© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
THE BATTLE OF THE GOTHS AND THE HUNS (Circa 841 AD)
“On the Danube-heath below the Hills of Ash
I call you to fight, your foes meeting; Hraese…,
may Odin let the dart fly as I prescribe it!”
Gizur Grytingalidi; The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.
Over winter King Frodi heard rumours that Hraerik Bragi had been killed in Sweden. Although their friendship had been strained the last few years, Frodi was grief-stricken; following rumours, he set forth for the Swedish lands in the early spring, leading a small fleet from Kiev, up the Dniepr and down the Dvina to the Baltic Sea. Off the shore of Sodermanland, the Hraes’ fleet met up with a huge fleet of the Goths; it was King Gestiblind and the army he had raised to fight the Huns. King Frodi learned from them that Hraerik Bragi was alive and well and raising a host to destroy the Huns. When it became apparent that both fleets were bound for Birka, the foremost men of their respective kings got into a dispute over which ships should enter the harbour first. Since the smaller fleet of the Hraes’ was faster, Skalk the Skanian addressed the captain of the Hraes’ vanguard ship.
“Since we are both bound for the harbour of Birka,” Skalk yelled over the waves, “I think it only respectful that the smaller fleet follow the larger.”
Captain Arngrim, King Frodi’s foremost man of late, shouted back his reply, “You may be the larger fleet now, for we have left the bulk of our forces in Gardar, but when it comes time to fight the Huns, we shall have, by far, the largest force. Therefore, if one is to judge rights by size, it should be our fleet that leads all into the harbour of Birka.”
“Prospective size means little in the here and now,” Skalk said, “where we outnumber you four to one. But a battle would be against the wishes of the prince we both make haste to serve.” Skalk stood steady upon the deck of his ship, arms akimbo, a veritable giant of a man. “Perhaps you have a champion who will present your case in arms?”
Captain Arngrim left the bow of his ship to confer with his king, who sat brooding amidships with his children, Prince Alf and Princess Eyfura. All could see that King Frodi was not impressed with the overbearing conduct of the Goths, yet he wished to preserve the peace. But Arngrim saw the offer as a chance to prove himself to his monarch and, more importantly, the princess at his elbow. Eyfura stood beside her father, a reflection of the beauty that was once Queen Alfhild, and she was moved by the brave chivalry of the young captain. She had all the accoutrements of a princess, save a champion, and when she put her hand upon her father’s shoulder, leaned forward and passed the young captain her handkerchief, Frodi fell silent before the pleas of Arngrim and waved him forward into the fray.
The sea was calm, the day was bright, both fleets sat bobbing upon the waters as the two gaily painted flagships approached each other. Once they were manoeuvred portside to portside, oars were laid between them and lashed to the rowlocks, binding the two longships together, then boarding planks were laid across the topstrakes to form a combat platform, and the two champions armed themselves for battle. Arngrim was the first up on the platform and he looked down into the Hraes’ ship at Princess Eyfura, who stood upon a rowing bench, steadying herself with a hand upon the mast. King Frodi remained seated, sullenly, and Prince Alf looked off in the steeringboard direction. Arngrim calmly tied Eyfura’s kerchief around his neck, gave her one last look, then bit into the linden shield he carried and took up the fit of the berserker. He was well into his rage when the giant, Skalk, stepped up onto the planks, and he attacked the Goth suddenly and ferociously. The older man fended off the young captain’s blows with some difficulty and his oak shield was soon battered beyond use. Skalk threw off the leaf and began an attack of his own. Taking his sword in both hands, he rained massive blows upon the shield of the Hraes’ captain, but the linden wood withstood the shock of the beating until the blows abated. Arngrim gave the giant no respite in which to rearm himself, and, as he countered with his second attack, the giant backed across to the outermost plank.
Years earlier a tiny wood ant had gnawed its way right through a huge timber that had been left in the forest to season, and from that timber was made a plank upon which Skalk the Skanian now stood, and the drift made by the ant ran through the width of the plank below the giant’s foot, so that, when Skalk stepped back to better absorb the shock of a blow, the plank snapped in half and the giant toppled backwards into the water. Captain Arngrim, still in his rage, leaped in after him, just entering the water as Skalk resurfaced, and he dealt him a mortal blow. The sea turned red with the giant’s blood and Skalk the Skanian slipped beneath the waves, never to be seen again. The cold waters sapped Arngrim’s berserk fury and a great weakness overcame him. His armour would have drowned him, had he not climbed atop his faithful linden shield. It took four strong men to haul him out of the water and into the Hraes’ longship. As Princess Eyfura was tending to Captain Arngrim, she noticed her handkerchief was gone, but she told no one. Instead, she dried his long blonde locks with another and then tied it tightly around his right bicep.
King Frodi’s flagship led the two fleets into the harbour of Birka and both King Bjorn of the Barrows and Hraerik Bragi were waiting on shore to greet him. Hraerik and King Frodi had not seen each other in years and, as they stood across from each other, tears welled up in both men’s’ eyes and they took the last few steps between them, as though completing a long, long journey; then they embraced.
