© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert


SEA OF CORPSES  (Circa 831 AD)

“The Prince with Eagles Barley      doth feed the bloody moor-fowl:

 The Hord-King bears the sickle      of Odin to the gory Swan’s crop;

 The Sater of the Vulture      of the Eagles Sea of corpses

 Stakes each shoal to the southward   which he wards, with the spear-point.”

                        Thjodolfr;  Skaldskaparmal.

When Hraerik was a young lad of twelve and living with his foster-father Brak, he had set out on an exploration of the high meadows of their district.  It was late winter, and a thaw had set upon the land.  Hraerik ventured out onto a frozen lake, to practice skating on a pair of bone skates the dwarf, Dvalin, had made for him, when he heard a quiet cracking in the ice below his feet; Hraerik froze.  He had wandered out onto thin ice.  When he attempted to backtrack, the ice behind him creaked in protest.  Only when he stood perfectly still was the ice quiet.  He stood upon his bone blades on the ice, perplexed, heart pounding, blood racing.  Further advance would be foolhardy he reasoned but retracing his gliding steps back across ice he may have already overstressed was equally dangerous.  Angling back on a slightly different route seemed his best bet, so, slowly and painstakingly, Hraerik worked his way off the lake, and only with the greatest sigh of relief did he set his foot blades of the dwarves upon firm ground again.

With just such care and caution did Hraerik work his way back up through Asia.  And with a like sigh of relief did he set his eyes upon King Frodi once again as the two met up in the settlement of Alfgeir’s relatives in the land of the Radimichi.  Hraelauger was with him, and with them came Gunwar and Alfhild.  The women could not long stay parted from their husbands, so they had joined the company of valkyrie, women who dispatched the slain, that accompanied all Odin blessed hosts into battle.

There was frenetic activity throughout the settlement, as armies cleared land and set up camps.  A road had been made of the portage between the Dvina and Dniepr Rivers, and the fine longships of the Danes were set upon wains and hauled by oxen to the southern waterway.

King Frodi, receiving report of the size of the armies he faced, asked of Hraerik how he should go about tackling such forces.  “It is with boldness that the wolf attacks the bear,” was Hraerik’s reply.  “We need wolves to gorge upon the carcasses of the enemy;  we have enough men sating themselves upon the king’s treasury.”

Later, when Hraerik was alone with King Frodi, he told the young king of the news he had learned from King Hunn.  The adulteress, Hanund, had been pregnant when she was driven from Denmark, and now King Hunn, through Prince Hlod, had a claim upon the throne of Denmark.  The legitimacy of the claim was questionable, but it did exist.  Hraerik admitted to Frodi that he had always perceived the Southern Way to be a grave threat to the Nor’Way, but he was willing to support it as long as all Northmen benefited from it.  Were it to fall under control of the Khazars, through Prince Hlod, or any other means, he would do whatever he could to undermine it.  King Frodi understood Hraerik’s family rights to the Nor’Way, and he knew where his foremost man stood on the matter.  “I’ve always considered the Southern Way, my Danepar, to be my greatest accomplishment,” King Frodi started, “but I’ve never considered the fact that my claim to it could be challenged from the southern end.  I shall never accept any other than my own dominion over it.”  They decided then and there that all claims from that quarter were to be refuted and the issue was left at that.

It was decisiveness that Hraerik had wanted from King Frodi, and that’s what he got.  By week’s end the whole fleet of the Danes and Norwegians had been dragged across from the Dvina and was sailing down the Dniepr.  They came across a small fleet of Dregovichi monoxylan that was making its way downriver to meet up with the fleet of King Olmar, and King Frodi thought it would be mean for so many to attack so few, but Hraerik gainsaid this, declaring:  “Our wolves must sate themselves with the enemy, no matter how spare the carcass.”  And the Danes fell upon the Dregovichi and slaughtered the small host with little effort.  Hraerik had in mind, not only an easy victory to whet the appetite of their army, but also a gnawing fear in the back of his mind of the damage a small Slav fleet could do against a broken and retreating Danish navy.  He was taking the advice King Olmar had given him to heart, and he was leaving nothing to fate.

In the land of the Drevjane, the Danish fleet came against the flotilla of the Slavs, consisting of the fleets of six kings or tribes, each comprising five thousand men, at approximately fifty to a monoxyla.  The crude ships of the Slavs were ungainly and drawn up in poor battle array when the lean Danish navy engaged them.  The Danish longships manoeuvred in formation through the huge flotilla, firing arrows and catapulting huge stones at will, ramming the smaller monoxylan when opportunity presented itself, and steering clear of Slav squadrons that appeared combat ready.  In this manner the multitudes of the Slavs were quickly reduced to a hardened knot of monoxylan surrounding the ship of their king, Olmar.  Hraerik led his Centuriata, in Fair Faxi, straight through this formation up to the monoxyla of the king, and before the violent attack of the bold Norwegian and his terrible sword, Tyrfingr, King Olmar submitted to the Danes.  Hraerik accepted the Slav king’s surrender most graciously and King Olmar, in turn, had a gift for Hraerik: a small gold trident cloak pin, which he placed about Hraerik’s neck.

