© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
GARDARIKI; HRAERIK’S KEEP (Circa 835 AD)
“Eirikr draws the land beneath him
At the pleasure of the Fetters(Gods),
And fashions the Spear-Battle.”
Eyolfer the Valiant Skald; Skaldskaparmal.
The Varangians believed that the Black and Caspian Seas were connected, or so it is recorded. But Hraerik did not set out solely to discover a waterway between the two seas. In the fall, after his first successful season of trade with the Arabs, Hraerik and his Centuriata set out in Fair Faxi to find a river route to Baghdad, other than the Halys river, to avoid paying the Romans their tariff. While the rest of the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company sailed north towards Cherson, Hraerik and his personal guard sailed east along the Black Sea coast, beyond Greek lands, searching for a river that led into the interior, a river that would allow them to portage across to the Euphrates or Tigris Rivers and then on to Baghdad.
Several days sail beyond the city of Trebizond, the Varangians were clear of Roman territory, but, as the shoreline turned up to the north and a day’s sail turned into a week’s, no rivers of appreciable size manifested themselves until Hraerik had sailed all the way to the Kerch Peninsula. Some of Hraerik’s men had sailed with the Danish navy when it had been trapped on the Black Sea during the war with the Huns, and they were familiar with the Crimean Peninsula and the Sea of Azov. They told Hraerik of a river just beyond the Kerch Peninsula that flowed from the east. They hadn’t explored it, but the Danish navy had used it as a source of fresh water during their attacks upon Khazar shipping and caravans. So up the Kuban River the Varangians sailed, into the land called Tmutorokan by the local Alanic peoples.
The land of the Alans stretched from the Black to the Caspian Sea, immediately west and south of the Huns. They had no love of their eastern neighbours and, when Hraerik met with some of them, they expressed an interest in trading with the Varangians. Hraerik continued up the Kuban, sure that he was about to discover a new route to the heartland of Mesopotamia, and when they reached its source he sent parties south and east in search of the source of the Tigris River. They did not find the Tigris, which was hundreds of miles to the south, but they did encounter the source of the Kuma River, which flowed off yet further into the east. While Hraerik figured that he was as far east as he wanted to go, he thought that the new river might eventually turn south, so he had his men portage Fair Faxi across a rough mountainous valley to a mere slip of a stream that fed into the Kuma. At first, the stream was so shallow and narrow that they had to float Fair Faxi along empty, with the men pulling her along with ropes while they cleared away the overhanging brush, an endeavour only slightly less laborious than their dragging of the ship on log rollers across the land bridge between the Kuban and the Kuma, but soon the rivulet turned into a creek and the creek turned into a river and the river forked together with another and the two branches flowed into the Caspian Sea.
Out upon the Caspian, Hraerik turned back to face the land. It was incredibly lush and green, heavily forested and overgrown with brush. In passing, it had been a thing more of nuisance than beauty, but, reflecting on that lovely landscape, Hraerik had to admit to himself that he had been impressed. The fall weather had been mild, and the climate thereabouts was so gentle that citrus trees abounded in the wild. The scenery was rugged and mountainous, reminding Hraerik of his homeland. It struck Hraerik that, suddenly, he was homesick. He missed Norway and he missed his brother, Hraelauger, but most of all, he missed his wife. He was torn between pushing on and turning back, but, involuntarily, he heard himself ordering his men to set the sail and head south.
The Caspian or Arab Sea, as it was often called, is actually a long inland lake extending a thousand miles from the Khazar Empire in the north to the Arab Caliphate in the south, with Turks settling its eastern shore and, two hundred miles across its width, a variety of peoples sharing its western boundary, the Caucasus mountain range. As the Norsemen sailed south, the land became flatter and drier and soon vast expanses of arid desert were prevalent. After sailing around an eastward promontory, the coast became dotted with small Arab settlements and fishing villages and the locals gazed curiously at the Norsemen in their sleek longship.
Along the coast off Ardabil, Fair Faxi was approached by a small sloop of the Caliph’s navy and Hraerik was asked, first in Arab, then in Greek, to explain his intent on sailing the Arab Sea. Hraerik told the young officer in charge of the sloop that he was searching for a river that would take them to the source of either the Euphrates or the Tigris and that his intent was to promote trade with the Caliph of Baghdad. He also dropped the names of several important Arab merchants, including Ahmad Ibn-Yakut, which resulted in the officer giving Hraerik directions on routes to both river sources.
“The Araks River, north of Ardabil, would take you to the Euphrates,” the officer explained, in Greek that made Hraerik’s knowledge of the language seem extensive, “and the Qesel Ousan River, to the south, would take you to the Tigris.”