“I’d heard you had died,” King Frodi cried. “That my foremost man was no more.”
“My thirst to avenge your sister has kept me alive,” Hraerik answered, truthfully.
Hard years had taken a toll on both men and it showed as they climbed aboard a carriage and waited for King Gestiblind to land. Hraerik now had a limp and King Frodi’s face was ravaged, not by age, but, as he claimed, by his own hands, a punishment he had executed upon himself for the murder of Alfhild. Hraerik knew otherwise.
When King Gestiblind landed, Hraerik went forth to meet him and learned of the slaying of Skalk the Skanian. Hraerik asked who had killed Skalk and was told it had been Arngrim, a captain in the fleet of King Frodi. He took note of the fact but said nothing.
A great feast had been prepared by King Bjorn on the arrival of the armies and, during the festivities, Captain Arngrim approached the guests’ high seat, where Hraerik Bragi and King Frodi shared the most honoured bench, and he asked his king for the hand of his daughter, Eyfura.
“What think you of this bold request, Hraerik?” King Frodi asked of his partner.
“I think that the slaying of Skalk was a foolish, though brave risk that has damaged our plans for a successful campaign. Rather than reward such destruction with the hand of your daughter, I think you should set young Arngrim forth on a constructive errand that shall help our cause, rather than hinder it.”
“What kind of an errand do you have in mind?” King Frodi asked. “Bear in mind, young captain, that you are in the presence of one of the clearest wits I have ever met.”
Arngrim stood silent while Hraerik passed his judgement.
“You must lead a force against King Egther of Permland and King Thengil of Finmark, for, of all the lands over which King Frodi holds sway, only those two have withheld their aid in our upcoming war with the Huns.”
“But I shall miss all the fighting in Khazaria,” Captain Arngrim countered angrily.
“Hraerik Bragi speaks wise thoughts,” King Frodi answered. “If you are quick about it, you can subject the Finns to our rule and levy troops from their ranks to bolster our forces. You are to meet us on the Don Heath with your forces at your earliest opportunity.” Captain Arngrim’s attempts to object met with only one cold order from Angantyr Frodi. “You are to leave in the morning.”
Secretly that night, Princess Eyfura tied another handkerchief to the left bicep of her champion, so that his left arm would not be ashamed in the presence of his right.
The next day, just after Captain Arngrim had set out with a flotilla of ships, King Hraelauger entered the harbour of Birka at the head of a huge Norwegian fleet. Hraelauger hugged his brother, Hraerik, warmly, then grasped Frodi in his arms and near crushed him in greeting. It had been many years since Hraelauger had seen the king who had granted him all of Norway. Hraerik then introduced his brother to Kings Bjorn and Gestiblind. That evening, they convened a huge war-thing. All the great chieftains and mighty warriors of Denmark, Gotland, Sweden, Norway and Gardar were in attendance. It took Hraerik’s thoughts back to his youth and his first war-thing in the court of King Gotar. The thrill and excitement, the huge throngs of warriors and troops, his first sight of Alfhild, his murdered queen. Hraerik felt, then, that she bore her husband no malice in dying. He only hoped he could show his brother-in-law the same forgiveness he had shown Queen Alfhild for her one slip. He looked over at King Frodi and he spotted Princess Eyfura at his elbow and he saw the fine-boned beauty of Alfhild once more and he remembered the warmth of his queen in a campaign tent on the Don Heath, the ghost of his queen he reminded himself and he looked away.
In the week that passed, while the huge army made preparations, ships filled with warriors continued flocking to Sweden. A torch had been lit in the dark pagan night, a tale of two drapas, one written overnight, to save the life of the Bragning Prince, to avenge the death of his Skjoldung wife. Followers of Odin gathered from all over the Boreal lands. Troops were assembled and they sailed east, into the orient dawn, where Christians and Moslems and Jews converged on the south Asian plain. On the Dvina River, the pagan Lithuanians, stalwarts of Satem, watched the great fleet go past and harried them not. On the Dniepr River, pagan warriors of the Radimichi joined the host, and in Kiev, where King Olmar had assembled the Drevjane and Poljane followers of Perun, the Slav god of war, the mighty fleet made repairs to their ships, then carried on, their ranks swelled by brave Slav soldiers. Up the Orel River they sailed, and a lengthy portage placed them upon the Donets, and soon the mighty host stood before the great stone walls of Sarkel, that strategic Khazar fortress built by the Greeks.
At the approach of the vast Northern host, the small Hun garrison fled, leaving their Greek mercenary allies to fend for themselves. Hraerik watched the Roman troops as they rowed their great trireme ships out on the Don River in an attempted escape to Cherson. Sarkel stood, undefended, before the great army.
