© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
DIRGE OF ALFGEIR (Circa 831 AD)
“First, they laid him in his grave, over which
a roof was erected, for the space of ten days, until
they had completed the cutting and sewing of his
clothes. They also brought together his goods, and
divided them into three parts. The first of these for
his family; the second is expended for the garments they
make; and with the third they purchase strong drink,
against the day when a girl resigns herself to death,
and is burned with her master.”
From a manuscript of Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan
In the morning, King Frodi got himself a ladder and went up into the rafters of his high seat hall and took down the war arrows of his father. He gave one to a messenger to take to King Hraelauger of Norway; another he had passed around his own native Denmark; and the third he gave to Hraerik to take to the Sclavs. Hraerik had selected choice men of his Centuriata to accompany him, but, as it turned out, Alfgeir had been planning a spring trading expedition down the Southern Way and he had asked Hraerik to accompany him. So Hraerik took only one aghast old woman, Gotwar, with him, for no one knew better the court and habits of the Huns. They set sail in a merchant vessel bound for Sclavia with a commission to raise a Sclav army, and further instructions to determine the strength and attitude of the Khazar forces.
Hraerik passed King Frodi’s war arrow onto the subject Sclavs, then their party proceeded on up the Dvina River. When they came to the Dniepr Portage, they unloaded horses and furs and slaves–the wares of Southern Way trade–then unfooted their mast and left their ship hidden in an overgrown grassy cove of one of the Dvina tributaries. Alfgeir led the mounted party up an old familiar path. Soon they were deep in the tall forests of Eastern Europe. It was yet early spring; the weather was cold and wet; patches of snow remained upon the ground in shaded areas and, as the forest grew thicker, its carpet became whiter. At times, they rode the better part of a day without seeing sunlight, just patches of blue sky straight overhead, framed by the sombre hues of the evergreens all about them. And the dark drab greens grew, themselves, out of the blackness of shadows, and there was an eerie calm in the woods. Birds and animals could be heard off in the distance, but never nearby. Always, silence greeted them.
After several days, they fell into a routine: the morning breaking of bread, riding till noon, alimentation, consisting of roast meats from the previous evening’s meal, then more riding for the rest of the day; in the evening they would make camp, pitching awnings in the shelter of the trees, and they would hunt small game and cook cakes of bread and roast meats and eat and drink about the campfire, and then they would retire to their sleeping furs and their slave girls and the warmth and companionship available, for these comforts would be gone on the return–the slave girls on sale in some Baghdad market, the furs on their way to Constantinople. In their place would be cool silks and silvers and the coldness of gold.
One morning, just before noon, Alfgeir was looking for a place to halt for lunch. A way up the trail they could make out a clearing, but Alfgeir halted the column and looked into the woods suspiciously. Behind him, Hraerik, too, sensed something dangerous. As usual, there was no sound of birds about them, but, disquietingly, there were no animal sounds further down the path. All stood still and there was a perfect stillness about them. Hraerik sniffed at the air, and his blacksmith’s nose picked up a strange hint of oiled steel. “Weapons,” he hissed, as he took up his shield. All followed suit, and, as he began to unsheathe Tyrfingr, armed bandits began dropping out of the trees all about them. Hraerik wheeled his horse about in the narrow path, and he lashed out with Tyrfingr at an assailant leaping at him from a nearby branch, and he hacked him near in twain.
“Lithuanians!” Alfgeir shouted, riding up beside Hraerik. “Warriors stand your ground, all others make for the clearing!”
Arrows began flying out from the trees as the Danes countered against their attackers. Slaves and merchants whipped their frightened horses and made a dash for the clearing, but many of the slave women were dragged from their animals and carried off into the woods. Hraerik caught all this as he battled brigands still dropping from the trees. Several darts were lodged in his shield, and several merchants had fallen, pierced with arrows, but the Lithuanian warriors paled before the Danish counter-attack, led, with surprising effectiveness, by Alfgeir, who seemed to be everywhere shouting instructions. Hraerik was caught up in his own battle fury. His horse had fallen, with an arrow through its jugular, and a knot of native warriors were closing about him, and Tyrfingr began to glow and howl through the air as he swung the blade in deathly earnest, and Lithuanian corpses began piling up all around him. Then, suddenly, they were gone, back into the trees from whence they had dropped with only a sparse scattering of arrows to cover their flight. One of these darts arced gracefully towards Alfgeir as he wheeled his horse about. Hraerik opened his mouth to shout a warning. Alfgeir’s mount crossed its forelegs in the midst of its manoeuvre. Einar Cuff looked up at Hraerik and followed his eyes in time to see the arrow part the back of Alfgeir’s ribs just below the right shoulder blade. Alfgeir slumped forward onto the neck of his horse and clung to both mount and life. Einar ran to his aid and helped his adopted father down from the steed. Hraerik joined him as Alfgeir opened his eyes and whispered, “I fear we’ll have nothing but trouble from these Lithuanians. They’re hard-nosed…” and he lapsed into a coma.
