up short boarding ladders and kept their shields overhead to protect themselves from the arrows that were spattering down all over the deck. The Danes charged up the ladders and immediately fell into deadly combat with the Roman marines waiting for them on the deck of Fafnir. Ragnar and Brak led the team forward and they cut down the marines in a vicious assault as they made their way towards their one target….the forward firetube. The Byzantine fire officer had his sword drawn to protect his secret weapon and recognized Ragnar as one of the wild berserks who had shouted at them crazily from the attacking ship. He lashed out at Ragnar and his sword stuck into the edge of Hrae’s Ship’s Round and Ragnar thrust out with his sword and cut the officer’s jugular, killing him instantly. Greek fire was spattering across the deck from a leak somewhere and Ragnar tore off his shaggy shirt and started beating out the flames as Brak led men to the rear of the ship to take out the rear fire tube. More shaggy shirts came off as men fought to control the flames.
As the other warships approached the bow, Ragnar waved them back because the whole ship could go up if the leak wasn’t found and the fire wasn’t controlled. And if the ship went up, the gold went down, all the way to the river bottom. They found a leather sack of Greek fire that had been cut and was spewing the fiery liquid across the deck and Ragnar grabbed the sack and flung it out into the waters and it floated and spewed more flames and then blew up into the air and splattered fire all over the waters. The men on board the ship, all the men on board the ship were glad it had not gone off while aboard. Ragnar waved for the other warships to approach and, once the flames were all out on deck, Ragnar led his crew back to help Brak attack the Romans who had all bunched up around the rear fire tube and were making a last stand. When the men from the other warships began flooding aboard, the Romans held up their swords in surrender while protecting themselves with their shields. “Yield and bend!” Ragnar shouted and the warriors that took the surrenders of the Romans bent them over their shields and raped them from behind.
When Ladgerda came aboard, Ragnar apologized for his men, but she just said, “If I had a cock I might join them!” and they rushed below deck to find the gold. On the first deck were the slave rowers all chained to their benches and Ragnar ordered the Roman handlers to release them, then they went to the lower deck and found the chests of gold around the base of the bireme’s mast. Brak soon joined them there and he had a large crew with him to haul the chests away. There were ten small chests of gold around the mast, but it still took four strong warriors to carry each one, so Ragnar reckoned there must be five thousand pounds of gold there, Roman pounds, of course. While the men were loading the gold aboard Ragnar’s shieldship, Ragnar got busy on deck stripping the laminate armour off of the fire officer he had killed. “Brak said it’s the world’s finest,” Ragnar explained to Ladgerda and she began stripping some off of the poor fellow next to the fire officer.
Once the gold was secured in the ballast section of Ragnar’s shieldship and ballast had been tossed overboard, Brak and Ragnar collected up the rest of the advanced Roman armour and were beginning the figure out how to strip off the fire tubes when some sharp eyed men shinnied up the masts to look south because pennants had been spotted above the waters there. It was a fleet of Roman biremes, probably bringing workers or materials, but each of them had Roman marines aboard and the spotters estimated a dozen ships, so Ragnar ordered a last scavenge of Fafnir before they scuttled her. They slit another leather sack of Greek fire and it erupted into flame as it flowed across the deck and they rowed away from Fafnir and as they approached the unfinished fortress, Fafnir blew up and spewed flaming Greek fire right across the Tanais, blocking any path forward the approaching fleet had.
At the fortress, Roman troops were loading themselves into cargo ships to row out and attack the pirates and recover the gold but, when the bireme blew up, they chose to stay in the safety of their quays. Ragnar led his small war fleet north up the Tanais River past the fortress and the Roman cargo ships and they collected their gear from the surveillance camp and then from their main camp. Black smoke was still belching skyward to the south, so they knew the Roman biremes would still be delayed, but they knew that once the smoke stopped, the Roman pursuit would start. The Danes rowed their ships in shifts because the wind continued to blow down from the north and they could not even tack upstream. Fortunately, they had released and saved all the galley slaves that had been rowing the Roman dragonship Fafnir, and they had spared all the Roman marines that had surrendered and been bent over. At first, the Roman marines refused to help with the rowing, but a few of them were bent over Danish shields once more and the rest took up oars while they could still sit at rowing benches.
While the slaves and Romans rowed, Ragnar, Ladgerda and Brak gathered about one of the chests of gold and smashed the lock on it and opened it up. It was filled with gold bars, each weighing a Roman pound, but the gold was red in colour! It was definitely gold because it was heavy as hell, twice the weight of lead, but it shone a bright red in the evening sun. “What the fock!” Ragnar exclaimed as he held up a bar to show Brak and Ladgerda. “This gold is cursed!”