“Burn it to the ground!” Hraerik Bragi ordered. “Let no two stones stand atop one another,” he shouted, sealing the fate of that most hated fortress. Great stocks of firewood were gathered from miles around Sarkel and placed both within and without the walls of the deserted fortress. Hraerik, himself, struck the Fa Chu that sparked a blaze that would rage for three days within the mighty stone walls. The heat of the conflagration was so intense that huge monolithic blocks cracked in pieces and heavy Doric columns crumbled under their loads. Shortly after the fire had been set, scouts spotted great billows of smoke to the south, almost as if the plain about the Don was afire. A day later, when that blaze seemed to have died out, a mighty fleet appeared, sailing up the river. It was General Ygg and the ships of the Hraes’ Trading Company, manned by Hraes’ survivors and their Gothic allies.
General Ygg and the Hraes’ fleet had spent the winter on the Black Sea harrying Khazar shipping and attacking Greek coastal settlements. Their successes had so terrified the local populace that news of them had reached Constantinople, and their path of destruction was recorded in Roman annals. Within Hraerik’s bright pavilion the Goth General described the Hraes’ campaign. “I knew you would return, Hraerik,” the general explained, “so it seemed important to keep the Hraes’ Trading Company fleet intact and to make our presence felt. We received word from Kiev that you had come back at the head of an army, so we sailed up the Don knowing there would only be one direction in which you would head. We knew also that the Khazars would be sallying forth to meet you, so we were very wary as we sailed upriver. It’s too bad for the Greeks that they were not equally vigilant, for we caught them by complete surprise as they rounded a bend in the river. They had no time to prepare their Greek fire and, rather than have their secret fall into enemy hands, they torched their own ships and dove into the water. I have never seen flames so violent as those that literally tore apart the triremes. Fire floated and burned upon the water bringing most of the Greeks to a fiery end. Those that escaped the flames surrendered. That is what caused the billowing smoke you saw from even this great distance.”
The Khazar Empire was a stir with the news of an impending attack by the Goths. King Humli, the great kagan of the federation, ordered a huge army assembled in Atil. The kagan bek, King Hunn, ordered all his men twelve years of age and up to arm themselves, and all ponies two years old and greater to be levied from the tribes. This mighty Hunnish host set forth from the heart of Khazaria to meet their enemy. Over a hundred thousand troops had been raised, under the command of one hundred and seventy kings and princes, and they marched, in a formation that stretched from horizon to horizon, towards the Fortress of Sarkel.
General Ygg stood before Hraerik and King Frodi and the assembled host of the Varangians. “I claim the honour of riding forth to challenge the Huns. The Gothic people and the Hunnish horde have long been enemies. We Goths have won our greatest victories over these barbarians and suffered our greatest defeats. Let me sally forth with our challenge to arms.” King Frodi looked at Hraerik then nodded to General Ygg. “Where shall I call the Huns to war?” the Gothic general asked his king.
“On the Don Heath, below the Khazar mountains, shall you challenge the Huns to battle. There your Goths have often waged war and gained many victories.”
So, as Hraerik had done a generation before, General Ygg set out to challenge the Huns to war. A ship took him across the Don River and he rode off on the dusty plain to find the Khazar army. After a hard day’s ride, he came upon the Hunnish host and he shouted out his challenge in a surprisingly loud voice:
“Hapless your host, fey is your kagan,
Our standards shall flutter over you,
Odin is angered!
“On the Don Heath, ‘neath the Khazar mountains,
we challenge you to fight–meet us, your foes;
the Hraes’ await you!”
“And may Odin,” Ygg prayed, “let loose the war-arrow as I have foretold.”
A large troop of Hun horsemen were at the forefront of the Khazar army and Prince Hlod and his father rode foremost of all.
“It is the Goth general, Yggerus, Angantyr’s man,” the prince said to his father. “Seize him!” Hlod shouted, but King Hunn waved his men back.
“Heralds who ride alone should not be harmed,” he said.
General Ygg paused a few moments before the Huns, showing no sign of fear, then rode for the Don Heath and marked the battlefield with four hazel poles. He then rode off towards the sunset and the Goth camp.
The yet burning fires of Sarkel showed the old man the way back to the Don River, and he lit a fire and made camp on the riverbank. Exhausted, he wrapped himself in a blanket and slept with his head on his saddle. An hour later, in dawn’s early light, a ship came to fetch him. Both King Frodi and Hraerik leapt onto the bank and strode into his camp.
“You found the Huns?” King Frodi asked the Goth.
“A hard day’s ride from here,” General Ygg answered, sitting up. “I challenged them to battle on the Don Heath. There they shall await us.”
“How strong are they?” Hraerik asked.
“Huge is their host,” General Ygg answered, and he could use only Greek terms to describe its vast size:
“Of soldiers they have six phalanxes,
every phalanx has five thousands,
every thousand thirteen hundreds,
and every hundred is four times counted.”
General Ygg had counted over a hundred and fifty thousand men. Hraerik and Frodi stepped back from Ygg as he rose to his feet. “We’ve perhaps half that number,” Hraerik said, “if we count the valkyries.”
