Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
THE BIRTH OF SVEIN ‘THE OLD’ IVARSON (Circa 943)
The merchant fleets of the north began arriving early, first the Danish fleet, then the Swedes, followed by the Norwegians and Icelanders, the Angles of Northumbria, the Normans of Frankia and lastly the Irish. The City of Kiev was full up to the rafters and the Dnieper held two thousand ships within the quays of Kiev. The Pechenegs that ran the Dnieper portages had never seen so many ships and the Greeks of Cherson bolted up their city gates until the throngs of longships had passed. But one Kievan Christian ship did not turn east across the Black Sea, but continued on south sailing past Constanza and Messembria. It was going to Constantinople under a white shied of truce with an embassy that was to protest the inhumane use of Greek fire and the crucifixion of captured Christians, which was against Roman laws of the time. The ambassadors were also instructed to plant an idea in the emperors’ ears, that General Kourkouas took credit for a false victory in Nicomedia because he has eyes on the throne.
The northern merchant fleet was soon joined by the merchant fleet of Tmutorokan, adding another five hundred ships to the already massive flotilla as it passed by, hugging the north coast of the Black Sea. Soon it reached the city of Phasis and turned inland. The Rioni River seemed to swell at the influx of ships as though the billowing sails were drawing salty furrows up into the Georgian hills.
“I’m stopping here to visit my Roman wife,” Ivar told his father, “and I’ll have to tell the store start-up crew here to prepare to go to India.”
“Good luck with that,” Hraerik shouted from his ship. “They were supposed to go back to Denmark after the Tiflis start-up. And give my best to the consul’s wife!” he laughed as he waved goodbye to his son. Hraerik had his men rowing while sailing to catch up with the warships at the vanguard of the fleet. Two Hraes’ legions were being transported in those ships, one from Kiev and one from Tmutorokan, and a combined legion of cataphracts. The cataphracts were to secure the Rioni-Kura portage and ride patrols between Phasis and Tiflis and one legion of foot would be stationed in Tiflis to protect the city. The second legion would accompany the fleet as it passed by Bardha, and scouting parties would be sent into the city to look for Romans from General Kourkouas’ legions of the Levant. Then the legion would melt into the merchant fleet and embed themselves inauspiciously amongst the merchants as a security precaution.
A week later, Ivar and a half dozen warships sailed from Phasis to the Rioni-Kura portage and were assisted by the last of the people from Tiflis, as they packed up their gear to await the return portage, and Ivar took some of them in his ships to save them from walking. He stopped at Tiflis for a day to see how his hot spring had turned out and was very pleased with the result. There were crowds of visitors in the city and many of them were using the hot spring. He even soaked in it for a few hours and spent the night in the inn he had stayed at with his father.
The next day they were sailing past Bardha and they must have caught the locals by surprise because they could see an army training in a huge field a mile from the river. Ivar pulled out his optical scope and surveyed the scene. He could see that it was likely local militias in training, but it looked as though they were being trained by Roman officers and legionnaires. “General Kourkouas!” Ivar hissed under his breath. “I know he is behind this,” he said to himself. Ivar had his men unfoot their masts and they rowed east past Bardha, which was too far inland to be seen, even with the scope his father had given him. Once they were well past the city, they reset their masts and soon the river turned south and Ivar saw a small river entering the Kura from the Bardha side. One of his officers told him it was called Turtle Creek and it flowed from Bardha. He had his fleet sail single file up the creek, but it soon narrowed too much for maneuverability so, they rowed back to the Kura estuary and hid the ships amongst the reeds there.