The true extent of the Danish victory became apparent when the sailing of their longships became hampered by the multitude of corpses and debris floating upon the Dniepr.  As fast as they could clear away the floating carcasses of the dead, other bodies would drift across their path, slowing the speed of the Danish fleet to that of the river.  Adrift amongst the throng of the dead, the Danes fought yet again with the vanquished, as though the slain had arisen once more to defend their lands from the incursion of their victors.

All the kings of the Slavs had fallen in this great river battle, save kings Olmar and Dag.  To gain the allegiance of the defeated kings, King Frodi declared:  that all kings slain should receive a ship’s pyre as funeral rites;  that all captains should be accorded cremation at ten to a ship;  and that the heads of households should be buried with their weapons.  He further ordered the Slavs:  to conduct their future warfare in imitation and support of the Danes;  to make payment for their wives;  and to respect the purity of maidens on risk of severance of bodily parts.  To his own people, he proclaimed that all hired men must attack when facing one enemy, defend when facing two, fall back a step facing three and feel free to run when faced by four or more.  In return for this resoluteness he promised to pay his house carls three marks of silver, his hired men two and retired soldiers one mark of silver each spring.  In this manner King Frodi attempted to instil professionalism in the ranks of his men, but many, Hraerik included, felt that it rewarded position over courage and rank above accomplishment.

Once the hasty funeral obsequies were completed the Danes and Norwegians continued down the Dniepr, once more resuming their war with the dead.  All the corpses that had been lost in the water and all the ships that had broken up in the waves had floated downstream, choking the huge river and blocking the passage of King Frodi’s fleet.  Only with much effort did the armada succeed in escaping the clutches of the dead.  The journey was particularly hard on King Olmar, for the corpses had been his valiant subjects, and it was for no lack of courage or want of spirit that they were now bobbing amidst the waves.

When the navy made it through the sea of corpses, King Olmar became less despondent and began to tell Hraerik tales of the Slavs and of the city of Kiev, over which he had lorded.  It struck Hraerik that he was taking great pains to instruct him on the ways of a people he had barely met, almost as if the king had some unknown purpose, but Hraerik let him continue at his own speed and paid strict attention to the old monarch.  “After the destruction of the tower of Babel and the division of man into tongues,” King Olmar continued, “a tribe of Japheth’s, called Nordics, became generally known as Slavs, settling the Danube and spreading over many lands.  The Slavs who came to settle the plains about the Dniepr River came to be called Poljane, meaning Prairie Slavs, and our brothers, who settled the forests about the northern part of the river came to be called Drevjane, meaning Woodland Slavs.  We Poljane lived apart, on the hilly shores of the Dniepr, which flows to the Black Sea.  Soon after the time of Christ, the Lord of the Christians, the apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother, came to the land of my forefathers and, journeying up a curve in the river, he stopped on the hills of a shore and made camp.  The next morning, he told his pupils, “Divine grace will shine upon these hills and here will arise a great city which God will have built here, and there will be many churches.”  He went up upon the hills and he blessed them, and he erected a cross upon one of them.  Six centuries later, three Poljane, all brothers, called Kii, Sheck and Koriv, and a sister named Lybed, established a town on those hills and they called it Kiev after the eldest brother.  Some say that Kii was a ferryman, but that is not true.  He was of royal birth and he owned the ferry and he commanded the town.  I know this to be true,” King Olmar said, “because he was my forefather.  All my progenitors, since, have ruled Kiev, including myself, until now,” he ended sadly.

After several days sailing, the Danish fleet came around a great bend in the Dniepr and on the left bank, rising up three hills, was Kiev.  It was a scattering of a city, with fields planted in the valleys between the hills and clusters of buildings crowded about the crests.  At the top of each hill was a stockaded fortress to protect the inhabitants from wandering bands of nomads and cruel eastern hordes.  Curiously, each fort flew a flag sporting a trident, shaped just like the one Hraerik’s mother had owned.

The fleet pulled up to the wharves and quays along the river that King Olmar’s fleet had been anchored at only weeks before.  Hraerik was the first to disembark, followed by Kings Frodi, Hraelauger, Olmar and Dag.  The people of Kiev had either fled or barricaded themselves up in their hill forts, but when King Olmar sent messengers up to the hills telling his people to welcome the Danes as liberators from Khazar suzerainty, the people came down and welcomed the Northmen and feasts were prepared and there was much celebrating, for King Frodi and Hraerik had decided to ally themselves with Kings Olmar and Dag, leaving them in charge of Kiev while they set out to fight the Khazars.  It was good that the populace of Kiev had the opportunity to celebrate their good fortune for one night, because the next day the carnage of the sea of corpses came floating down the Dniepr.  All were solemn that day, Slavs and Danes alike, as the rotting bodies of thousands of warriors and the broken shards of a thousand ships floated with the current past Kiev.  Many of the Poljane who had lost men were out on the shores and in boats searching for loved ones, but the task was overwhelming.  Some were sickened by the smell, others by the sight, so most of the corpses continued on their silent journey to the Black Sea.