“A valkyrie’s worth two Huns,” King Frodi commented. “Still, we’d better send out the call for more men.”
That day messengers were sent to Gothland, Kiev and further parts to levy more troops. The Varangian army was ferried across the Don River by ships of the Hraes’ fleet and it assembled and began its march across the Don Heath to meet the Khazars, marching until late afternoon before cavalry scouts spotted the Hunnish host. The Khazar army was encamped on the far side of the open flat plain that General Ygg had marked out. It patiently awaited an adversary.
Hraerik ordered his troops to make camp on their side of the plain, the two armies being in clear sight of one another. An ominous mood ran through the encampments of both armies that evening. Scouts could be seen leaving both camps to run patrols, to watch for enemy movements and to search out deserters. Many of the soldiers and warriors, both Varangian and Hun, were brave enough to fight any man in combat, yet, when hosts of this size sat before one another, the thought of fighting against so many at once overwhelmed many of them. The pagans had a term for this: the fetters of Odin, whereby Odin, the god of hosts could strike fear into the bravest of men, often at the most critical of times. So, cavalry scouts sallied about both camps and brought back as many deserters as could be caught. King Frodi had ordered his deserters hanged, while King Hunn had ordered his beheaded, so, in a line between the camps stood a row of slowly filling hanging ladders on one side and a gradually increasing line of countenanced pikes on the other. One of King Hraelauger’s Norwegian cavalry scouts brought a deserter before Hraelauger, who he, in turn, brought before Hraerik. The delinquent was none other than Ask, Hraerik’s long time lieutenant and friend.
“What would you have us do with him?” Hraelauger asked his brother. “Frodi has ordered all deserters hanged.”
“Let me have a word with Ask,” Hraerik answered, then turned towards the bedraggled captive. “You have always been a brave man, Ask. Why have you run?”
“I’ve been having dreams ever since we left Sweden,” Lieutenant Ask answered, “and in these nightmares I am standing alone before a host of men and an arrow flies forth from that group and kills me. Then, tonight, in a dream, Odin told me the Huns with their hornbows have an arrow with my name upon it. I woke up in a fever, left my tent and started to run.”
“It is the fetters of Odin,” Hraerik told his friend, patting him upon the shoulder. “Tonight, you shall sleep in my pavilion.”
“And the orders of King Frodi?” Hraelauger asked.
“I shall vouch for Ask,” Hraerik answered.
The camps of the Varangians and the Huns began stirring before dawn, and, as the orient light broke over the Asian plain, hundreds of corpses bristled in two rows upon the horizon, the hanged bodies swinging and the lanced heads swaying in the morning breeze. It was a warning to all who might be tempted to run in the course of the day. Ask took his usual place at the head of Hraerik’s new Centuriata, which formed the vanguard of the Varangian army, but, as they marched past the row of dead, he could not bring himself to look upon them, for he was at one with them. The Khazar army, too, was advancing and the two hosts approached each other in the centre of the plain. The Varangian force thinned its ranks to meet the greater expanse of the opposing army and when the Hunnish host came within range, Hraerik had his troop of Swedish footbowmen loose volley after volley of heavy arrows into their midst to hurry them along. Then the Norse army weathered the storm of darts from the Huns’ long range hornbows until their archers, too, could join in the maelstrom with their lighter arrows. Next, it was the Khazar host’s turn to weather the heavy spears and throwing axes of the Norsemen until they could answer with spears of their own. The two armies closed, their kettle drums pounding, their armour rattling in a continuous metallic murmur. On either wing were the cavalry units, holding off their attacks until the main hosts were engaged. Soon sword met shield and the battle began. The clash of weapons and the screams of men rent continuously through the general roar of the massive armies: the pounding of hooves and the scuffle of feet, the shouting of orders and the choked grunts of exertion, the kettledrums and the trumpets and the fluttering of a thousand banners.
All day the sound roared, but neither side budged an inch. At dusk the din died down. Both sides retired to their tents and pavilions with their dead and wounded. The valkyries had moved the hanging ladders and their burdens behind the Varangian camp. There, too, they stacked their dead and they dispatched the mortally wounded amongst the cordwood for the campfires. Soldiers were not allowed behind the camp. Only cavalry patrolled the perimeter, and the valkyries, hardened old hags and beautiful young maidens, hanged the ever-present deserters. The warriors stayed in their tents and by their campfires, tending to their weapons and their wounds. Hraerik’s pavilion was in the centre of the camp with those of the kings, but the tents of his Centuriata were spread out before his in the Vanguard’s choice position, so he visited with his men after campaign meetings and told them short tales and recited them poems, always of bravery and actions resulting in victory. Hraerik took note of the fact that Ask was alive and well and had distinguished himself in battle. The following day the battle resumed in much the same manner as it had before. All day the Goth and Hun troops were engaged in mortal combat and, though the Huns outnumbered the Norsemen, Goth and Slav warriors had rallied to King Frodi’s call for help and were pouring into the Hraes’ camp at such a rate that, despite severe casualties on both sides, the number of Gothic troops actually increased while the Hun numbers dwindled. Still, the superior numbers of the Khazar host began to prevail and the Hraes’ were forced to give ground, but they held their formations intact and at days end both sides again retired to their respective encampments.
