© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
SUBJUGATING THE SCLAVS (Circa 831 AD)
“Eke: from an ill dream did Eormanrik awake, with
brands clashing, battle-tumult baleful, hiredmen wounded.
Raging war arose in Randver’s father’s mead-hall,
both when Erp’s twain brothers, black as ravens, avenged them.”
Bragi Boddason; Skaldskaparmal.
Seconds, even years.
All are fragments of time in a man’s life, some of great importance, some as meaningless as counting crows. The few hours head start that Hraerik had wrested from King Gotar, through chance and fear and circumstance, were perhaps the most important fragments yet patched into the events of his young life. Two hours kept Hraerik ahead of Amlodi, that dull brute of a storm that occasioned upon the Kattegat with a ferociousness blessed only by its infrequency, teaching him the perils of the sea. The lack of hours caught up Gotar in its midst, swept him out into a fathomless abyss and taught him just how cruel the sea could be.
Hraerik was almost upon Denmark before he got his first true taste of Amlodi. With the Norse king in pursuit, Hraerik had decided to bypass refuge on both Laeso and Arnholt Islands and, by pushing his men to the limits of their endurance, he managed to gain the Sound by nightfall, just before the storm peaked. He may have made it to Denmark, had Brak’s old longship not foundered. Huge cresting swells filled the void between Skane and Zealand and into this ginungagap Hraerik led his exhausted warriors, dark waters roiling below them, a black sky seething above. Fair Faxi’s Nor’Way construction made her proof against the storm, but Brak’s longship was old and not so soundly built, and when it began taking on water faster than the crew could bail, it started to break up in the waves.
Hraerik got his ship in front of Brak’s and tossed him a stout line and the old seafarer secured his forestem to the afterstem of Fair Faxi. Brak then sent his crewmen down the line and into the raging waters and, a few at a time, they yarded themselves through the waves and up into the stout Nor’Way ship. One man was swept away when the ships drew so close together that he let go the rope, expecting to catch onto a shorter length only a stroke ahead, and was lost in an instant, but in the darkness and the din of the storm he was not missed until later. Brak was the last to leave his ship, and only with the greatest of effort did the old man manage to get up over the bulwark of Fair Faxi and slip under the cover of the ship’s oxhide awning. Kraka welcomed him there and all felt a little more secure now that none had to weather the worst of the storm out in an open boat.
Hraerik left Gunwar and Alfhild at the forestem of Fair Faxi and went to relieve Hraelauger, who was controlling the inboard rudder. “This Amlodi is nothing compared to the storms of the Nor’Way crossing,” Hraerik shouted as he approached his brother. The men about him who had made the crossing laughed out in agreement and those who had never made the trip shook their heads in wonderment.
“Still, she’s a storm worth passing by,” Hraelauger replied. “Amlodi’s left us a ship shy.” Hraelauger grabbed several of the men nearby and put them in charge of the rudder, and he and Hraerik worked their way through the crowd of sailors to the stern, where Brak was recovering. As they huddled about under warming hides discussing their besting of King Gotar, Brak mentioned to Hraerik that, as he was ransacking Gotar’s high seat hall, he had found a servant of Gotar’s dead along with the captain of the guard and that same servant had for years been Hraegunar’s eyes and ears in their king’s hall. “I’m only bringing this up because it appears to have been your spear, Hraerik, that was run through him.”
“It was Gunwar that ran him through,” Hraerik started. “Gotar’s captain slipped into the room to attack me and I remember seeing his sword on the down stroke and I cried out `Kraka’, as you’d instructed me, mother,” and Hraerik turned to his stepmother and smiled, melting away years of animosity. “Next thing I knew, there was my shield toppled over me, sheltering me from the death stroke and giving me the time to draw Tyrfingr and slay Gotar’s man. Unfortunately, Gunwar thought to save me from the second attacker and she ran my spear through him. She must never learn that he was Hraegunar’s man,” and Hraerik looked around to those about him and the secret was cast in stone.
