© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
THE BATTLE OF SARKEL (Circa 838 AD)
“The Mighty One of Hlidskjalf Spake his mind unto them
Where the hosts of fearless Harekr were slaughtered.”
The evening supper was ready, trenchers full and steaming, but King Frodi was in a rage. He paced up and down the audience area of his high seat hall in Kiev. “Full many were the chieftains that attended to my banquets. No shortage had I of warriors when the Southern Way ground gold for all.” He glared about himself at the empty benches and the fearful few. “Now that time of need has come, where are the hosts of Angantyr Frodi?”
“Calm yourself, my husband,” Queen Alfhild spoke from the high seat. “Hraerik is a man full well capable of fending for himself.”
“Even now,” King Frodi pressed on, “Prince Hlod is raising a host with which to advance his claim on Gardariki. And Hraerik has asked for my help in resisting his attack. What kind of a king, a kagan, leaves his prince, his kagan bek to fend for himself?”
Queen Alfhild sat angrily a moment before answering. “Hraerik is not a prince, but a bondmaid’s son, yet he rules as King of Gardariki, if not in word, then in deed, for you have not even set foot in Tmutorokan. Let Hraerik then defend his land!” she cried. “I’ve heard quite enough of what Hraerik wants, and what Hraerik does,” and she fled the hall for her bedchamber.
King Olmar sat mutely on the opposite high seat through her whole tirade. When she stormed out of the hall, he joined King Frodi on the audience floor. “Hraerik is no bondmaid’s son,” he reassured King Frodi. “His great feats tell of his noble birth. We must send him what help we can and raise a host in the north to come to his aid.”
“Where have all my liegemen gone in my time of need?” King Frodi asked the ruler of the Poljane. “Why have they deserted me?”
“Because I rule a subjugated people, your wife has not approached me,” King Olmar started in a low whisper, “but she has obtained oaths from many of the Hraes’ chieftains that they not defend Gardariki and that only Gardar is to be defended if attacked. Many of your princes blame Hraerik for our trouble with the Khazars. The young ones especially. The ones who’ve come of late. The ones who were not here when Hraerik fought my fleet and the hosts of the Huns years ago. But even though Hraerik laid me low, I shall send him what aid I can muster. And I hear that General Ygg is raising a troop of Goths to aid in the defence of Gardariki. Join us in sending what aid we can and send messengers to Denmark and Norway and Sweden asking all Varangians to aid Hraerik in his struggle.”
“I shall do as you suggest, noble Olmar,” King Frodi answered. “Now I must have words with my wife,” he said in a hard, heavy voice. “Everyone! Leave my hall!” he commanded.
King Frodi stormed angrily to the back of his hall and went down the hallway between bedchambers. His own huge double chamber doors were shut but not bolted, so he opened one door and slipped into the room, closing it fast behind him. Alfhild was already asleep in their bed. “Why have you deceived me?” he asked gently, brushing her hair, still bright in the candlelight, off her pale, pink skin. She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The sheets of silk outlined her fine form, from her soft gentle shoulder, to her tapering waist, then up over her firm, round hip and on down her flexed thigh and calves. Her petite feet poked out from under the coverings. She rolled over onto her back and the sheets showed the fine form of her breasts rising and falling as she breathed softly. “How have you turned all my lieutenants against me?” King Frodi asked himself, biting on a knuckle in anguish. “My queen, my queen!”
“Is that you, my lord?” Alfhild whispered softly. “Come to bed. My feet are cold.”
“How have you turned my men against me?” King Frodi asked again, this time addressing his question, most directly, to his wife.
“What do you mean?” Alfhild countered. “Have you gone mad?” She sat up shivering, cowering under her sheets.
“Olmar told me you’ve had my men swear oaths against helping Hraerik!” Frodi shouted. “You’ve turned on me, foul daughter of Gotar, treacherous princess of politics!”
“Olmar told you this? And you believe him? A Slav?” Alfhild cried. “Have you been drinking?” she shouted, accusingly.