They set up camp in the clearing, and old Gotwar bandaged up Alfgeir’s wound and the wounds of others. She was still a priestess of Odin, even in her fallen estate, and she carved out rune cures for the injured. From a cat skin bag, she withdrew a handful of bones and she cast these upon the ground and she mumbled chants in her low crackling voice as she circled her right hand over them. She then gathered up the bones and she cast them again and repeated the process. “The others shall survive their wounds, but Odin cries out for Alfgeir. It is his fate,” she pronounced matter of factly.
Alfgeir was laid up in a sick-tent a little way from the camp with no one to tend him save the priestess, Gotwar. The Lithuanians could be heard off in the woods, and sometimes they could be seen at its edge, and once they attempted to shower the camp with arrows until Hraerik strung his powerful bow and killed an archer with a dart. But they did not attack. Einar Cuff said it was because they feared Hraerik and his sword, Tyrfingr, and the Danish lieutenant expressed much admiration for the weapon. Still, everyone expected an attack at any moment, and a strong guard was posted. Their furs were intact, but there were few slave girls left to protect. Hraerik had lost the woman he had been sleeping with, so he selected a rather drab young girl, all dressed in black, and that night he took her to his tent.
She sat below the awning of his tent, staring out into the darkness, and she spoke to Hraerik. “I left Paris to spread the word of Christ amongst the pagans, but, in Frisia, raiders captured our whole mission. Twelve nuns and two priests they carried off in chains, captives, and they took us north to sell into slavery. I was separated from the rest and I was taken to a town your people call Hedeby to be sold.”
Hraerik sensed the grief the young woman felt, and he put a cloak around her shoulders and he, too, stared off into the darkness.
“In Hedeby, I saw a man whom I recognized, and he saw me. Dirty, dishevelled and in chains, my habit torn and filthy, the Bishop Prudentius saw me and he rode over to me and dismounted. He told me he was part of a mission to Denmark and he promised to ransom me, whatever the cost. He rode off to get a mark of silver, but while he was gone, I was sold, and I was taken aboard a ship and brought here.”
Hraerik held the young woman as she sat shivering in the cold night air, and he kissed her.
“His offer still stands,” she proffered Hraerik. “Any Christian settlement with a priest shall hold good the word of Bishop Prudentius,” but Hraerik ignored her offer and led her into the tent and settled her among his furs, for he could not understand a word of her French.
The next day, the young nun became determined to teach Hraerik how to speak her language and how to read and write Latin. She had not given up on being ransomed.
On the second day, it was announced that Alfgeir’s condition had worsened, and on the morning of the third day, old Gotwar took a cat-gut cord with her out to the sick-tent, and a few minutes later she returned and told all that Alfgeir had died in the night.
They packed up their camp and their furs and their dead, and they tethered a string of young slave girls behind Gotwar’s nag, and in a day, they were out of the Lithuanian lands and into Radimichi territory. The Radimichi were Slavs, not too war-like and open to trade. Alfgeir’s family maintained a Danish post there, on the banks of a Dniepr tributary, and, within two days, Hraerik’s trading company–for all had elected him as their new leader–reached this. All the while, the young nun had remained with Hraerik, riding with him and teaching him languages.
The post consisted of several longhalls in a clearing by the riverbank, along with a large stable for horses, warehouses for the storage of furs and goods and a number of boat sheds, where monoxylan, straked dugout boats used by the Slavs in Dniepr trade, were built. This was the jumping off point for Southern Way trade and it reminded Hraerik of Hawknesta, both in strength and solitude.