Fair Faxi weathered the great storm, Amlodi, at sea, and the next morning was calm, warm and bright. Soon the harbour town of Liere was reached, and both Alfgeir and Einar were surprised to see their young Norwegian captain pulling in with his ship so hard on the heels of the storm. The long harbour beach was awash with sand, Amlodi’s meal, lending a peculiar lilt to the gait of the portly harbourmaster as he came out to welcome them. Straight away, Alfgeir spotted Princess Alfhild and, as he helped her over the top strake, he knew his king would be very pleased with Hraerik’s find.
About the same time that King Gotar made his way back to the Vik, his daughter, Princess Alfhild, was married to King Frodi. Even as she took her young king as husband, she could not help thinking about Hraerik and the debt she owed her father. As she had let her father down, so, too, would she desert Hraerik in his hour of greatest need. She was heir apparent in his native land and now queen in his adopted land, so she had little doubt that that hour would come; she would know when the withdrawal of her support was due, and she hoped that it would not cost Hraerik too dearly. But she knew deep inside that her dark prince would suffer and she hoped that at least his life would be spared–that the hour, or minute, or second that she had wrested from him, as price of her allegiance, would not kill him.
While Hraerik’s fortune silently bore its burden, young King Frodi’s future was being openly challenged. Sclav pirates, operating on the Baltic sea, had learned of the demise of Oddi and now began to fall, mercilessly, upon the Danish merchants working the Southern Way. King Oddi had subdued the Sclav raiders using a combination of bribes and threats, but the sea king was no more. The attacks of the pirates had grown bolder and bolder as the summer progressed, until finally King Frodi decided to send Hraerik out on a punitive action against them, while he raised a fleet with which to launch a major campaign against the Sclavs.
The night before Hraerik was to lead the expedition, there was feasting late into the evening. Hraerik and Gunwar retired early to spend their remaining hours together. Something was bothering his wife, that much Hraerik knew, but he also knew that it would only come out in its own good time. As they lay in bed together, entwined in each other’s arms, Gunwar said, “Who are these Sclavs that draw my husband from my bed? From where do they come, that they ravage the Baltic? Tell me, husband, who are these people that tear you from my breast?”
“Brak once told me a tale of these Sclavs, but he said the truth of it is difficult to ascertain as it is very ancient. In a time just before Rome’s first falterings, perhaps, in years, four hundred ago, there was a great cooling of the climate over a period of many years, where each year’s crops were worse than the prior’s until famine in both Oster Gotland and Vaster Gotland drove many of their people to set out on a great migration. I have had visions of this time and, indeed, great sheets of ice came down from the mountains and wiped away many fjiord farms and settlements. The Goths, being most densely populated, were affected the most so vast numbers of them sailed up the Dvina River and crossed the central marshes, finally settling on the Asian plain near Roman lands. There they lived and prospered until the Huns came out of the east and attacked them. The Ostrogoth king, Eormanrik, killed himself rather than suffer defeat at the hands of these Turks, and the Gothic people fled west to the security of the Roman Empire. Many ancient poems and tales are told of this period.
“Two centuries ago, when the climate began warming again, Ivar the Far-Reacher, an ambitious king of Oster Gotland, attempted to retrace the steps of his fore-fathers, conquering Kurland, Estland, the lands of the Dvina River and further. But it was still too cold on the glassy plains and he died fighting in the east and that was it for his plans of empire. But his followers settled the Dvina River valley and became known as Sclavs. They hold the key to the first half of your brother’s Southern Way, his Danepar. They have always caused trouble for merchants using the Way and tomorrow they shall start to pay.”
When Hraerik finished his tale, he could tell that Gunwar was still agitated. “Don’t be afraid for me,” Hraerik started. “All our omens are favourable. Your brother has made sacrifices to Odin and our success has been foretold.”
