Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
(Circa 907 AD)
“I remember when I was a boy,” Oddi said loudly, as his longship’s prow cut through Black Sea waves, “and you gave me Fair Faxi. Uncle Hraelauger shit himself.”
“Good thing he was wearing his brown britches!” Hraerik shouted back and they both laughed.
“Hraelauger Bruinbrok, son of Hraegunar Lothbrok,” Oddi shouted back. They hadn’t seen each other in a while, they were both busy building up the Hraes’ Trading Company and it had grown, so much so, that the Romans were alarmed and cancelling orders and changing treaty conditions. It had been many years since they had both sojourned to Constantinople, Oddi via the Mediterranean route and Hraerik via the Black Sea.
“I’m not sure why it bothered him so much,” Oddi said, not quite as loudly.
“I guess he looked at it as a generational passing thing. Time slipping away from us all. Or maybe it was the curse?”
“So why didn’t you want to ride with the cavalry?” Oddi asked his father, changing the subject.
“Even when I was young, it was Frodi or Hraelauger who would lead the cavalry troops on the flanks and I would lead the warriors and fight in the shield wall right up the middle. I don’t mind horses….they have a leg on each corner and all, but today’s dragon ship has forty-eight legs and wings with which to catch wind as it travels over the waves.”
“And the dragon breathes fire!” Oddi laughed.
“Only the Greek dragons do that!” Hraerik laughed.
As they camped on the shore that evening, Oddi asked his father to recount the tale of how his father, Hraegunar Lothbrok, had gotten those shaggy breeches he was wont to wear. It had been ages since Prince Hraerik had sat around a fire and told stories of old, but he was still, at last reckoning at least, a skald, so, as his lieutenants gathered around and the ale started flowing, he began his story:
“Sigurd Hring was the first to reopen the Nor’Way and had been establishing trade with the Eastern Romans off and on for several years. While in Constantinople with his future son-in-law Gunnar, he was informed by an Arab in the House of Lanterns that the Greeks were sending the Khazars a hoard of gold with which to build a fortress on the Don River to choke off Nor’Way trade. He was told that the gold hoard was on board a Byzantine bireme and the ship was equipped with Greek fire. He was also instructed on how to attack such a fire breathing dragon ship. And in exchange for this information, he had only to keep a small red book secure in his northern lands, as far from civilization as possible. And to help him with this endeavour, he was assigned a Magi named Brak of Damascus. He spoke old Norse, having lived with Goths on the Black Sea coast, and he knew Greek fire, having been in the Alchemists’ guild responsible for supplying the Greeks with that science in the first place. He also had several barrels of a certain type of sour wine, a special type of vinegar. A dozen Nor’Way longships sailed back across the Black Sea and up the Sea of Azov to the mouth of the Don River where their pace slowed as they had to row and keep watch for the Greek bireme. Sigurd had them stop at a village where they could buy raw hides of cattle and sheep and he paid the women of the village to prepare rawhide awnings for one of the Nor’Way ships, Gunnar’s ship, and rawhide breeches and coats for the men of that ship, Gunnar’s men, who were all berserks. A week up the Don found them nearing a clearing and a quay at which were tied several merchant ships and a Greek bireme.
“Sigurd had his fleet tacking wind and rowing hard and the bireme soon spotted them and prepared to intercept. Gunnar and his men hung back and set up their awnings while Brak poured his vinegar all over the hairs of the hides as they progressed. He did the same to their shaggy breeches and coats as they donned their gear and tied hides over their shields. Sigurd and eleven ships sailed past the quay as the bireme pulled out after them in pursuit. As it gained on the last ship of the fleet it belched out a fiery flame with a thunderous roar and a huge stream of flaming liquid arced out over the waters and set the aft stem of the Nor’Way ship aflame. The captain of the Greek bireme chose to ignore Gunnar’s trailing ship, perhaps thinking it was crippled, but when Gunnar had his men fire several volleys of arrows onto the decks of the Greek galley, the captain changed his mind and had his men turn the bireme about. “Gunnar’s berserks bit their Linden shields and went into their furies as Gunnar leapt upon the top strakes of his ship’s forestem and bellowed out “Hraaae” in a great roaring voice as the rage overtook him. The bireme answered with a great ‘Hraaae’ of its own as a stream of flaming liquid arced out over the waters and landed short of the Nor’Way ship, the flaming liquid floating and burning upon the waves. Because of the impact of the liquid some of it was submerged below the water and Gunnar could see it still burning there. Brak joined Gunnar at the forestem and warned him the Romans would have time to get off one more blast of fiery liquid before they would be too close for the high brass tube of the flame belching device to be aimed at their low Nor’Way ship. They all slipped below the rawhide awnings that covered the ship from stem to stern. Gunnar dashed out from the coverings and shouted one last “Hraaae” before ducking under the awnings just as the flaming liquid landed on them. The whole ship seemed to burst into flames and fire dripped down through the seams in the awnings and set parts of the wooden deck ablaze. Gunnar helped his men throw off the flaming awnings and the burning liquid dropped from the hides onto their wet shaggy coats and they were soon doffing their rawhide outer garments. They quickly hung their shields from their backs to protect them from both flames and arrows and they jumped to their rowing benches. A few short strokes and the Nor’Way ship was cutting through the bireme’s portside bank of oars. When it came to a stop, the Varangians threw up grappling hooks and lashed the ships together. They then boarded the bireme and fell into combat with the Roman marines on the deck. They were all in their berserk furies by then and Gunnar led them forward in a great swath across the deck. Byzantine soldiers were being cut down right and left as the berserks rampaged both forward and aft. Gunnar faced off against the Greek captain on the foredeck of the galley right by the firing tube. Although the captain was well armed and armoured, Gunnar made short work of him. Soon the deck was cleared and when they went below deck they found the hoard of gold. They also found sixty slaves chained to their rowing benches. The Orthodox Christians were against slavery, or so they claimed, but they always seemed to find enough criminals in Constantinople to power their fleet.