Leaving most of his men to guard the ships, Ivar took a party of fifty south to scout the land. They were moving under the cover of tall reeds when they saw ten men leading a large creature behind them. They had never seen such a beast before, but Ivar knew from his studies that it was a war elephant, because he saw a wooden tower on the brute’s back. The men training with the elephant soon heard a horn blast and one of them tied the foot of the beast to a small stake in the ground and they left, and joined a militia group off in the distance for lunch. Ivar’s men went to the elephant and tried to lead it away, but it stuck its head down, curled its trunk and refused to move. Fifty men pulled on ropes that were already around the brute’s head, but they could not move it. Ivar wondered how a thin rope on a stake could be used to restrain the beast when fifty men couldn’t budge it. Then he thought that perhaps these people had some trick to control and guide the animal around. So, Ivar left ten men to hide in the reeds and watch the men in training when they returned and he led forty men further along the reeds to spy on the militia group in training. As they progressed along the reeds, Ivar took out his scope and studied many more groups of men being trained by Roman officers and the legionnaires looked to be from the same units he had faced in Nicomedia. They were officers under the command of General Kourkouas. Ivar and his men followed Turtle Creek all the way to Bardha and found militia units in training all the way to the city wall. The Hraes’ returned to their men near the elephant and the men explained to Ivar how the elephant was controlled. They has seen the men take hold of the beast’s reins and place them on either side of its neck then feed them through a hole in a cross-beam of the tower, and by pulling up the creature’s head with a pulley, they controlled it.
Soon all the men in training heard a horn sound and they began returning within the city walls. The ten men training with the elephant stripped the tower off its back and set it down nearby for the mahout to sleep in. Only one small man, the mahout, stayed with the elephant and the Hraes’ quickly overpowered and captured him. But with the tower sitting on the ground, they no longer knew how to control the beast.
Ivar talked in Hindi to the small man who cared for the elephant and learned that the elephant was in musth and was too dangerous to keep in the city for a few days because it could go into a rampage and kill people. Ivar also learned that there was only the one beast in Bardha and had been gifted to the city by a Maharaja and that the Romans now wanted it trained for war. The mahout led the elephant down the creek to the estuary where their ships were hidden, but it was too large for the longships and could rampage if forced aboard. Ivar asked the small man who the Romans were planning to attack, but the man said he didn’t know, only that the Romans were from Jerusalem and were training the locals to attack somebody nearby, perhaps the people lording it over Tiflis. Ivar told the Indian slave that he was freeing him and would take him to Gujarat or Maharashtra, whichever he preferred, but he could not stay here. He also explained to the elephant handler that he could not take the elephant along, nor could he leave it in the hands of the Roman enemy. The Indian understood and, though he loved the beast, he longed to return to India and he tried to remember what freedom was like. He sat quietly in Ivar’s shield ship while he was bound up in the stern.
“I wanted to kill the elephant,” Ivar started, “but I wanted the beast to fall in the Kura River so we could tow him behind us. Then the Romans will never find him and know what has happened to their secret weapon. We tied the small rope around the beast’s front foot and drove the stake into the riverbank. I passed out spears to six of my officers, six spears each, and they surrounded the creature and stabbed five of their spears into the wet sand and charged the beast with their sixth. They thrust the long razor tips into him, going for the lungs, heart and belly and he staggered from the strikes, but he did not go down. Nor did he fly into a rage. He just turned away from the thrusts and, as he circled, my men had to jump back or be hit by his tusks or his tail. They pulled their fifth spears out of the earth and charged him again, thrusting six blades into his flanks and shoulders and still the elephant did not fall, but turned again, this time erratically and the spear butts sticking out of him slapped down some of my officers, knocking one of them into the river. Five of them grabbed their fourth spears and the elephant looked to run, but its foot reached the end of the rope and a slight tug from the stake stopped it. My men charged from the sides once more, going for the heart, lungs and viscerals.” Ivar took a long drink of wine. He was in Baghdad, in the Caliph’s palace drinking with his dad and Rajan. He waited until they were about to ask something and then said, “They drove their spears deep and the elephant dropped to its knees, but made no sound other than its laboured breathing. Deep red blood spilled across the river sand and the blood was the colour of death. But the brute got back up and shook the spears as if to toss them back at his attackers then he staggered away from the river and slapped the men on that side with his spear butts, knocking two of them into the mud. ‘Drive it towards the river,’ the men watching shouted. I ordered them to be quiet. They were making more noise than the dying elephant. Four men grabbed their third spears and charged. The two from the rear thrust their spears in his flanks, driving him forward and the two at the front planted their spear butts into the riverbank as the beast fell forward and impaled himself upon them. His front legs collapsed under him, but his rear legs remained straight leaving his haunches skyward at an odd angle. He lashed out with his trunk as he fell and knocked both attackers before him into the river. For the one man, it was his second time in the drink.
