© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
THE SOUTHERN WAY (Circa 832 AD)
“These sentences give good sense if we abstract the words Áŋœřȧȿ … ßàþõ, for we then get left with the ordinary aetiological explanation of the two names of the Russians, `Rhos’ and `Dromitai’: they are called `Rhos’ after the name of a mighty man of valour so called, and `Dromitai’ because they can run fast.”
Jenkins, Romilly: Studies on Byzantine History of the 9th & 10thCenturies.
Spring came to Kiev like a maiden’s first kiss…soft, warm and fleeting. The wind blew softly, and the sun shone warmly, melting the last of the snows and when the grass had begun greening and the trees were about to bud there came a late snowstorm with wet heavy flakes settling a foot deep upon the earth. Winter returned and remained yet a full week longer, then left, and spring came again with a vigour that saw the hills surrounding the city green up with the fury of fresh growth. Gunwar sat upon a stool at the wooden battlements of the centre fort and looked out on a field of small flowers that seemed to have sprung up overnight. She admired their ability. She marvelled at their growth. She shook her head sadly as she studied her own leanness.
Old Gotwar, completing a long tiring ascent up the parapet stairs, kneeled at Gunwar’s feet, holding forth a goblet of hot herb tea she had prepared for her mistress. “Drink this, or you will never be with child,” she crooned.
Gunwar took the brew and drank it, making a sour face at its disagreeable taste. “Does my prince still argue with my brother?” she asked. The old woman nodded.
In the high seat hall of King Frodi, within the central fort, Hraerik sat upon the second high seat and argued with his king. “We must pursue the Huns while they are yet weak, before they have a chance to rebuild,” Hraerik protested.
“We, too, are weak from our exertions last fall,” King Frodi replied, “and we’ve suffered much during this harsh Asian winter. The Huns have been severely drubbed, and we’ll have no problems from them for a very long time. If we move against them in their own territory we give them a chance to recoup their losses in their own lands, employing the exact same strategy we used to defeat them in the first place. The logistics of a campaign that extensive would be unbearable.”
“They will not rest until they avenge their dead,” Hraerik continued. “King Hunn yet holds claim to your throne.”
King Frodi became visibly annoyed at the mention of his former father-in-law. “We have our Southern Way to build,” he declared. “Let’s build it!” Frodi massaged his forehead with his left hand and recomposed himself. “We can learn much from the Khazars about building a trading empire. I have been studying their form of government. They have a King they call Kagan, and they have a Grand Prince they call Kagan Bek. They divide their kingly and commercial affairs, keeping the two efforts distinct and separate. This seems to me a most workable system, one we may wish to emulate.”
“Have you chosen your kagan bek yet, my Kagan?” Hraerik asked, and they both laughed, first King Frodi then Hraerik.
“It is you, my Kagan Bek, who must do the choosing now. You must gather the merchants about yourself and form a guild, a trading company to engage in both trade and taxation, the trade being for your guild’s benefit, the tithes for mine. Now, you must choose a name for your trading company. What would you like to call it?”
At that moment Hraelauger entered the high seat hall. He had been drinking all morning and was in a foul mood. “Hrae!” he shouted. “Do we take up arms against the Huns? Or do we yet waver in fear?” Hraelauger berated his brother. He waved over a slave dispensing wine, took a goblet full and sat at the third high seat next to King Frodi.
Since the quarantine that Hraerik had imposed upon Hraelauger and his men at Holmgard, the two brothers had become distanced. Hraerik turned towards King Frodi, ignoring his brother’s goading, and said, ” Hraes’ Trading Company, after my grandfather, Sigurd Hrae. We shall call the guild Hraes’ Trading Company.”
“Are we attacking the Huns?” Hraelauger asked once more, this time addressing King Frodi.
“We must consolidate our efforts in the development of the Southern Way,” King Frodi answered him politely, then turned to Hraerik and said, “Hraes’ Trading Company? I like it.”
“I leave for Norway on the morrow,” King Hraelauger said, getting up to take his leave. “I hope you aren’t underestimating the fortitude of the Khazars, but, if you are, and they do return, call me and I shall come to your aid with all the forces I possess, for I’ve a score to settle with these Huns.”
The next day Hraelauger led a large contingent of Norwegians down to their ships on the Dniepr river and they boarded and set sail for Norway. Hraerik and Princess Gunwar were there to see Hraelauger off, as were King Frodi and Queen Alfhild. Their farewell embraces were the warmest feelings Hraerik and Hraelauger had shared in a long while, and Hraerik hoped that his saving of the Danish forces from the ravages of the plague had not caused him to lose a brother.
