© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE KHAZAR WAR (Circa 831 AD)
“Enough guesting to the Ravener was given, when the Son of Sigurdr
Came from the North, the Wolf to lure from the wood to the wound.”
“How great were the forces of King Hunn?” King Frodi asked Hraerik incredulously, as they sat among the riders of his scouting unit that had come upon the camp of the Huns.
“We’ve come upon a vast array!” Hraerik started. “Thick flare the flames of their campfires and whole woods are consumed by the insatiable blaze. The night sky is alight with the sweet sap’s song and a night breeze flows towards the Hunnish host from all directions in answer to their signal flares. This spectacle before you now can only be matched by the sight of this army on the move. The very earth groans beneath its mass; the creaking wagons of its train sound of thunder, and the rattle of steel weapons peals across the plains. I saw fifteen kingly standards each with a hundred lesser standards and twenty behind each of these. And a captain was at the staff of each standard, and a hundred men followed each captain on foot. And vast are the formations of their archers and much vaster their horse.”
“With what shall I oppose so formidable a host?” King Frodi asked.
“They await us on yon plain. King Hunn shall make no move until we have drawn up our array. The Khazars are experienced in the handling of hosts,” Hraerik said. “They shall make no mistakes in the drawing up of their lines. They shall answer our wedge with their crescent and surround and crush us with their mass.” The warning of King Olmar came to Hraerik now. ‘Trust not to fate’ had been the gist of it, and Hraerik knew the sooth had been said for this moment. “We must return home,” Hraerik started sadly, “and cause the enemy to perish of its own huge size.”
“No!” King Frodi exclaimed. “All the honour we’ve won in the battles we’ve fought will be lost. No one shall follow the standard of King Frodi once he has run from battle!” King Frodi answered vehemently, clutching up Hraerik’s sleeve in his tight fist. “Have we strayed too far?” Frodi cried. “Cannot this day yet be won?”
The orient light was breaking over the Khazar mountains, the tips of the Mirkwood forest just emerging from the darkness in the distance. Hraerik fought back tears as he told his king of the depressing plan that had been forming in his mind while they had tramped along the coast of the Black Sea. It had been the cause of his melancholy. “We can yet win this day,” Hraerik whispered hoarsely, “just not on this day. We must win it with our minds, not our hearts, in another place, at another time.” Hraerik looked up to the faint full moon, and tears streamed down his cheeks as he spoke through clenched teeth. “We shall return to Kiev, slashing and burning as we go. We must leave nothing for the Huns. Their army shall perish of its own vast size.”
King Frodi looked out upon the huge Hun host and he wept in bitter agreement. The Khazar army was just too large for the Danes to defeat in open combat. Hraerik had known this when he had first seen the horde, but he had always hoped that King Hunn would make a mistake, maybe meet the Danes in their own element, the sea, or meet them upon some terrain that would have offered an advantage to the Danes superior fighting ability; but King Hunn had made no mistakes. He had followed the military strategy of their day precisely. Hraerik had only one resource left to his employ and that was his foresight. He would not be the last to use the vast size of the Asian plain against an enemy. A millennium would pass before a small general of the Franks would lead his army across those Asian plains to his own downfall, and a further century would pass before a tyrant of the Holy Roman Empire would bleed his armies white on those glassy plains in the Asian winter. But, Hraerik would be the first to use the one strength of the Asian plain against a vast enemy…its vast expanse.
Summer was waning as the Danish army made its way back along the sea of Azov. The sunshine was no longer warm, the sky was no longer blue; a grey pallor hung over the land as the troops slashed and burned their way along the coast. Hraerik knew that the Hunnish host would be following behind, but its very size would keep it from catching them. And King Hunn would make no mistakes, like sending his cavalry out ahead to fight the Danes alone. Hraerik knew he would march his army along as he had originally planned, establishing lines of supply and fortifications as he went, marching all the way to Denmark, if need be, and when the Danes had nowhere left to run, and nowhere left to hide, they would be forced to stand and fight.