“The elephant was struggling to breathe and his rear legs were pawing at the ground, driving him forward through the wet sand and towards the river. Four men grabbed their second spears and drove them deep into the beast, but he still breathed on though his rear legs did finally collapse out behind him. All six men then pulled their first spears out of the sand and drove them deep into the brute and he stopped breathing for a bit, then started up again. I had my bearers carry me forward and I pulled Tyrfingr from her sheath and, in an act of mercy, I swung the famed blade at his neck in a downward arc that did not stop until it bit into the earth below the elephant. The beast was dead, its head severed from its body. We put the head in my ship and we used the rope on its front leg to tow the beast out into the river. At first the beast would not budge, so I had my men pour buckets of water onto the sand and it soon slid into the water. We used more water to erase any signs of the killing of an elephant and we towed the body behind us as we progressed down the river. I did not want General Kourkouas to know what had happened to his secret weapon! When we turned into the Araks tributary we cut the body free so it could make its way to the Caspian Sea.”
“What did you do with the head?” Rajan asked excitedly.
“Why I sold it in the Blue Market of Baghdad this morning,” Ivar stated. “I don’t know if my customer wanted it for the ivory or for mounting.”
“Have you told the Caliph about General Kourkouas yet?” Hraerik asked.
“I’m not sure if we should,” Ivar answered. “I’d like to take care of Kourkouas myself and save our Caliph the trouble.”
“That might be best,” Hraerik said and Raj nodded in agreement.
Much later, in Ashaval, Hraerik told Ivar about a vision he’d had while hanging nine days on the life tree, Yggdrasil. They were sitting on their balcony sipping wine and watching their men unpack their awnings below. “I saw giants from Giantland, during the age of ice, killing a great wooly elephant and they did it much like your men, but the spears they used were a foot long and they stuck them in a long handle and would stab the beast and the foot long section would stay in the beast and they pulled another foot long section out of a waist pouch, stuck it into the handle and pierced the beast again with it, then took out another from their pouch and a group of giants would keep doing this until the giant beast was dead. I thought they had invented these nodularized spears so they didn’t have to carry six long spears at a time, but now I think they just got tired of the elephants slapping them down with their own spear butts!”
Ivar was laughing hard when there was a knock on their door. It was two young Jat princesses looking for Ivar and one very pregnant Jat princess named Myia looking for Hraerik. “You’re late!” she said to her prince. “Thus, I am late,” and she patted her swollen belly. Hraerik got up and led her into his bedroom.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you were in Ashaval!” He pulled back the silk sheets from the bed and he sat her down and undressed her. “Please, lie down and rest.” Hraerik covered her with silk and went around to the other side of the bed, undressed, and joined her under the covers. He watched the radiant glow of her face and she smiled up at him softly as he cradled her in his arms and she quickly fell asleep. Only with her next to him did he realize how much he had missed her. She worked so hard to be treated as an equal, as a scholar, as a woman, but she was so much more than that. Man created life, but woman took that seed within her and gave it her all: she gave it a little part of her, she kept it within her and protected it as it grew, it bathed in her warmth as she sheltered it from a cold and hostile universe, she kept it in a perfect and pristine environ and it never wished to leave, but leave it must and Hraerik knew that it would leave soon, thrust out into a world so cold that no one was safe, be they born king or slave. He had seen them die as children, royals because they were not wanted, slaves because they were not needed, and everything in between. He had seen so many young men dying on the battlefield and calling out for their mothers, for that place of perfection their souls had remembered, the perfection of that swollen belly that Myia now wore so well. She was so much more than equal. She slept with the gods now and on the morrow, she would give the world a gift that no man ever can and we shall all watch and wish we were her equal.