All winter, King Frodi had occupied his troops by sending them out to collect tribute of a squirrel pelt per hearth from the Slav tribes surrounding the Poljane. For the most part, the Slavs paid their dues without excessive complaint, merely paying their tithes to the Danes instead of the Khazars, but, whenever a village withheld tribute, it was dealt with severely. The army would establish itself in that very village in order to collect tribute from the surrounding villages and, after several weeks of occupation, with its resulting rough handling of citizens and their goods, the tribute would invariably be paid by the villagers to rid themselves of the invaders. The Danish officers would then lead their men to the next village that had refused to pay tribute and occupy it. In that manner King Frodi had billeted his troops over the winter as well as got his taxes collected.
When the soldiers returned with the tribute: squirrel, fox, ermine and sable pelts, silver, honey and grain, King Frodi set about upgrading and expanding the chain of fortresses that the Khazars had built during their campaign. The forts had been conveniently placed, by King Hunn, a day’s travel apart along the route of the Southern Way, to secure and protect the long supply line of the Khazar army from possible attack by the Slavs. Unfortunately for the Huns, they did not foresee their supply line being throttled close to home by the Danish navy, operating on the Black Sea, and the Crimean Goths, led by brother Gregory. At any rate, the fortresses were beginning to be of great assistance to King Frodi in establishing military and administrative control of the trade route. They also led the merchants that Hraerik brought in from all over Scandinavia to call King Frodi’s kingdom Gardar: the land of forts.
Attracting merchants to work the Southern Way proved more difficult than Hraerik had first expected. The trade route was long and arduous, and it had a dangerous reputation. There were, of course, a handful of Danish merchants who, like Alfgeir, had plied the Way before King Frodi had even dreamed of taming it, but these were few and far between and many, also like Alfgeir, were dead. Hraerik realized that a name was needed for the Southern Way that would generate a feeling of security, so, like a namesake of his, Erik the Red, who, two centuries later, would name a frozen forsaken wilderness Greenland, he encouraged, though took no credit for, the name Gardar. Boasting of, and even exaggerating, the number of forts protecting the Southern Way helped dispel the fear that many Scandinavian merchants had of the Eastern Realm. Hraerik learned that they would much rather ply the meagre northern European trade routes in relative safety–as if any trade in their time could be considered safe—rather than risk life and limb traversing the plains of Giantland. Even the brave merchants within Hraerik’s own family were reluctant to abandon the Nor’Way in order to establish a questionable and competing route. They preferred to keep faith with the customers they had, and to service the paths they had long travelled. Finally, Hraerik sent groups from among his Centuriata north into Scandinavia, to Sweden and Denmark and to King Hraelauger in Norway, for aid in garnering recruits for the Hraes’ Trading Company. Relying heavily on Hraerik’s waxing reputation throughout the northern lands, both as poet and leader, these men managed to assemble a small army of merchants and a flotilla of trading ships to sail the Southern Way in late spring. Hraerik, meanwhile, travelled with Princess Gunwar to the Crimea to set up prospective trade agreements with the Greek merchants of Cherson.
The city of Cherson was expansive and it left an indelible impression upon Gunwar. Except for some outlying residential areas, the whole city was walled about by a high stone battlement of Greek style, with three major entry gates of huge oak beams and iron bars. Once in the city, Hraerik, Gunwar and their entourage of Hraerik’s Centuriata and Greek merchants were stared upon in awe by the citizens as they rode through the streets, especially Princess Gunwar, in her long flowing white fox robe and her polished armour. She sat taller than most of the Greeks about her, and her long blonde hair caught up the morning sunlight, spun it amongst the tresses and tossed it forth for the citizens to watch in wonderment. As the party of Danes wound their way through the streets of Cherson, they came to the merchant quarter, to which they had been assigned, or restricted so to speak, for the Greeks feared the Norsemen more than any other people they had faced in a long while. Their guide led them up to the house of General Ygg. He had offered them his manse in Cherson as a base of operations, although he, himself, did not come, being assigned, by King Frodi, the job of having the Radimichi build monoxylan at the source of the Dniepr. But Brother Gregory was there and welcomed them warmly.
Princess Gunwar was impressed by the height and the litheness of the man. He stood a head taller than her and half a head taller than her husband. He had servants put up their horses and take their outer garments as he led them through the foyer and into a dining room, where a meal had been prepared for them. They sat and rested on chairs along the dining room walls and were served wine in goblets as the servants washed the hands and the feet of those who would let them. Gunwar found the cleansing refreshing and Brother Gregory’s accent intriguing. He spoke the same archaic Norse that his brother, General Ygg, had spoken in Kiev, but General Ygg had learned to temper his words with Danish phrases that he picked up very quickly. Brother Gregory, however, spoke unadulterated Goth as it had been spoken four centuries earlier in Sweden, and Gunwar found the language refreshing and entertaining.