That evening Hraelauger visited the pavilion of his brother, Hraerik. “There is a rumour spreading among my men that a deserter was spared,” he explained. “If King Frodi were to hear of it, he shall ask questions. I’m here to let you know that I have no intentions of covering for Ask’s actions.”
“Nor would I expect you to,” Hraerik responded. “I shall answer to Frodi should the time come.”
“You are jeopardizing your reputation for your man,” Hraelauger complained. “It would be best for all involved if Ask were to die in tomorrow’s battle.”
“I’ve lost almost half my Centuriata in battle. Ask has been at the head of the vanguard and has distinguished himself in combat for two days. He has atoned himself of his crime and I shall play no part in further jeopardizing his life. I supported him two nights ago and, should he survive our conflict, I shall continue to do so.”
“You’re a hard man to deal with, Hraerik Bragi,” Hraelauger exclaimed.
“I got it from my father,” Hraerik explained, and the two brothers supped together.
The next four days of combat were pretty much the same as the second, with the Goth army continuing to lose ground before the Hun host, until finally, by the evening of the sixth day the Hraes’ were backed up to their own camp. The Khazars, sensing victory, were fighting ever fiercely. While their numbers were falling due to casualties and desertions, the numbers of their enemies had not dropped at all. King Hunn had soon realized that, if they were to prevail, the Khazar forces would have to win while their forces remained superior. He instilled his men with this sense of urgency and it was with this added incentive that the Huns had managed to almost drive the Goths from the field.
At the campaign meeting on the evening of the sixth day, Hraerik recommended that the Hraes’ army withdraw to the other side of the Don River, to the plain before Sarkel.
“This will lead to mass desertions,” King Frodi countered. “With the river at our backs our men are forced to fight on.”
“Each day our army swells with new recruits. The longer we stave off defeat the better our position becomes. The Huns know this. That is why they are pressing so hard.”
“We shall stay and fight,” King Frodi countered.
“Where is Prince Arngrim, your foremost man?” Hraerik goaded his king. “He was to bring a host to our aid and he has yet to appear.”
Hraelauger stepped between Hraerik and King Frodi, as they eyed each other heatedly. “You play a dangerous game,” he whispered to his brother.
“Arngrim shall come through for us,” King Frodi exclaimed. “He has never failed me!”
“And I’m sure he has no intention of starting,” Hraerik shouted back. “Let us buy him some time to arrive. Let us retreat across the Don. I’m sure he shall meet us on the other side with a fresh army.”
“So be it,” King Frodi spat, then sat and smiled slyly. “Once again my foremost of foremost men has played me like a lyre and gotten his way. Time and again you earn your byname, Bragi.”
After the campaign meeting, King Frodi took Hraerik aside and said, “There is a rumour going around that a deserter has been spared. Those involved could share the deserter’s fate if the situation is not rectified. See if you can correct it for me.”
Hraerik wondered how much of the story King Frodi knew as he wandered back to his own camp. He gathered his men about him and asked for volunteers to remain in camp and tend to patrols and campfires while the army withdrew under cover of darkness. His eye caught Ask’s, and his lieutenant immediately volunteered. Most of the Centuriata followed Ask’s example, so Hraerik placed his lieutenant in charge of all forces participating in the dangerous rear-guard action. They would all be equipped with fast steeds for the final evacuation, but it was a day’s march to the Don and the Huns had the finest horsemen in the world.
The next day, when the Khazar army assembled in formation there was no Hraes’ army there to face them. Mounted pickets still rode the camp’s perimeter, campfires still blazed, but no troops roused to make a formation. King Hunn sent Prince Hlod and a troop of cavalry to investigate; the Hraes’ rear-guard immediately torched their own camp, mounted their steeds and fled. Ask rode out to the lead horseman, Prince Hlod, and shouted the name “Sarkel”, then rode off. The Hun cavalry set off in pursuit, sending back a messenger to their kagan.
“The Goths have fled!” the messenger shouted. “They await us at Sarkel!”
Morning found the Hraes’ army on the east bank of the Don River, and the Hraes’ navy came out from the port of Sarkel to assist them in the crossing. By noon they were all on the west bank of the Don and had re-occupied their encampment outside the walls of Sarkel. The fires within the fortress still flared up and a dark pallor of smoke hung over the countryside. The heat from the burning cord wood that had been stacked up against the stone walls both inside and out had cracked the stones and destroyed the mortar holding them together. The walls of Sarkel were near collapse. It would never house another garrison of Greek troops. A command pavilion was set up in front of the doomed fortress and, while the troops were resting from their exhausting forced march, the officers and chieftains held a council of war.
