Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
HRAES’ – ROMAN WAR OF 941
Over the winter a message came to Prince Ivar in Kiev that the Rioni Kura Rivers portage had been completed. In the spring Prince Ivar sent messengers to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Angleland and Ireland that warships and warriors were to accompany the merchant fleets on their ways to the east, to the Dan’Way. There would be trading, followed by raiding. The merchant fleet left Kiev and only Christian merchants took their furs and slaves to Constantinople. The Romans could no longer be trusted to follow the conditions of their treaty with the Hraes’. Only the Christian Hraes’ felt comfortable trading with the Romans and only because they were Orthodox Christians. The Anglish and Irish Christians were Latin Christians and there was a schism developing between the two Christian groups so, they only went because the high demand due to fewer traders made it worth the risk. The vast majority of the fleet, all the Heathen merchants, sailed to the new eastern portage route for Baghdad, Cathay and now India.
Prince Hraerik and the Tmutorokan merchant fleet were almost through the Rioni-Kura portage when Prince Ivar met up with his father. “Are you coming to Baghdad?” Ivar asked.
“I wish,” Hraerik answered. “I haven’t done the Silk Road in a few years so I was thinking perhaps I should do it instead of Constantinople.”
“Do Baghdad with me,” Ivar pleaded. “I’m meeting Prince Rajan there again. I want you to meet him.”
“I’ll meet him when he comes north,” Hraerik said. “General Wu has a trading list of war gear he wants to surprise the Romans with. He’s coming with me. He has the connections we need to get this stuff out of the Chinese Alchemists’ Guild and I’m using all my Guild connections as well. The Romans are pissed and we’re going to need some Cathayan siege weapons.”
“It’s going to be a short trading season in Constantinople,” Ivar exclaimed.
“A fast turnaround in Ilium,” Hraerik agreed and they both laughed. When Prince Hraerik had been held prisoner in Constantinople, the Emperor Theophilos had visited him in his cell and had read him ancient volumes by Homer and Virgil and many others on the Trojan War. The Romans believed they were descendants of Aenuis, a Trojan who led survivors from Troy to Italy and founded the city of Rome. Much later, the Emperor Constantine founded Nova Roma, New Rome, on the ruins of Byzantium, believing the city the Greek King Byzas had founded was built on the ruins of ancient Troy. After the Emperor’s death, the city was renamed Constantinople in his honour. All this and much more Prince Hraerik learned while sitting in the dungeons of the Emperor’s palace while his wife, Princess Gunwar was being slain by her nephew, Prince Hlod, outside the walls of Gardariki.
After a week of portaging and rowing the father and son team parted ways at a confluence of the Araks and Kura Rivers, Ivar sailing south on to Baghdad and Hraerik rowing on east to the Caspian and on to Khwarizm and the Silk Road to Cathay. Maharaja Rajan was waiting in Baghdad for Ivar and they exchanged greetings and spent two weeks together in the Caliph’s palace while trading in the city before Rajan sailed north up the Tigris in borrowed Norse longships and Ivar sailed south in borrowed dhows to Gujarat. Maharaja Rajan’s son, Prince Raj, showed Prince Ivar the same love and respect his father had shown the year before and Ivar enjoyed the buying and the selling and the sensuality of the city of Ashaval once more. Beautiful young Jat princesses put up with the rough play of the King Father and his merchants enjoyed the charms of Jat women on the beaches below the Maharaja’s palace. Ivar met up with the men he had left there the year before and they were now married merchant princes of Gujarat and many would not be coming back north with him. But there were some officers that he needed in his upcoming struggle with the Romans so he ordered them to return north with their new wives and the Hraes’ merchant fleet sailed the Indian Ocean once again.
Prince Ivar met up with Maharaja Rajan in Baghdad, where they discussed their visits in each other’s lands. Ivar told him that Prince Raj had been very generous in his treatment of the Hraes’ merchants and that, again, he had trouble getting his people to leave Gujarat and their Jat admirers. Rajan had so much more to tell Ivar about the Danes and Denmark. “They are so much different than your Hraes’ subjects, as if they are still the Hraes’ of a hundred years ago. They only speak their own Danish versions of Norse and they look down on you if you speak any other forms of Norse. The Jutes of Jutland speak in one accent and the Angles there speak another, the Zealanders speak yet another and the Skanians, a very different version altogether. Their poetry is ancient, as are their musical instruments, and their singing is quite guttural. I was shocked.”
“The Hraes’ have taken the best of all the people we meet and have incorporated it into who we are. I thank my father for this. I wanted you to meet Prince Hraerik, but it just didn’t work out. He’s in Cathay right now.”
“And he speaks Cathayan?”