Once introduced to Princess Gunwar, Brother Gregory held her hand affectionately and said, “Gunwar…Battle Maiden. In my language your name would be Hervor…Maiden of Hosts. You must forgive me if my tongue slips and now and again I call you Hervor.”
Princess Gunwar was impressed by this man of the cloth. She felt him to be a connoisseur of the flesh as well as the grape, with the smooth tongue of Loki and a devilish twinkle in his eyes. He was a handsome man with strength and presence. Had he not have lived in interesting times, he would have made them so. “Please, call me Hervor if you so wish,” Gunwar breathed. “It is a beautiful name …. Hervor,” and, as she mouthed the name, she marvelled at its softness. It was smooth, not guttural like Gunwar. “You may address me as Hervor whenever you wish.”
When the servants had finished the ablutions, Brother Gregory seated the guests at the banquet table in the Norse fashion, rather than the Latin, with the leading guest seated at the centre of one long side of the table, flanked by his party in descending order of importance, and the host seated across from him, with his own people seated in a corresponding order. So, the Danes all sat on one side of the table and Brother Gregory, with a few important Goth and Greek merchants, sat on the other. The dinner turned to business as, after the meal, Hraerik sat and drank and hammered out an agreement with the merchants of Cherson.
While Hraerik was busy with the Greek merchants, Brother Gregory offered to give Gunwar and several members of Hraerik’s Centuriata a tour of his brother’s property. Gunwar had already seen the entrance to the estate. There had been a gateway in a high stone wall off the narrow dusty street, with huge oaken doors, and, inside it, on the right of the path was a small vineyard and garden, on the left towered the two-story mansion and at the end was an attached stable with loft. The entrance to the manor also had oak double doors, and the foyer inside had the guards’ chambers on the left and a long high fireplace along the wall on the right. At the left end of the foyer was a staircase going up a tower that stood tall at the north corner of the building, and off to the right was the large dining room where the Norsemen had just enjoyed their meal. To the right of the dining room there was a small heavy doorway leading out into a courtyard surrounding a huge oak tree, and beyond the dining room was a living room with a huge stone fireplace set in the west corner. Brother Gregory led his guests into the living room and explained some of the religious works of art hanging there. Princess Gunwar saw icons of a woman with a child and a handsome bearded man, all with auras about their heads.
“The Patriarch has banned the veneration of icons,” Brother Gregory explained. “We preserve these for the church. They will be returned once the Patriarch and his iconoclastic beliefs are dead,” he added, sombrely.
Gunwar did not understand the religious implications of what Brother Gregory had said, but she felt the sadness in his words. Next, they were shown the kitchen, which had a small doorway into the stable, and then Brother Gregory led them back through the house, past Hraerik and the Greek merchants still discussing their pact, and up the stairway to the second floor, then into a foyer with shuttered windows overlooking the oak tree in the courtyard. There was a grouping of four guest chambers nested in one corner of the floor, three bedrooms down one long side of the hall and a large master’s bed chamber at the other end. There were servant’s quarters above the stable and, because the Christians were forbidden to own slaves, Brother Gregory emphasized the word `servants’ and explained to Gunwar that his serfs were bound to him only through debt or duty, not ownership.
“Once they pay off their debt or discharge their duty,” Gunwar asked, “then they are free to go?”
“If they wish,” Brother Gregory answered, “but most prefer the security of servitude. Freedom is a heavy burden.” Brother Gregory led Gunwar back down the hall and again up the staircase to the top of the tower. From the battlements one could see the city of Cherson spreading north across the dusty Crimean plain, rising to meet the grey stone of the Governor’s Citadel, standing on a squat little hill overlooking the harbour.
Gunwar knew servitude and knew only too well the weighty responsibilities of freedom. She had been bound to the court of her brother, the king, and she had suffered the abuses of Grep and his berserker brothers until alcohol and depression had near swept her away and, after Grep had committed the foulest deed of them all, the slaughter of her suitors, and she groped through the darkest of her days, then there came an arrow of light called Hraerik and the bright shaft of his spirit shattered the foul darkness of the berserks. She knew freedom, yet, still, she served the court of her brother. The tall lithe monk was explaining the lay of the city and Gunwar watched his handsome features and she knew why she’d judged him to be a lady’s man. He was attractive to women. Priests and monks of that period were not bound to celibacy and, indeed, many were married and had families. And then a thought occurred to Gunwar that devastated her. “Maybe it is Hraerik’s fault I am barren,” she thought, but she cast that treacherous notion from her mind as fast as she had conceived it. A great guilt swept across her breast, a betrayal, and she said, “Perhaps we should rejoin the others.”
