© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
BROTHER GREGORY (Circa 831 AD)
“A few years after the death of the Saint (St. Stephen
of Surozh) there came a large Russ army from
Novgorod–Prince Branliv, very strong.”
Ignatius the Deacon (c.820-842).
The Black Sea seemed the end of the earth to Hraerik. He had travelled the farthest reaches of Norway, sailed the worst Arctic ocean storms, buried friends in the eastern marches, and now he stood upon the southernmost shore of the Crimean Peninsula. It seemed as though he had travelled the length and breadth of the world. How could there be more?
“Such a journey shall soon be yours,” the dwarf, Dvalin, had told him of travelling the eastern realm, “and great though it is, it shall be only one of many long trips you shall make in your lifetime, my lord.” This was not the end of the earth, Hraerik knew. There was much more.
In fact, Hraerik was just about at the centre of the known world at that time. To the southwest was the Eastern Roman Empire, that great hulking remnant of the immense Roman Empire; to the south was the Arab Caliphate, a young zealous empire at the peak of its expansion; and to the east was the Khazar Khaganate, a loose confederation of Asian and Caucasian tribes engaged in commercial trade; further to the west was the Frankish domain, the Holy Roman Empire; to the south were the Black lands, to the southeast the Indian provinces and to the east Serkland, the land of the Turks; and to the far, far east was Cathay, the mysterious land of the Chinese dynasties. This was the extent of the world as far as Hraerik had learned from the merchants and scholars and kings of his day. Indeed, it was the extent of the known world of civilized man for many centuries to come. And beyond all this, Hraerik had heard, lay a new world to the far west that an Irish monk called Brendan had discovered. Hraerik wondered if he was getting old, getting tired. Was the campaign wearing on him? It was beginning to seem as if he was taking on the world. King Frodi’s Southern Way was turning out to be a vaster challenge than he had ever anticipated.
Hraerik had stepped out of his pavilion to greet the midsummer day. To the west, he could see the walled city of Cherson, an outpost of the Roman Empire. On the approach of the Danes they had immediately shut themselves up within their works and had sent a ship off to their emperor requesting aid. All attempts to discuss a peace with the Greeks had fallen upon deaf ears, so the Danish army began pillaging the countryside thereabout, as much to terrify the populace as to obtain supplies. They could not afford to have a strong enemy at their rear while engaging the Khazars. Cherson was too strong a fortress to reduce quickly, so King Frodi had decided that fear would be their protection against treachery. “It will make them think twice about attacking us,” Hraerik had agreed. And Gotwar made her usual sacrifices to Odin, god of hosts, ensuring a successful campaign against the Huns.
The Danish army proceeded east, foraging and pillaging as it went, until it came upon the Gothic city of Sugedea, or, as it was known by the Greeks, Surozh. Imperceptibly, control of the land had shifted from Greek to Gothic inhabitants, descendants of the followers of Eormanrik, who, four centuries earlier, had made the very same trek that the Danes were now completing. Resistance increased as the Danes began trampling upon a hardier people. Hraerik was on horse when he came upon a monastery and a Danish unit that had faltered in its attack on a stout group of Gothic monks defending a stone sarcophagus.
“Why have you stopped?” Hraerik asked, rallying the men about himself. “We must show no sign of weakness. That is King Frodi’s new law.”
An old Danish veteran stepped forward and pointed to a tall lithe monk in the forefront of the Gothic defence and said, “The monk is crazy. None of my men will kill a crazy man. His troubled spirit will haunt them forever, and that is a law,” he spat, “that’s been around longer than young King Frodi.”
“That may well be,” Hraerik replied, angrily, “but an army cannot cater to the antics of a madman. I’ll handle this.” Hraerik dismounted and, hand upon Tyrfingr, approached the tall figure in the dark flowing robes. He was a big man, Hraerik noted, with much the same frame as his brother Hraelauger, but there was a mad glow in his eyes as though he defended something much more important than his very life. In his hands he held an ancient sword, a two-hander of Vanir design, like the weapon Grep had carried with him to the harbour town of Liere to terrorize the villagers. The effectiveness of the blade was apparent by the lifeless stare of a young Dane he had slain, there upon the cobbles of the square. The monk was breathing heavily and drooling from the mouth as he rested both hands upon the pommel of that great sword. “Is it you who owes me Bishop Prudentius’ ransom, one mark of silver, for the nun?” Hraerik said in broken Latin.