After Hraerik gave thanks and presented the young officer with a gift of silver, the Varangians continued south until they found the Qesel Ousan River. They rowed a week up the Qesel Ousan until the river became impassable, then Hraerik sent parties out exploring south and west until one came back with news of a possible Tigris tributary several days south. Hraerik was tempted to portage his ship across to the Tigris and surprise his friend, Ahmad, in Baghdad, but his homesickness got the best of him, and he decided to head back to the Caspian Sea and on to the Kuma and Kuban Rivers.
At the mouth of the Kuban River, before the Sea of Azov, Hraerik spotted an ideal site for a trading settlement and they pulled in to explore the area. It was on a wide-open plain in the valley of the Kuban, affording access to sea, river and land trade routes, yet it was sheltered by a ring of heavily forested low-lying hills. It reminded Hraerik of Konogard, Kiev, and he knew that the woman he had left behind there would love this place too. Hraerik left half his men at the site with supplies and orders to begin clearing the land, then he sailed off to Sugadea to buy materials and hire artisans and craftsmen. He stayed in the residence of Brother Gregory and sent the rest of his Centuriata off to Kiev to fetch his wife and his gold.
The first building constructed was Hraerik’s longhall, built by the members of his Centuriata on a central hill of the area that was to become the fortress. On Hraerik’s return, work was started on a stockade of logs atop the crests of the surrounding hills, enclosing an area large enough to contain half of Kiev. The one mile stretch of town facing the Kuban River was left open to the waters for merchant vessels to beach upon, and, in the settled part of the village, docks were built running out into the waters. When the pioneering members of Hraerik’s Centuriata had completed the hall, he sent them up the Kuban River to build a portage station on the land bridge between the Kuban and Kuma Rivers.
Hraerik spent the winter in Tmutorokan building a small wooden and earthen fortress he called Gardariki, meaning Hraerik’s Keep. By mid-winter Princess Gunwar had joined him, and, as the walls went up and the buildings were being erected, it seemed to Hraerik the happiest days of his life. At last he was creating an empire of his own, and, with the woman he loved at his side, he was indefatigable in his efforts. There was continual communication between Tmutorokan and Kiev and a steady stream of supplies poured into the Kerch Peninsula from Gardar, the Crimea, Constantinople and even Baghdad. It was a time of frenzied activity for both Hraerik and his wife, Gunwar, who, with pent up energy from her months in Kiev, poured her heart and soul into the creation of Gardariki. Numerous longhalls were already under construction when Princess Gunwar arrived, and her handmaiden Gotwar demanded the construction of a temple to Odin in a small grove of oak trees within the stockade. Old Gotwar was still a priestess of Odin, and Hraerik, though rankled, acquiesced to her demands.
When Brother Gregory arrived from Sugadea, he received permission from Hraerik to start building a small stone church for the Christians of the Hraes’ Trading Company. There were a surprising number of merchants embracing the Church of Christ among the Slavs, Goths and even Varangians of the company. Although Gotwar protested against the construction of a Christian church, indeed, particularly since she did protest, Hraerik gave it his blessing. Soon, there was even a small hall committed to the worship of Zoroaster and his religion. And Hraerik had a hall erected for the various Alchemists’ guilds at work in Gardariki.
In the spring, King Frodi led a contingent of the Hraes’ Trading Company merchants to Constantinople, just as he had the year before, but a larger group sailed around the Crimea and through the Kerch Peninsula to Gardariki. Once all the merchants had beached their monoxylan, longships and galleys and made their camps on the shore within the stockade, the great expanse of the town did not look at all so empty. When they all embarked upon the Kuban River and began rowing upstream, they formed a string of sailing ships that stretched for several miles.
On the land bridge at the source of the Kuban, Hraerik’s Centuriata supplied the merchants with rollers, carts and draft animals to aid them in their portage. The trip down the Kuma was uneventful and, once on the Caspian, they were escorted and aided all the way to the Tigris by the Caliph’s navy. The furs and the slaves, coined the Fenja and the Menja, of the river caravan sold briskly in the markets and bazaars of Baghdad. Several weeks of selling and bartering realized personal fortunes for many of the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, well justifying the many months of travel and hardship that would yet be required before they returned to their homelands.
Back upon the Caspian, Hraerik let his men know of an important trade route he had learned about in Baghdad and had become determined to engage in commercially. “Camel caravans from Cathay are even now sitting in Khwarizm on the Aral Sea,” Hraerik said, addressing his Centuriata aboard Fair Faxi and pointing, far to the east. “It is my intention to establish an agreement with these Cathayans.” And when the rest of the merchants turned north towards the mouth of the Kuma River, Hraerik and his men headed east.
