© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
THE SECRET KHAZARS (Circa 839 AD)
“…attention to experience can open doors to
reality which are locked to a man purely of reason.”
James Robert Enterline; Viking America
As the battered and torn remnants of the Hraes’ army returned from the Don Heath, Hraerik prepared to depart for Constantinople in search of aid. King Frodi and the Hraes’ had traded with the Greeks for many years, and it was Greek support of the Khazar aggressions that was threatening Hraes’ domination of the Southern Way trade. “I know many powerful merchants in the Roman capital and we still have a valid treaty with them. I garnered the support of Emperor Michael; I shall sway the sympathies of Emperor Theophilus, too.”
“The Khazars, too, have much support in Constantinople,” a worried Gunwar cautioned. “It is far too dangerous!”
“It is the only option open us,” Hraerik argued. “The Huns must surely think me killed, dead amongst my Centuriata–brave souls–so they will not be in a hurry to press their attack. Again, Prince Hlod will send emissaries requesting Gardariki as his rightful inheritance. He shall be loath to attack his supposed father’s sister. We must use this time to garner support from other areas. Your brother has failed to get more than a few messengers past the Magyars on the Dniepr, but I have just gotten word that King Olmar shall soon be arriving with a host. A fresh army shall give the Huns second thoughts about attacking the Fortress of Gardariki.”
“I shall defend Gardariki in your absence,” Gunwar cried.
“No! You must stall your nephew, give me time to rally support to our cause, to hire mercenaries for a fresh Hraes’ army, to get the Greeks to help lift the Magyar blockade. Stall the Huns for time and time alone. If the Hunnish host does not waver at the arrival of King Olmar’s forces, you are to gather up the people of Gardariki and flee to Sugadea. The Goths shall protect you there.”
“But,” Gunwar began to complain.
“No buts!” Hraerik ordered. “Under no circumstances are you to engage the enemy! Understood?”
Princess Gunwar nodded, sadly.
Then Hraerik did one thing he was to regret for the rest of his life. He gave Gunwar Tyrfingr. The sword he and Dvalin had forged he passed on to his wife. She took up the weapon, the crux of its shadow falling across the high seat, as a true defender of the faith, for she had been baptised in the Greek Orthodox ceremony by Brother Gregory the day before. She was the first royal convert of the Hraes’ to Christianity. There would be others, but she was the first, and she was determined to convert all the Hraes’ of Gardariki and Gardar to the faith, and to defend their land from Arab, Turk or Khazar.
“I leave the security of my household in your hands,” Hraerik told Durin. “Do not let anything happen to Princess Gunwar.”
The dwarf nodded solemnly. “I shall let no harm come to your wife.”
Hraerik boarded Fair Faxi, crewed by fresh young Varangians replacing the lost souls of his Centuriata, and he waved goodbye to his wife. It was the first time in a decade that Fair Faxi was manned by other than Centuriata members, and the fact saddened Hraerik greatly. Gunwar waved goodbye to Hraerik, and a tear trickled down her cheek as she watched her pagan husband sail off into the west.
Good winds and fine spring weather gave the mission false portents of success. Several weeks of sailing had the confines of the Bosporus on both port and starboard of Fair Faxi, and soon the walls of Constantinople came into view. A Greek trireme came out from the Golden Horn and escorted the Norsemen to a dock.
The Varangians were afforded all the courtesies entitled them by treaty with the Greeks, and Hraerik’s first stop was the House of Lanterns. There, he attempted to elicit support from the many merchants that had traded him silks for his furs and amber. But the Greeks were aware of Hraerik’s situation: they knew of the uncountable horde of Magyars on the Hraes’ Dniepr waterway, and of the Khazars’ Fortress of Sarkel on the Don River; they’d already heard of the Hraes’ defeat on the Don Heath, and they were quite prepared to watch Gardariki fall to the Huns. They would but buy their furs from the Khazars now.
After several days of solicitations, Hraerik found some merchants who either attempted to get him an audience with the Emperor Theophilus or turned him in to the Imperial Guard. Hraerik was not sure which. But the result was that he was either arrested, or held for an audience, with Hraerik again unsure as to the intent. His men, meanwhile, were given a place of residence in the merchant quarter of Constantinople in accordance with the Hraes’ treaty with the Greeks and they were provided for.
After a week of confinement, Hraerik began to wonder if his requests for an imperial audience were getting through to the emperor, but one evening, in spring’s early dusk, a man in a dark purple cloak came to visit Hraerik in his cell.
“I represent the Emperor,” the man said, as the Immortal Guardsman let him into the chamber. He was a middle-aged man with short cropped hair and a neat appearance. He entered the room with the easy confidence of one familiar with command. “Your application for an audience with the Emperor is reported to be for a request of relief from Greek support of the Khazars in their attacks upon your Rhos people. Your inquiry is being considered, but, I’m afraid, it does not look promising.”