The Danes bypassed the Crimean Peninsula, and many found it strange when Hraerik ordered the retreating occupational forces to bring the mad monk, Brother Gregory, north with them. Hraerik met with the monk in his bright pavilion and they argued for several hours, but when they emerged it was apparent that they had come to some agreement, for Hraerik was smiling and the monk was not nearly as loud as he had been when first led into the tent. Following the meeting, Hraerik ordered his men not to plunder the lands of the Goths in their retreat. Greek settlements, however, were sacked mercilessly. The Greeks, themselves, were still holed up safely within the walled city of Cherson, still awaiting the aid of their emperor. As the occupying Danish forces withdrew from the peninsula, the Greeks gave them a name they were to bear for many years: Dromitai, meaning men who run fast.
But not all the Danes would run for it. The Danish navy remained at the mouth of the Dniepr, the rapids cutting them off from retreat upriver. King Frodi sent them orders to fend for themselves on the Black Sea. They could not take the chance of having the Khazar army catch them traversing the Ford of Vrar.
When the Danish army reached Kiev, they joined up with the Danish occupational forces there, including the wives and families of many of the officers. Queen Alfhild and her children, Alf and Eyfura, were there, as well as Princess Gunwar. Much construction had been done in preparing Kiev as a major junction of the Southern Way, so it was with trepidation that the Danes returned the city to the rule of King Olmar in return for his promise of neutrality in the upcoming conflict. Although Kiev was spared, the countryside was not, and the lands of the Poljane and Drevjane were razed in the retreat of the Danes.
King Hunn was patient in his pursuit and the Khazar army, though always trailing, never pressed the Danes. The Danes razed the outpost of Alfgeir’s family in the land of the Radimichi and crossed the land bridge to the source of the Dvina. There, the Danes had put up a number of ships too large to portage across to the Dniepr and into these King Frodi placed a precious cargo: the wives and children the Danes had brought with them on campaign. They were to sail back to Liere, while the remaining Danish army led the Khazars north into the barren wastelands of the Karelians and Finns. The ships set off on a dangerous trip through the land of the Lithuanians, and the army carried on, leaving no trace of the naval expedition’s start. And so, the Khazars pursued the Danish army many weeks up the marshy banks of the Lovat river, until their provisions began to dwindle and their supplies coming up from the south slowed to a mere trickle. King Hunn received word that Crimean brigands were wreaking havoc on the Khazar supply lines. And a Danish naval force on the Black Sea carried out daring attacks on Khazar caravans travelling up the Dniepr, and, in the land of the Goths, Christian zealots, led by a mad monk, attacked the Jewish and Muslim merchants carrying supplies north to Kiev. Finally, on the shores of Lake Ilmen, the Khazar pursuit ground to a halt. The Danes set up a large camp on a marshy island at the mouth of the Volkov River, and they called it Holmgard, meaning Island Keep. From there, Hraerik began the Danish counter-offensive. Raiding parties were sent out daily to harass the bogged down horde, and the Khazar supplies further dwindled until the cavalry gave up their horses to the roasting spits, and the foot-soldiers dined upon their attack dogs. When King Hunn failed to re-establish his supply lines with the south, he ordered a general retreat, but the provisions were gone, and the Danes raided daily and soon disease set upon the Huns. In their dire despair the Huns committed crimes against nature, as well as man, and they devoured impure rodents as well as their own dead and the Black Death set upon them.
When word spread to the Danes that there was a plague among the Huns, Hraerik ordered the daily attacks against them ceased. None could understand why they should not assist the disease, a pox delivered by Odin, according to old Gotwar, in dispatching the Khazars, but Hraerik remembered the unseen tribe he had traded with on the White Sea coast, and he remembered Brak’s explanation for their shyness. Once a Norse party had visited the tribe and an outbreak of disease soon followed, devastating the native population, causing the tribe to avoid all contact with the Northmen. Hraerik decided to use this native strategy to ensure that his forces, too, did not fall victim to this Odin spawned plague. There was much opposition to Hraerik’s order, but King Frodi, as always, gave Hraerik his full support.
On a cool autumn evening, a group of berserk warriors and worshippers of Odin gathered in a wooded clearing on the shore opposite of Holmgard, and they prepared themselves for a terror raid upon the Huns. Scouts had headed south of Lake Volkov that morning and found an isolated Khazar unit camped along the Lovat River. The berserks and warriors were to meet the scouts at the mouth of the Lovat, and the combined force would fall upon their prey at midnight, the hallowed hour of Odin. Had the enemy been Norse, the night slaughter would have been murder, but the Khazars were Mohammedans mostly, and the midnight massacre would be considered sacrificial. So, the small but tough troop rode south hard and met up with their confederates in a small camp on the east bank of the Lovat. They dismounted, stripped themselves of their clothing and began to paint their bodies black with soot and pitch. Equipped with ancient weapons and helmets, they remounted and rode off for the camp of the Huns.