“It’s the Romans!” Brak spat. “They’ve put copper in the gold to mark it as the Emperor’s! The copper turns the gold red. I heard some of the Guild metallurgists talking about it last time I was training in Damascus. They showed me some red gold armrings they’d gotten from the Armenians. They called them the Red Gold Rings of Byzantium.”
“Why would they turn their gold red?” Ladgerda asked.
“For security on major gold shipments. The mint in Constantinople adds ten percent copper to the gold to turn it red and then they cast bars and they give client states ten percent extra in payment or loan. Once the fire breathers deliver the red gold, they send their metallurgical engineers out to the site to purify the gold. It prevents theft, because anybody in Roman lands who is caught with the red gold is summarily executed. Only the Romans have developed an economical purification process so, they often pay out contracts in red gold, and when the contract is fulfilled, they purify the gold for the contractor. Even the Guild can’t purify the gold economically. The gold is worthless in Roman lands and is a pariah anywhere else. As you so aptly put it, it is cursed.”
“Who came up with this idea?” Ragnar asked.
“Some Roman Emperors would add copper to the gold Byzants to debase their coins and profit from it. They could add about five percent copper before the Byzants started to show a reddish hue. It’s not much, but the profit went straight into a corrupt Emperor’s pocket. The Emperor who came after would then have to clean up the mess and, I guess, that is why they developed the process. To clean up their debased coinage.”
“So, if I added as much gold again to this, the red would disappear?” Ragnar said.
“Theoretically,” Brak answered, “as long as they only added ten percent to start with. Sometimes they add more.”
“How can we tell how much they added?”
“I would have to consult with a philosopher called Archimedes,” Brak replied. “He came up with a method for that, but I’d have to look it up and his books are found in Constantinople. I guess we’ll have to start that trade route you were dreaming about.”
“Witch Gerda!” Ragnar said to Ladgerda. “Once again her visions of my shield paintings are correct.”
“What about Hedin and Hogni fighting in Valhalla?” she asked.
“Knowing that old witch,” Brak started, “young Gerda is probably already in Valhall awaiting Ragnar.”
“You mean she’s dead?” Ladgerda asked, astonished.
“The Volsungs are old school,” Brak replied. “She’s likely been sacrificed to garner Odin’s support for Ragnar’s quest.”
“That’s three out of four,” Ragnar said. “What about her vision about Giantland?”
“Well, we have a dozen Roman biremes driving us north to what land exactly?”
“Fock!” Ragnar replied. “Giantland!”
Even with the double shift of rowers, a few days later the masts of a dozen Roman ships were spotted by a sharp eyed sailor who had shinnied up the mast of the rearmost ship of Ragnar’s fleet. “Roman red pennants aft!” the agile spotter shouted, and the message was passed up the fleet one ship to the next. The double banks of oars on the biremes added to the speed of the ships even though their fixed frame design added to the weight of them. This caused Ragnar to direct his fleet up the right fork of a tributary that fed the Tanais, the Khopel (Khopyor) River, and the river soon grew noticeably narrower and shallower. The Romans picked up on this and redoubled their efforts at the oars. They wanted to catch the pirate ships before they ran out of sounding depth. They soon closed upon Ragnar’s stern-most ship, but, by then, the river would allow single ship traffic only so the rearward longship slowed and prepared for battle with the foremost bireme. The Roman marines dropped down onto the deck of the longship and the Danes fought them melee style and bought the rest of the fleet another day’s rowing before they were massacred to the man.
The rest of Ragnar’s fleet rowed hard, the freed slaves of Fafnir rowing the hardest on the king’s promise of freedom and a few more Roman prisoners were bent over Danish shields to get a better effort out of that lot. They even rowed, albeit more slowly, at night, but the Romans must have done likewise, for midday the next, word came up the fleet once more that Roman red pennants had been spotted once more. Brak was taking soundings and the river would be soon running out of depth for the heavy fixed frame biremes. The lighter shell framed longships had a much shallower draft so they all prayed to Odin as the Romans closed and the river shallowed. Just when the forward bireme was getting within arrow shot of the rear longship, it lurched to a sudden stop. Then the sound of timbers crunching carried forward up the fleet and they knew a few of the Roman ships had collided. They carried on and soon the biremes disappeared behind a curve in the Khopel.