“Yes. It’s one of dozens of languages he has mastered.”
“I thought as much. I had to visit Tmutorokan on the way back. We struggle to match the leadership qualities of our fathers.”
“Speaking of fathers, how was my son in Liere?”
“Your son, King Gorm the Old, was much younger and kinder than expected,” Rajan replied.
“He’s called ‘the Old’ because we’re from the old line of Danish kings, the Fridleif Frodi Skioldung line of kings,” Ivar explained.
“He and Queen Thyra are working on a second child,” Rajan started. “Gorm told me he had three days to get it done, and they were doing it whenever they could. In the hall,” Rajan laughed, “out of the hall, in the tapestries behind the highseats.”
“I hope you were not offended,” Ivar apologized.
“Of course not!” Rajan exclaimed. “You’ve been to Gujarat! We have books on it,” he laughed. “But I did see one couple in the hall that were quite magnificent.”
“Pray tell,” Ivar implored.
“One of young King Gorm’s finest warriors, a fine martial specimen, was having sex with a beautiful woman under a large hide at his sleeping bench in the highseat hall and your son and I were having a conversation on the highseats, acting as though nothing was going on, when all of a sudden the hide rose up into the air and woman started moaning and I could see that she was riding her indomitable steed and, when her moaning reached a crescendo, she threw off the hide, exposing her magnificent breasts, and a bright beam of sunlight burst through an open window and danced in her blonde hair before blinding me as she rode her mount like a Valkyrie clutching up a warrior and taking him to his fate. I think I was aroused. I’ll never forget it. For as long as I live.”
“I should write you a song about it,” Ivar teased.
“You should!” Rajan exclaimed in earnest. “Please call it ‘The Flight of the Valkyrie’ and try to work in the blinding sunbeam. Also, there was a famine in Jutland, Raj began slowly. Crops failed and some farmers lost their farms. I talked with young Gorm and he said it was caused by a world-wide warming cycle coming to a peak. This is how Prince Hraerik explained it?”
“Yes,” Ivar started. “That is how he explained the famine caused in Ireland. He has had visions of ancient cities in both Cathay and your own Indus Valley that have been abandoned because of this climate change. Great migrations of our own people have been caused by world-wide cooling. And the reopening of the Dan’Way and Nor’Way trade routes has been enabled by the world-wide warming cycle we are presently in. This five hundred year warming cycle will end soon and will be followed by a five hundred year cooling cycle and these famines are just little indicators of what is to come.”
“I have heard of these abandoned cities of the Indus,” Rajan agreed. “We have found bricks, hundreds of thousands of bricks in the middle of deserts. Anyway, I asked young Gorm if it would be appropriate to offer these impoverished Angle and Jute farmers land to farm in Gujarat and he said yes. So, I have brought five hundred families back south with me. We shall treat them as royalty, you know this.”
“I know this,” Ivar agreed. He had never been so well treated anywhere than by the Jats of Gujarat. And Prince Ivar promised Rajan that he would write a song about the Valkyrie’s ride and they parted Baghdad the best of friends, Rajan returning south and Ivar heading north.
Prince Ivar waited for his father in Tiflis, sending the merchant fleet on to Kiev and holding back his warships at the Rioni-Kura portage, but his warriors were champing at the bit because they had missed plundering the Romans the season before and wanted the gold Byzants of Byzantium; all of them. So, they sailed down the Rioni past the city of Phasis and onto the Black Sea. They sailed along the southern coast, past Trebizond, Polemonion and Amisus, past the mouth of the Halys River, and sailing just past the city of Sinope and the Roman fortress there, finally beaching their warships on the soft sand of the Black Sea coast and effectively cutting off the east facing peninsula from the mainland. Ivar formed up his troops on the beach, well out of bow range, and awaited a response from the Romans, but none was forthcoming. The forty foot high fortress wall stood in front of them and it stretched across the narrowest part of the peninsula and protected the city from sea to sea. There was a double wooden and steel gate in the center of the wall with a great stone arch above it and at the crest of the arch, fifty feet up, was a golden crescent moon, the symbol of Constantinople, the shining city on a hill, where the moon touched earth.
Prince Ivar could see a Roman consul standing on the fortress wall watching, the same consul that was at the head of a Roman army demanding tribute and tithes a year earlier. He could also see that the consul recognized and remembered him. But most Eastern Romans knew of Prince Ivar ‘the Boneless’ of Kiev and he was easy to spot, carried about on a shield by four of the largest warriors any Roman had ever seen.