“Our forefathers called the hoard the Hraede Gold Hoard, because the Roman Emperor had debased the gold bars with copper and it gave the gold a reddish hue and they called Gunnar, Hraegunar because he had imitated the roar of the fire breathing dragonship and Lothbrok because the shaggy breeches were all that survived of his clothing during the battle. Grandfather Sigurd took the name Hrae, instead of Hring and took the byname Fafnirsbane in honour of the battle and the prename was added to Hraegunar’s sons’ names, making my name Erik, Hraerik in honour of my father.
“They soon learned that the red gold was cursed. The Roman Emperor had added enough copper to his gold to give it a red hue, and that warned all that the red gold was the Emperor’s gold. He added the copper to gold he was transporting to discourage theft as only Roman science and the Alchemists Guild knew how to get the copper back out at the other end of the journey. So, Hraegunar kept the Hraede Gold Hoard locked up in a cave at Hraegunarstead, so that none of his men would try to spend the gold in Constantinople and wind up executed by the Romans for having stolen gold of the Emperor in their hands. I spent many years prizing the secret of getting copper out of gold from the Alchemists Guild in Baghdad, so many years, that I ended up becoming an Alchemist. That is why there are so many Guilds in Gardariki. I took the copper out of the Hraede Gold Hoard and I spent the gold in Constantinople buying marble and glass and chariots and built a city for my wife, Gunwar.”
When the Hraes’ fleet arrived at Constantinople, they found a small Roman fleet hunkered in port, protected by a huge chain that kept ships from attacking them. The main fleet was out on the Mediterranean. The Norwegian, Danish and Norman cavalry units provided by Duke Rollo of Normandy arrived outside the Byzantine city a few days later. The Duke, however, being old and newly married, chose not to come himself.
“How are we to capture the city?” Oddi asked Hraerik.
“And why would you want to capture Constantinople? Will it help our Southern Way trade?”
“Why….no. It would likely hurt it.”
“So, what exactly do we really want?”
“We want a trade agreement that works for us.”
“We want them to see things our way, not their way, so we have to do something to make them see things differently, from a different perspective.”
“How do we do that?”
“Well….right now they see their city as impregnable, its weakest point being the main city gate, but their little fleet protects the gate safe behind that chain across the Golden Horn. If we neutralize that little fleet, we shall shift their perspective.”
“And how do we put their little fleet on ice?” Oddi asked.
“I shall leave that up to you, King Odd of Gardariki,” Hraerik answered. “But I will give you a hint,” he added. “Essoupi.”
Oddi thought about it for a full day then sent cavalry units out into the surrounding farms and estates to pillage. They loaded livestock and valuables onto the farmers’ heavy wains and wagons and drove them into the shoreline camp of the Hraes’ fleet. The goods were loaded onto ships, the livestock fed the troops and the wagons were modified to transport the Nor’Way longships overland, just as some ships were portaged around a rapid of the Dnieper River called Essoupi. Two weeks of pillaging and modifications led to two hundred Nor’Way ships being portaged from their shoreline anchorages through the surrounding village roads to the northern end of the Golden Horn port, thus bypassing the chain that barred the southern end of the port from the sea. As the ships slipped into the water from the streets leading up to the port, the Greek fleet was caught by surprise. The plundered livestock had provided rawhide awnings and garments for all the Nor’Way ships and teams of medical alchemists supervised the soaking of the hides with vinegar prior to the ships slipping into the waters. Hraerik had been experimenting with the idea of attaching teams of medical alchemists with the army and the fleet. The intent was to save lives after the battle, but here the attempt was to save lives during the battle by protecting the troops from the terror of Greek fire. But their efforts were wasted because all the fire breathing biremes were at the other end of the fleet, facing the chained off sea, and in the congested harbour, they had no way of getting to the Hraes’ fleet that was attacking their rear. The Nor’Way longships drove the Byzantine biremes away from the main gates of the city and a longship called Fair Faxi was tied off at the main quay of the gates. Oddi leapt onto the dock and extended a hand to his father as he stepped over the top strake.