King Ragnar’s fleet rowed up the river until it became too narrow to row in, so they stood and paddled with their oars until it got too shallow and they walked in the river ahead of their ships, drawing them along behind them on ropes. Ragnar sent scouts ahead to search out the river’s source and to find a river beyond and they found the source of the Sura River via a short portage and they rowed down the Sura until it flowed into the Itil (Volga) River, which flowed from west to east, so that Ragnar was not sure which way to go and they set up camp at the confluence and sent a ship out either way to search for a clue. They were to row either way for two days and come back with reports in another two days, but the ship that had gone east came back after a day and they had a Norse guide with them. They had found Norse trading ships on the Itil that were heading back to northern Thule via the Northern (Barents) Sea and they’d invited King Ragnar to come with them. Being Thulealanders they had all heard of King Ragnar of Stavanger and of Jarl Ladgerda of Lade even though they all hailed from the very north of Thule. Ragnar left a ship at the confluence to await the return of the western crew and they broke camp and sailed to the Norse camp further east, for these Thulealanders were the half-giants that could hold out their arms and get favourable winds.
The leader of the Thulealanders introduced himself as Jarl Arthor and he was as tall a man as Ragnar had ever met, with blonde hair and beard and blue eyes and a hawkish nose. They camped together for a few days and waited for Ragnar’s two ships and Arthor told them many tales from the past, for he was a teller of tall tales. Trading with the Bulgars on the Itil or Volga as the Bulgars called it had been brisk and profitable and with the Khazars on the southern Volga even more so. Arthor told them that he came from a line of traders that had traversed the Northern Sea hundreds of years earlier until the weather changed and the sea stayed frozen year round, but the world seemed to be warming because the sea was thawing again in the spring and the Thulealanders were again beginning to trade along the northern route.
“Is this route of yours through Giantland?” Ragnar asked him nervously.
“Oh, no,” Arthor assured him. “Nobody goes through Giantland. We go right beside it though.”
“Good,” Ragnar said, relieved at the news. When the two ships came from the west, everybody packed up the camp and they sailed east down the Volga and turned left up its tributary, the Kama River, and sailed north to its source, where Arthor had set up a portage to the Northern Dvina River which would take them to the White Sea, which led to the Barents. Arthor had numerous log rollers placed along the portage for rolling his ships along on and Ragnar noticed that his ships were all very short and stout, strongly built. They spent a day rolling ships to a central campsite where they stayed the night and then they used more rollers to take them along another day to the source of the Northern Dvina. “The rollers will stay here until we need them to go back in the spring,” Arthor explained. He then told Ragnar that some day he planned to build a permanent portage way there with a longhall and supply stores where the campsite was located.
“Perhaps I could help you with that,” Ragnar offered, “should you be looking for royal backing.”
“More and more traders are starting to join us in the crossing,” Arthor answered. “It may end up a good investment.” Ragnar bought some of the fine goods that Arthor had traded for with the Bulgars just to seal their deal.
They sailed north-west down the Northern Dvina, again with a wind at their backs, and then sailed north across the White Sea past Kandalaks Bay to the Kola Peninsula where they waited for a great wind that would take them across the Barents Sea in one great storm that required stout ships.
“Your warships are all new so they should be strong enough for one trip across,” Arthor assured them, “but you will need your awnings all out for the crossing.”
The warships of Ragnar’s fleet all had standard oiled woollen awnings that covered their decks, but when Ragnar took out the sheepskin awnings for his shieldship, eyebrows raised a little. They ran their ropes and installed the sheepskins wool side in so they wouldn’t ice up and the awnings completely sealed out the elements. “That looks very warm,” Arthor said, as he watched the install. “The crossing is very cold. If this works well, I think I might try it next year!” They waited a few days and then the storm came up that Arthor had been waiting for and the dozen longships sailed out into the Barents and were caught up in the mother of all storms. For two days the storm battered at Ragnar’s shieldship and it creaked and groaned with its burden of gold and there were times when Ragnar and Ladgerda thought that the only thing holding the ship together was the sheepskin awning, which was frozen as hard as a rock on the outside, but warm as a roast on the inside. Ladgerda began vomiting from all the tossing and turning and they thought, at first, it was sea sickness, which many were suffering from, but then they realized it was because she was pregnant. The storm deposited all the ships at the mouth of a great fjord on the northmost tip of Thule. “This is our Way Fjord,” Arthor explained, “where we all meet in the spring and wait for a storm to take us across the other way.”
They all sailed into the fjord where a basecamp had been left and they camped there a few days and repaired their ships while Ladgerda recovered, but she continued vomiting. Arthor had a stock of lumber set there for repairs and he paid the local Sami to watch the camp for him once in a while. Once the repairs were made they sailed out of the fjord and around the north horn of Thule and down the western coast towards Lade. Arthor and his Thulealanders broke away and sailed into their home fjords with much waving and many goodbyes along the way, but as soon as the half-giants left, the winds began to falter and work against the Danes and soon a storm came up and swept them out across the North Sea and all the way to the eastern coast of Ireland.