“I have prayed to Freya and to Tyr and Thor and even to Loki, lest the Sclavs resort to trickery,” Gunwar started, “but unless you believe in the gods, how shall they protect you?”
“If the gods do exist, they can better judge and aid a man by what he does than what he prays.”
The next morning, Hraerik set out for the Isle of Born with Fair Faxi and seven longships of the Danish fleet. With him he had his personal Centuriata and stalwart warriors of the Danish navy. On the island of Born, the local farmers told Hraerik that the Sclav pirates had set up their base on an islet and were attacking vessels as they plied between Sweden and Denmark. Hraerik established his own base in a nearby estuary and had his men cover the Danish longships in leafy foliage. A little further upriver, he had several engines of war unloaded from Fair Faxi while work parties gathered up huge stones for the weapons. Once his ambuscade was prepared, he set out in Fair Faxi to search for the Sclav marauders, leaving Hraelauger in command of the Danish fleet. Sailing up the coast of Born, Hraerik spotted seven ships approaching him from the north. He knew they were the pirate ships the farmers had told him about, so he retraced his voyage, leading the Sclavs back up his river estuary and into his ambush. When the pirates realized that within the leafy banks of the river lurked danger, they were already past the Danish fleet; they were trapped upriver. Hraerik put Fair Faxi into shore and signalled Hraelauger to have his men prepare the war engines. The Sclavs had halted their ships and were attempting to row them out of the trap, when Hraelauger had his men fire the catapults, hurling great stones down upon the enemy. Timbers snapped, and bones shattered under the barrage and, when the Sclavs finally got out of catapult range, Hraelauger led the Danish longships against them. Only forty Sclav pirates survived the debacle, and these captives Hraerik decided to take back to King Frodi.
On leaving Born, the Danish force came upon an eighth pirate ship, with the pirate’s leader on board, or so their captives claimed. It had foundered upon a sandbar and its crew was struggling to free her. They doubled their efforts at the approach of the Danes, but to no avail, so they prepared for a fight. As Fair Faxi drew close, Hraerik shouted, “Common man meets a common end. Fortune frowns on the unfortunate.”
“Kings share death with the common man,” the pirate leader retorted.
“We have forty of your men captive now,” Hraerik replied. “Forty more would not burden us overmuch.”
“We prefer to share death with kings than captivity with cowards,” was the captain’s reply to that offer.
Hraerik had the Danish fleet hold back and the grappling hooks brought out, and the men of his Centuriata rowed Fair Faxi up alongside the pirates. The hooks were thrown, and boarding planks were dropped and a ship to ship battle was engaged. Fierce fighting soon raged up and down the decks of both boats, but Hraerik, with Tyrfingr and the picked warriors of his Centuriata, made short work of the brave Sclavs, who fought to the last man.
“These were the bravest of the lot,” Hraerik told Hraelauger, and he had his men free the pirate ship from the sand and they placed the dead into the ship and they set it afire. Bright orange flames engulfed the sail and lapped hungrily at the mast as Hraerik’s force sailed off for Denmark.
While Hraerik had been off attacking Sclav pirates, King Frodi had been mustering a huge fleet of ships from the Goths and Swedes as well as the Danes. Hraerik met up with his fleet and shouted, “Salutations to the forger of a most prosperous peace. Hail Frodi the Peaceful!”
“I pray your words shall ring true,” King Frodi answered. “I pray your words are not premature.”
“Sweet is the victory we have wrested from the Sclavs thus far and, though it be but a paltry prize, a presage of great success can be found in it. The faint glow of dawn precedes the bright light of day.”
Hraerik was surprised to see the number of ships King Frodi had gathered, and, as they passed by Fair Faxi, he counted more than ten hundred. He let them all pass, and he took up the rear and he did not see King Frodi again until they made camp along a remote Baltic shore in the land of the Wends.
