© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
THE BUILDING OF SARKEL (Circa 836 AD)
“We nine winters were playmates together,
Mighty of stature, ‘neath the earth’s surface,
The maids had part in mighty works:
Ourselves we moved mighty rocks from their place.”
Bragi the Old?; Skaldskaparmal.
Several years of peace and prosperity attended to the growth of Gardariki. But, while a benevolent emperor, Michael II, ruled in Constantinople at the start of this period, his successor, the Emperor Theophilus bore the people of both Gardar and Gardariki nothing but ill will. It was said he had a trace of Khazar blood. And he despised the Rhos circumvention of Roman territory in their trade with the Arabs. Worse, Theophilus was another Iconoclast, with his political base in Asia Minor, and, religiously, he abhorred the fact that the Rhos were even trading with the Moslems, and he became determined to re-establish the status quo prior to the coming of the Varangians. To this end, he offered Roman assistance when the Khazars proposed to build a fortress on the Don River to control all trade in the area. He procured their building materials and provided them Greek craftsmen, and he granted them gold. Soon ships carrying Constantine masons and Corsican stone were wending their way up the Don, protected by Roman triremes armed with the Helm of Fear, Greek Fire, and the flame throwing tubes that spewed the venomous liquor, and there was naught that the Rhos navy could do to arrest them. Likewise, the troops of King Frodi were checked by a vast movement of Turkoi, specifically Magyars, into the area through the machinations of the Huns.
“They call the fortress Sarkel, and it’s nearly complete,” Brother Gregory told Hraerik, on his return to Gardariki from Sugadea in the Crimea. “It is being constructed to control river and land traffic on the Don Heath.”
“And the Turkoi?” Hraerik asked.
“Countless thousands,” the cleric answered. “Were they not in alliance with the Khazars and the Khazars in alliance with the Greeks, Constantinople, itself, would feel threatened by the multitude.”
On hearing this and other disturbing reports about the activities of the Khazars, Hraerik decided to forgo one season’s trading and sail up the Don River to have a first-hand look at the efforts of the Huns. With Fair Faxi and thirty of his Centuriata, he bid farewell to Princess Gunwar and sailed north upon the Sea of Azov. Had he only the one mission in mind, the expedition would have taken only a month or two to complete, but Ahmad Ibn-Yakut’s account of his meeting with Hraerik’s mother in Bulgar had continued to play upon his mind over the years, and Hraerik became determined to meet again one man that might have the answers to who his mother had been…..Arthor, that tall pole of a man who ran Hawknesta, the man who had given Hraegunar his mother, Boddi.
A week up the Don brought Hraerik and his men into contact with the Magyars, skilled horsemen of the Asian steppe. They peppered Fair Faxi with short arrows from their powerful horn composite bows, but it was more nuisance fire than anything else. Hraerik knew from reports that Sarkel would be another day up the river, so he had his men row day and night without respite so that they might beat any Magyar messenger to the fortress. By gauging their progress and getting full benefit of their sail as only a born mariner could, Hraerik managed to have their passing of the Khazar fortress coincide with the dawn’s breaking. Sarkel was on the western bank of the Don River, with the Roman fleet anchored on that shore. As the orient orb broke above the eastern hills of the Don Heath, Hraerik had his men silently row Fair Faxi, mast unfooted, along the shadows of the Don’s eastern shore. Hraerik surveyed the size and strength of the Khazar fortress by the cold light of dawn.
Sarkel was not a steppe fort in the ancient Roman style, as King Frodi had built so many years before in Liere. Sarkel was a stone walled fortress of the latest European design with mid-wall bastions, corner towers and portcullis equipped gates. Hraerik could see the Roman influence in it, the emperor’s stamp upon it. The fortress would not be taken by storm; it would require a siege. A most difficult effort on the Asian steppe.