“Don’t lie to me, wench, and I’ll spare your life, for this is stately treason I accuse you of.”
A red blush surged across Alfhild’s pale countenance as the seriousness of her husband became apparent. King Frodi stood above her, flush with rage, a monarch beside himself in anger. “Hraerik and I struck a bargain many years ago,” Alfhild, fearing for her life now, began confessing, “when he came to Norway with your suit for my hand, that in return for my betrayal of my father, as vengeance, I should someday betray Hraerik.” Alfhild began to cry. “This is his day of reckoning.”
“Day of reckoning, indeed, foul wench!” Frodi breathed cruelly between clenched teeth. “Hraerik has ever done naught but serve us. And, in harming Hraerik, did it not occur to you that you’d be harming my sister, fair Gunwar? Day of reckoning, indeed!”
Alfhild, remembering her duty to her father, countered, “Served you? Served himself is more like it! Hraerik has ever served you by besting you in every action, every thought, every deed, in every respect! Where would you be without Hraerik? Back in Liere? A tenuous King of Zealand? Lording over some perverse, demented gang of thugs you called champions? You were the blight and shame of Europe until Hraerik made you a real king. You’ve always, and shall ever be, his shadow!” cried Alfhild.
King Frodi was a madman, beside himself by then. “Shadow? Who should know more about shadow than you, darksome wench?” and Frodi grabbed Alfhild’s wrist in one hand and her throat in the other, and he began to strangle the life out of her.
Alfhild, though slight, was strong and she managed to kick Frodi back off her and she crawled back to a corner of the bed and her fear was replaced by a fierceness born of fate. “Ever have I loved Hraerik, and Hraerik alone,” she confessed. “If not for Hraerik’s love of Gunwar, I’d have had him in your stead,” she hissed. King Frodi paused in his mad attack. “My father, King Gotar, wanted to give Hraerik my hand in return for your sister’s, but Hraerik refused. My father even bed me with Hraerik, and I tried, oh how I tried, to seduce him, but he’d have none of me, so wrapped up was he in your sister. That’s when he allowed me this one slight,” she said, holding up a finger, “if I helped him escape with your sister. That’s how you got stuck with me,” Alfhild finished, and she began sobbing uncontrollably.
King Frodi crawled onto Alfhild’s corner of the bed. “You whore!” he shouted. “You bedded with Hraerik, didn’t you,” and he grabbed her once more and began to strangle her, banging her head against the headboard. “You harlot! You whore!” he ranted, and Alfhild turned red in the face.
“Hraerik would have naught with me,” she sputtered, gasping for breath.
“Hraerik is too good for a loathsome harlot such as you!” Frodi shouted, relaxing his grip somewhat, allowing Alfhild to breathe. Tears streamed down the king’s cheeks as he looked up to the heavens for relief, his chest heaving with his anguished breathing.
Alfhild’s eyes showed nothing but a cold contempt for the plight of her king, a malevolent evil. “You asked me how I corrupted your captains,” she whispered, hoarsely.
King Frodi looked down upon her, tears still streaming from his eyes.
“Why, I slept with every one of them,” she cried, laughing most foully.
King Frodi placed both hands about the red, bruised throat of Queen Alfhild, and he began strangling the life out of her. She didn’t even bother to struggle until near the end, then up came her hands and she tore at her husband’s face with her nails and she clawed, and she clawed to the very end.
All Gardariki and the surrounding land of Tmutorokan was in a state of emergency. Reports had come back from Khazaria that King Hunn and his grandson, Prince Hlod, were raising an army with which to further their claim on the Hraes’ lands. Hraerik, in response, was busy levying a host with which to meet them. A battlefield had been marked out on the Don Heath, just south of, and across the Don from the Fortress of Sarkel and north of the Mirkwood Forest, between the lands of the Goths and the Huns.
Once Hraerik had quickly gathered up his host he bid goodbye to Gunwar and to Brother Gregory and to all the rest left at home. Surrounded by his full Centuriata, including Durin, the dwarf, Hraerik set off at the head of his column, which numbered in the tens of thousands, counting mercenaries and auxiliaries. They marched from Tmutorokan to the Don Heath in the cold wet weather of early spring.