Prince Ivar advanced toward the fortress with half his force, trying to elicit a response. They stopped just out of handbow range and waited. After an hour of waiting, an archer on the wall fired an arrow at Ivar and the arrow thunked into the sand well short of the prince. Ivar signalled for his archers to come forward and a thousand men left the awnings of the ships and formed up well back of Ivar’s troop formations. They then nocked up rocket propelled arrows, lit them and fired a volley. A thousand rocket arrows left the bows and sped towards the high wall of the fortress, flying over it and landing and exploding in the halls and buildings behind them. The Roman soldiers had all ducked down behind the castellations of the wall and watched the exploding arrows as some set roofs aflame and others flew through unshuttered windows, exploding inside buildings. Another volley of rocket arrows flew overhead and into the fortress and then a third volley. Fire brigades inside the fortress were using fresh water to extinguish the blazes before realizing that the fortress gave them access to sea water wells with which to fight fires. “It’s going to be a long siege,” the consul thought.
After the first week of the siege, the first and second legions of Tmutorokan arrived along with their supporting legion of cataphracts all in warships that crowded the beach. Prince Ivar had the first legion form up in front of the fortress, just out of arrow range, as another challenge to the consul, who just stood upon the wall and watched. No arrow flew Ivar’s way this time.
After the second week of the siege, the third and fourth legions of Kiev arrived with their supporting legion of cataphracts and, as there was no room left on the beach, Ivar decided to attack Sinope on the peninsular side of the fortress. He kept the Kievan fleet anchored at sea and in the early morning dawn they unfooted their masts and rowed out to sea then rowed east and came back to shore on the other side of the fortress and attacked the city. Unbeknownst to the Hraes’, the citizens of Sinope had grown tired of the crowded life in the fortress citadel and had begun sneaking back into Sinope to sleep and carry on with their crafts and labours, so they woke up to Varangians in their homes carrying them off to the warships as slaves. The heavily outnumbered Roman troops could only watch in horror as the Hraes’ forces occupied the city and began living in the homes of their Roman citizens and bedding the wives of the enslaved Roman craftsmen.
After the third week of the siege, Prince Hraerik arrived with General Sun Wu from their caravan trip to Cathay. “I hope you realize that you could have sailed to Cathay,” Ivar told them as they sat in the consul’s fine Praetorian estate in Sinope. “Would you like more wine?” Ivar offered as the two camel jockeys dusted themselves off as if they had just come in out of the Gobi desert.
“The Indians sail to Cathay?” Hraerik asked. General Wu sat mutedly.
“I’ve learned that they have been doing just that for centuries,” Ivar answered. “Is that not right, General Wu?”
“I’m not navy,” Sun Wu said. “But I have heard it is done. It is dangerous though. The pirates of Sumatera and the buccaneers of Java are a match for even Vikings.”
“Well, that would have saved us a lot of work,” Hraerik said, giving the general a look. “Some of the weapons we’ve purchased were quite difficult to transport by camel.”
“What did you get?” Ivar said excitedly, leaning forward on his shield.
“We got thousands and thousands of black powder arrows and hundreds of barrels of the black powder itself.” Prince Hraerik’s alchemists had been working on copying the black powder substance the Cathayan alchemists made, but they had not yet succeeded in getting the composition to the same level of power that the Cathayans could. “We also packed up two very powerful trebuchet catapults and the hardware to build twenty more of them.”
“Traction trebuchets?” Ivar asked. “We can get those here.”
“Gravity trebuchets,” Hraerik said. “They’re the latest design, like traction units but they work by gravity. They have twice the power and range with a slightly higher firing rate. They’re designed to take down walls fast.”
“The fortress of Sinope should be perfect to try them out on,” Ivar said, as lunch was brought into the great room. Ivar had captured the consul’s home intact, his slaves, his children and his wife and the consul had been on duty during the city’s capture, so he was still inside the fortress walls while Ivar was in his home writing the ‘Flight of the Valkyrie’ while the consul’s wife was riding his steed.
Which side of the fortress to assault had been the question in a later discussion. It was decided to attack the wall on the city side of the peninsula, so the two gravity trebuchets were unloaded for reassembly on the plain between the fortress and the city of Sinope. General Sun Wu explained to the officers and men being trained to operate the catapults that the exit velocities of the shots being flung were so high that the fortress stones would shatter upon impact, so, it was critical that the ballista be much harder than the stone of the walls or it would be the flung shot that would shatter. To that end, Prince Hraerik had purchased a vast quantity of Cathayan cast iron shot that had been aerodynamically designed to improve shot accuracy with properly positioned triangular projections that would always impact defensive stones in a way that imparted a splitting action. Stones could be used as ballista, but they would typically have to be quarried granite, free of cracks and inclusions. The stones should weigh fifteen stone, or about the weight of a warrior, and the prince purchased five hundred in Xi’an and transported them, two per camel, along the Gobi Desert and across Asia, then as ballast in the bottom of his longships as he sailed the Caspian, crossed the new portage route and sailed the Black Sea all the way to Sinope just to pay back the Romans for their want of tithes. “Before we start reassembling the gravity trebuchets,” Hraerik said to Ivar, “could you dene to ask your new Roman wife if she knows which of the two walls is weakest?”
