© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE FATE OF GARDARIKI (Circa 839 AD)
“One morning at sunrise Hervor stood on a
watchtower above the fortress-gate, and she saw
a great cloud of dust from horses’ hooves rising
southwards towards the forest, which for a long
time hid the sun. Presently she saw a glittering
beneath the dustcloud, as though she were gazing
on a mass of gold, bright shields overlaid with
gold, gilded helms and bright corselets; and
then she saw it was the army of the Huns, and a
Anonymous; Hervor’s Saga.
Hraerik had left Gardariki in the spring, and it was summer before the crew of Fair Faxi returned without him. They brought news that Emperor Theophilus had sent Hraerik and several crew members along with a Roman mission to Frankland. From there, Hraerik was to be allowed make his way to Gardar and King Frodi and gain the aid of the Kievan Hraes’. Princess Gunwar heard their report, but she did not believe it. She knew that, if her husband had failed to gain the support of the Greeks, Emperor Theophilus would not allow Hraerik to go elsewhere for aid. Her husband was either imprisoned or, more likely, dead. All at once a great sense of loss overwhelmed Gunwar and she near fainted. King Olmar caught her up and helped her to her high seat. A handmaiden loosened Gunwar’s platemail byrnie, then began fanning her with a silk kerchief.
“Hraerik is dead!” Gunwar whispered to King Olmar. “I fear my husband is dead.”
“Have faith,” Brother Gregory said, reassuring her. The Christian cleric and the Slav king exchanged worried glances.
“Take care for the child,” King Olmar said.
For the second time in her life, Gunwar was pregnant, but, with Gotwar out of her life, the baby was expected to go full term and was due in the late fall.
“You croon and worry over the baby as though it were your own,” Gunwar remonstrated them.
King Olmar had arrived in Gardariki with a troop of Slav soldiers shortly after Hraerik had set out for Constantinople. He brought word that Princess Alfhild was dead, slain by her husband, and that King Frodi had fallen into an abyss of alcoholism and degradation. In an unexplained fit of rage, he had had all his senior officers hanged, and shortly after that King Olmar had gathered up his Slav troops and abandoned the capital for Gardariki. The presence of his soldiers had helped to ensure that the victorious but decimated Hun army retreated back into Khazaria to regroup rather than press on into Tmutorokan.
The day before Fair Faxi had returned, ambassadors of King Hunn and Prince Hlod had visited Gardariki with demands that Princess Gunwar relinquish her rights to Tmutorokan. The Hraes’ army had been crushed in the Battle of Sarkel, and the Huns believed, once again, that Hraerik was dead. Gunwar had sent the emissaries home with a firm rejection of their demands and had assured them that Hraerik was still very much alive, drawing his famed sword Tyrfingr from its scabbard and showing them its strange glow as proof of her husband’s escape. She had then sheathed the sword and sent the ambassadors back to the land of the Huns with reassurances that her husband still lived, but now she was no longer so sure of that claim.
In the early fall, a messenger that Gunwar routinely sent out to attempt to contact her brother, King Frodi, got through the Magyar blockade. She managed to gain an audience with the king, and, even more incredibly, she made it back through the Turkoi barrier. In Gotland, she found General Ygg at the head of a large contingent of Goth troops bound for Gardariki, so, being in the guise of a male warrior, she joined them on the return home. Gunwar announced that there would be a great feast of welcoming for General Ygg and his Gothic host, but she had a private audience with her messenger.
“It is like Denmark of old,” the messenger claimed, “when King Frodi ruled with his berserker champions.” She had been a long time with Gunwar’s retinue. “He is in a drunken and tragic state, and crime runs rampant in Konogard. All the citizens of note have fled the capital, and a new cadre of young officers control the city with a vile hand. We can expect no help from your brother,” she concluded.
Gunwar stood up off her high seat and paced. Age had not touched her at all. Tall and lithe, she walked the dais, her long blond hair flowing over her platemail byrnie, which was loose at the bottom, allowing room for her pregnancy. She had resumed wearing her warrior’s armour the day Hraerik had left; male warriors viewed a woman in war gear with a certain uneasy reverence, and Gunwar knew she would need all the leverage she could muster in order to hold their crumbling little trading empire together. Her crumbling little empire, Gunwar corrected herself, as the weight of Hraerik’s likely death came down upon her. She wished she could die with her husband, but she felt the baby within her and she was thankful. A small part of Hraerik was growing within her. Hraerik’s son. Gunwar felt it was a boy. Now she had to hold her little empire together for him.
As summer waned and the seasons changed, the demands of the Huns grew increasingly aggressive. Military units replaced ambassadors in presenting the Hun terms, and these were, in turn, replaced by cavalry regiments. Finally, in late fall, word filtered into Gardariki, as news often does in a city under siege, that the Huns had raised a huge host and that it was on its way to Tmutorokan. When the rumoured army failed to materialize, the Gardariki Hraes’ breathed a sigh of relief. There had been a revolt in Atil, the capital of Khazaria, and the loyal Hun regiments were recalled to put down the rebellion. Several noble houses of the At-Khazars had attempted to overthrow the rule of the great kagan, and King Hunn, as kagan bek of the Khazars, was forced to return to the capital to rescue his Caesar. At the approach of the feared Hunnish host, the rebellious At-Khazar forces fled the country to shelter among the Magyars. There, beyond reach of the Khazar regular forces, they continued to foment trouble for the Khaganate. But the Hun army was freed up to carry on its campaign against the Hraes’.