Prince Hlod awaited them there. Fifty thousand strong, the Huns awaited the forces of the Hraes’. They were camped on a rise, with the east bank of the Don River on their right, the sheltering Mirkwood Forest on their left and the Don Heath in front of them, a lush expansive valley trailing from the Mirkwood to the Don. On a low hill on the other side of the valley, the columns of the Hraes’ converged and made camp. Far beyond the bright pavilions of the Huns, on the other bank of the Don stood the Fortress of Sarkel, guarded by grim At-Khazar troops and Greek mercenaries. They would not be taking part in the next day’s struggle. They would not fight unless Hraerik won the day, for Sarkel was the nut Hraerik wanted to crack. The fortress would only fall by siege, and that required complete command of the field.
Hraerik called his Centuriata and officers together in the early evening and briefed them on his strategy. His plan was to employ a wedge formation with a strong right wing, to separate the Hun army from the Mirkwood Forest and to drive it around and into the valley, cutting it off from the Don and the safety of Sarkel. Total annihilation of the Khazar army was his objective. Any Hun troops that escaped the battle would head straight for the fortress, where they would be difficult to dislodge. Hraerik had full confidence in the success of the Hraes’ army, for a dream had come to him. A portent.
Alfhild, his Queen, had come to him the night before, very sad and dishevelled, with blood upon her fingers, a Valkyrie of Odin. Hraerik sensed that she was dead, and it saddened him, but she promised him victory over his old enemy. “You must be the first on the field,” she had warned him. “Don’t let the enemy be the first to cross the valley floor or Odin will shackle your troops with bonds of fear. Lead your men in the charge and shoot ten arrows into the host of the Huns, then all the dead shall be dedicated to Odin and the victory shall be yours.”
Hraerik began to explain to his officers the lay out and the order his formations were to take, then he outlined his planned sequence of attack, explaining to his men that it was to be he who led the attack, and none were to fire their weapons until he had first fired ten arrows into the host of the Huns. Once all questions were answered and all points of strategy were clear, Hraerik retired to his pavilion to rest. A myriad of dreams had kept his sleep light the night before, so Durin, his faithful dwarf comrade, guarded the entrance with orders to let none pass. Exhausted, Hraerik sat resting at the head of his cot. Green eyes caught Hraerik’s’ from the dark shadows of the pavilion, and out from a corner stepped Alfhild. “Who goes there?” cried Hraerik. “What manner of spirit are you?”
“There is no one out here,” shouted Durin.
“I am a Valkyrie of Odin now,” Alfhild whispered softly. She was beautiful now, not distraught and dishevelled, as she had come to him the night before. Her hair had the glow of sunlight on gold and her eyes were painted moon dog shadows. Her pink lips pouted sadly and when they parted, gloss white teeth caught up the light of the tapers. She was wrapped in a silk sheet, and, as she stepped in front of the tapers on the table, the light showed her heavenly form through butterfly threads. Her soft white hands held a small yellow flower to her breast. “You shall vanquish the Huns on the morrow,” she promised. “Tonight, your valour shall grow for the flower of Norway.”
“Stay back, spirit,” Hraerik cried weakly.
“What say you, my liege?” Durin cried from without.
The apparition of Alfhild threw the flower up into the air and it came cascading down the cliffs into breakers that were Hraerik’s hands. Alfhild was at his side now, a soft wave crashing upon the crags of his soul. She unbuckled Tyrfingr from his waist and she cradled the sword as she had once hugged Dvalin, then she set it aside and she undressed Hraerik. She laid him back, naked, onto his cot and she opened her silk sheet and slid onto him, her nakedness brushing against his own.