The next day, Hraerik told Ivar that he would not be attending to the market and would be staying in with Myia. That afternoon her water broke and Hraerik sent for the birthing healers. They arrived at the prince’s bedroom just as the baby was crowning and Hraerik saw a tuft of wet black hair, poking out towards the light, before the two older women chased the him from the room. “But I want to cut the cord,” Hraerik complained. And the healers promised to call him in for the cutting. Hraerik sat at a table in the great room and placed his knife upon the burled oak of the table. It was a patterned Damascus blade he had made in his youth under the tutelage of Brak, a metallurgical alchemist from Damascus, and even Brak admitted that it was a beautiful knife. Hraerik had made it in dedication to the gods for allowing him to make it off a frozen lake that had started cracking under his feet when he was halfway across it. He didn’t believe in the gods, preferring to put his faith in his arm and in science, but it’s an easy thing to mentally promise the gods a knife when one loves forging them anyway. And now he would dedicate it to his child.
There was a gentle tapping at the door and Rajan walked into the room. “I heard it was happening,” he said as he sat down across from Hraerik. “Is it happening?”
“It is happening, my friend,” Hraerik answered. “Thank you for coming, and thank you for gifting me with an old maid of eighteen almost a year ago.”
“Anything for our Aesir guests,” Raj said, bowing modestly.
A baby cried out from the bedroom and a healer came to the door and called for Hraerik. He grabbed the knife off the table, spat on it and wiped it with his shirt as he entered the bedroom with Raj following at a distance. The other healer held the baby in one arm and had her free hand wrapped around the umbilical cord. When she was satisfied that the baby was breathing on its own and all blood flow through the cord had ceased, she passed the cord to Hraerik and told him to cut it and she touched the place she wanted it cut at. The blade was so keen that Hraerik laid the cord upon the edge and when he pulled the knife away, the cord fell away in two. Hraerik could see Myia watching him and smiling softly. “It’s a girl,” the healer announced, holding the baby up for Hraerik’s inspection, then she took the baby over to Myia and put it in her arms. The older healer then left and the younger healer planned to stay with Myia all night long.
When Ivar returned from trading, Hraerik and Rajan told him of the birth. They had a celebration feast brought into the suite and Hraerik offered Myia and her healer some food, then rejoined the princes on the balcony. Soon there was a knock upon the door and two more young Jat princesses were vying for Ivar’s attention. Rajan retired and Hraerik slept on the couch in the great room. The next day Hraerik and Ivar started setting up the new Hraes’ Trading Company store and station in Ashaval. Rajan had already shown Ivar two locations in Ashaval that had buildings ready for purchase or rent, but Ivar wanted a station that was in the heart of the city, yet had sea access. One of the Ashaval merchants had such a location but would sell it only and at a steep price. Ivar paid five hundred marks of gold for the place, but the store was big, the warehouse had access to the sea and from the station you could see the riverbank of Rajan’s palace where the Hraes’ merchants beached their ships and pitched their awnings. It gave him a sense of security knowing that, in the busy part of the trading season, he would be able to signal many Hraes’ merchants if help was ever needed. Hraerik agreed with his choice and said, “I hope I can find a location like this in Mumba.”
“When will you be going there?” Ivar asked.
“We should have this store set up in a couple of weeks and Myia should be ready to travel with your sister, baby Kura, by then.”
“If you want to leave sooner, I can finish the set-up here,” Ivar offered.
“I’m learning from you,” Hraerik told his son. “I’m watching and learning how you adapt each store to its local environment, to the local customs. Trying to keep up with your ideas is a learning experience in itself.”
“Plus it gives my little sister more time to build up her strength for the trip,” Ivar added. “Everybody wins!”
Hraerik sent some Hraes’ merchants to Mumba early, but two weeks later he and Myia took their baby to her parent’s estate just outside the City of Seven Islands. Myia’s parents welcomed them all into their home and insisted that Hraerik operate out of their home while setting up his new Hraes’ store and station in the city. Hraerik told Myia’s father what type of building he was looking to buy and where he was looking to find it. He stood on the beach of her father’s estate and pointed to the city across the bay and told him he wanted to be able to see it from the beach. The merchant fleet set themselves up on the beach and the next day Hraerik sailed into Mumba with Myia’s father and they found just such a place. Hraerik bought it for three hundred marks of gold and signaled for his Danish start-up crew to come join him. It took a couple of weeks of hard work to get everything set up and Hraerik began to notice subtle differences between the preferences of the Jats in Ashaval and the Jats in Mumba. He also found suppliers of products that couldn’t be found in Ashaval and he sent a ship of the items back to Ashaval to see if Ivar wanted to market them in the store there.