Just when the people of Gardariki began to believe that the season was too far gone for the Huns to renew their campaign, that they would be spared from Khazar attack until spring at the earliest, just then did the Hun army penetrate through the Mirkwood Forest. Thousands of cavalry troops led the way, as the Huns emerged from the trees onto the grassy plains of the Don Heath, followed by many more times their number in lightly armed foot-soldiers, complemented by archers and slingers and support troops. Trailing back into Khazaria for many miles, the column of soldiers worked its way into the land of the Hraes’.
One morning, King Olmar and General Ygg returned to Gardariki from a scouting expedition and called Princess Gunwar forth to the fortress gate. From a high stone tower of her city wall, Gunwar saw a mighty cloud of dust rising up on the eastern horizon, obscuring the orient pearl of dawn, the sun, and rolling slowly across the plain. An aura glowed gold beneath the dusty cloud, evincing glittering armour and bristling raiment, as the fiery mass of the Hunnish host blazed across the eastern firmament.
The sight of such a fine array, or perhaps its dire portents, caused Gunwar’s water to break and she went into premature labour. She was two weeks early when her contractions began up upon the walls of the city. Her hand maiden helped her down the stone stairs, across the compound and into her high seat hall. From the bed in her chamber, Gunwar gave the order to sound the general alarm. Soon the church bells were heard ringing and there was a great movement of troops as the Slav king and the Goth general rushed out of the high seat hall and rallied their warriors. The dwarf, Durin, sent for Brother Gregory, and he arrived in Gunwar’s bedchamber just as her baby was being born.
Two of the princess’s warrior maidens were at each side as Gunwar cried out in agony. A midwife was at the foot of the bed massaging her swollen belly. Durin stood back a little and watched a small crown of hair issuing forth from between the princess’s legs. Gunwar was breathing in short gasps and pushing hard.
“Stop pushing,” the midwife said, as the head of the infant cleared its mother, and she untangled the blue-white cord wrapped about the throat of the baby and cleared mucus from around the nose, mouth and eyes. “Now push!” the midwife said, and the rest of the baby slid out into the cool still air of the room. Gunwar cried out in pain. Durin watched, in awe, the spectacle of birth. Brother Gregory saw his premonition come to life from the doorway. Suddenly, the still body came to life, and it cried. “The knife,” the midwife said, and Durin stepped forward and cut the umbilical cord with his dagger. The midwife drew a brand from a nearby brazier and cauterised the cord, then passed the brand to Durin and raised the infant so that Gunwar could see.
“It’s a boy!” Brother Gregory exclaimed, as the midwife passed the infant up to his mother.
Immediately, Gunwar ceased her painful sobbing and, as if by magic, all pain was gone, and a passionate glow overcame her. “I knew it was a boy,” Princess Gunwar said weakly, exhausted, but radiant with the aura of motherhood.
Just then, King Olmar and General Ygg entered the chamber. General Ygg surveyed the situation in dismay and said, “The Huns are but a day’s march away, my lady,” but King Olmar went straight to the child in Gunwar’s arms and exclaimed, “It’s a boy!” and he held the child up, proudly, for all to see.
The next day, Princess Gunwar sent King Olmar and General Ygg out onto the plains outside Gardariki and they marked their battlefield with hazel poles and then they challenged the Hunnish host to battle in two days’ time. This was, of course, done against the protests of all her officers. General Ygg recommended a general retreat to the land of the Goths and offered Gunwar and the Gardariki Hraes’ sanctuary there. King Olmar suggested that they sail up the Dniepr and fight their way through the Magyar blockade. The dwarf Durin was the only one to side with Gunwar in her desire to fight the Huns. After the battle of Sarkel he had no love of the Khazar army.
After two days respite, in the soft frosty glow of false dawn, the Hunnish host drew up in battle array, their ranks bristling with gilded barbs, their war ponies pawing at the hoarfrost dew. Gunwar led a smaller but determined force out from the protective walls of Gardariki and onto the field of battle, leaving her new-born son suckling at the breast of a nursemaid. The dwarf, Durin, rode before her, in the vanguard of the Gardariki Hraes’, with King Olmar leading his Slav troops on the left flank and General Ygg commanding his Goths on the right. With her long blond hair tucked up under her Greek helmet, and her body clad in her platemail armour, Gunwar looked every bit a Roman cavalry officer. She drew Tyrfingr from its sheath, raised the famed sword above her, and gave the signal for her army to move forward. The Huns, in turn, began their advance.