“Please don’t” Hraerik whispered, Hraerik lied. He had always dreamed of her, wanted her, cried for her. He had always loved her, and she loved him. They were youths again, picnicking in the forests of the Vik, only this time Alfhild had not put him off, and he had not imagined slapping her. Instead, she drew him to her and she kissed him with her warm sweet lips, and he kissed her back, against an oak tree, and, when he pushed her, she pushed back, and when he thrust his way into her, she thrust back, and they began a rhythmic dance that led from tree to meadow then to blanket on boughs. Then they rested, and Alfhild asked Hraerik a question. “Can one change one’s nature and thereby change one’s fate?”
“Life is a growing experience,” Hraerik assured her. “Anything is possible.”
Durin was alarmed by the sounds from the pavilion, first the cries, then quiet, then the sighs, now Hraerik’s solitary voice, so he poked his head cautiously in through the entrance and he saw his master sleeping fitfully atop the cot. “He’s not even undressed himself,” the dwarf muttered, and he covered Hraerik with a heavy wool blanket.
Alfhild took her silk sheet away and left Hraerik with coarse wool, as she disappeared into the darkness, but the pleasure of her presence carried on in sweeping wave after sweeping wave. Suddenly, out of that darkness of the tent, Hraerik saw Gunwar’s eyes, one blue and one hazel, then the hazel eye faded into darkness and the blue eye grew as bright and cold as a sapphire. An old man with a floppy brimmed hat and a patch over one eye stepped out of the shadows. Hraerik thought the man must be Odin.
“She has lied to you,” the man, who looked as Odin must, began. “She has just now become my valkyrie and already she wants your soul for herself. She shall learn that you are yet my man.” The man who looked like Odin walked into the light of the tapers. Long blonde strings of hair thrust down from under his hat, and his face was stubbled in red and blonde whiskers. He was tall and gaunt and ruggedly handsome.
“I am not your man, Odin!” Hraerik shouted.
“With whom does Hraerik converse?” a game legged Lieutenant Ask of Hraerik’s Centuriata questioned Durin.
“I fear it is with Odin,” Durin replied in his fresh and broken Scandinavian. “He dreams.”
“Preordained,” Odin said, “is the nature and fate of man,” walking towards Hraerik’s cot. “You have always been my man. The Sea-King Oddi was my man until I allowed you to slay him. Westmar and his sons were followers of Odin until they crossed swords with Odin’s man, Hraerik. Even the Moslem King Hunn received a lesson in pagan piety from my Hraerik. I made your most resounding victory go against your grandfather, King Olmar. Were he half the father that your mother was daughter,” and Odin grinned and shook his head wistfully. “Always I have given you victories, and now you must follow my advice. Draw up your host and wait….wait for the Huns to attack, then fire ten arrows over the battlefield to commend the slain to your master, and I shall grant you the day.”
“But Alfhild told me to attack first,” Hraerik complained.
“She lies to you. If you attack first, your army shall be routed, and you shall be slain. That is her wish.”
“I do not trust you,” Hraerik said. “How am I to know who tells the truth?”
“It is said that liars seldom tell the truth. I shall fathom a small truth for you, as an act of faith.”
Hraerik said nothing.
“Do you remember this verse?” Odin began, pacing a little.
“When you’re grinding your war-axe on the whetstone,
does your wagging penis flail the quivering rump?”
“That is the verse with which old Gotwar lost the flygting contest to me,” Hraerik declared. “It is a nonsense verse.”
“It is the verse with which Gotwar chose to lose the flygting contest,” Odin explained. “It is a curse of infertility. The act of flailing is to bare fruit, rather than to bear it. She lost the contest in order to exact revenge for the loss of her twelve sons and, that done, she now seeks to avenge the loss of her husband, Westmar.”
Hraerik paled at the revelation. “You say, ‘that done.’ What mean you by this?”
“Simply that she has already exacted revenge for her twelve sons by depriving you of twelve sons that were fated to you and Gunwar. Always old Gotwar has stayed by Gunwar’s side, and always she has plied her with herbs and medicines. It is not by chance that Gunwar has remained barren.”