It was suggested that the Hraes’ navy be employed to prevent the Huns from crossing over, but King Frodi dismissed the idea. “There are but forty ships to stop a hundred thousand from crossing. We would lose the struggle and our honour as well. Let the Huns cross. This is where we’ll stand, and this is where we’ll fight!” No one dared dispute with their king further on the matter.
Hraerik was not about to argue. He had looked for Ask when he had called for volunteers for the rear-guard, and he was racked with guilt over his actions. He might as well have ordered Ask to volunteer for the suicide action. “We must place the fleet up and down the river to assist any of the rear-guard that might make it to the Don,” Hraerik said. “We shall have need of the fleet later.”
All present, King Frodi included, shouted, “Aye!”
Back upon the Don Heath, Hun cavalry units were running down the scattered Hraes’ rear-guard, cutting them to pieces as they caught them, but in the centre of that long broad plain a knot of Hraes’ cavalry charged for the Don River seemingly unimpeded. The Hraes’ commander, Lieutenant Ask, had rallied Hraerik’s Centuriata and others about him, forming a unit too large for the undisciplined Hun horsemen to chance attacking. Hard they rode, in the heat of noon, for the quenching safety the river promised them. Prince Hlod rallied a troop of Huns behind him and was in chase, but the lead the Hraes’ had, and the good horse Hraerik had provided Ask, was too much, even for the excellent Turk riders. Crashing down the steep riverbank of the Don, the Hraes’ cavalry unit plunged into the waters of the river, and the flanks of the horses were flecked with foam and their riders covered in sweat and dust when the waters rushed up and swept it all away. Prince Hlod slowed his force as they neared the riverbank and they drew their hornbows and began to fire arrows at the fleeing rear-guard. Two ships of the Hraes’ navy rowed to the aid of their countrymen and placed themselves between the shore and the fording horsemen and returned the fire with footbows firing huge arrows that would knock down a horse when hit and took men right off the back of their mounts. Hraerik was aboard one of the ships and he strung his Turk hornbow and fired arrows that, not only matched the Huns in range, but surpassed them in firing rate and accuracy. When the Hun horsemen withdrew from the riverbank, a great cheer of victory resounded from the Hraes’ army on the west bank of the river.
That evening, the Khazar army reached the bank of the Don River and camped on its shore. Withdrawing from the river, the Hraes’ army offered the Huns an opportunity for an unchallenged crossing. Before the dawn of the next morning, Kagan Humli took advantage of this gift and Kagan Bek Hunn ordered his army to assemble their round skin boats and make the crossing. Soon, a hundred thousand Turks were in formation on the west bank of the Don. Seventy thousand of the seventy-five thousand remaining Hraes’ warriors awaited them.
“Where are the other five thousand?” King Frodi asked Hraerik as they rode their mounts before their battle-worn troops. “And where is Prince Arngrim?”
“He will come,” was Hraerik’s evasive reply.
The kettle-drums sounded and the Hraes’ warriors pounded their swords upon their shields and the berserkers bit into their linden wood and howled in fury as the Goth army advanced upon the Huns.
The battle started with the heavy thud of Swedish footbows followed by the thrum of hornbows then the longbows, followed by the heavy thumps of spears, and then the shocked crash of shields announced that the true battle had begun. Half the day the shield walls wavered back and forth until it seemed that either side might fold at any time. Hraerik pulled men from the left flank and placed them on the right in an attempt to drive the Huns back toward the river, but the Khazar host held firm. A thick billow of smoke rose out of the fortress and worked its way up and then down upon the battlefield and sometimes the wind would shift and blow it in the faces of the Varangians and then would shift and blow it in the faces of the Khazars, but finally it settled down upon the Hunnish host and soon had their warriors doubling up in fits of coughing and the Khazar line was pushed back toward the river. King Hunn and Prince Hlod were busy rallying their troops when, from out of a western coulee and behind a copse of trees, came a fresh army led by Prince Arngrim, Varangians and Finns, to lend their brave stout arms to the driving task at hand.
King Frodi, himself, rode back to meet and urge them on and he greeted his lieutenant as a starving man welcomes bread. Hraerik directed the new forces into the fray, then he handed control over to his king and joined his Centuriata in the vanguard.
“Where is Ask?” was Hraerik’s first question, as he joined his men.
“He’s been slain,” one officer offered, grabbing the reins as Hraerik joined the formation behind the three deep shield wall. The Hraes’ battle line had been spread thin, no thanks to the five thousand men Hraerik had plucked from the force the night previous.
“He’s yet alive,” another officer blurted out as he rushed to join the line. “The valkyries are attending to him,” and the soldier pointed to their rest area behind the lines, then ran to rejoin his squad. Hraerik trotted back to the Centuriata’s aid station to find two young valkyrie warriors breaking off an arrow that had penetrated Ask’s nose and pierced his tongue. Hraerik squatted beside his comrade and supported his back as the valkyries snapped the flight protruding from his face, then cut the arrowhead away from his mouth, leaving the blood smeared shaft where it had shattered his face. Ask could barely talk but he said, “Hraerik, it is Odin’s arrow, missed its mark!”
