Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
(Circa 887 AD)
And his followers were called the Hraes’.”
Eyvinder Skald-Despoiler; Skaldskaparmal.
Prince Hraerik often talked with Oddi about the situation developing in Kiev. Oddi wanted the Southern Way slave trade stopped. He had promised Gudrun that he would stop it if she and Sigrid and their sons would join him in Gardariki and she arrived quite suddenly with her whole family and father and most of the Polotsk Hraes’ Trading Company people just ahead of the northern rebellion. Oddi put the sisters and sons up in his longhall in Gardariki and the Prince looked after the rest.
“This is Odd,” Gudrun said, introducing her son by Oddi, “And this is Asmund,” Sigrid said, introducing her son by Asmund and they were both fine looking young men and both twenty four years old. Oddi had somehow been expecting boys. And these two young men were already experienced traders of the Hraes’ Trading Company of Polotsk.
“Are you the same Oddi who went to Bjarmia a long time ago?” Odd asked, shaking his father’s hand vigorously.
“Traders still talk about the gold you made in Bjarmia,” Asmund added.
“It wasn’t really that long ago,” Oddi said, looking at Gudrun. “At least it doesn’t seem that long ago.”
Oddi took the two sisters and his son and foster-son on a tour of Gardariki that concluded at Prince Hraerik’s palace and a great banquet welcoming the Polotsk branch of the Hraes’ company.
“So what do you think of Odd?” Gudrun asked Oddi the next morning in bed.
Oddi raised himself up on his elbow and kissed her gently. “He is so much like me,” he answered, “it almost floored me. I was looking at myself.”
And what did you think of Asmund?” Sigrid asked.
Oddi rolled over and raised himself up on his other elbow and said, “He is so much like Asmund. I’ll have to tell him all about his father,” and he kissed Sigrid gently.
Oddi then rolled onto his back and both women dove onto his arms and they all hugged warmly. It took Oddi back to his freedom days fighting slavers with Asmund and he was glad he made that port stop in Polotsk before killing Frodi.
Prince Hraerik was overjoyed to see his son, Oddi, so happy, even though the people of Gardariki thought that Oddi was perhaps happier than one ought to be. Multiple wives and multiple concubines were common in Gardariki, especially with all the different religions that were tolerated in the city, but there were no marriages in Oddi’s longhall and these women were free to come and go as they pleased. But Oddi and Gudrun and Sigrid were at an age where they really didn’t give a shit.
One day, Princess Silkisif was alone with Oddi in King Olmar’s highseat hall and she asked Oddi if he cared for her at all. “I only ask,” she said, “because it always seemed to me that when you were here as the Barkman, you were always trying to impress me. I thought perhaps that you intended to court me.”
“I did intend to court you,” Oddi admitted. “But I didn’t know that I had a son and foster-son with two sisters that I love very much from my past.” Oddi then told her about that period in his past when he was battling slavers with Asmund and Gudrun and Sigrid were their Freedom Movement confidants and lovers and Silkisif was swept up in the story and she saw him and these women in a totally different light. “When I was the Barkman,” Oddi concluded, “I used giant magic to anonymously battle slavers on the Nor’Way and I was very much trying to impress you.”
“You never stop,” Princess Silkisif said.
“Stop what?” Oddi asked.
“You never stop impressing me. I was impressed when you barged into father’s highseat hall and you stopped those guards from throwing poor Jolf out, and I’ve been impressed with everything you’ve done since. And the story you’ve just told me…now I wish to meet these sisters of yours.”
Oddi was discussing the Kiev situation with his father then he asked him if men hadn’t asked for the hand of Silkisif. “Many men have asked for the hand of Silkisif,” Prince Hraerik answered, “but my father has always turned them down. She wants to be impressed.”
“I want to impress her,” Oddi said. “How can I really impress her?”