The relatives of Alfgeir placed his body in an open grave and covered it with a tent, then divided his possessions into thirds: one they kept for themselves, the second was used in the preparation of his funeral goods, and the third they spent on feasting his friends and relatives. Then the family asked of all the slave girls, who of them would like to journey with her master, and the young woman that Alfgeir had last slept with stepped forward and volunteered. Two females of Alfgeir’s clan were then assigned to accompany the girl wherever she went. As days of feasting and preparations progressed, she took up drinking and singing in praise of her master and she learned all she could about him from his family. They, in turn, took exceptional care of her, her hand-maidens often combing her hair and washing her feet.
Alfgeir’s family built for him a beautiful ship from oak they had cut and seasoned the previous year, and they rigged it with silks and a crew of wood carved figures, then they hauled it onto the riverbank and supported it between four piles of birch firewood. They then brought forth a sleeping bench and placed it upon the deck of the ship and erected an awning over this. Gotwar had been asked by the family to be the Angel of Death in the ceremony, to which she readily agreed. She placed Alfgeir’s personal effects about the boat in a prescribed manner, while his family drew him forth from the open grave. Alfgeir’s corpse had blackened with the cold, lips had shrivelled, exposing teeth, but otherwise he remained unchanged. The family washed his body and cut his hair and pared his nails, then clothed him in funeral garments they had prepared and placed him in the tent upon the ship. They set strong drink and fruit and basil beside him, and they laid his weapons alongside him. Then they brought forth two dogs and struck them in two, and a cock and a hen, and a cow and a bull and a mare and a stallion were likewise sacrificed in Alfgeir’s honour.
While all this was going on, the slave girl that was to accompany Alfgeir went from tent to tent of Hraerik’s company, and she drank and coupled with the men who had befriended Alfgeir, and all of them said, “I do this for the love of your master.”
In the late afternoon, a doorframe was erected and six men of Alfgeir’s family raised the slave girl up, so she could look above it. “Lo, I see my father and my mother,” she cried. Then they lifted her above it once again. “Lo, I see all my deceased relatives sitting,” she cried again, and they raised her a third time. “Lo, I see my master sitting in paradise, and paradise is so beautiful, so green, and with him are his relatives deceased, and now he is calling for me. Take me to him, please,” and she fell back into the arms of the men, quite drunk, and they took her to the ship. Old Gotwar awaited her beside the ship with her cat-gut cord and a dagger. The young woman gave the old crone the two bracelets from her wrists, and she gave her hand-maidens an anklet each, then the six men lifted her up onto the ship and lifted old Gotwar also, and then they clambered aboard, themselves, and all stood upon the oaken deck.
Now all the men of Hraerik’s company and all the men of the post gathered around the ship with their shields and staves and Hraerik passed up a cup of strong drink to the slave girl. She took the drink and she sang over it and she drank it, then said, “With this I take leave of those who are dear to me.” When she was finished the drink, old Gotwar grabbed her by the hair and hauled her into the tent. The men about the ship began beating their shields with the staves as though they were marching into battle, and the noise covered the screams of the girl as old Gotwar beat her into submission. The six men on the deck then entered the tent, one at a time, and had their way with the slave girl. Then they laid the young woman down beside her master, with two men at her feet and two men at her hands and two men at the cat-gut cord that Gotwar knotted about her delicate white throat. Then the old crone plunged a dagger deep between the ribs of the wailing slave girl as the two men strangled her, and, all the while, the men outside the ship were beating upon their shields. Moments later, the young woman set off to join her master in paradise and the living departed the ship.
Four relatives of Alfgeir emerged, naked, from a building and walked backwards towards the ship carrying torches. They approached the piles of birch firewood in this fashion, never looking at the ship, and set them ablaze with their brands. Soon the ship and the tent and the chieftain and his slave girl were one blazing funeral pyre and within an hour all were reduced to a pile of ashes.
Hraerik and his company had been ten days cremating Alfgeir, nonchalantly spending the time attending to the obsequies of their dead friend rather than to the duties owed their lord, and this without reservation, but, their duties to their captain complete, they set about executing the orders of their king. To this end, keeping in mind their fragile existence in the world, especially the part of the world in which they presently existed, Hraerik decided to split his company in two, with Einar Cuff leading the second party. It was imperative that one group get back to King Frodi with a report on the disposition of the Khazars. The next morning, Einar Cuff’s group set out on horse, while Hraerik’s company launched forth in a monoxyla purchased from Alfgeir’s relatives. Hraerik left the young nun with Alfgeir’s people, instructing them to deliver her into the hands of the first Christian priest they encountered on their next trading expedition south. He, himself, would collect Bishop Prudentius’ ransom later, using the Latin she had so hastily taught him.