“The wall to the west is the strongest,” she told the two leaders when they returned from the battlefield that surrounded Sinope. She joined the men at the table once her servants had put out the place settings and brought out the food. “The fortress was built to protect us from attack by land. Our navy has always controlled the Black Sea…until the coming of the Rhos. The fortress isn’t designed to be attacked from this side.”
“Thank you,” Prince Hraerik told her, “we suspected as much.” General Wu nodded in support.
Later, in bed, Ivar asked her if she had ever heard the tale of the Nun and the Varangian. “I’ve heard of the Nun and the Viking,” she answered. Then he told her that the old man at the table was that Viking. “But he’s from Cathay!” she protested.
“The other old man,” Ivar said.
“Prince Hraerik doesn’t look old,” she said.
“Well, he’s my old man and he’s older than he looks.”
“He’d have to be,” she said. “My grandmother told me the tale of the Nun and the Viking when I was a little girl in Constantinople and she told me that it happened when she was a little girl.”
“Well, that is the Viking who got a mark of silver for returning the Nun to a church in Cherson. He was offered the silver, but he gave it to the Nun to help her get back to Paris. There she bore him a son and he now lives in Flanders, near Paris.”
“It is a beautiful story,” she said. “I’m glad I was plundered by such a fine bloodline.”
“If I give you a mark of silver, will you bear me a son,” Ivar offered.
“What?” she said. “Certainly not.”
“My bloodline is from the Skioldung line of Danish kings. We go as far back as your Caesar Augustus.”
“I don’t care about your foreign bloodline,” she said.
“My father, Prince Hraerik, has visions and he says that in two generations our bloodline shall include the bloodline of Augustus Caesar.”
“I’m married,” she said. “My husband leads the fight inside the walls.”
“We’re about to knock down the walls,” Ivar explained. “But before we attack, I can offer your husband terms of surrender and return him to you. He could be back here in your home in the next few days.”
“When you first plundered me,” she said. “You wanted me to ride your steed because you were writing a song.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s called ‘Flight of the Valkyrie’. I’m writing it for a Maharaja in India.”
“I’ll ride your steed if you play me the song.”
“Will you dye your hair blonde for me?”
The next day, the two gravity trebuchets were reassembled and Chinese technicians, Tang veterans that General Wu had hired in Xi’an, began instructing the Hraes’ in the use of the weapons. The Tang veterans loaded one unit with a cast iron shot and had twenty Kievan legionnaires climb twenty scaling ladders attached to the unit and they grabbed onto ropes suspended from a crossbeam of the launching arm and they jumped off the ladders and hung suspended from the crossbeam. The Tang soldiers made a few adjustments to the trebuchet and slipped the knot that held the launching arm down. The twenty suspended men immediately began a rapid descent as the leveraged arm began a much more rapid ascent and a cast iron shot in a huge rope sling began a roaring ride down a wooden trough and was flung back and then around at a terrific velocity and left the sling horizontally, flying at great speed directly toward the wall. The twenty men landed on the ground, as the trebuchet rocked, and they rolled back as instructed and stood up in time to see the cast iron shot smash through the double gates in the center of the wall.
Prince Hraerik walked up to General Wu, who was now at the second trebuchet, and said, “I bought those cast iron shots to smash through stone walls, not wooden gates.”
“Please observe,” General Wu said, as he signalled for the second trebuchet to loose. The Roman legionnaires could be seen in the distance scrambling to pull a stone laden sledge in front of the destroyed wooden gates to seal up the entrance. A Tang veteran pulled loose the knot on the second unit and a cast iron shot was flung violently toward the wall and it struck just above the keystone of the stone arch above the gate opening, knocking the keystone free and collapsing much of the arch. “Stone wall smashed through,” the General said. “And now it is your men’s turn.”
Men of the third Kievan legion were operating the first trebuchet and when they pulled the rope, the iron shot flew high over the wall and crashed into the backside of the far fortress wall. Some men of the fourth Kievan legion had their shot bounce in and do some damage to the wall above the arch. “This may take a while,” Hraerik said, shaking his head.
“The men are in training,” Ivar replied. “We must be patient. Meanwhile, let’s get our engineers building two more trebuchets with that hardware you brought.” It was easy for Ivar to be patient. He had a Roman home and a new Roman family in Sinope and he had a new Norse song to write.