“By impressing her father,” Hraerik said. “He used to rule Kiev. Now he rules the city that Gunwar and I built. He thinks that King Alf is slowly destroying Kiev. He knows Kiev can be so much more, not just a seedy slave route to Baghdad. Alf is married to a witch named Gydja and they have begun making blood sacrifices in the city. Their son, Vidgrip, is a powerful warrior who protects them but sacrifices others. King Hraerauld would like King Alf gone. That would impress them both. But Prince Alf inherited all the power of King Frodi and it would take a very large army to take him out.””
“So, if I could take him out with a small force,” said Odd, “the king may want to give me her hand.”
“My father is a wise man,” said Hraerik, “and I think Silkisif is already impressed with you.”
A proposal was brought before the king, and it was agreed by all that Oddi would lead an army and recapture Kiev for the Hraes’ Trading Company and bring all the northern towns from Chernigov to Polotsk back into the Hraes’ fold, and if he was successful, he could ask for the hand of the king’s daughter, and he promised Princess Silkisif that he would do this in front of many witnesses.
Prince Hraerik put Oddi in command of a legion of his Tmutorokan Cataphracts, five thousand strong, as well as a thousand mounted archers equipped with both horn and foot bows. and when he was ready to go, the king and Princess Silkisif saw him off. “There is a costly treasure,” said the king announced, “that I will give to you that may help.”
“What is it?” said Oddi.
“It is a shieldmaiden called Lagertha, who has been a shield for me in every battle.”
Oddi replied, “I have never had the need for a shieldmaiden, but I’ll take all the help I can get.” The King and Oddi parted and Silkisif gave him a silk kerchief and tied it to his arm for luck. Oddi and his army travelled north until they reached the Don River which was in the midst of its spring flooding and was raging, and Oddi crossed it on his horse. The shieldmaiden was next after him, but her horse became frightened and balked at the raging flood. Odd shouted back, “Why have you not followed after me?”
“I was not prepared,” she said.
“Well then,” he yelled, “prepare yourself.” She spurred on her horse and it ran into the river and was swept away by the current and so it went too with the rest of the horse troop, that most made it across, but some did not. Oddi sent back home the third of his troop that could not make the crossing, saying, “it is better to have a staunch few than a wavering many.”
Odd then went on with his remaining troop and sent scouts on before him, and they came back with news that King Alf’s son, Prince Vidgrip, was leading a very large army against them. The two armies met on a plain where the Orel River forks into the Dnieper, but it was too late in the day for fighting. Prince Vidgrip rode out with some officers and they staked out hazel poles marking the field of battle. Oddi sent two of his Cataphract officers out to adjust the field of battle to be a bit narrower and they returned to their army and Prince Vidgrip waved acceptance of the change.
The armies of the Kievan and Tmutorokan Hraes’ both set up their camps at their respective edges of the plain, and Oddi kept watch that evening for exactly where Prince Vidgrip had his camp followers pitch his campaign tent. The archers of Gardariki were grumbling and the Cataphract officers agreed that they were outnumbered and could have sure used the help of those Odd had sent back home. When the men had fallen asleep save for the watch, and all was calm and quiet, Oddi got up and snuck out of camp. He carried only a sword in his hand as he ran, half crouched, across the plain. When he got to the enemy camp, he evaded their guards and was soon in front of the huge campaign tent where Vidgrip and his officers slept, and he stood in the shadows for some time, and waited for a man to come out of the tent. At last, a man walked out to relieve himself, but it was very dark and he almost walked into Oddi waiting there. “Why are you standing out here?” he said. “Go back into the tent or go do your business.”
“I have,” Oddi said, “but I can’t remember where I placed my bedroll in the tent earlier this evening.”
“Do you know whereabouts it was in the tent?”
“I am sure that I was one man this way from Vidgrip, but as it is now, I can’t find my way to it. I will be every man’s laughing-stock if you do not help me.”
“Okay,” said the other, and he popped back into the tent. “Vidgrip lies on his bedroll right by that pole,” and he pointed it out in the shadows.