The Khazars had broken their main camp into hundreds of smaller camps in a futile attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. All camps had constructed their own stockades of stunted swamp tamaracks and pines, and it was atop just such a stockade that Hraerik’s brother, Hraelauger, was now perched. His body was jet black with soot and his sword was painted in pitch and his teeth flashed whitely as he shouted the order to attack. Blood curdling cries were heard all along the stockade, as the Danes dropped like black wraiths into the camp of the Huns. Blackened warriors rushed about between the campfires, cutting down the Huns as they emerged from their tents. Torches were torn from the fires and launched into the pavilions of the captains, and the officers who huddled inside soon fled out into the open to be hacked to pieces by Hraelauger and the other berserks. Many men refused to leave their tents and they suffocated in the smoke of their awnings, and the Danes, wrongly, thought this to be an act of great cowardice. Their scouts had not checked on the activities of the camp or they might have determined that the unit carried the plague. The camp burned that night, saving the Khazars the trouble of torching it, and the Danish berserks and warriors returned to Holmgard with tales of reckless courage.
When Hraerik learned of the covert attack, he was distressed beyond anyone’s expectations. He met with King Frodi, and they discussed at length who might have perpetrated such treason, and Hraerik sent messengers among his troops offering amnesty for all if they would just come forward and admit to their insubordination, but none stepped forward. After several days, the first outbreak of the plague erupted in the Danish camp. Hraelauger, realizing it was one of his men, entered his brother’s bright pavilion and confessed to Hraerik that he had led the attack.
“I do not blame you, Hraelauger,” Hraerik started, “but rather the warrior within you. It was unfair of me to ask the cream of our soldiery to hike up their cloaks and run from the Huns, but I had no other recourse, just as it is unfair for me to keep those same soldiers from attacking an enemy that has pursued them with such derision, yet again I have no choice. You must tell me who the others were, and you must all be kept apart from the rest of us, and those of you who survive may rejoin us, and those who don’t may join Odin in Valhall with their deaths attributed to battle and not disease.”
“I cannot tell you who they all were,” Hraelauger said, protecting his followers, “but I will ask them to step forth and they all shall.”
“To the last man?” Hraerik asked.
“To the last man.” Hraelauger stepped towards Hraerik, stopped himself, shook his head and turned to leave. He stopped at the entrance and turned back to Hraerik. “It was a magnificent slaughter, Hraerik,” he said nervously and then he left.
Hraerik followed him out of the pavilion and watched him from the entrance as he made his way through the wooded tent city that was Holmgard. That evening, a troop of soldiers, some ill, some dying, moved out of Holmgard and set up a camp across the river in a wooded clearing. Hraerik saw them off, wishing them all well and wondering if he would ever see his brother alive again.
While the Danes watched a growing number of their comrades die across the cold waters of the Volkov River, King Hunn watched whole units melt into the marshes, many dying, more deserting, until, at last, he led the tattered remnants of the Khazar army south. The Danish army prepared to pursue the Hun retreat, but Hraerik would not lead them until he saw his brother, Hraelauger, return safely from across the river. Hraelauger had not been touched by the disease, but he had watched a lot of his fellows die and this fact changed him, distanced him from Hraerik. Hraelauger remained in charge of Holmgard while Hraerik and King Frodi set out after the Khazars. The Danish army emerged from the marshes of the Lovat hurting somewhat, but intact, and the stray Khazar units they came across they put to the sword quickly. King Olmar had showed the retreating Huns nothing but a closed gate, but when the Danes returned he welcomed them as brothers, causing feasts to be prepared and celebrations to be made. Brother Gregory welcomed the Danes back to the Crimea and General Ygg was there, too, to welcome Hraerik. He had completed his service to the Huns with their successful retreat and now offered his services to King Frodi. The Danish fleet was found anchored in the gentle harbour of Sugedea and even the Greeks of Cherson came out from their defences and made peace with the Danes. A naval squadron was dispatched to Denmark to bring back the women and children of the officers, and Hraerik and King Frodi sat down and planned the development of the Southern Way.