After two more trebuchets were built the destruction of the wall progressed faster, but Prince Hraerik lost patience and told his son that he was taking his Tmutorokan legions and the Irish and the Angles and he was going to attack Amastris west down the coast. “Meet me there once you’re done turning the consul’s beautiful wife into a fine blonde Danish girl,” Hraerik told him, a wry smile on his face. “I’ll be shipping out tomorrow.”
“Then tonight we shall feast,” Ivar said. “I’ve written a new song called ‘Flight of the Valkyrie’. It was requested by my friend, Rajan.”
“And inspired by the consul’s wife?” Hraerik chided. “When do I get to meet this mysterious Maharaja of Gujarat?”
“Perhaps next year you can come with me to Baghdad? Then you can meet him at the Caliph’s palace.”
“I don’t think I’ll be leading a merchant fleet to Constantinople next year, so I think my schedule opened up. You’ve done a great job these past years opening up this Indian trade route. I’d love to go to Baghdad with you and meet your Maharaja. We will need this Indian trade if our war with the Romans drags on.”
That evening the men returned from the siege works and the consul’s wife sat them down at her table. Hraerik complimented her on her blonde hair and marvelled at how beautiful she looked. She had seemed frightened and frazzled before, but she now seemed confidant and in control. She joined the men at the table and her servants brought out wine and food. After the meal a local band came out with Persian tars and accompanied a young female singer of Sinope and they entertained the Varangian officers. Most of them were billeted throughout the city and many had taken up with Roman women. A few songs later, Ivar took up a tar and joined them. “It is a new song I have written called ‘Flight of the Valkyrie’ and one and two and three and four:
On winged steed the Valkyrie watched a scene of strife,
she rode in on a beam of light and gathered up a life.
The prince was strong and powerful and not inclined to die,
she promised him a gentle kiss and a bed in which they’d lie.
His wound was slight, insignificant, but Hervor’s hair glowed gold,
and her eyes shone like sapphires and her lips were ruby souled.
The Valkyrie spread out a hide and laid him on that skin
and she snuggled by his side and kissed with lips of vin.
‘The sword must be great that laid me low,
a blood-snake’s bite and dwarf forged glow.’
‘Let me take this poisoned leg,’ the kagan-bek cried.
‘You’ll take it not! It’s part of me,’ the dying prince replied.
On winged steed the Valkyrie helped the prince to die,
she rode in on a beam of light and with him she did lie.
The prince was slipping off now life pouring through his hands,
he saw his mother dying now on Gardariki’s sands.
Your mother waits in Valhall the Valkyrie did say,
And I shall be your servant there when your life slips away.
The prince told all his story, then tasted his last wine,
one last kiss gave the Valkyrie and with her he went flying.
The Valkyrie did take the prince to Odin’s highseat hall.
She rode his steed, gave him mead, and armed him for the ball.
The brave one was there to help against the twelve brothers.
They fought for Odin’s pleasure and fought for their mothers.
On winged steed the Valkyrie took the prince that died,
they rode out on a beam of light and all the people cried.
But left behind was one small boy who planned to trade away,
both his legs to bring him back, both his legs to stay.”
When Prince Hraerik heard the song, his eyes watered and he immediately left the hall. Prince Ivar summoned his bearers and followed him out onto the patio. “You lost your legs because of me!” Hraerik cried, as Ivar joined him. “If only I had given you gold to finance your reclaiming of Denmark, you wouldn’t have been attacked by the Drevjane.”
“It’s not your fault!” Ivar responded. “I chose to double tax the Drevjane and they chose to maim me. Perhaps it was even the gods who let the knot slip. Odin would not be denied!”
“Why would Odin even care?”
“Remember when you got angry with me for personally attacking the twelve Norwegian Biorn brothers in Sweden?” His father nodded, so he went on. “I had a dream that Odin had sent the twelve brothers as a test for me. Oddi had failed Odin by not killing my twelve half brothers all by himself. Angantyr had deprived him of it by baring his breast to Hjalmar’s deadly stroke.” Ivar was perched upon his shield and looked out at the darkening sea. “I dreamed that Odin had sent the Biorn brothers for me to kill all by myself. And if I succeeded where Oddi had failed, my brother would be returned to me. I wasn’t drunk when I put a reward of their weights in gold to whoever slew the Norse. I was forcing myself to fight the brothers alone. When I attacked their keep, alone in the night, I killed them one by one, just as Oddi on Samsoe to my brothers had done, and when I found brothers unalone, I slew them two by two, just as Oddi later, in their desperation, had to do. But when I came to the last, the youngest of the Biorns, I saw that he was but a boy whose life should not be shorn. I, too, failed Odin, but he did not take my life. He took my legs instead, through the people of my wife. You had offered to save Oddi by taking his poisoned leg, but he refused the medics you had trained, so, later, they saved me instead.”