Monoxylan were clumsy boats compared with the refined straked ships that Hraerik was used to, but sailing down the Dniepr was no Nor’Way crossing either, and, within hours, his company had passed from the territory of the Radimichi to the lands of the Dregovichi. The sun was yet high in the east and a steady breeze blew from the north, adding its power, by sail, to the speed of the current and the efforts of the rowers, driving the vessel south towards the Black Sea. Local fishermen could be seen working the shores of the Dniepr, but no Dregovichi boats came forth to challenge the Danes. Still, expectation of naval attack grew with each passing day, as Hraerik’s people plied their way down that immortal river. When they moved into Drevjane territory, activity picked up and the locals could be seen making preparations for war: monoxylan were being built, weapons were being forged and warriors could be seen training; but, again, none came forth to challenge the Danes.
In the land of the Poljane, Hraerik’s party was intercepted by ships of the fleet of King Olmar. Hraerik addressed the king of the Poljane, “Why do you prepare such a fleet for war? For whom is all this armour made ready? Where are you off to, King Olmar, with a fleet such as this made ready for war?”
“We are off to make war with the son of Fridlief,” King Olmar shouted, referring to King Frodi by his sire’s name, a slander on his lack of renown. “Who addresses me thus? Whose shrewd tongue asks such questions of me?”
It seemed that King Olmar had guessed the identity of Hraerik, who responded to the slur against his king: “Vanquished fate awaits he who tries the unconquered. No one attacks King Frodi with impunity.”
“Seize them!” King Olmar ordered, and a large number of Slav troops boarded Hraerik’s monoxyla.
“It is unseemly for so many to attack so few,” Hraerik shouted to King Olmar as he, too, boarded the ship. Hraerik had his hand upon the hilt of Tyrfingr and his crew were backed up behind him at the stern of the ship.
King Olmar marched through his troops towards Hraerik. “One must attack one’s enemies, no matter how lean they be,” and two very stalwart guards seized Hraerik by either arm, tearing his tunic open. “What is this?” King Olmar asked, tearing Hraerik’s exposed trident cloak pin from around his neck. “Where did you get this?”
“It belonged to my mother,” Hraerik started. Olmar scowled in disbelief. “She was a captive from the eastern realms,” Hraerik explained. “Her name was Boddi,” but he could see the name meant nothing to King Olmar.
“I’ve no doubt you got this from someone’s mother,” King Olmar said, angrily. “Still,” he continued, studying Hraerik’s dark eyes, “I shall keep this trinket till we meet again, and we shall meet again. For now, you may carry on. Meet with King Hunn. Set the field of battle.”
“Remember,” Hraerik shouted as his men rowed away from the Slavs, “no one attacks King Frodi with impunity!”
“All brave souls remain unconquered till vanquished,” King Olmar replied. “Death befalls the brave but once,” he continued, “and is, often as not, unexpected fate,” he trailed off, warning Hraerik not to put too much trust in fate or fortune. They were words that Hraerik would remember, so he thanked King Olmar for this good advice and they parted adversaries, rather than enemies.
Further down the Dniepr, old Gotwar warned Hraerik of rapids that would soon be upcoming. She knew of a route that would take them to the Khazar portage with only one land crossing. Now, the monoxyla they were sailing was well suited to overland portages, being founded upon a dugout base that could be dragged like a sledge without worry of damaging a keel, so Hraerik followed the advice of Gotwar, and soon they had left the Dniepr and were sailing up the Orel River. When they had reached its source, they portaged across to the Donets River and sailed down it to the Don. The Khazar portage was an overland road between the Don and the Volga Rivers, and it was with this goal in mind that they were sailing up the Don when Hraerik’s keen eye spotted the campfire smoke of a great army inland on the Onogur plains, a great stretch of land covered in rich grasses and almost totally devoid of trees. Hraerik had given all their horses to Einar Cuff’s overland expedition, save one, so they now let Hraerik and the small pony off at the riverbank, then anchored the monoxyla in the relative safety of the centre of the river to await his return. It had been three weeks since they had cremated Alfgeir, almost all of their journey by river.