Once all the major details were ironed out, Hraerik could relax and let the Danish crew take over and train local staff. It was about this time that Myia started to notice him in a way other than as a father and they spent an afternoon together in their room and he resumed his training in reading Sanskrit. “Where were we at?” Hraerik asked her, kissing her gently. “I can’t even remember,” he whispered.
“You’re such a fibber,” she replied. “We were at ‘The Congress of Crows’, she reminded him and began tearing off his clothes. The couple spent the next month in the marital bliss of newlyweds, even though they were not wed. Hraerik’s status as a Bhraman gave their relationship the sanctity of marriage, so they enjoyed the pleasure of each other freely. It was days spent relaxing on beaches and nights baby sitting and reading ‘the Book’. It was an unforgettable time of their lives, but it passed too quickly. Complications began to emerge.
“I think we’ll be going to war with the Romans when I get back,” Hraerik told her. “There is a Roman General Kourkouas who intends to drive us out of Armenia and our trade route runs through that land.”
“The Romans are very powerful,” Myia stated. “How will you defeat them?”
“We have no intentions of defeating them,” Hraerik answered. “We typically crush them in a few battles and lay siege to Constantinople until the Romans agree to our terms. Then we continue trading with them peacefully for another forty years or so. It sounds bizarre, even more so when I say it now, but that is the way it has always been. No siege, no terms.”
“How big is Hraes’?” Myia asked in wonderment. “I mean…the Persians couldn’t defeat them and the Caliphate can’t beat them. How big is Gardar, this ‘Land of Forts’?”
“It’s not that Hraes’ is big,” Hraerik answered slowly. “It’s more of a concept than a country. More a company than a kingdom. We’re good at what we do and we make a lot of gold doing it. And gold wins wars.”
“But the Romans? How much gold do you have?” Myia blurted out, then apologized. “I didn’t just say that. Pretend I didn’t ask.”
“I remember once, in Angleland,” Hraerik started, “a king was bragging to me about how much gold he had in his country’s treasury. I told him I made that much gold each trading season, and I don’t even own half of the company.”
“Should I be worried about you?” Myia asked. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“No. I’ll be fine. I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve learned to stay out of the line of fire, which is very important when dealing with the Romans. It’s Ivar that I’m worried about. He takes too many risks. He leads his warriors from the front, from the vanguard.”
“Yes,” Myia said. “Ivar ‘the Boneless’. Even warriors in India have heard of him, and they all fear him. Some say they don’t, but they are lying.”
One day Myia came to Hraerik with a problem. “Some young girls from my sister’s school want to go to the university here, but their parents are forcing them to get married.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Hraerik said. “Perhaps we could pay for their education?”
“It’s more than that,” Myia said. “Their parents want children and that requires marriage.”
“I’m not following you,” Hraerik said.
“If they have to get married, they will have to stop their studies. They’re Jats, so they are considered to be barely in the warrior caste, so we tend to have to marry down and that will end their studies. But if you gave them Aesir babies,” Myia whispered, “they wouldn’t have to get married at all and could graduate to university.”
“Just how old are these girls? I know it is your custom to marry before fully through puberty, and that is just too young for me. You, at least, were eighteen, my love.”
“I know,” Myia pleaded. “My parents were willing to let me be an old maid, but even I knew that it wouldn’t last, so when I got the chance to go to Gujarat and have an Aesir baby, I jumped at it. It gave me my freedom, forever.”
“Is that what I am to you? A ship that you sail to liberty? A steed that you ride to freedom?”
“I love you!” Myia said. “I ride your steed for my own personal pleasure and yours too, I hope.”
Hraerik burst out laughing. “Yes,” he admitted. “It is very pleasurable for me as well. Why are we even arguing about this? As long as you are okay with this, I’ll help your friends. But you have to be with us as well and we have to go by the Book.”
“They are both very pretty,” she whispered. “And I’ll help. I know we had problems with my virginity, but most girls find it much less painful than I did.”