“I so do wish Oddi had let me take his leg,” Hraerik said, peering out into the dusk.
“It just wasn’t meant to be.”
“What was it that your father said?” she asked when they were in bed.
“He said he loved your blonde blonde hair, now ride me like a Valkyrie.”
The next day Prince Hraerik gathered up his force and headed out to sea. Sinope’s loss was Amastris’ pain. The city had been sacked by the Hraes’ before, circa 830, when the Hraes’ were fighting the Khazars for control of Kiev and their fleet was fending for itself on the Black Sea during the great Hraes’ retreat to Novgorod. The Hraes’ fleet had harried Khazar supply lines and had ravaged the cities of Paphlagonia to survive so, when the Hraes’ warships arrived once more off the shores of Amastris, the unfortified Roman Polis unit surrendered immediately. The Varangians beached their warships by the hundreds and began enslaving the citizens in the old Roman fashion, loading half of them into their ships and leaving half to run the city as a tribute town. All wealth was plundered and all churches were pillaged. The fleet then sat just off the coast and allowed relatives to buy the freedom of their loved ones if they still had access to gold and soon merchant knars arrived from Kiev to take the enslaved north to be trained for sale in the next trading cycle. Then the Hraes’ fleet sailed west along the coast and entered the Sakaria River looking for further targets.
The east wall of the fortress of Sinope had been reduced in height enough for scaling ladders to be used and the scaling exercises the gravity trebuchets had afforded the Hraes’ legionnaires had them champing at the bit to go over the wall. There were only four hundred Roman troops inside the fortress and a whole legion of Kievan soldiers outside wanting to get at them. Prince Ivar had all the citizens of Sinope paraded before the walls and they begged their men inside the walls to surrender, but their officers wouldn’t let them. That night, Ivar sent Biorn and a few picked men with one scaling ladder and a Roman deserter and they went over the wall in the darkness, found the officers quarters and murdered everybody inside. They snuck back out over the wall and slipped back into the city under cover of darkness and reported their success to their Prince. The next morning, three hundred and ninety four Roman legionnaires surrendered to the Hraes’.
“They murdered him,” the consul’s wife cried, falling into Ivar’s arms. “His own men murdered him in his sleep. He wouldn’t surrender so they killed him.”
“I’m sorry,” Ivar replied. “We wanted to save him. I wish he would have surrendered when the citizens were pleading with him.”
“I can’t believe they would murder him like that,” she said and then she rushed off to the kitchen to vomit in the sink. As Ivar rushed up to help she said, “I’m sorry. I’m just upset about his death.” But it wasn’t her husband’s death that had made her vomit. It was Ivar’s son.
“I’m glad you tired of playing house,” Prince Hraerik said, “and decided to join us in the siege,” as he welcomed his son.
“Oh, I’m still playing house,” Ivar replied. “She’s pregnant with son.”
“And you’re sure it’s a son?”
“I paid her a mark of silver and told her I’d spare her husband if only she’d bear me a son.”
“I heard her consul was murdered by his own men, so you didn’t get a chance to spare her husband.”
“So, I won’t be overly disappointed if she gives me a daughter instead. We’ll just try again for a son.”
“So, you are still playing house.”
“I’ve offered her a Hraes’ station in Sinope. I want another in Trebizond and in Phasis to go along with the one we’ve set up in Tiflis. You should set up some along the coast east of Tmutorokan.”
“Do I get to play house?”
“You’re too old to play. You don’t even play your lute anymore.”
“You’ll have to teach me how to play one of your tars. They only have four strings. Much better than twelve.”
“I’ll start you off with a cartar and we can work you up to a sestar. What is that man doing?” Ivar asked as he saw a Roman high up in a tower of Nicomedia signalling to someone. The two princes were observing Nicomedia’s defences from the safety of their siege works.
“He’s sending a message by mirrors to Chalcedon to be passed on to Constantinople,” Hraerik explained. “They’ll be sending it again by lantern tonight. They’re asking for the army. They’re asking for naval relief. But their armies are away fighting the Arabs and their navy has to stay in the Levant to support them.”
“You always seem to know when they are away,” Ivar marvelled. “If I would have attacked them last year when I wanted to…”
“Their armies and navy would have been here.”
While the Roman armies were in the Levant, the Hraes’ army ravaged all of Bithynia, but they couldn’t take the walls of Nicomedia. So, they enslaved half the people of the county-side and some of the slaves they sold back to loved ones but others they used as hostages during the siege and slaughtered before the walls of Nicomedia. Over the winter they plundered and pillaged churches and monasteries all along the Roman coast, ravaging past Constantinople as far north as Messembria.