Hraerik offered his visitor a chair.
“The main problem, you see,” the emissary explained, “is that the Emperor Theophilus is a Khazar. On his mother’s side, that is. He is fully cognizant of the, shall we say, difficulties that have developed between the Hun tribes of the Khazars and the Rhos barbarians.”
“There are two sides to every story,” Hraerik countered. “The Emperor Michael always showed us favour in our dealings with him, but the Emperor Theophilus has shown us nothing but contempt. It is my intention to reverse this situation, if possible.”
“Hraerik Bragi, is it?” the emissary asked. “It is one thing to marry a Khazar princess, and quite another to be birthed by one. Perhaps if you knew more about the Khazars you would appreciate the strong ties between our two peoples.”
It was apparent that the Greek was going to touch upon a rather lengthy subject, so Hraerik offered him some wine from a pitcher on a small table in the corner of the room. Hraerik poured himself a goblet and sat down at the table. The Greek noble pulled his chair up to the table as well and continued his tale.
“Almost three centuries after the death of our Christian Lord, Caesar Valerian set out from Rome with a large army to fight the Parthians, led by Shapur, in Persia. Overconfident, with the might of Rome behind him, and its iron legions under his command, he attacked the Parthians in their native lands and was resoundingly defeated. He was the one and only Roman Caesar to be captured by an enemy, and the greater part of his army fell into the hands of the Parthians as well. Their king, Shapur, treated Valerian shamefully, for he was a barbarian, unused to the courtesies afforded man through civilization. He used Valerian as his personal slave and subjected him to all manner of humiliation, even using the beloved emperor as a footstool upon whose back he stood while mounting his charger. The Roman Caesar suffered years of such abuse, yet, whenever an enslaved officer or soldier of his shattered legions came into his presence, they would abase themselves before him as though he remained a Caesar still in Rome. This must have made a strong impression upon Shapur, who had dreams of re-establishing the splendours of the ancient Persian sovereigns such as Cyrus and Darius, or perhaps he realised that mocking the blood rights of an emperor of Rome was only undermining his royal presence within his own realm.
“Whatever the reason, after enduring years of grinding captivity, Caesar Valerian was offered the chance to be repatriated with his legions if he swore allegiance to the Persians and was willing to settle and protect one of the far-flung border provinces of King Shapur’s growing Sassanid Empire. Since aid from the Roman Empire had not materialized, Valerian accepted the offer of the Persians, and, with all his soldiers yet willing to follow him, he set off for the Caucasus Mountains and established a small dominion that was sworn to protect the north-eastern limits of the Persian Kingdom. His men and their descendants were known as the Caesar’s people, and his imperial bloodline has been carried down through the ages in the great kagans, the sacred rulers of the Khazars. It is Imperial Roman blood, no less purple than that of our own line of emperors’, and the Emperor Theophilus has both Roman lines coursing through his veins. Now, perhaps, you comprehend the difficulties I face in obtaining a royal audience for your cause.”
“But I shall keep trying,” the emissary said as he prepared to leave.
“You have my thanks for your efforts,” Hraerik assured him. “Please come back soon and tell me more of the Khazars and of your own people, too, for you appear to be a storyteller of no small eloquence, and I, in turn, shall recite for you the poetry of the northern lands.”
The emissary did return several times to visit Hraerik in the two months he was held captive by the Romans, and, when the court official could not come, he sent an aged scholar, versed in the ancient histories of Rome and other civilizations, to read Hraerik Latin and Greek scripts. The old scholar often left the heavier Latin texts in the cell, rather than trudge them back the next day, and Hraerik would secretly practice reading the script of a language a nun had taught him on a trip down the Dniepr River years before. When the old scholar returned the next day, Hraerik would compare what he had read to what was read to him. In this manner he covertly furthered his literacy.
Livy’s history of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, particularly caught up Hraerik’s imagination. With Hraerik’s alleged nephew, Prince Hlod, accusing him of usurping Gardariki, Hraerik was naturally drawn to the tale of the Roman Prince Brutus, who survived his uncle’s murderous usurpation of his father’s kingdom by playing the fool, a part played so well that the very name Brutus became synonymous with the Latin words for dull witted.
“Why wouldn’t King Tarquinius have just slain Prince Brutus outright?” Hraerik asked the royal emissary one cool spring evening.
“The slaying of one born of the purple, even in such early times of Rome’s history, was frowned upon by the people. King Tarquinius may even have had some affection for the boy, so, as long as he appeared to be no threat to the rule of the king, he was allowed to live. When the Tarquin sent him off with his sons to Greece, it was likely intended that he was to be slain in far off lands, but Brutus amused his sons with his mad antics, and for that reason was not killed. His apparent madness protected him from such foul murder. Cursed are those who kill the mad and, at the very least, his foolishness provided amusement for and endeared him to his cousins.”