“I know about virgins,” Hraerik lied. “I was young once. I’ve had my share.”
Both girls wanted boys and, unfortunately their periods had occurred simultaneously, so Hraerik had the same three days to impregnate them before he had to return to Baghdad. So they all slept together and thanks to Myia’s growing skills at the ‘Nominal Congress’ and the ‘Congress of Crows’, Hraerik was able to make love to the two young girls several times a night for the three days in a row, but Myia did not ride his steed again until several days before he had to leave. She was a fast learner and it was her three days to have a boy.
“How many girls,” Hraerik asked Ivar when he got back to Ashaval, “do you think you’ve gotten pregnant this trip?”
“All of them!” Ivar answered.
“How many is all of them?”
“Two a night for three months,” Ivar said and he did the mental math, “about a hundred and eighty.”
“How do you do it?” Hraerik asked his son, and he told him about his liaisons in Mumba. “I did two a night for three days and it almost killed me! And you’re doing two a night for three months and you’ll be doing Saleem in Baghdad and your Roman wife in Phasis and Helga is ready to pop in Kiev! It’ll kill you yet!” Hraerik warned him.
“If I visit my wives in Denmark and Norway it’ll kill me,” Ivar admitted. “They’ll kill me!” and the father and son both laughed. These were the good problems. But there were bad problems as well. Roman armies and Khazar fortresses between Ivar and half his lovers and they really did want to kill him.
The father and son spent their last evenings on their balcony in Ashaval laughing about the good problems and discussing how to handle the bad. Finally Rajan told them, “Pay them off! Pay them off! The Romans do it all the time!”
“We don’t pay tithes,” Ivar started, “and we don’t pay off our enemies.”
“We’ve never paid off our enemies,” Hraerik admitted. “We are Aesir. We crush our enemies,” but there was a thought in Hraerik’s head that said, ‘perhaps we should start.’
Hraerik and Ivar met up with the rest of their merchant fleet in Baghdad and they heard reports from the Caliph’s men at the Tigris-Araks portage that a plague had broken out in Bardha. Ivar felt that the news may have been a ruse to cover up the military activity he had seen there in the spring. The fleet met up with the Caspian fleet returning from Khwarizm and Cathay and as they sailed past Bardha, the area seemed suspiciously quiet. Ivar sent a cavalry unit to check on the city and when they came back, they reported that the city flew a quarantine flag and there was no response from the towers at the locked main gates. They rode around the city and found all the city gates shut so, they left the city in peace.
“I’m going to come back here later with a fresh Kievan legion, after we deal with Theophanes and his dromons” Ivar told his father. “We don’t want the fleet infected by a plague, if there really is one here, so we should just carry on and leave them in peace for now. ” Hraerik agreed. He had seen a Khazar army ravaged by plague many years ago. It was not pretty.
Ivar was at the vanguard of the fleet and broke away with a few warships to visit with his new wife and her Hraes’ station in Phasis, then he rejoined the rear of the fleet a few days later. With hard rowing and good tacking, Ivar’s warships soon caught up with the vanguard. Ivar told his father that he would see him in a month. After that, all hell would break loose.
“Oh, you are a sight to behold,” Ivar told Helga when he met her on the quays of Kiev. Her belly was swollen and rounded and ‘even bigger than Myia’s’, he thought as he put his hands upon her and he felt a small kick.
“You’re late,” she complained. “The healers have been giving me drugs so I don’t pop! I want you here for this, more than ever,” she added and kissed her husband in welcome. “They say that as soon as I stop taking the drug, I shall go into labour.”
“Then stop now!” Ivar exclaimed. “I am so excited. I’m sure it’s a boy.”
“I think you are right,” she agreed. “He’s big.”
The next day, Helga gave birth to an eight pound baby boy and they named it Svein, meaning swine, the deadly foe of snakes. “He is handsome like you,” Helga said, laying on the bed. Ivar spent some time with them then got to work on fleet accounts. Gold was collected and gold was paid out and the merchant fleets headed north, but their warships stayed. They would be heading back south with Ivar ‘the Boneless’ Hraerikson in an attack upon the Roman navy of Constantinople. The new ships that Hraerik and Ivar had designed and built were being tested on the Sea of Azov and were being kept out of sight along the quays of Gardariki.