Hraerik left Fair Faxi in the charge of Arab fishermen, in a small settlement on an eastern Caspian shore, and he bought camels and supplies and hired guides, and he led his men east into the Turkish desert. Nomadic tribes abounded in those parts, hard men, the whole lot, but no one gave Hraerik and his Centuriata trouble, for they had become very hard to look upon without raising fear. As the dusky string of camels traipsed into the dry streets of Khwarizm, tradesmen would stop their work and stare, squatting in front of their little baked brick shops, at the barbarians dressed in the long flowing robes of the Arab, but equipped with the strange weapons of the Norseman, and their women and children would stop their chores and their play and flee to the confines of their hearths. There was no authority to stop or even question the Varangians as they moved through town, until they had reached the other outskirts, where the caravans all camped, and the leading merchant of the Turks sent a force out to address the barbarians. A small bribe got Hraerik an audience with the Turkish hetman, and a larger bribe got him a meeting with the leading merchants of the Cathayan caravans. With an Arab guide translating Hraerik’s Greek into Turkish, and a Turk translating it further into Mandarin, Hraerik managed to arrange for two caravans to meet the Hraes’ Trading Company on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, with silks that surpassed the quality of those in the markets of Constantinople and spices that were scarce in the markets of Baghdad.
At the same time, in Gardariki, while the Hraes’ merchants were passing through on their way back north, they witnessed a fire in the Christian church of Brother Gregory. On Hraerik’s return, the cleric complained bitterly that it was Gotwar and her pagan followers that had razed the holy place. He was not the only one to make that complaint.
Hraerik was overjoyed at being with Gunwar once more. Her delicate beauty remained unchanged in her husband’s eyes, even though she wore armour and carried weapons. She left no doubt as to who oversaw Gardariki in Hraerik’s absence. “She denies it, of course,” Princess Gunwar complained to her husband, “but I am sure she was behind the ransacking. Fortunately, the church is stone and the damages were limited to the contents. Can you question her?” Gunwar asked. “Of all people, she fears you the most.”
“Why this sudden concern for Brother Gregory’s church?” was Hraerik’s answer. “Old Gotwar is your slave to do with as you please. If she has burned the church and you are displeased, have her hanged. You are of royal blood. You can replace her as a priestess of Odin.”
“I cannot,” Gunwar protested. “I’m not sure I can any longer support our faith.”
“And the Christian faith?” Hraerik asked.
“It intrigues me. That is all,” Gunwar added defensively. “But it may be claimed I am biased towards the Christians. You, however, believe in no gods. Your impartiality is unquestionable.”
There is nothing Hraerik would not have done for Gunwar, except get involved in a religious dispute. Although he did not doubt that Gotwar had done the deed, he preferred to maintain a secularistic leadership, leaving religious disputes to be resolved by the various religious groups. Hraerik left the crime unpunished and personally paid for repairs to the Christian church. His wife ensured he was rewarded for his wisdom.
King Frodi was having similar problems in Konogard, but his office was less secular in nature. He was, by the divine intervention of Odin, king, and the Christians were persecuted in the north. Other, greater problems threatened Gardar and the Southern Way, and King Frodi did not want religious fragmentation to add to the erosion of his authority. In the north, the Lithuanians were openly attacking the Danish merchants and systematically destroying what was left of the Sclav settlements there. Meanwhile, in the south, the Khazars were undermining his trade with Constantinople, and Hraerik’s circuitous trade with the Arabs served only to foment Roman distrust of the Norsemen. King Frodi was constantly fighting a Roman preference to re-establish their prior trade links with the Khazars. He, too, sensed a mysterious, almost blood bond between the Khazars and the Romans.
In the spring, King Frodi led a large force of Varangians north into Sclavland to ensure the safety of the Danish merchants travelling up the Dvina River, but the Lithuanians, rather than engage the Danes in battle, carried on a strategy of random attacks against merchant shipping that was very hard to defend against, and losses were heavy. The merchant ships, the largest number to yet traverse the Southern Way, headed down the Dniepr River and split up at Cherson, an increasingly large number turning east to trade with the Arabs and some with Cathayan caravans. Thanks to Hraerik’s efforts in Gardariki, trade with Constantinople looked increasingly uninviting.
It was the success of Hraerik’s first year of trade with the Cathayan caravans that caused panic among the Greek merchants, particularly the merchants of the House of Lanterns, whose trade consisted solely of Byzantine silks. Silkworms had been smuggled out of China by Greek merchants and were tended under the auspices of the emperor, in a closely guarded process that was Europe’s sole source of domestic silk. Hraerik’s Cathay trade threatened the Byzantine monopoly on silks, for the Greeks, through the Khazars, had regulated the influx of Chinese silk by controlling the Cathayan caravans. The Romans, however, had no control, yet, on the quantities of silk brought in by the Rhos. This situation threatened the Byzantine stranglehold on European silks, and, while Emperor Michael II had made no move against the barbarian that had called Constantinople Miklagard, his successor, the Emperor Theophilus, did.