Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
(Circa 860 AD)
“Like a thunderbolt from heaven.”
Patriarch Photius of Constantinople.
In the spring of 859, the war arrow was passed around Norway for ships and warriors in support of King Frodi of Konogard with an attack upon Constantinople. Oddi was now the captain of a ship of young men and he talked it over with them and was the first to volunteer his services to King Hraelauger. But the Norwegian fleet wasn’t taking the usual Southern Way route to Constantinople like the Danish and Swedish fleets. They were sailing west around Frankia and south past Spain in order to enter the Mediterranean Sea through the Pillars of Hercules, following the path they had reconnoitred several years prior. King Hraelauger’s fleet was to be part of a two pronged naval attack upon the Eastern Roman Empire. The fleet paused in the Anglish Channel and met up with Hraegunar’s fleet off the coast of Frankia.
“The Romans are up to their old tricks,” Hraelauger explained to his father. “They’re financing the rebuilding of the Fortress of Sarkel.”
“Let’s steal the gold again!” Hraegunar exclaimed, laughing. “If only Sigurd were here to see it.”
“They don’t ship all the gold in one bireme anymore, Greek fire or not,” Hraelauger laughed. “I’m glad to see you’re in good spirits, father.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? My sons are going to try to outdo me by sacking Constantinople while I only sacked Paris. I guess I’ll have to sack Rome next,” he laughed. “But I’m proud of you boys. Your fame will outshine mine.”
“Nothing will ever best the fame of the Hraes’ Gold!”
“The Franks and Germans are already stealing my story,” Hraegunar complained. “They’re calling it the Rhine Gold Hoard now.”
“Is that why you’re stealing the Frank’s gold? They’re stealing your story?”
“I’m just maintaining our trading posts along the coasts.”
“And halfway up the Seine,” Hraelauger laughed.
“Just as far as Rouen,” the old man corrected, drinking half a goblet of wine. He was half cut and in a fine mood. “Someday son,” he said, waving his free arm, “this will all be yours!”
Again, as the Norwegian fleet approached the Pillars of Hercules, Hraelauger warned his captains that Arab and Roman fleets could be lying in wait for them. But their fleet this time was over two hundred ships, so they sailed boldly into the Mediterranean. They stayed just out of sight of the coast of Africa and soon had Sicily off their port side. A week of good sailing put Crete off the fleet’s starboard and they headed north into the Aegean Sea, again, undetected. The fleet found the secluded bay of the island where they had set up their base camp years before and King Hraelauger took his longship east into the Sea of Marmora and on to Constantinople to meet up with Hraes’ traders there. He learned that a major Roman attack on Arabs in Anatolia had been delayed by a year and the main Roman army was still deployed around Constantinople, so the Varangian attack would also be delayed a year.
King Hraelauger returned to his base camp in the Aegean with the news of the delay, so the Norse fleet returned to Spain and began raiding there. They wintered in Southern Frankia, keeping a low profile there, and in spring set off down the coast of Italy, attacking settlements along the way, including cities as large as Luna and Pisa. Hraegunar wanted to attack Rome, but Hraelauger could not risk taking his fleet through the Strait of Messina as the Roman navy was known to set traps there. They were on a schedule to arrive in Constantinople for the attack on it and could not afford any delays. The fleet headed out to open sea sailing straight south from Pisa and skirting the eastern coasts of Corsica and Sardinia then sailing south east between Sicily and Malta and then straight east between Greece and Crete. Hraelauger kept feeling the need to get there sooner, even though they were ahead of schedule. They sailed north, winding through the Grecian Isles, then east into the Sea of Marmara.
Hraelauger’s concerns were warranted when they started to come across the wreckage of ships on the waters. Long ships. Dragon ships. Monoxylan. On the beaches west of Constantinople they found the remnants of the Hraes’ fleet, drawn up on the sand and under repairs. He spotted Hraerik’s raven banner and headed for that ship. Hraerik was busy supervising repairs to his long ship when Hraelauger’s ship scudded into the beach sand. “Sorry we missed the fight,” he apologized. “I wanted to arrive sooner, but we had to evade the enemy.”