“That takes me back, son,” Hraerik said. “I remember helping Princess Alfhild over the top strake when I first won this ship from her father, King Gotar.” Hraerik tried to count the decades mentally, but the troops were surrounding their leaders in a shield wall, a Roman turtle, as they progressed up the quay. Oddi nailed a shield to the left gate and Hraerik tacked the vellum list of their demands, written in his best Greek, onto the shield. The rest of the Varangian fleet kept the Byzantine fleet hemmed in at the south end of the port while Fair Faxi was sailed off to the north end of the port and was portaged back to the main Hraes’ camp.
The next day Hraerik and Oddi returned to the quay of the main gates and found a treaty tacked to the shield still nailed upon the left gate. Two camp chairs were carried to the main gates and Hraerik and Oddi sat and went through the details of the treaty, which was written in both Latin and Greek, as the shield wall sheltered them from the sun. Hraerik crumpled up the Latin documents, even though he was more fluent in reading that language and he perused and signed the Greek documents. The Greek held more significance to him, as learning to read the language had saved his life when he had been forced to escape the Romans through the Eastern Frankish Empire, again, so many decades before. He then passed one copy of the treaty to Oddi, who tacked it to the shield upon the gate.
The treaty provided for twelve grivna per rowlock for the two thousand ships that were participating in the campaign, five hundred dragonships, five hundred Nor’Way ships and a thousand merchant monoxylan that had arrived for trade prior to the signing. Special trading funds were to be set up by the Emperor for each major city of the Hraes’: Kiev, Chernigov, Pereiaslav, Polotsk, Rostov, Liubech and “others”, the others being Tmutorokan, Atil-Kazaran and Greutunga, typically cities involved in Nor’Way trade. These funds would provide food, lodging and baths for all merchants from those cities while in Constantinople. They were allowed to enter the city in unarmed groups of up to fifty under the care of a Byzantine officer or Emperor’s merchant. Most importantly, all Hraes’ merchants were exempt from tithes or duties.
“Essoupi enough for you?” Oddi asked, as they returned to Fair Faxi.
“Essoupi enough,” Hraerik answered.
As they sailed back to the northern end of the harbour, Oddi marvelled at how his father had gone into enough details in his story of Hraegunar Lothbrok and the Hraede Gold Hoard to teach his lieutenants how to beat the fire breathing biremes of the Greeks. He had once thought that his uncle, King Hraelauger, was the wisest king he had ever met. He knew now that his father, Prince Hraerik, was the wisest kagan-bek. As they portaged back to the Hraes’ camp he looked out upon the Port of the Golden Horn and he wondered what would have happened if the fire breathing dragons had been facing in the right direction. The hroar of the Greek fire tubes, and the great flames spewing, out across the waters, ships alight, warriors burning, the tales that would have grown out of that battle. He shook his head. Of all the wars that never were, this would have been the best.
But there still had been a battle and, once they were back in the main camp, Hraerik gave Oddi a tour of the hospital that had been set up by the Medical Alchemists’ Guild. An estate had been commandeered and its many rooms were filled with the wounded and dying, but, more importantly, the saved. Battling head to head with three foot long razor sharp swords, it came as no surprise that severed limbs made up a large proportion of injuries during battles. Field medical teams were established to use nooses to cut off loss of blood from the injured limbs of warriors and get them to field stations equipped with hot irons for cauterizing wounds. Once injuries were stabilized, the patient was transferred to the field hospital for recovery. The medical alchemists were already developing prosthetics to hold shields or ride horses to compensate for missing arms and legs. And Hraerik had plans to establish special centuriatas of amputee warriors retrained to fight again. Good Varangians were in short supply and losing them to a lopped off wrist or a severed foot was not a price the Prince was willing to pay.
Oddi and his men returned to Gardariki, while Hraerik and his forces returned to Kiev. The cavalry force that Duke Rollo of Normandy had sent decided to stay in Constantinople and serve the Emperor as mercenaries and they joined the Varangian Guard, even though, technically, having come by way of the Mediterranean, they were not Varangers, Way Wanderers. When Prince Hraerik got back to Kiev, young Prince Igor was walking and his mother, Princess Eyfura, was doting over him while she monitored the training of her grand-daughter, Hervor. Normally a young woman her age would have been trained in sewing and singing and playing a harp or lute, but she was being trained in archery and sword fighting, horse riding and sailing, the craft of warriors. And she was very adept at it. Training rigorously, her lithe form grew strong and well-muscled. Her blonde hair was constantly tied back, and she often wore a man’s brimmed hat and passed herself off as a warrior. She drank and she fought and she sometimes killed. People around her began to fear her and they complained to their Polis officers, but Princess Eyfura always stood by her and protected her.