“Thank you,” said Oddi, “and I’ll be quiet going over there, because now I see my bedroll clearly.” The man walked out again to take care of his business and Oddi walked in, going up to the bedroll of Vidgrip to confirm that he was the leader he had seen placing the hazel poles the day before. He recognized the prince and he stuck a peg through the tent wall where Vidgrip slept. After that he went out and almost ran into the man he had asked for directions. “I got so worried about not finding my spot, I forgot to take care of my business!” The other man laughed and entered the tent. Oddi waited a bit to give the man time to hopefully go back to sleep, then he went to the wall of the tent where the peg was pushed through, and he lifted the tent side and pulled Vidgrip out quickly and cut off his head with his sword. He pushed the body back into the bedroll and smoothed out the tent wall as though nothing had happened. He took the head and returned to his camp, erecting the countenance on a pole, then he went into his campaign tent and lay down and whispered to himself, “a staunch one is better than a wavering many,” and he went to sleep as if nothing had happened.
The next morning, when the Kievan host all rose, they found Vidgrip had lost his head and was in his bedroll quite dead. It seemed to some of them that some kind of witchcraft had been perpetrated, and to others it seemed that they had a traitor in their midst, but one thing was certain: the man who had directed a strange warrior to the bedroll of Vidgrip the night before was minding his own business the next morning and told no one of his odd encounter the night before. The captains all talked together and it was decided that they would take one of themselves as leader and give him Vidgrip’s armour and banner so that none would know that their leader was dead.
Oddi woke up next morning, armoured himself and sauntered out of his campaign tent to find a group of his complaining captains discussing how Vidgrip’s head got onto a standard pole in the middle of their camp. “I’d recognize Vidgrip anywhere,” one stated adamantly, “and that’s his head!”. Oddi had his captains arrange their standards so that Vidgrip’s head was at the center of them. As the two armies drew up against each other, Oddi and his standard bearers rode out ahead of his legion and he saw that he had a much smaller force. Oddi called out to the Kievan Hraes’ force and asked them if they recognized the head that was borne beside him. The Kievan force then looked to the Vidgrip armoured man at the head of their host and grew suspicious and one sergeant knocked the helm from him and they saw it was an imposter, so they dragged him from his saddle and began beating him, thinking he was some usurper who had used magic to behead their prince. And with the prince dead, many of the Varangian mercenaries began to wonder who would be paying them and why the Kievan officers were trying to deceive them into battle.
Oddi gave them two choices, either to fight against him or to join him and get their pay from Prince Vidgrip’s baggage train and a second payment from his own baggage train if they would follow him against Kiev. Oddi welcomed the mercenaries that joined him and he accepted the surrender of the Kievans that were no longer in any position to fight him. But a third option arose for Varangians that didn’t want to fight without pay but didn’t want to go against King Alf of Kiev. Oddi offered these mercenaries full pay and a second payment to take the Kievan prisoners to Gardariki and from there they would be provided sea transport to Constantinople so that they could join the Varangian guard there. Since many Scandinavians had left the north in the hope of joining the Roman Varangian guard, this offer was hard to turn down, so Oddi sent them off to Gardariki at the head of a column of prisoners that were to be held captive until Oddi returned to Tmutorokan.
Oddi now led a respectably sized army of four thousand Roman Cataphracts, five thousand Varangian foot soldiers and several thousand mounted and marching archers. And he took them and all their camp followers and headed to the capital, Kiev, where King Alf, the son of Frodi the Peaceful, awaited him. Both armies now had great numbers of troops, but again Oddi had fewer than Alf. The battle started just before the eastern gates of Kiev, and it was so fierce that Oddi was dumbfounded by the slaughter taking place on both sides of the shield wall. Oddi battled his way towards the banner of Alf but could see him nowhere. Then one mercenary who had been with Vidgrip before said, “I’m not sure what stands before your eyes, but King Alf is standing just behind his banner and he never leaves it and he is using witchcraft, because he shoots an arrow from each finger and kills a man with each shot.”