“Good,” replied Hraerik. “Now you may sit out the rest of this fray.”
“You don’t understand,” Ask lisped back. “I can rejoin the battle. Odin’s arrow has missed its mark.”
“You rest,” Hraerik said, patting Ask’s shoulder, “and that is an order!” Though Hraerik had never followed the path of the berserk, his father had been a famed manic warrior, and Hraerik soon found himself doffing his shirt, gnawing on linden wood and howling at the Huns facing him. The limp he had acquired duelling King Alrek was gone, and he joined the forefront in a rage unmatched by any. He cut down all Huns before him and, in the ecstasy of his fit, the Khazar line melted away. The fresh troops of Prince Arngrim’s army were following hard behind him and soon they had cut a deep swath into the ranks of the Huns. Hraerik was working his way towards the mounted Prince Hlod, but the sway of combat took Hlod away from the Centuriata and placed him before the mounted King Frodi, instead.
At first, it seemed as though Prince Hlod would flee, but he quickly raised the sword, Tyrfingr, over his head and charged his father. King Frodi deflected the vicious down stroke, which ended deep in the earth, and answered with a down stroke from his own battered blade that ended the life of the stripling prince. Tyrfingr lay planted in the Don soil as King Hunn, seeking to avenge his son, charged King Frodi. Hraerik fought his way to the blade he had forged as his own king charged the Hun kagan bek. Hraerik pulled the famed blade free from the earth just as a blow from Kagan Hunn shattered the damaged sword of King Frodi. An area had cleared around the battling kings and Hraerik took advantage of the pause to throw Tyrfingr to his king. Frodi caught the middle-piece in his two hands and, as King Hunn raised his sword for the death blow, the Dane thrust the blade of Tyrfingr between the Hun’s spread ribs. King Hunn fell to the earth, dead, without a sound.
With the demise of their leaders, the Hunnish host began falling back and their right flank was being driven into the Don River. Their centre collapsed before the onslaught of Prince Arngrim’s fresh forces and their left flank followed in panicked abandon. Soon, the whole Khazar army was in flight, fighting over their skin boats on the shore of the Don. Half the Hun host was in the water when the Hraes’ navy, bolstered by the five thousand troops Hraerik had spirited, struck. A slaughter on the river ensued and, even with their comrades experiencing annihilation, the Huns still fought among themselves for places on the remaining craft, rather than face the fury of the Hraes’ army on land.
So great was the slaughter upon the waters of the Don River, quencher of Khazars, that the snagged and piling corpses of the Hun army turned the course of that primary river system. The Hraes’ navy, having defeated the living, were soon battling the dead, as they fought their way through the floating corpses back to the harbour of Sarkel.
“That is where my five thousand were disbursed!” King Frodi exclaimed, as the foot soldiers watched the remainder of the battle from the shoreline.
But Hraerik heard not what his commander had said; he was searching the battlefield for his lieutenant, Ask, and he found him, slain, a bright arrow through his breast. “It would seem Odin’s arrow has not missed its mark after all,” Hraerik said bitterly, as he viewed the corpse of his comrade.
King Frodi, too, rode his horse among the slain till he found the corpse of Prince Hlod and exclaimed:
“Treasures uncounted, kinsman, I offered you,
wealth and cattle well to content you;
but for war’s reward you have won neither
realm more spacious nor rings glittering.”
Angantyr Frodi got off his horse, knelt beside the corpse and took up the breast of Prince Hlod onto his lap.
“We are cursed, kinsman, your killer am I!
It will never be forgotten; the Norns’ doom is evil.”
The great kagan, Humli, heard King Frodi’s laments, as King Hraelauger accepted his formal surrender. Hraerik joined his brother and they celebrated each other’s survival. The supreme Khazar leader looked down from his huge wheeled pavilion and his eyes met Hraerik’s. Even in defeat, the captured Huns bowed before the gaze of their leader, so powerful was the spell he held over them. Hraerik could see that the kagan, though old, sat proudly in his high seat; the blood of Caesars yet flowed through his veins. Smoke still drifted over the battlefield from the Fortress of Sarkel, and a wisp of black smoke ended the eye contact between the man who was a leader because of his blood and the man who lead despite his.
Small fires burned all over the battlefield and smoke hung over it like a fog, muffling the cries of the wounded as the Valkyries darted among the piled bodies like phantoms of death. Hraerik and Hraelauger joined their king by the bodies of Prince Hlod and King Hunn. Angantyr Frodi stood up, his eyes red and swollen, and offered Hraerik the sword, Tyrfingr. “Keep it if you wish, for it has saved your life” Hraerik said. “You know full well its curse and its blessings.”