Once order had been established in Kiev, the majority of the Danish fleet set off in search of the Huns, with one exception:  Hraerik and Frodi insisted that their wives remain in Kiev under the protection of King Olmar.  While Hraerik had no reason to trust King Dag, he had growing faith in King Olmar.  There seemed to be a bond developing between them, and Hraerik began wondering why King Olmar held him in such high regard.  He knew it had something to do with the trident pin of his mother, but he’d not had the opportunity to question Olmar on it, and he wasn’t at all sure it was a subject he wished to broach.

A day down the Dniepr found the Danish navy at war once again with the shattered fleet of the Slavs.  Again, the ships of King Frodi had to push their way through the sea of corpses, as if the soldiers of King Olmar had risen from their watery graves to cause yet more trouble for the Northmen.  Three more days on the Dniepr, and they reached the mouth of the Orel, the river that Hraerik had sailed up when he first searched for King Hunn.  It was possible, Hraerik reasoned, that the Khazars could use the reverse of the route that he had taken in order to reach Kiev.  Were that the case, the Danes should sit tight and await the arrival of the Hunnish host.  But instinct told him otherwise.

“They shall take a more southern route,” Hraerik proclaimed.  “Their army is too large to live off the land.  They’ll hug the coast, establishing a line of supply and purchasing grain from Greek settlements on the Black Sea.  Their navy shall sail from the Arab sea to the sea of the Greeks and meet up with them at the mouth of the Dniepr.”  Like other Varangians of his day, Hraerik believed the Caspian and Black Seas to be connected by a waterway.  He was to learn later in life, the hard way, this error in geography.  “The Khazar navy shall accompany them upriver to the Dniepr rapids, where the seven falls shall halt them.”

It was decided that the Danish navy would continue down the Dniepr and penetrate the rapids to meet them.  First, they came upon a rapid called Essoupi, meaning Do Not Sleep in the native Slav, a narrow rushing cataract broken by jagged rocks that caused the water to veritably roar.  Experienced Poljane guides had the Danes unload their ships and draft the vessels through a narrow channel by the right riverbank, some hauling on the boats with ropes from the shore, others stripping down and wading through the torrent with them.  Only the strongest of their men worked this rapid and Hraerik was first among them in the waters.  Daily, these men guided ships through the rapids and nightly they rested, but the rapids were so loud that they had trouble sleeping and had to move some distance from the waters to get some respite.  Hraerik guessed that was why the Poljane called it Essoupi.

The second cataract, called Ostrovouniprach by the Slavs and Oulvorsi by the Norsemen, both meaning Island Rapid, was similar to the first and was traversed in a like manner.  The third rapid was called Gelandri which the Poljanes explained as meaning Noise of the Rapid and it, too, was coursed in a similar fashion.

The fourth of the seven rapids, the largest, was called Neasit by the Slavs and Aeifor by the Danes, because pelicans nested out in the rocks of the cataracts.  Here, there was no safe passage along the banks, and the troops had to haul their ships out of the water and drag them six miles around the maelstrom.  It was very hard on the keels of the ships, but the Slav monoxylan that accompanied the Danish navy were well suited for the portage.  The troops then launched and loaded their vessels and sailed downstream for the fifth cataract, called Voulniprach in Slavic and Varouforos in Norse, because it forms a large lake.  It was traversed in the same manner as the first, as was the sixth rapid, called Veroutzi and Leanti in the Slav and Norse tongues, meaning the Boiling of the Water.

The seventh and last rapid, called Naprezi or Stroukoun, meaning Little Rapid, was reached just upstream of the Ford of Vrar, a wide and shallow ford susceptible to attack on horseback.  The Stroukoun Rapid was navigable and gave the Danes little trouble.  The Ford of Vrar, however, was a little more difficult.  The larger draft ships had to be unloaded and partly floated, partly dragged along the ford, which was no deeper than a man’s waist.  Downstream from this, the Danes reached the Island of Saint Gregory, where they camped and rested and exercised, safe from Khazar attack.  It was on this island that old Gotwar called for further sacrifices to Odin, and the Danes, being short of prisoners or slaves, complied by sacrificing cocks at the base of a gigantic oak tree there.  Although the old hag demanded more, Hraerik told her it would have to suffice until they met an enemy unwilling to become an ally.