While Hraerik was surveying the defences of the fortress, one of his men spotted a huge Greek trireme casting off from the dock that ran out into the river, along the east wall of Sarkel. It was a fireship, and it was after Fair Faxi. “They’ve come to welcome their guests!” Hraerik shouted. “Let’s row, men! Put your backs into it, or that dragonship will be breathing fire down all our necks.” Hraerik then had one of his men assist him in re-footing the mast, while his first officer, Ask, harangued the rowers for greater effort. The Bragning prince knew there was no way the longship, Fair Faxi, could outrace a trireme with its three tiers of rowing benches. His Centuriata knew that, too. They had raced with one on the Black Sea. Hraerik could feel the wind coming out of the southeast, and he knew that tacking would be required to make full use of it. Now, tacking in a square-rigged ship is difficult enough out upon the open sea, but tacking up a river with a fire spewing Roman trireme in pursuit was a challenge of enormous proportions that Hraerik would have passed on, had not his alternative been live cremation. Fair Faxi was up to full speed by the time the Greek trireme first dipped its oars in earnest in the middle of the Don, but, as both ships proceeded upriver, the superior rowing speed of the trireme became apparent as the distance between the two ships closed. Once Fair Faxi cleared a northerly bend in the river, her sail caught up some wind and the distance between the two ships stabilized. By tacking towards the left riverbank, Hraerik managed to gain a bit of distance, and the full sail gave the men of his Centuriata some respite from rowing. When Fair Faxi began to close on the riverbank, Hraerik turned the steering board, and the longship pulled away from the shore as the rowers got back to work, doubling their efforts to take the ship towards the right riverbank. In this manner, Hraerik managed to eke out some distance between Fair Faxi and the pursuing fireship. Then the river took a turn eastwards, and it was the Greek trireme’s turn to gain ground, and the sail of Fair Faxi flapped ineffectively in a crosswind. As the fireship closed, its captain came out to the fore stem and surveyed their progress against the Rhos. They were closing fast, he judged, for he had the flame throwing tube readied at the bow of the ship, and he had the prisoners below deck hard at work pumping the bellows. Just as Fair Faxi was almost within firing range the river took a turn to the north, and the flapping sails filled and the Nor’Way ship surged out of danger. The Varangians could see the Greek captain cursing angrily, throwing his plumed bronze helmet to the deck of his ship.
Several times this cat and mouse game occurred, with the Greek trireme getting almost within firing range when the river ran eastwards and Fair Faxi just surging out of danger when the river turned north. Then the river turned west and the full force of the north-westerly wind sped Fair Faxi well out of range of the trireme, and the Varangian rowers rested and ate boiled meats while the wind did their work for them. Soon, Hraerik spotted the mouth of the Khopel River, a tributary of the Don that ran straight north towards the Sura and Volga Rivers, and ordered Lieutenant Ask to steer for it.
“But Hraerik, with the Don running west now, it offers us our best chance of escaping,” Ask protested. He glanced back at the Greek trireme, a mile or so downriver. “To head north and lose the full effect of the wind shall only give them a second chance to catch us.”
“The Don River remains a major waterway for very many miles, but the Khopel shall quickly diminish in size and soon become un-navigable for a ship the size of that Roman brigand following us. Besides, the Khopel River shall take us where we want to go, for I’ve a mind to visit the Nor’Way,” Hraerik shouted, and those of his crew who had made the crossing with him, Ask included, let out a great shout.
“Aye!” they cried out in unison, and then Ask shouted at the Greeks from the stern, “And let’s see you follow us through the Nor’Way crossing!”