Hraerik rode for a day, enjoying the feel of the horse and the land, before he came upon the Hunnish host early the next morning. The vanguard was composed of a huge formation of cavalry, kicking up dust for an enormous column of foot-soldiers that stretched across the great open plain from one horizon to the next. No one bothered with the Northman as he rode most of the day down the column towards its rear-guard formation. Hraerik counted fifteen standards, flags of the different tribes that composed the Khazar empire, and behind each of these standards flew a hundred and twenty group standards with twenty men to a group. Hraerik did some quick mental calculations, thanking Kraka for her meal of wisdom, which had enlightened him to the ways of numbers, and came up with a total of thirty-six thousand foot-soldiers, not including cavalry, archers and support personnel. As Hraerik approached the rear of the column, a rider came forth from the rear-guard formation towards him.
“Have you ever seen such an army as this?” the stranger shouted in Norse. Hraerik could understand the tall, gaunt, battle-scarred warrior that neared him, but the dialect was old, the accent ancient. His face was shaven, but whiskered, and he had a patch over one eye. His good eye was bright green and ravenous and shaded by a wide brimmed hat that flopped about as he rode, somehow managing to stay upon his head. “The Khazars learned all about the handling of hosts during their Arab wars a half century ago. I am General Ygg,” he introduced himself. “You must be the Norwegian, Hraerik, sent by King Frodi of Denmark to determine the strength of the Khazars.”
Hraerik was surprised that the man not only knew who he was but was expecting him. General Ygg took Hraerik to the pavilioned chariot of the kagan bek, which was more wagon than cart, having four huge wheels and being drawn by a dozen oxen. As they neared the travelling pavilion, awnings were raised and, on his throne, sat King Hunn, ruler of the Huns and kagan bek of the Khazars. “What mischief is your King Frodi about?” the kagan bek asked in Greek, not mincing words. General Ygg translated this into the ancient Norse tongue that Hraerik could understand.
“King Frodi awaits you not at home,” Hraerik responded, “but sallies forth to meet you. Oft-times he who covets another’s dominion fails in his own reign.” Once again General Ygg translated.
At Hraerik’s answer, the kagan bek leaned over and said, “Could this Hraerik we were expecting be the Hraerik Bragi that falsely accused my daughter of impropriety?” and a cruel smile played upon his lips. “Seize this man!” he shouted. “I’ll have his head on a pike, too!”
Instantly, a dozen dark-skinned Turk cavalry officers were around Hraerik, who had Tyrfingr drawn in an instant. “It is unseemly for so many to attack one man,” Hraerik shouted, wheeling his horse about.
General Ygg came to Hraerik’s aid, saying, “It is unseemly and unwise. We must allow one man to return to the Danes to terrify them with news of our formidable array. If they come with too small a host, they will but flee before us.”
“But this is Hraerik Bragi,” King Hunn objected.
“Had you spared the others,” General Ygg countered, “as I requested, you could keep Hraerik and send them back. The prize fish escapes because we’ve eaten the bait.”
“Tell your King Frodi,” King Hunn began, “that I come to place Queen Hanund’s son, his son, Prince Hlod, upon the throne of Denmark.”
Hraerik was shocked to suddenly learn that Hanund had been pregnant when King Frodi had sent her back to her father. Having a cuckold son to lay claim to the Danish throne would certainly be a surprise to his king and threw a whole new complexion on the campaign of the Khazars.
“Escort him to the vanguard and release him,” the kagan bek instructed his cavalrymen. “We shall meet again soon enough.”
“You are to be released,” General Ygg explained. “I’m sorry about your friends. Had it been up to me, you would all have been freed, but your friends died so that you might live.”
Hraerik followed General Ygg’s eyes, and behind the pavilioned chariot of the kagan bek, upon the spears of a dozen Turkish lancers, were the heads of Einar Cuff and all those in his party. Hraerik caught up his breath and paled with the spectacle, then colour returned to his face as anger welled up within him. He looked down at the drawn blade of Tyrfingr and it started to glow, and he remembered the dwarf Dvalin and the curse of the sword, and he lashed out in a powerful downward stroke at the Turk nearest him. Tyrfingr bit into the helm of the man and passed through the mass of his body as though it were not there and passed through the man’s horse and was not sated till biting greedily of the earth. And, though the follow-through of the blow very nearly unseated Hraerik, he jerked the broad sword free of the ground as though it were a feather, spun his horse around and charged at the cavalrymen furthest from the Hunnish host, killing two more as he made good his escape.
“This bodes not well for us,” the kagan bek related to General Ygg. “There is magic in the swords of the Danes.”