Hraerik felt his stomach rise up at the news of the fate of his children. A ghastly pallor overcame his countenance. He leaned against his cot for support. “What mean you by, ‘the loss of her husband’?” Hraerik then asked.
“I will tell you if you go forth now and fire ten arrows over the field of battle. Not before,” Odin answered him, and he sat with one leg up on the table with the tapers.
Hraerik began to dress himself, but realized he was already fully clothed. He went out of the pavilion into the night.
“Where go you, my lord?” Durin asked Hraerik.
“Fetch me my steed, good Ask,” Hraerik ordered. “I shall be back presently, faithful Durin.” Hraerik looked about his own person, went back into the pavilion, and came out with his heavy horn bow and a quiver of arrows. “Let no one enter,” he said to the dwarf. Hraerik ran off to meet Ask, who was coming back with the horse. He leapt upon the mare and rode off to the field of battle. There he dismounted and stabbed ten arrows into the ground in a line and he took up his bow and he fired them, one after another, as rapidly as he could. They arced across the moonlit sky as though one great flexing shaft, and the last arrow left the bow before the first arrow had landed, and, when the last arrow landed, they were all planted within an area no bigger than a man. Hraerik could not see the arrows, over a quarter mile away, but he knew the result of his effort, and Odin, too, knew of the fine shots Hraerik had just loosed. No archer in either camp could have performed such a feat. Hraerik mounted his horse and rode back to his tent. He tied the horse to an awning post, nodded at Durin and entered the pavilion.
“That was fine shooting,” Odin said.
“Enough praise! To the quick of the matter.”
“My priestess, Gotwar, has been using a secret herb to make Gunwar barren for a sufficient span of time to have cost you twelve sons you would normally have seeded. Her sons’ vengeance complete, she plans tomorrow night to avenge the death of her husband by poisoning your wife, Gunwar.”
“You are lying!” Hraerik screamed. “You wish to draw me away from the field of battle for who knows what hellish reason.”
“It is interesting you should use that term, for Hell bound your Gunwar is. She has left the pagan faith, so, though she be a true warrior princess, Valhall is without her grasp, and, though she wishes to become a Christian, she has not yet been baptised, so their heaven, too, is beyond her.”
“How do I know you are telling the truth?” Hraerik cried.
“I’ll never lie to you, Hraerik. Such action does not befit a god. I may betray you, but I shall never lie to you.”
A madness, a fever, swept over Hraerik, but still he did not move.
“Nine months ago,” Odin began again, “when you returned from the north, you and Gunwar conceived a son. Can you surmise such?”
“On the Sea of Azov, aboard Fair Faxi?”
“Very good,” Odin declared, condescendingly. “And, during your homecoming feast, Gunwar became ill?” Odin paused for Hraerik’s nod. “It was Gotwar’s medicines that brought on the sickness. She’d heard from Gunwar that you were planning on taking your wife to the Caliphate of Baghdad, and, left at home in Gardariki, she would have been unable to ply her birth damping medicines, so she poisoned Gunwar to keep her home, and she plied her with medicines to abort your twelfth seeded son. Had your son gone full term, he’d have been born this coming morn, but now, her sons’ vengeance complete, old Gotwar intends to mortally poison Gunwar. Then your victory over her shall have gone full cycle to defeat.”
“What you tell me smacks of evil most foul and cuts to the very quick of my soul. Such a complex tale, full of the warp and woof of the fabric called fate, needs must be born of truth. Why have you waited twelve sons to tell me of this, darksome Odin?”
“It is your thirteenth son I wish to protect, ’cause, like you, he shall be Odin’s man. You shall meet him some day, just as Olmar finally met you. I can protect him from the magics of Gotwar, but, now, only you can save the Christian Gunwar. Do you wish me to tell you more? Or do you rush off to save your wife?”