“The Roman army and Navy will be returning soon,” Hraerik reminded his son. “Do you want to stay and face them or go with the merchant fleet to Baghdad?”
“I want to do both,” Ivar stated flatly. “We won’t be trading with the Romans this year so, our Christian warships and merchant fleet can attack their navy. We’ll use our legions and cataphracts and warriors to defeat their army quickly and then we’ll join our merchant fleet at Baghdad.”
“The Romans will not be easy to defeat. They are being led by General Kourkouas, a very competent officer.”
“If we run out of time, drag me off to Baghdad kicking and screaming.”
The princes agreed on this and continued their siege of Nicomedia and sent Biorn and Halfdan to lead their Christian fleet against the few ships left in the Golden Horn of Constantinople. Fifteen twenty year old trireme dromons were known to be there and the princes wanted them destroyed before the Byzantine navy returned from the east. The Hraes’ knew the ships were retired from the fleet, but they were big triremes and would bolster the Roman navy. What the Hraes’ didn’t know was that Emperor Romanos was having them outfitted with Greek fire, both fore and aft. Biorn saw the familiar crescent moon symbol reaching skyward from the high walls of Constantinople and, when the dromons came out of the Golden Horn harbour, the Christian fleet surrounded them and began to attack. The Roman naval officers in their fine plate-mail shirts and bronze helmets stood upon their high decks and unleashed the fury of Greek fire upon the Hraes’ fleet. Brimstone fire and flames roared out of the bronze tubes in great Hraering roars and arced down into the low longships of the Hraes’. The Varangians were caught by surprise and many jumped into the sea to escape the hellfire, casting off their armour and weapons and floating upon their shields as the flames spewed upon the waters. Many drowned and many burned and the Roman Domestic Theophanes set off in pursuit of the fleeing fleet. Most of the Hraes’ ships escaped, but only because they flew off in all directions and the fifteen Roman dromons could only pursue them a ship at a time. The Varangians that were floating on the Bosporus were gathered up by the returning victorious Romans and taken into Constantinople and beheaded in the Hippodrome.
When Biorn returned to Bithynia with his ravaged Christian fleet and sailed up the Sakaria River to Nicomedia, the Roman army returned from the east, in five hundred ships of the Roman navy, and they anchored in the harbour of Nicomedia on the other side of the peninsula in the Sea of Marmara. There was Pantherius the Domestic with four Roman legions, forty thousand men, and Phocas the Patrician with twenty thousand Macedonians, and Theodore the General with another twenty thousand Thracians, supported by auxiliaries and mad as hell. They formed up on the beaches of the harbour and advanced to the hazel poles the Hraes’ had placed upon the Bithynian plain in front of the city. Four Hraes’ legions were formed in their center to match the Roman legions with ten thousand Scandinavian warriors on their right flank, facing the Thracians and ten thousand Kievan warriors on their left flank facing the Macedonians. Prince Hraerik kept the two legions of Hraes’ cataphracts on the flanks in reserve and Prince Ivar led the legions from his battle platform in the center, again looking for a seam to exploit. But these were Roman legions and there was no seam. As the Roman legions advanced, twenty two rapid fire trebuchets let loose a barrage of stones upon them, stones and ruble from the outer walls of Nicomedia. And rocket propelled footbow arrows landed and exploded in amongst the stones and surprised the experienced legionnaires, but they knew that Nicomedia was on the verge of falling, so they pressed forward. Rocket propelled handbow arrows followed and Roman archers could finally counter with their handbow arrows as the armies closed. Spears were thrown and shield walls engaged in a great clash of metal and wood.
Ivar ‘the Boneless’ was upon his warrior borne buckler slashing and stabbing with Tyrfingr and trying to find a seam in the Roman shield wall, but these Byzantine troops had spent the last year battling the Arab armies of the Caliphate and were well trained and well-seasoned so, no seam was forthcoming. Just hard fighting. The Romans didn’t have cataphracts or cavalry for some reason so, Hraerik had his horse advance around the flanks but the Thracians and Macedonians were equipped with long spears that kept the horse at bay. Hard fighting went on all day and as evening approached the Hraes’ shield wall started to force back the Roman wall. The losses from the trebuchets and rocket arrows were starting to show as the Roman war machine was gradually worn down by the Hraes’. The battle was a grinder and the discipline that General Sun Wu had instilled in the Hraes’ legions matched the discipline of the Romans. When darkness came, hostilities ceased and both armies returned to their camps. A few Roman officers entered Nicomedia from their end of the field, but the army wasn’t there to defend Nicomedia, they were there to defeat the Hraes’ so, they stayed in their camp on the beach and the Hraes’ army stayed in its camp, protected by siege works.