King Frodi thanked Hraerik for the famed blade, then summoned all his kings to an assembly to be held that evening. There, he awarded Hraerik the realm of Tmutorokan and the wealth and the lands of Prince Hlod, as war guild for the loss of Princess Gunwar; to General Ygg he gave command of Gothland; to King Olmar he gave the Principality of Novgorod; and to Prince Arngrim he awarded all the Northern lands he had conquered and the hand of his daughter, Eyfura, in marriage.
Although, once more Hraelauger demanded the death of the great kagan and an immediate attack upon Khazaria, Hraerik managed to calm him down and reminded both he and King Frodi of his visions of the steppe hordes that were being held back by the Khazars. King Frodi decided to impose a ransom on Kagan Humli to be paid out to the Hraes’ troops.
Later that evening, a messenger called Hraerik away from the Hraes’ victory feast and to the tent of King Olmar.
“Come in, Hraerik,” the Slav monarch said. “Sit down and share wine with an old man.”
Hraerik sat on a camp stool before his grandfather.
“Do you still carry the gold trident I returned to you in Kiev?” King Olmar asked.
“I carry it at my breast, as always,” Hraerik answered, and he pulled it out from his shirt by the gold chain around his neck.
King Olmar leaned forward, took the trident bodkin from Hraerik’s hand and drew him close. He studied it very carefully then said, “Tell me again about your mother. The last time we talked of her, you were my enemy and prisoner. It seems so long ago.”
Hraerik told Olmar everything that Hraegunar had told him of her: she was dark haired and beautiful; she spoke the Slav tongue and others, but no Norse; she had risked stabbing a Varangian’s hand rather than part with her bodkin; Hraegunar had fallen in love with her and she had grown to return that love; and she had died giving birth to her only child, Hraerik. All these things he told King Olmar, who listened in quiet suffering. “She was your daughter,” Hraerik concluded.
“For a long time, I denied it,” King Olmar began. “It is a hard thing to believe that your daughter had been captured by your enemies and died alone. I’d always hoped that I would find my daughter alive and in hiding somewhere, perhaps as a handmaiden to some Khazar princess, but it is a hard thing to accept the proof that she died alone in some far-off land.” Hraerik attempted to reassure the old king, but Olmar held up a hand and continued. “This unwillingness of mine to admit the truth has cost us both overmuch, not only in years we might have shared as grandfather and grandson, but, I fear, great-grandson as well.”
Hraerik could not guess where Olmar’s conversation was leading, but he continued listening patiently.
“General Ygg was going to tell you this, but I begged him to let me break the news to you only when the time was right.” King Olmar poured Hraerik some more wine but took none for himself. “Before Gunwar’s last battle with the Huns on the plains before Gardariki, she gave birth to a baby boy…your son. We all swore ourselves to secrecy, and the next day Prince Hlod slew your wife, fratricidally. When we were forced to evacuate your city, I tried to convince Brother Gregory and General Ygg that the baby was my great-grandson and that I should protect him for you, but understandably, they did not believe this, seeing me as an opportunist seeking influence over your child. Had I publicly acknowledged you as my son when I first believed you to be such, my motives wouldn’t have been suspect.”
“But where is my son now?” Hraerik stammered.
“Let me finish,” King Olmar said, looking away from Hraerik in great anguish. “I was going to take your son, but the dwarf, Durin, and Brother Gregory took off with him, with intentions of returning him to you via the Nor’Way. Brother Gregory has not been seen since, and General Ygg has learned that he was lost at sea making the Nor’Way crossing. I fear your son has perished,” King Olmar cried, “and it is as much my fault as anyone’s.” The old man broke down, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Grandfather,” Hraerik said. “You cannot blame yourself. I shall find my son. He may yet be alive.”
King Olmar pulled Hraerik to his breast. “Do not make the mistake I made,” he whispered hoarsely, “and hope beyond hope that your child still lives.”
“I must learn the truth,” Hraerik cried, pushing himself away from the old man. “And I cannot do so from Gardariki. You must rule over Tmutorokan for me!”
“If you wish, take Novgorod. The land is too cold and harsh for an old king like me. From there you may search but promise me you shall accept whatever truths you find.”
“I accept your offer and your terms,” Hraerik said, and the two men hugged each other warmly as grandfather and grandson.
Hraerik became the ruler of Novgorod, and he sent out ships and search parties into Biarmia and the Nor’Way. He learned that, indeed, Brother Gregory had taken a baby with him and attempted a Nor’Way crossing, but all hands had been lost at sea. King Hraelauger, in turn, checked with relatives in Norway, but none reported receiving the infant son of Gunwar, so Hraerik kept the terms of his agreement with King Olmar and devoted himself to re-establishing the Southern Way. He made many trading expeditions with his Hraes Trading Company and visited King Frodi in Kiev, and King Olmar in Tmutorokan. Prince Arngrim and Eyfura came to live with Hraerik in Novgorod, from which Arngrim ruled his Northern lands, and Eyfura bore Arngrim many children, with whom Hraerik consoled himself.