In the dining room, the Greek merchants were pressuring Hraerik for a long-term trading agreement when Princess Gunwar and Brother Gregory returned. Gunwar had several of Hraerik’s Centuriata carry their luggage up to the second-floor chamber that had been assigned to her and she begged leave of her husband that she might rest. “Is something wrong?” Hraerik asked her. She shook her head and took her leave, but Hraerik did not believe her. Hraerik rose from the table, took Brother Gregory aside, and asked, “What is wrong?”
“I fear she does not like Cherson,” Brother Gregory replied, “for, as she was looking out over the city, a great sadness overcame her.”
Hraerik returned to the table and concluded the meeting, saying, “We shall trade with you exclusively this year, as the season is all but spent, but next year we shall see.”
The Greek merchants were disappointed at his words, but they had little choice in the matter. The Norsemen were wearing the quality furs they would be bringing to trade, and the Greeks knew the prices they would fetch in the markets of Constantinople and Baghdad.
Later, when the Greek merchants had left, and Brother Gregory had assigned all to their sleeping benches, Hraerik joined Gunwar in their chamber and he lay beside her, hoping she would say something.
Princess Gunwar lay beside Hraerik, wanting to confess the thought that had occurred to her that afternoon, but she could not broach the subject. She longed to feel a baby, a life inside herself. She needed Hraerik and she reached for her husband. He felt her need and touched her.
The next morning, Hraerik and Gunwar and their Centuriata packed up their belongings, strapped on their weapons, mounted their horses and bid Brother Gregory goodbye with many thanks, then rode out of Cherson in the early light of dawn. They rode two days up the Crimean Peninsula and another three to the Dniepr rapids, where their ships sat, anchored and guarded, upstream of the rapid called Essoupi. The sailors aboard ship, on seeing Hraerik, rowed into shore, and all helped load the small Danish ponies aboard the boats. The horses, still shaggy with their winter coats, were led down the riverbank and splashed through the gravel at the river’s edge, out to where the ships had grounded, and the men aboard all came to the shoreward side of boat, causing it to yaw to that side until the top strake near dipped into the waves and a horse could be led on board. The horse was then led to a place where its weight aided in maintaining the yaw, while other horses embarked, and the loads were adjusted accordingly each time an animal boarded, and, once all animals and personnel were aboard, the ship was poled off the riverbed until it was free and floating. Then, the wind being favourable, they set sail and rowed up the Dniepr to Kiev.
The monoxylan had all been built, the tribute had been gathered and the merchants: Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, had arrived and were awaiting the kagan bek’s return, when Hraerik, Gunwar and their Centuriata came sailing up a bend in the Dniepr River. King Frodi welcomed his sister and brother-in-law home, and King Olmar, too, was there to greet them. Hraerik had hoped that perhaps his brother, King Hraelauger, would have had a change of heart and would have been there to welcome them, but such was not the case. The Norwegian merchants, many of whom Hraerik knew personally, reported that King Hraelauger had returned to Oslo and was busy establishing his rule over Norway. Hraerik felt it was all part of growing up, this distancing of brothers, but, still, it saddened him. Although he yet hoped that chance and circumstance would, in the future, draw them closer once again, he knew that they would never be as close as they had been when they had set off from home to avenge their father’s honour at the court of young King Frodi in Liere. Events, indeed, would draw the brothers back together, but Hraerik was to deeply regret the tragedy that was to catalyse their repatriation.
The next day, leaving Princess Gunwar with King Frodi in Kiev, Hraerik led the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company on their first expedition down the Dniepr River. All were in high spirits as they floated down the river, and many were the toasts and boasts ringing out across the still flowing waters of that grand Black Sea tributary. It was not until they reached the Dniepr rapids that the work really began. The merchants used the same procedure of portage and fording that the Danish navy had employed the previous year and, two weeks and two drowned men later, the Scandinavians landed in the harbour of Cherson. The Eastern Roman citizens, in general, were terrified by the presence of so many barbarians, but the Greek merchants were very pleased to see them. The Norsemen brought amber, furs and slaves for which the Greeks traded gold, silver and silks. The Greeks needed these northern goods, for there would be no caravans coming out of the east, out of the crushed Khazar Empire, for many years to come.