The next day a small army of legionnaires came out of Nicomedia and joined the ranks of the Roman legions that had borne the brunt of the grind the day before. And the dance of death began again as the trebuchets tore through the Roman ranks as they advanced. Prince Ivar was upon his battle platform and, again, could find no seam, but Tyrfingr played a big part in the thing at the center that became ‘that grind’. Romans came in vertically and went out horizontally and they had a new sign for the ‘T’ in Tyrfingr. They would pass that new sign on to the Arabs of the Caliphate when they got back to their real job and finished their break taking care of the Hraes’. But as the battle worn on through another day, they began to realize that the Hraes’ had become a state with standing troops and an esprit de corps. They were no longer undisciplined warriors relying solely upon their individual battle skills. They were a cohesive fighting force that was again driving the Roman shield wall even further back toward the beach. When darkness came again, the fighting ceased. Late into the evening a hundred ships arrived in the harbour and General John Kourkouas arrived from the east with the Roman cataphracts and heavy cavalry. The horse had been transported on cargo ships that were quite a bit slower than the dromon warships. They also carried the heavy Roman catapults, but there would be no time to assemble them. So the men and the horses rested on the beach.
“This is taking forever,” Prince Hraerik complained. “If we’re going to meet our merchant fleet at the Rioni portage we should leave now. This grind is costing us too many men and Kourkouas knows how to use his cataphracts.”
“This Kourkouas really has you worried,” Prince Ivar said, concerned.
“Know your enemy,” Hraerik replied. “John Kourkouas ran the Varangian Guard in Constantinople and has led them successfully in Italy and Syria.”
“But the Varangian Guard is us!” Ivar exclaimed. “He was working with the best warriors in the world!”
“Exactly!” Hraerik said. “He knows us! He knows us better than we will ever know him and that will cost us. We could get bogged down here for a month. We’ve plundered half the Eastern Roman Empire for almost six months and we have the booty to show for it. Let’s pack up and go to Baghdad. General John Kourkouas has been trying to get to Baghdad for the last five years. Let’s get there in three weeks.”
The Hraes army packed up all their gear, took all the hardware off their trebuchets and rowed down the Sakaria River in the breaking dusk of dawn and were gone. General John Kourkouas took credit for the victory. Perhaps he deserved it. Had he not shown up, the next day the Hraes’ would have driven the Romans back onto their beach and into the Sea of Marmara. As the princes sailed with their warships east along the Black Sea coast, Prince Ivar signaled for the fleet to stop in at Sinope. The Christian ships in their fleet could not sail with them to the Caliphate, so the princes decided to dispatch their plunder north, half to Kiev and half to Gardariki to keep it safe using the Christian ships for transport. While the men were gathering up the booty and loading it upon the appropriate ships, Prince Ivar went into the city of Sinope with a troop of soldiers and kidnapped the consul’s wife.
“The Romans are sending a force to reclaim Sinope,” he told her. “They will likely execute all women that cooperated with us. My men are here to gather up any women that want to come with us.”
“I’m a Roman. What makes you think they will execute me?
“You will be punished. At the very least they’ll enslave you, and I know you’ve done nothing to deserve it. You sought only to save your husband.”
“And his own men killed him!” she cried.
“I promised you a Hraes’ station in Sinope. I’ll set you up with one in Phasis until the Romans get over their anger and decide they want to trade with the Hraes’ Trading Company again. Then we can set you up with another station here. It will only be a year or two. Then the Emperor will agree to a new treaty with us and it will be business as usual. That’s the way it works when trading with the Romans. Now gather up your children. We must leave. I’ve already arranged for an estate for you in Phasis. We must go!”
Fear of her own Roman government drove the consul’s wife to gather up her children and leave Sinope for the relative security of the Greek city of Phasis. And many women of Sinope took the Hraes’ up on a similar offer of escape. By the time Ivar’s men had gathered up all of the women’s belongings, the treasure ships were loaded with plunder and sailing off to their respective destinations.
As the Christian Kievan treasure armada sailed north past Cherson they were intercepted by Theophanes and his fifteen fire breathing dromons and destroyed. Halfdan and some Hraes’ ships escaped the conflagration, but much of the Roman booty sank to the bottom of the sea. Many Hraes’ sailors were burned or drowned or captured and crucified in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the first Christians crucified there since the Romans converted to Christianity from the tripartite Heathen religion that the Hraes’ still followed. Byzantine annals would say that the Rhos leader escaped, but he was already on his way to Baghdad. General John Kourkouas would never get there.