“You seem to have raised enough of an army,” Hraerik said, as he and Hraelauger entered King Frodi’s camp. So far had the Danish flotilla trailed the vanguard, that their king was already settled into his camp by the time the brothers arrived at the shore.
“Being inexperienced in war I thought it best to face the Sclavs with too many than too few. Come. We have saved space for you and your men.”
Hraerik and Hraelauger set up their awnings next to the tent of their king and they drank late into the night to Hraerik’s victory over the pirates. King Frodi told Hraerik that he had brought old Gotwar along as their priestess of Odin and leader of the valkyries, as those yet remained her duties, even though she had lost her personal freedom, and he further explained that as priestess she had determined that a sacrifice to Odin would guarantee success in the upcoming campaign, for Odin was the god of hosts and his appeasement was crucial prior to pitched battles. So, against Hraerik’s protests, his forty captives were brought forth with the morning and scaling ladders were lashed together and the Sclavs were all hanged from them in sacrifice to Odin, the god of hosts and hanging. With this, Hraerik was not pleased, and old Gotwar gave him a wide berth during the ceremony, but there was not much Hraerik could have done for his captives. The old pagan religion was an integral and powerful force within their society and to obstruct it was to court disaster.
Two days later, the Danish fleet took harbour in the mouth of the Dvina River and King Frodi’s army camped upon a great open plain that sat far below a distant hill upon which rested the fortified town of the Sclavs. After viewing the size of the Danish force, Strunick, king of the Sclavs, sent forth envoys suing for peace, to which King Frodi replied, “I am as yet inexperienced in war and it is high time that I rectified the situation. We shall settle our differences in battle.”
The Sclav officers went back to their hill fort, and several hours later they rode out again carrying hazel poles across their saddle horns. With these they marked out the battlefield, then they came to the Danish camp and asked King Frodi if he approved of their markings and whether the morrow suited him for battle. King Frodi approved of the proceedings thus far.
Dawn rose up directly behind the Sclav citadel and purples became pinks and pinks became yellows with the waxing of day. Birds sang out cheerfully from the woods behind the open plain and the dew sparkled like diamonds in the trees and shone like glistening emeralds in the grass. Hraerik gathered his Centuriata about himself, the vanguard of the Danish formation, which he led as one across the great open plain, trampling both the gems and the grass and silencing the birds. Hraelauger led a small brightly coloured cavalry group that was to protect the right flank of the array, while King Frodi personally commanded the mounted troops defending the left. Hraerik had come up with a plan to outflank the Sclav forces on their left and King Frodi wanted to be in the thick of it. The Sclavs had been assembling, too, and they sent their slightly smaller army forth. As the formations closed, the battle commenced with volleys from the archers. Thousands of arrows shot skyward then arced gracefully to earth, landing among the soldiers of both armies, but the darts of the Sclavs met their marks with greater consistency, the light of the breaking day affecting the accuracy of the Danish volleys. Fortunately for the Danes, the casualties from this feathered onslaught were slight, but the disparity increased, somewhat, as the distance and trajectories closed. When heavy javelin came into range, the carnage rose again, but, once the shafts had flown and the spears were thrown, the fate of the battle rested with sword and buckler. Fierce battle whoops erupted, over the pounding of kettledrums and the beating of shields, as the berserks bit their linden targes and flew into their rages. The armies collided. Hraerik’s Centuriata was in the midst of it, facing a toughened knot of experienced Sclav warriors gathered about their King Strunick, who was bellowing forth orders from atop a magnificent mount. Hraerik knew the battle would not long last if his men could fight their way to, and smite, the Sclavic king, but he had surrounded himself with the cream of his warriors and, though the front line of the Centuriata would fight to exhaustion and withdraw to be replaced by fresh warriors from the rear, they could not vanquish Strunick’s champions. Hraerik took note of the fact that the field of battle sloped slightly towards them, forcing his men to work uphill, and he swore to himself that, in future, he would personally inspect a marked site for level, and not approve it from a distance.