“I still can’t see him,” said Oddi.
Then the mercenary raised his hand above Oddi’s head and said, “Look here from under my hand.” And then Oddi saw King Alf and saw that everything else the man had claimed was happening really was.
“Hold your hand there for a bit,” said Oddi, and he felt for a Gusir’s Gift and took one out of his quiver and put it to the string, keeping his eyes on Alf the whole time, afraid to lose sight of him again and he took his shot, but Alf put up his hand and the arrow hit his palm and did not bite. “Now you shall all go,” said Odd to Gusir’s Gifts, and he shot both remaining arrows, but neither one bit, and he could see all of Gusir’s Gifts lying in the grass before the king. “I am not sure,” Oddi said to the Varangian, “but maybe the time has come to give Jolf’s stone arrows a try,” and he took one of them and nocked it and shot at King Alf. When he heard the whine of the arrow that flew at him, Alf again raised his palm but the arrow flew straight through it and his eye and out of the back of his head, taking his helmet off with it. Odd quickly took another stone arrow and laid it to string and without it even slowing him down, he thought about the five berserk brothers on the Island of Zealand and how they had tumbled off of their horses and he could see the dust rise as they crashed to the metaled road and he shot at the king again. Alf quickly put up his other palm to protect his remaining eye, but the arrow passed right through it and through that eye and out of the back of his head. Still, Alf did not fall, though now blind and holding both hands in front of his face. Then Oddi shot the third stone arrow, hitting Alf in the gut, and then he fell, and all the old man’s stone arrows vanished, as he had said they would because they could only be shot once and then would not be found.
Once King Alf had fallen, the fight was quickly over. The enemy was routed and the survivors retreated through the city gates. Queen Gydja stood at the center of the gates and she shot arrows from all her fingers, just as Alf had done, to cover their retreat. She held the one gate until her men were through but retreated into the city as Oddi’s men overwhelmed the gates and swarmed inside them. Near the city were shrines and temples and Oddi had them set on fire and he burnt everything outside the walls.
Then poetry came to Gydja’s lips:
“Who is causing this blaze, this battle;
who on the other side arrows rattle?
Spear Odd to Arrow Odd did giants turn.
Shrines are blazing, and temples burn.
“I harried the gods fainthearted two,
like goats from a fox they ran anew;
evil is Odin as a close ally;
it must not continue, their devilish cry.”
Oddi and his Varangians now attacked Gydja and she retreated into the city with her personal guard behind her. Oddi and his men chased her retainers and killed them all, but Gydja fled to the main temple of the city and took sanctuary inside.
Then she said this:
“Help me gods and goddesses,
aid me, Powers, your own Gydja.”
Oddi came to the temple but his men would not go inside so he went up on the roof and saw where she was hiding through a clerestory window. He then tore off a large square stone from the battlement and threw it through the window and it hit her on her spine and smashed her up against the wall, and she died there.
Oddi and his men continued to battle throughout the city and he finally came to where AIf had been taken, for he had not been quite dead, then Oddi beat him with a club until he was. Soon Oddi accepted the surrender of the city and he set up his lieutenants as the new Polis officers. His army occupied the city and Oddi sent messengers and ships back to Gardariki with great wealth and riches and a request for reinforcements with which to conquer the northern towns, for his losses had been great and the Kievans had fought well.
When his messengers returned, he learned that old King Hraerauld was dead, and he was requested to return to Gardariki at once. When he got back, the king had already been laid to rest in a mound. Oddi at once ordered a funeral ale for him , and it was prepared, then Prince Hraerik betrothed to Oddi Princess Silkisif, and the people of Gardariki drank the funeral ale of King Hraerauld, then started into the marriage ale of Queen Silkisif, for at that feast Oddi was given the name of king, and they both now ruled his kingdom.