The mad monk stepped forward and answered Hraerik in equally rustic Latin, “If you are the one who freed the nun, your mark of silver awaits you in Cherson. Word of your deed has spread along the coast, as though it was some miracle that had saved the bride of Christ.”
“Why do you resist us so, thusly? It is a sign of madness,” Hraerik said.
His Latin being worse than Hraerik’s, the monk reverted to the ancient language that General Ygg had spoken when Hraerik had spied upon the Huns. “We defend the tomb of Saint Stephen of Surozh. We shall defend his uncorrupted body to the death!”
“Uncorrupted?” Hraerik responded in Norse. “How do you mean uncorrupted?” Suddenly he was intrigued. The tall monk wiped the drool from his mouth, stood himself up erect and shook off the shroud of madness that had enveloped him, as though he had been awaiting the arrival of one such as Hraerik.
“Our saint’s body has remained untainted, though dead some years now,” the monk answered, and he lowered his sword to the pavement and approached Hraerik curiously. “It is a sign of his holiness. You, yourself, have an aura of the divine about you,” he said, moving his hands in front of Hraerik’s face as though he wished to feel the space about him. “I beg that you respect and protect our patron saint.”
“I wish to see this uncorrupted body,” Hraerik said. He remembered Alfgeir’s corpse and how shocked he was at its blackness, just days in the cold ground of the eastern realm. “If what you say is true, if the body is truly unimpaired, we shall give some thought to respecting your saint.”
Hraerik walked with the monk over to the sarcophagus. “I am Brother Gregory,” the monk introduced himself as he led Hraerik through the tight knot of clergy.
“My name is Hraerik Bragi,” the Norwegian responded.
“The Branliv Prince you are called hereabouts,” Brother Gregory said, “Eloquent Prince being its meaning.”
Four monks strained at the lid of the tomb and slid it askew, providing an angular opening through which to view the body. Hraerik was amazed at the sight of it. Except for a waxy pallor, the corpse looked as though it had held life only yesterday. “How long has he rested here?” Hraerik asked.
“Over twenty years,” Brother Gregory said, placing a hand upon Hraerik’s shoulder. “He is our saint, acknowledged by both the Eastern and Holy Roman Empires.”
“And if we spare this saint of yours,” Hraerik asked almost whimsically, “will you Goths give us your loyalty and support in our struggle against the Khazars?”
“That and more,” Brother Gregory promised. “Although I cannot speak for our people, I have great influence with them and with my brother, General Ygg, whom you have already met, Hraerik Bragi.”
Hraerik stepped back from the monk, but Brother Gregory held him fast by the shoulder. “We shall support your cause when you need us most in your campaign, for we have no love of the Huns, but we must be careful in how we execute it, as this is our homeland now and we have no realm to return to should the grandiose plans of the Danes fall through.” Now Brother Gregory drew Hraerik close to him and whispered into his face, “Further, should you grant me this boon, I shall risk my life to save the life of your firstborn, for I have seen that it is God’s will that he shall need my aid.”
Hraerik leaned against the sarcophagus. The stone was cold on the palm of his hand and moist, as of the earth. “I shall have a son?” Hraerik asked, weakly. “You have seen this?”
“It shall be some time in the coming,” Brother Gregory warned, “but you shall have a son. You must have patience.”
Hraerik gathered himself up and shook his head. He had been leaning against the stone sarcophagus, and the Danish troops were beginning to stir, fearing for his safety. Hraerik turned to face his soldiers. “There shall be no more pillaging today,” he announced. “I want all things taken from the Goths returned to them. Should there be dispute as to the amount taken, the property shall be returned twofold.” Hraerik gathered up his horse’s reins and leapt up onto the saddle. “I expect my orders to be followed by all. Brother Gregory shall represent his people in any disputes.” Hraerik waved at the monk, wheeled his horse about and rode off to spread his orders to other units.
All followed Hraerik’s wishes in this matter. Word soon spread that Hraerik had had a vision that day at the tomb of Saint Stephen of Surozh, and, though, in fact, it had been Brother Gregory who had had the vision, Hraerik let the rumour stand. King Frodi hated to see his treasury so drained, but, against Gotwar’s strongest objections, he too let Hraerik’s orders stand. Never had he needed his brother-in-law’s uncanny wisdom more than now.
And, though the Khazar Khaganate awaited them in the east, and the Roman Byzantine Empire still stood in the southwest, and other far flung lands yet watched in mute disinterest, Hraerik awoke and rose the next day and viewed the Black Sea with a youthful vigour he had, too long, been missing. It was good that Hraerik had this brief reprieve from his troubles, for on the morrow they would meet the Huns.