There was another reason Hraerik wanted to branch off up the Khopel. He did not trust the fickle wind, preferring to put his faith in the predictable graduations of the land. When Fair Faxi was turned up the tributary, she lost much of the wind from her sails, and the Greek trireme followed her up the river and gained perceptibly on her. Soon, the wind died altogether, and the Varangians were again rowing for their lives. Hraerik had a man at the bow taking soundings, and the river grew shallower and narrower as the Greek trireme drew closer. The Greeks, too, took soundings of the river, and their rowers redoubled their efforts as the river bottom closed in on the vessel’s draft. When the Roman ship was almost within firing range of Fair Faxi, the Greek captain, once again, had the flame spewing tube at the bow of the ship readied. Hraerik, in turn, had his men stretch out the ox hide coverings he had brought along for the Nor’Way crossing. The Roman incendiary officers could be seen at the bow, wearing their specially insulated scale armour shirts and shaggy breaches, preparing the Greek fire for launching. They hauled sealed skin bags of phosphorous naphtha from below deck and carefully poured the combustible liquid down the open throat of the bronze flame spewing tube. Small fires would erupt when the liquid came in contact with air, but the men, wore green hide gloves while handling the mixture, and, once it was down the metal tube, only a small sparkling flame danced about the throat of the tube. Below deck, prisoners were busy working bellows that pumped air into huge skin air sacks. When they were within range, the captain of the Greek trireme directed his incendiary officers in the aiming of the flame tube, then he released a spring-loaded valve that sent the pressurized air into the bottom of the tube and the phosphorous naphtha liquid flying out the top in a great roaring ‘Hraaaaaa’ of flaming liquid toward Fair Faxi. The Greek fire surged in a high arc, out and across the waters, landing beside the Nor’Way ship in a frothing, foaming inferno. Hraerik leaped onto the top strakes at the aft stem of Fair Faxi and shouted “Hraaa” in return and his men followed in unison. The Greek captain cursed his own poor aim, again hurling his bronze helmet to the deck, while his men reloaded the tube with more of the volatile fluid. The distance between the ships had closed, somewhat, when the captain had his men re-aim the tube, and, when he released the valve again, the Greek fire arced gracefully above Fair Faxi and landed on top of the ox hide awning, setting the sail ablaze and scorching the Nor’Way ship from mast to stern. Just then, the trireme ran out of river and grounded. The huge ship shuddered under the force of the sudden stop, and the oarsmen below deck were thrown about like rag dolls as their oars lashed out against them. The officers on deck were thrown forward; the captain clutched at the forestem of the ship and just caught himself from going overboard, as the flaming Varangian ship disappeared around a bend in the river.
Hraerik ordered some of his men to keep rowing, while others helped him peel back the ox hide awnings, and yet others bailed bilge water over the flaming liquid that seeped through the burning coverings and onto the deck. The Greek fire burned right through a section of the awning and poured down upon two men at a rowing bench. Flames engulfed the men as they screamed in horror, and they ran, burning, to the bow of the ship and they dove over the top strake into the river. Even in the waters, the flames continued to burn about them, and they both disappeared below the waves. Panic spread through the files of the rowers but Ask kept his composure at the rudder and steered the ship around a bend in the river. Fair Faxi’s momentum took her around the bend, and, by the time Hraerik and his crew had cast off the flaming awnings, the men were back at their task, rowing. Only the mast and the yard yet blazed aboard the Nor’Way ship, and Hraerik, himself, with inhuman effort, unfooted the mast and heaved it overboard.
The bodies and debris floated downriver, and clouds of smoke rose above the trees from around the bend in the river, and the Greeks let out a great cheer, sure that they had destroyed their prey. Hraerik and his men heard the commotion but kept their silence and rowed.
Fair Faxi continued up the Khopel River tributary to its source and was portaged a short distance across land to the Sura River, a tributary of the Volga. Sailing down the Sura then Volga Rivers, the Varangians rowed up a tributary feeder on the left, the Kama River. A month of river travel past Sarkel, and one more portage to the source of the Northern Dvina brought Hraerik and his Centuriata to Hawknesta, the eastern base of Hraegunar’s Nor’Way. Much to Hraerik’s relief, Arthor was still alive and running the place, though it was apparent by the shabbiness of the buildings that business had not been all that good.