“This wasn’t from a fight.” Hraerik said, hugging his brother. “A storm came up and destroyed our fleet as we were preparing for the assault.” And Hraerik went on to tell him of how the Greeks had paraded their priests around the docks of Constantinople, dipping sacred vestments into the water of the Golden Horn, as their fleet was sailing by on the Sea of Marmara and a violent storm seemed to come out of nowhere and swept the Hraes’ fleet west and destroyed much of it. Most of the larger dragon ships survived the crashing waves, and all of the Nor’Way ships, but the rest were gone. “King Frodi is fine, and most of our people made it, but many Hraes’ went down with their ships. Now the small Roman home fleet is getting ready to sally forth and attack us. They have one fire breathing bireme and a hundred or so standard biremes. The main fleet and the army are off fighting the Arabs.”
Hraelauger made arrangements for his fleet to proceed east and anchor between the wrecked fleet and Constantinople and, as the last of the fleet passed them by, Fair Faxi broke off and was being rowed to shore. Hraerik instantly recognized his ship and saw his father at the forestem with his son, Oddi, beside him. Hraegunar slowly ambled down the side of the ship and onto the sand and Hraerik rushed up to hug him.
“We have brought you something special,” Hraegunar interrupted. “A weapon against the Greek fireship,” and the old man had Oddi’s crew start unloading Fair Faxi. The barrels of fine wine the boys had loaded up back in Frankia were now unloaded onto the beach. And linen sacks of special awnings were hauled out from under rowing benches, foul smelling bags with hairs sticking out through the seams. “We’ve gotten used to the rawhide odour,” Hraegunar said as he withdrew the contents of a sack. “I never go to Constantinople without these,” he declared as he pulled out black sheepskin awnings that carried the faint smell of vinegar. “We have enough barrels of vinegar and sacks of rawhides to outfit a longship.”
“That is exactly what we need,” Hraerik said. “The Byzants only have the one bireme equipped with a fire-tube and bellows. It will be at the vanguard and so will my ship.”
The next morning, they completed repairs on the ships and launched them all, dragging them out with the rising tide. Hraerik had his men lash twelve of the most damaged longships together and then they backed off the lashings so the ships spread apart enough to allow for rowing. He knew the biremes were equipped with rams and that the enemy would try to sail straight through his formations, busting up oars and breaking through strakes. A lot of ropes had washed up on shore from the broken wreckage, so the Hraes’ were planning to ensnare the Roman fleet. A fighting platform was all that many of the damaged ships were good for anymore. But the fire-breathing bireme would have to be dealt with first or the platform would be a sitting duck for the Greek fire.
Soon ships from the Norwegian fleet came from the east with news that the Roman fleet was approaching. Hraerik flagged Fair Faxi over to his own longship and had Hraegunar and Oddi join him on his foredeck. “We’ve set up a field hospital in our shore camp, Oddi,” he started, “but we need a ship to collect up the injured during battle and ferry them to shore. This is a special job I have for your ship and crew. We’ll put a half dozen medics aboard Fair Faxi and they’ll let you know what needs to be done. You will be saving a lot of lives today and that is always better than taking them. Can you do it without Hraegunar?”
Oddi looked over at the old man and said, “I suppose, but we came here to fight.”
“Good. I need him to help me tackle the fire-breather. Then I’ll return him to you and you can join in the battle.”
“It’s been awhile,” Hraegunar beamed, “but I think I can remember how it’s done.”
The Hraes’ fleet started forming up when the Greco-Roman fleet appeared on the horizon, matching them ship for ship across the sea. Hraerik led his fleet in his longship and the dozen damaged ships that were loosely lashed together were drawn up behind him. He hoped the background of ships and masts would blend in with the black rawhide sheep skin awnings that covered his own ship while he scanned the horizon full of biremes for the tell-tale bronze tube that would identify the one fire breather amongst them. “It should be in the center of the vanguard with its flanks well protected by the rest of the fleet,” Hraerik told Hraegunar. And then he spotted it. A flash of gold at the forestem. Then the flash of the special plate armour byrnies of the fire officers. He had found his target and he pointed it out to his father, on the other side of the forestem. Hraegunar flashed a smile as he recognized their adversary. Hraerik looked to his left and saw Hraelauger at the fore of his Norwegian-Norman fleet, then checked out King Frodi at the forestem of his damaged dragonship at the fore of the Hraes’ fleet on his right. Satisfied, he ordered his crew to row double time and his ship broke free of the main fleet and headed straight for the fireship.