But Hraerik could not answer him. He was out the pavilion, screaming instructions at Durin and Ask. “Get me two more horses,” he shouted at Ask. “Young and strong, with a desire to run hard.” Then he turned to Durin. “I must rush forth to save Princess Gunwar from poisoning at the hands of her old maid, Gotwar. You must take charge of my officers for me. Don’t let them rush to the attack in tomorrow’s battle, as I’d instructed. You must hold them back until the Huns have crossed the valley floor. Only then must you attack, and not before. Do I make myself clear?”
“I understand your orders, Hraerik, but how will I get your Hraes’ to follow my orders?”
“They are my orders! Remind them of that! Ask and my Centuriata will help,” Hraerik added, as Ask came towards them with the horses and some sacks of grain and skins of water. Hraerik mounted the mare he had kept at the pavilion and rode to meet Ask. They tied the horses in a line behind the mare. “Durin is left in charge with my orders,” he shouted to Ask. “You and the Centuriata are bound to help him. Do not question his changed orders, for they come from me!” Then Hraerik rode off in the direction of Gardariki.
All night Hraerik rode across the Don Heath, switching from horse to horse to conserve their strength. The Mirkwood Forest was on his left almost all the way to the Kuban River. Hraerik stopped in the morning to water and feed the horses as they made the Kuban, but it was apparent that the mare would not be up for much more of this gruelling punishment. Hraerik was as exhausted as the mare, so he let her loose in a meadow by the river. All day he rode the two young stallions along the river plains, and the dust the horses kicked up in the still morning air trailed back behind Hraerik for many miles. By evening, Hraerik could see Gardariki on the bank of the river, almost hidden behind a low hill. One of the stallions faltered going up the hill, so Hraerik got on the other, leaving the spent horse behind. Atop the hill, Gardariki was spread out before him, but the last stallion stumbled going down the slope and Hraerik fought hard to regain control of the beast. Not one of the citizens of Gardariki recognized the madman flailing upon that foam flecked steed as Hraerik rode into the fortress. And not until he had reached his own longhall did he rein back on the desperate stallion. Haggard and dusty, Hraerik leapt from the steed and rushed into his high seat hall.
Instantly, he perceived the situation. Gunwar sat upon their high seat, aghast at the sight and surprise of her husband’s arrival. Gotwar and an old crone were nearby, and the old priestess of Odin held a wine goblet in her hand and was offering it to her mistress.
“Get away from her, witch!” Hraerik shouted, unsheathing Tyrfingr. The blade’s luminescence floated in the air before Hraerik. Gotwar did not move, fixing a hard stare upon Hraerik.
“Hraerik, have you gone mad?” Gunwar exclaimed.
“Stand away from her!” Hraerik shouted, walking towards the necromancer and her crone. Gotwar continued to fixate her evil stare upon Hraerik, and his walking seemed to slow, as though he were wading through a heavy river current.
“Stop this at once,” Gunwar demanded, but she remained in her high seat.
“Vengeance is mine,” Gotwar hissed at Hraerik, edging towards her mistress with the wine in outstretched hand. “Your wine my lady,” she said, but Gunwar remained frozen in her seat.
Hraerik struggled to get within reach of old Gotwar, but the closer he got the harder it became, until, a few feet from the witch, Hraerik could not move at all. He stood with his blazing brand, Tyrfingr, poised overhead, ready to strike, but he could not move. Gotwar held Hraerik in a trance with her evil eye, but she could not coerce a terrified Gunwar to take up the wine without gazing upon her also. Hraerik sensed her dilemma and stopped struggling against her glare. Feeling an increase in control, Gotwar bulged out her eyes and, lizard like, kept one eye on Hraerik while shifting her other eye onto Gunwar. The princess began to reach for the wine. Hraerik gathered up all his remaining strength and swung Tyrfingr. At first the blade did not move, then it lashed forward like a spring unleashed and sliced through the old hag’s neck. Eyes still bulging and intractile, Gotwar’s lifeless head clattered across the stone floor of Hraerik’s high seat hall.
With the old woman’s spell broken, Gunwar rose in horror. “Hraerik! Have you gone mad? What have you done?”