Hraerik urged his men on in their attack of the Sclav vanguard, then withdrew and got himself a mount from a nearby valkyrie in order to survey their situation. He stood up upon his mounting stirrup and saw Hraelauger leading his men in a running cavalry battle with Sclav horsemen on the right flank. The two groups would charge and fight, then withdraw and rest, then charge and fight once again, both sides hoping that, this time, their enemy would crack. But Hraerik could not see King Frodi’s cavalry group on the left. A Danish naval officer rode over from the left flank and shouted, “King Frodi’s troop cracked the Sclav squadron all too easily and he’s set off after them, probably into a trap!”
“I’ll pull together a force to protect your flank,” Hraerik shouted and the officer returned to his men. Hraerik rode up and down the length of the formation, ordering men to press forward and others to stand fast in order to maintain some semblance of a battle line as the fighting wore on, and the superior Danish force inevitably moved forward. In the places where his men were advancing too quickly, he pulled men from the line until he soon had a troop of foot soldiers to guard the left flank.
The din of battle was horrendous. Hraerik had never experienced anything quite like it. He had been in battle before, but they were mere skirmishes compared to this combat of hosts, which seemed to go on for hours. The men on the front line fought till exhaustion or injury overcame them, then fell back, replaced by fresh warriors, impatient to join the fray. There were berserker warriors interspersed among both armies who would fight until they died from wounds or exhaustion, but, for most, fifteen minutes in the thick of it was all one could take at a time. And, everywhere behind the Danish troops, rode the valkyries, women warriors who would bandage the wounded and put a quick end to the suffering of those too far gone and who always had a knife stroke for the fallen enemy, be they wounded or already dead. Hraerik had never seen anything like it, but he had a feeling that this was but an introduction to something he would see again, and he tried to maintain firm control of the situation, but he sensed their position, in a battle of this scope, with untried troops, was precarious. Any setback, no matter how trivial, could cause panic among the men and they could break and run. So horrific was the din of battle.
Hraerik’s auxiliaries on the left flank were well rested and growing impatient, while Hraelauger’s cavalry on the right were gradually reducing their Sclav counterparts. The field was clear behind the Sclavs, and they had not even attempted to raise a troop to match those Hraerik had placed on the left flank. And still there was no sign of King Frodi. “The Sclavs know it was a trap,” Hraerik realized. “They expect their cavalry back any moment,” Hraerik thought, “and they don’t mind if I tie up a troop or two protecting our left flank.” If anything, the Sclavs had pulled men from their right flank, so sure were they of their cavalry victory. Hraerik rode out past the left flank, beyond and around the Sclav lines in order to have a good look at what was going on behind the field. Two Sclav warriors broke away from their line and ran out after Hraerik. The Norwegian wheeled his horse around the charge, drawing Tyrfingr and lashing out at the rearmost Sclav. Tyrfingr sang out in the heavy fall air and the blow caught the Sclav on the shield, cleaving past the guard and through his arm. He fell in agony, and his partner made a run for it, but Hraerik ran him down and Tyrfingr clove him through, right down to his chest. Several archers in the Sclav line began to shoot darts at Hraerik but the range was too far, and the arrows skittered harmlessly across the grass. Hraerik dismounted, strung his powerful bow and shot two darts in return. One caught the first archer in the throat, wounding him horribly. The other smacked dangerously into a shield the second archer quickly raised to protect himself. No further shots were made at Hraerik as he returned to his formation.