The waters were calm and there was no wind to help either side and the Byzantine fire officer watched as a black longship accelerated towards their fireship. He could not make out the awnings on the ship but noted that the lack of sails in this calm would lessen the effect of the Greek fire in setting the enemy ships ablaze. As the lead Hraes’ ship closed in on them, the fire officer got close enough to realize that the awnings were raw wet sheep hides and a legend came to his mind of a gold hoard that was stolen from a Roman fireship a full generation past and he raised a general alarm and readied his fire tube for an attack that he realized was directed expressly towards his ship.
Hraegunar was tying raw wet sheepskins to the shields of his son and other boarding party members, just as his father, Sigurd, had done for him many years before. The fireship roared and an arc of Greek fire swept towards the Hraes’ ship but fell short and landed on the water, still burning fiercely. The longship swerved wildly to avoid the fire on the water as the fire officers on the bireme recharged the firetube and re-pressurized the bellows system. Hraegunar warned that the Byzantines would have one more shot before they would be able to attack them. And the shot soon followed, as the fire breathing bireme roared once more and a long trail of liquid flame arced heavenward. Hraegunar and Hraerik both jumped up on the topstrake at either side of the forestem and roared back. “Hraaaae,” they shouted, imitating the roar of the fire-tube, as the fiery fluid flew towards them, then they grabbed at the awnings, jumped to the deck and pulled them closed just as the flaming emulsion hit. The Greek fire landed on the wet awnings and the vinegar in the soaked furs boiled but would not allow the sticky flaming gel to adhere, and the flaming mass of petroleum rolled off into the waves. Small bits of flame penetrated the awnings here and there, but the Frankish craftsmen and women the old man had paid to make the coverings had done their jobs well. The crew threw back the awnings and launched grappling hooks at the approaching bireme. They tied off the ropes to their stout rowing benches and pulled in their oars just as the longship started snapping off the oars of the bireme and the ropes sprang taut and drew the two ships together. The boarding crew threw up their short boarding ladders and their shields protected them from the arrows that were spattering all over the deck. The Tmutorokan Hraes’ charged up the ladders and immediately fell into deadly combat with the Roman marines waiting for them on the deck of the larger bireme. Hraerik led his men forward and they cut down the marines in a vicious assault as they made their way towards their one target….the firetube. The Byzantine lead fire officer had his sword drawn to protect his secret weapon and recognized Hraerik as one of the wild berserks who had shouted at them crazily from the longship. He lashed out at Hraerik and his sword stuck into the edge of the Hraes’ shield and Hraerik thrust out with his sword and caught the officer just below the jawline, killing him instantly. Hraerik then started hacking at a large leather hose that ran to valving on the firetube and the wash of liquid that flowed out of the hose instantly caught fire and set the deck of the bireme ablaze. The fiery liquid splashed across the deck and flowed back towards the masts of the Greek ship. Men that could not get away slipped in the gel and were set aflame, running on fire to the rear of the ship. Hraerik and his men beat a hasty retreat back to his ship and had to fight to keep the Byzantines from boarding his ship to escape the flames. They cut the ropes to escape the burning bireme and were soon under attack from biremes in the rear of the Byzantine fleet. Arrows were flying at the Hraes’ ship from all directions as the Varangians got to their oars and pushed off from the dying ship and began rowing for their own fleet while constantly under barrage. Hraegunar could be heard shouting out orders and there was no question as to who was in command while his son was in a berserk frenzy.
The main Byzantine fleet was engaging the Hraes’ fleet by now and, as the biremes charged at the twelve damaged longships, ropes were drawn taut as they drew up to pass each other and the biremes became entangled with the makeshift fighting platform, twisting sideways in the ropes, snapping some and getting caught up in others and the biremes behind them could not stop and began to ram their own biremes ahead of them. The Hraes’ troops on the fighting platform used grappling hooks to pull in the foundering biremes and board them in a battle that seemed more on land than on water. Scores of berserk warriors would clear the decks of ensnared biremes while sailors would use grappling hooks to reel in the next row of biremes. There were a multiple of slaughters launched from the fighting platform that floated so helplessly upon the sea, for the Roman soldiers were no match for the crazed berserks that ravaged up and down their decks.