“It was solely for that amusement,” Hraerik said, “that Brutus was allowed to live.”
“Precisely,” the emissary agreed.
“What really makes the tale,” Hraerik added, “is the fact that young Brutus gains the favour of the gods while supposing to perform some of his greatest buffoonery.
“When Brutus hollows out a cornel stick and fills it with gold, then offers it to Apollo while the sons of King Tarquinius consult the Delphic Oracle, it becomes apparent that the prince’s deranged behaviour covers a covert act of vengeance. While the king’s sons laugh at Brutus and think him that much more a fool for offering a mere stick to Apollo, the young prince gains celestial favour by means of the gold hidden within the cornel.”
The imperial official sat back in the Spartan chair of the chamber and smiled. “You are right, Hraerik Bragi. It is the twofold benefit Brutus gains from his actions that really makes the story.”
“And when the king’s sons are told that the first one to kiss his mother will succeed to the throne, Prince Brutus comprehends the oracle’s words and falls face first into the sands on the shore of Rome, kissing the soil of his motherland, again gaining the favour of the gods while reinforcing the belief in his sheltering madness. Once more his duplicity is double edged.”
“I like your perceptions, Hraerik,” the emissary declared happily. The wine and the conversation had put him in a bright cheery mood. “I shall see that you get your audience with the Emperor Theophilus.”
The next morning an officer of the Immortals came to take Hraerik before the emperor. The heavy-set Greek showed the Norseman every courtesy as he directed him past the Gallery of Daphne and the Triclinium of Augustus and around the Excubitors Schools and the Court of Schools to the Palace of Magnaura, where the imperial throne room was located. Past more officers of the Immortals, the guard led Hraerik up to the great oaken doors that sealed the throne room from the elements. More Immortals toiled to open the heavy twelve-foot-high doors and Hraerik’s guide led him over the threshold into the immense chamber.
The throne room was like nothing Hraerik had ever seen before. It was a large hall with huge stone columns running down the interior on either side, supporting a heavy oak beam and slab roof, and was barren of all furniture save for the emperor’s throne high upon a marble dais. At the base of the dais, on either side, were two golden statues of lions, and off to the right of the dais was a brazen tree with mechanical birds upon it that twittered and sang and moved to their own music. When the mechanical lions roared Hraerik was reminded of the strange dream he had had in his youth, under the influence of the poisonous brews Kraka had concocted. In the dream he had learned of all things past and future, the future holding lasting peace for man when machines could talk, and here he saw, with his own eyes, machines that twittered and roared, as though presaging the power of machines.
“You are impressed with my mechanical fauna?” the Emperor Theophilus asked, as he walked into the chamber. When the leader of the Roman Empire sat down, Hraerik got a full view of the man and stepped back in disbelief. The emperor and the emissary who had visited Hraerik so many times in the past few months were one and the same. “Come forward, Hraerik,” the emperor said.
“I had a dream once,” Hraerik began. “It told me that when machines could talk, man would at last find peace, but these are not the machines I had envisioned.”
“We talked much about dreams and stories when I came to you as my own emissary. Now I am the Emperor Theophilus and this is the audience I promised you. State your purpose.”
“Many times, have I told you my purpose here,” Hraerik answered, regaining himself, “but not while you were in your official capacity, I see. You know full well that I seek aid from Khazar attack, or, if not that, at least Greek assurances of non-intervention.”
“And you know full well that we cannot give you those assurances,” the emperor said, perplexed. “The Khazars have always been our allies. They’ve helped us in over a century of wars with the Arabs. Can you promise your Hraes’ people will always help us against the Arabs?”
“It is not the Arabs that Constantinople and our Hraes’ lands will need protection from,” Hraerik said. “Our greatest threat shall come from the east,” he said wistfully.
“More dreams?” the emperor asked. “You Norsemen place great weight by your dreams.”
“The Magyars are but a presage of the things to come. Soon, the Khazar Empire shall crumble, and Turks shall come in swarms out of the east, and they shall overcome Asia Minor and, eventually, Constantinople itself. It shall be an emperor named after this city, Constantine, who shall fall before the shattered walls, defending her.”
“Were I true to my dreams and my own Khazar blood, not only would I withhold you aid, but I would refuse you your freedom; but I have come to know you as a friend these last months, expounding upon you the written word, sharing with you the ancient tales of both our peoples. It would not seem fitting to reward friendship with treachery, therefore, we have prepared an imperial request that you may take to the Franks granting you free passage through their lands. In that way you may circumvent the Magyar blockade and make your way back to the land of Gardar, for only your great kagan, King Frodi, has the power to help you now.”
“I am grateful for your generosity,” Hraerik told the emperor.
“We shall send your ship back to Tmutorokan, and we shall provide two senior officials and an escort of Immortals to guide you to the land of the Franks.”
Once more Hraerik thanked Theophilus, and that was the last he ever saw of the emissary cum Roman Emperor.