First the archers on both sides loosed their arrows, then the heavy infantry hurled their spears, and then the armies merged, two wavering lines blending into one mass, and the fighting began in earnest. Up and down the main line of battle, the standards danced, first advancing a little, then falling back. Mounted soldiers and officers fought side by side with foot-soldiers all along the front, while Hraes’ cavalry regiments fought the Hun horsemen on the outer flanks. A dull clattering roar sounded across the plain and would not stop.
As the sun rose up high into the late fall sky, it looked as though neither side would budge, but a savage blow from a Hun horseman’s lance knocked the helmet off Gunwar’s head, and the force of it stunned the princess momentarily, as her bright flowing locks leapt about the gold gilt mail on her shoulders. Regaining control of her mount, Gunwar lashed out at the Turk with Tyrfingr and killed him. All the Huns before the princess fell back and none would withstand the fierce blows of the female warrior and it looked as though the Hunnish host was breaking up before her attacks, when Prince Hlod slinked in from her blind side and pierced his aunt with a bright golden lance. Princess Gunwar dropped Tyrfingr into the battlefield dust, and she clutched at the lance stuck between her ribs, and she pulled the spear free of her nephew’s grip. She held the lance ever so gently and she slid from the saddle of her mount, then she kneeled by her husband’s cursed sword, and, like someone grown suddenly tired, she lay down beside the blade and she died. Durin flew into a great rage and he drove back the cowardly attack of the Hun prince, then leapt down from his mount, but he was too late–Princess Gunwar was already dead. The dwarf dragged her body into the sheltering ranks of the Hraes’ army, then he laid Gunwar across the saddle of her mount and he tied her in place. He then gathered up his own mount and he led Gunwar’s horse in trot back to Gardariki.
General Ygg came to the vanguard from the flank and attempted to rally the Hraes’ forces, but their losses were too great and the Hun warriors too numerous. Soon a general panic came over the Hraes’ army, and everyone began to flee to the safety of the walls of Gardariki. King Olmar and his Slav troops fought a brave rear guard battle as the Hraes’ and then the Goths fled the field. Within the walls of Gardariki, calm returned to the troops and they took to the battlements and prevented the pursuing Huns from overrunning the city. Once the surviving rear guard forces had entered the fortress, King Olmar broke away from the fight, looking for Gunwar in her high seat hall. He found General Ygg and Durin and Brother Gregory there, all gathered in a semi-circle about the serene body of Princess Gunwar laid out upon her dais.
“How died she?” King Olmar asked.
“Slain from behind by her nephew, Prince Hlod,” Durin answered.
“Oh, infamous day!” General Ygg cried. “Murderously early the evil whelp claims his inheritance. Pray to your God, brother that Hraerik yet lives to avenge her.”
But Brother Gregory did not hear his brother, Yggerus. He was busy administering last rites to the slain Princess Gunwar, but by her Christian name, Hervor, for she had been newly baptised in the faith.
Outside the hall, chaos reigned. The citizens of Gardariki were in a panic and frightened groups of women and children thronged in and about the small stone church of the Christians. King Olmar and General Ygg took joint control of the Hraes’ troops and began to organize the evacuation of Gardariki, placing all the ships in the city on standby for a retreat to the land of the Goths under cover of darkness. As evening came upon the steppe, the victorious Huns withdrew from the walls of the city and returned to their war camp.
When Brother Gregory had finished his obsequies over the body of Princess Hervor, he looked about himself to find everyone gone. The high seat hall was deserted and quiet, and even the sounds from without ceased suddenly. Then Brother Gregory heard the crying of an infant, and Durin entered the hall from the bedchambers carrying Hraerik and Hervor’s baby in his arms. The child was crying as Durin placed him up to Hervor’s cheek, and the rivulet of a tear from the infant could be seen running down her pale dusty countenance. “She didn’t even get to name him,” Durin cried.
“What is to become of the child?” Brother Gregory asked the dwarf.
“Hraerik placed me under oath to protect his household, and, again, I have failed him. I must take the child across the Nor’Way, to King Hraelauger of Norway, Hraerik’s brother. The Huns must never know he is alive, for he has a just claim to Gardariki. He must be raised in the north, safe from Khazar treachery.”
“I shall help you,” the cleric offered.
“I intend to take him in his father’s ship up and across their family’s Nor’Way. The path will be through Hun lands, long, hard and dangerous. All would understand if you chose not to go.”
“I give you my word that I shall do all within my powers to see that you fulfil your oath.”
That night, Brother Gregory, King Olmar, General Ygg and Durin buried Princess Hervor in an unmarked grave beside the small stone church of the Christians. Then King Olmar and General Ygg began to argue over what was to be done with the baby. King Olmar wanted to take it back to Kiev. General Ygg wanted it raised amongst the Crimean Goths. But Durin and Brother Gregory insisted on taking him to Hraerik’s family in Norway. General Ygg finally relented, so when the midnight evacuation of Gardariki took place, all the ships of the Hraes’ sailed to the mouth of the Kuban River, and, while the rest of the fleet sailed west for the Crimea, Durin and Brother Gregory sailed north in Fair Faxi, bound for the Don River and beyond.