As Hraerik’s longship rejoined his men at the fighting platform, he shouted for his men to save the ships. “Save all the Byzant ships,” he shouted as they cleared the decks. “We need them to get back home with.” Hraerik could see that everywhere on his flanks battles were raging between ships and Byzant decks were being cleared all over. He saw his son, Oddi, rowing about in Fair Faxi pulling the wounded out of the waters, both Hraes’ and Roman alike and he marvelled at the idealism of youth. He waved the ship of young men over to his longship and he could see its deck awash in the blood of the dead and the dying and he knew it was a ship of youths no more. As his crew passed the wounded over the bulwarks of Fair Faxi he shouted to Oddi, “Save all the Byzantines you please, Captain Oddi, but spread the word to save all their ships as well. We shall need them to sail home with.” Oddi nodded grimly but did not say a word. They saved as many lives as they could and spread the word to save ships as well, but when Oddi spotted a bireme making a break to escape, he had his crew double up on the oars to run it down. The bireme’s rowers were exhausted, so Fair Faxi quickly bore down on it and Oddi and Asmund launched grappling hooks into the air and yarded in and tied off the Byzant ship. They boarded the bireme and the Greeks immediately dropped their weapons and surrendered.
After the battle, Hraerik met with King Frodi and Hraelauger. A few Byzant biremes escaped the slaughter, but sixty had been captured and the rest were sunk or sinking. “We have won a great victory here,” King Frodi announced, “but it is a Pyrrhic victory. We no longer have the forces we need to attack Constantinople.”
“We may not have enough of an army to take the city,” Hraerik started, “but they don’t know it.” With a hundred and sixty Norwegian ships, a hundred or so Hraes’ and Danish ships and the sixty captured biremes, it was still an impressive fleet that sailed before the walls of Constantinople to the Golden Horn. While a great chain blocked ships from entering the port, dozens of four oars boats were launched over the chain and Hraerik led a force of men up to the main quay and the city gate. He nailed a shield onto the gate with a list of their demands written in Greek. Then they rowed their boats back to their ships. The next day they found two signed treaties tied to the shield that met their demands. Prince Hraerik read out the Greek to King Frodi and King Hraelauger and they all signed both of the treaties. Prince Hraerik then handed King Frodi one treaty and tied the other back onto the shield.
They returned to the fleets and the captured Roman biremes were portioned out amongst the Hraes’ fleet and, after a great victory feast, the remnants of the Hraes’ army returned to Gardar: the Tmutorokan Hraes’ to Gardariki, the Kievan Hraes’ to Konogard, the Northern Hraes’ to Novgorod and the Scandinavians to their respective lands beyond the Baltic. The Norwegians and Normans, however, returned the way they had come, via the Mediterranean. Captain Oddi and Fair Faxi were in the vanguard of the fleet right behind King Hraelauger’s longship and Hraegunar, in a captured Byzant bireme, and the rest of his Norman fleet were taking up the rear. They sailed south and then straight west across the Mediterranean, circumventing Sicily and sailing for the Pillars of Hercules. They did not want to accidentally run into the main Eastern Roman fleet on its way back from Syria.
Off the coast of Barbary, they were spotted by the fleet of Al-Andulus of Muslim Spain who set off in pursuit of the Varangians. Hraelauger signalled for his fleet to run for it and rowers gathered up their oars and began rowing, adding some speed to the power of their sails. The flagship of the Andulus fleet was equipped with a form of Greek fire that they delivered by catapult. The slower Norman ships at the rear of the Norse fleet soon fell victim to the fiery catapult, so Hraegunar had his ship rigged up on the fly for fighting Greek fire and, once the awnings were soaked and hung, he signalled for his Norman fleet to turn about and attack. Years earlier, he had marked himself with a spear as a sacrifice to Odin. He could not run from a fight…it was a contract with the gods. Hraegunar headed his bireme straight for the Andulusian flagship and several volleys of Greek fire rolled harmlessly off his vinegar soaked sheepskin awnings before he was close enough to ram the Arab galley. His men dropped from the topstrake of the taller bireme and were soon clearing the galley decks of Moroccan sailors. Soon the whole Norman fleet was engaged with the Muslims and the flagship became a victim of its own Greek fire. Hraelauger and his Norwegian fleet were soon turned about and ready to engage, but the Muslim fleet disengaged and allowed the Norse fleet passage through the Strait of Hercules. Hraegunar had lost half his Norman fleet in the battle but had captured many Arab galleys and he cursed the fact that Odin had not taken him.