The small troop Hraerik had mustered to protect the left flank cheered his efforts as he trotted back behind their array. Hraerik could see that they were impatient to join in the fray and he looked out beyond the Sclavs one last time for King Frodi. There was yet no sign of him, but there was still no trace of the Sclav horsemen either. Hraerik signalled for the troop to follow him, and he thrust them into the left wing of the formation at a point where the Sclavs appeared to be faltering. He was rewarded immediately, as the Sclav right wing fell back several yards from the weight of the attack. Hraerik urged his officers to press on with the attack and he drew Tyrfingr, adjusted his shield and joined in on the assault. Even in the light of day the glow from Tyrfingr could be made out and, as Hraerik’s sword sang out again and again, that much more could its luminescence be seen. Soon the Sclav formation facing Hraerik broke and ran, and then the whole Sclav right wing collapsed in panicked flight. Some berserks fought on alone and were overwhelmed while other brave Sclavs retreated to the relative security of King Strunick’s vanguard. The fleeing Sclav soldiers were met by a troop of cavalry coming out of the woods on the left, but Hraerik could not make out whether they were Danish or Sclav horse. When the dispersing Sclavs began fleeing the cavalry, Hraerik thought they were surely Danes, but one of his older officers assured him that they were just as likely to flee their own forces as their enemy’s. But the horse ignored the retreating soldiers and rode straight at Strunick’s rear-guard, and, once Hraerik got himself a horse and mounted it, he could see that it was King Frodi.
Young Frodi led the Danish cavalry into the thick of King Strunick’s vanguard, where most dismounted and fought the Sclavs on foot, but the kings had their combat on horse. Frodi wheeled his mount in beside that of Strunick and lashed out with a string of heavy sword strokes. The Sclav king blocked the blows with his shield, but the last blow found a brittle flaw in Frodi’s blade, and half of it snapped off and gashed Strunick terribly in the cheek. The wounded king spun his horse about and slashed at Frodi, but the Dane blocked the blow cleanly with his shield boss, backed up his horse and charged straight at the Sclav. The Danish king was a terrible sight as he charged, covered head to toe in blood until there was barely a shiny spot left on his chain mail shirt. Frodi reigned hard on his horse and it reared up, colliding with Strunick’s mount, which faltered, its forelegs giving out under the shock. Frodi leapt over the withers of his horse and came down on the falling Strunick with a dagger, slashing at the Sclav’s throat. King Strunick’s neck erupted in blood and the Sclav king was dead before he hit the ground.
The Sclav warriors who saw the outcome of the combat immediately laid down their arms. As the news of King Strunick’s death raced through the vanguard and down the remaining wing, so died the fighting. Within minutes, the only battle raging on the field was between Hraelauger’s Danish and the Sclav cavalry units and, as soon as they realized what had occurred, the Sclav horse broke off from their long hard fight and retreated to their hill fort, arriving there ahead of the foot-soldiers who had fled earlier.
By evening, a large contingent of Danish forces occupied the Sclav citadel. King Frodi became determined to provide Odin with a sacrifice, being grateful of his first victory, and, at the same time, punishing the Sclavs. To that end, Hraerik had rumours circulated that the Danes had need of men trained in theft and plunder and that the rewards would be great. Rovers came forward in droves and King Frodi celebrated a great feast with them, then he had them put in chains and he had their fellow Sclavs build gallows outside the stockade of their citadel and he had all the men who’d come forward sacrificed to the hanging god. Old Gotwar, priestess of Odin, said that this would ensure King Frodi of Odin’s support in his next campaign. Hraerik was personally thankful that only pirates and cut-throats were hanged and that the honourable among the Sclavs he had managed to spare.
Odin’s pleasure with the sacrifice manifested itself when, that night, King Frodi had a dream. He was to carve a realm out of this wilderness and was to unite all the northern lands in a kingdom of justice and peace, and for all of this he would be rewarded with the title his foremost man had bequeathed him: King Frodi the Peaceful. Before he left the land of the Sclavs, King Frodi had new laws drafted up and the laws were recorded for posterity. Hraerik, also, drafted himself up some new laws, rules for this battling of hosts. The Sclavs, meanwhile, coined their own name for Frodi; they called him Angantyr Frodi, the Hanging God King.