Hraerik hauled Gotwar’s crone by the hair over to the high seats and threw her down onto the floor cobbles, into the spilled wine. “You can lap it up now,” Hraerik told the old woman,” or you can be burned as a witch later.”
The old crone lapped the wine up off the floor, then quickly went into convulsions and died.
Gunwar watched the old woman’s last breath, then looked over to the head and corpse of her handmaiden. “What means all this?” she cried.
“The wine was poisoned,” Hraerik explained. “Dark forces are at work here, and I had a portent that old Gotwar was planning to poison you. That is why I returned. To save you.”
Gunwar stepped down from the high seat and rushed over to Hraerik. They embraced and Gunwar wept softly into Hraerik’s shoulder. Hraerik went into no more detail. He took his wife to bed and they made love, at last free of the web of intrigue Gotwar had bound them with.
“What of your army?” Gunwar asked Hraerik after.
“Odin promised victory for our host,” Hraerik answered. “The battle will have been decided by now. Our fate flutters in the shadows of our battle standards. There is nothing we can do but wait,” and he slept for a full day.
The next afternoon, Hraerik awoke from his deep sleep. He could hear Gunwar outside their bedchamber, preparing something in the pantry of their high seat hall. Shortly, she entered the room with some lunch for her husband. “Is there any word back from the Don Heath?” Hraerik asked.
“No,” Gunwar replied, “but I am worried. There is an ominous sense of foreboding about Gardariki today. It is hard to explain. Brother Gregory is holding a special evening mass today, even though it is Thor’s day. I wish to go, and I would like you to go with me.”
“You go to the mass,” Hraerik said, keeping in mind what Odin had told him of Gunwar. “Tell Brother Gregory I must wait here in my high seat hall for word of the outcome.”
Word came while the Christians of Gardariki were in mass. Much as Hraerik had come, so, too, did Durin. Haggard and dusty, on a spent stallion, the dwarf rode up to the high seat hall. He dismounted and ran in, kneeling in front of the Kagan Bek of the Hraes’. Hraerik sat sombrely upon his high seat. “It has not gone as Odin promised?” he surmised.
“It has gone badly,” an exhausted Durin proclaimed. “We waited for the Huns to lead the field, but they would not come. We waited half the morning and still the Huns would not attack. They peppered us with arrows from their hornbows and our bows had not the range to respond. I could hold your legions back no longer. The officers of your Centuriata grew impatient with the orders of a cripple and a dwarf. I have failed you,” Durin sobbed.
“I’m sure you did all that anyone could have done,” Hraerik consoled the little fellow. “I should have never left my men.”
“Where is Gunwar?” the dwarf asked in a panic.
“Do not worry,” Hraerik answered. “I arrived in time to save her. Gotwar is dead. Carry on with your news.”
“We led the field with your Centuriata in the vanguard. Only once we were across the valley floor did the Hunnish host attack. It was as if they, too, were following your orders. There, the battle raged for many hours, with neither side showing fear. Champions fell on both sides, with your Centuriata in the thick of it. I was at Ask’s side when he was terribly wounded by the Hun prince, Hlod, and only when your Centuriata was bled white did the Hraes’ host show signs of wavering. Then a fresh force came forth from the Fortress of Sarkel, Greek mercenaries, and they joined the Huns. That is when our wedge was cracked and soon it was a general route. I managed to catch myself a stalwart stallion and a mare for the wounded Ask, and we fled for our lives. Due to my small size, the stallion carried me all the way here without resting so I could carry the news of our defeat. I looked back on the host of the Huns though, and they were not in pursuit. They were reeling from the battle as much as we were. Only the Greek mercenaries of Sarkel turned the field for the Huns. Had we been fighting on our side of the valley, things may have gone differently. I have failed you, my lord,” and Durin began weeping bitterly.
Hraerik knew how exhausted the dwarf was, so he put him to bed in his chamber in the high seat hall, and he waited for his shattered army to begin trailing into Tmutorokan. The next day, the wounded Lieutenant Ask led the bruised and battered remnants of the once proud Hraes’ army into Gardariki.