Ivar kissed his wife goodbye and his baby was no longer in her belly, but swaddled in her arms and he gave the boy a kiss as well and left with his warships and his legions. He met Hraerik and his legions and their new warships at Cherson and they set off in search of Theophanes and his fifteen fire-breathing dromons. After famously sinking Ivar’s treasure ships off the coast of Constanza, Theophanes had retired with his fleet to the harbour of Messembria with orders to keep the Black Sea free of Varangians. Half the Roman fleet was hunkered down in the Golden Horn harbour of Constantinople, sheltering behind the great chain that sealed off the harbour mouth, and the other half was still in the Levant, supporting General Kourkouas in his war upon the Caliphate.
The Varangian fleet set upon Constanza first, storming and pillaging the surrounding coast while the people sheltered behind the walls of the city. Pearl divers had been busy there, recovering gold from the bottom of the sea, where Ivar’s ships had gone down in flames. Ivar and Hraerik went through the divers’ collections in sheds along the beach of Costanza. “That’s from Nicomedia,” Ivar said.
“And that’s from Amastris,” Hraerik said.
“That’s from Sinope,” Ivar said.
As they went through the sheds, they found more and more gold and silver items that the divers had dragged up from the seabed. “Just leave it,” Hraerik said, as Ivar was about to start gathering up his loot. “This is just what they recovered in today’s dives. The rest is in there,” he said, pointing at the city walls, “and we don’t have time for a siege so we can take it back. It’s better they think we didn’t see this,” and Hraerik led his men away from the sheds and ordered them off the beach. “We’ll let them recover it all for us. We’ll come back after we’ve dealt with the Romans, then we’ll take it all back.”
The Hraes’ war fleet left Constanza as quickly as they had arrived and they hugged the coast and sailed south for Messembria. They had just recently raided the area so, they were familiar with the harbour there. The city was on a peninsular island quite similar to Sinope and was designed to be defended from land attack and not from sea. There was a long strip of land connecting the island to the mainland and the harbour ran along the sandy southern side of the strip. Hraerik knew that Theophanes would have his dromons backed up to the beach in a long row ready to be rowed out to sea at the first sign of any enemy and would have the bronze tubes of the Greek fire systems at the ready to belch out their deadly brimstone. “We shall use the peninsula, itself, as a weapon against Theophanes’ dromons,” Hraerik announced. “We shall come down the coast at full speed with our new ships and nose into the beach on the north side of the peninsula and we’ll use our trebuchets to attack the rudders of their ships and our rocket propelled arrows to attack the bronze fire tubes on their sterns. Their torsion catapults have half the range of our gravity trebuchets so, they won’t be able to fire back at us. And the flammability of the bronze tubes is a weakness we can exploit using the range of our Cathayan arrows.”
So, that was what they did. They rowed down the coast, spotted the Dromons on the opposite side of the peninsular land bridge and began firing rocket propelled arrows at the bronze fire tubes that were glistening in the noon sun and unleashed trebuchet tonstones at the rudder boards of the dromons. In the first volley of rocket propelled arrows, two of the fire tubes took direct hits and the explosions of the rockets set the Greek fire tanks below deck aflame and the volatile vapours and liquids exploded, blowing the sterns right off the ships. The trebuchet rounds destroyed many of the rudder systems on ships as they lay exposed from the rear. The rudders were armoured, but the high velocities of the dense tonstone rounds tore right through the wooden shielding. The next volley of arrows set off three more bronze tubes and the resulting explosions tore off three more sterns, but now five ships were on fire and they all had Greek fire tanks under their forward tubes as well and soon vapours were wafting across the harbour waters and, when they ignited, the forward tanks of the burning ships exploded and sent their contents of Greek fire flying out across the waters and it floated there and spontaneously combusted so that ships that were starting to row out to get away from the tonstone and rocket arrow barrage were catching fire as the Greek naphtha mixture stuck onto the strakes of the ships and set them ablaze. Another volley of rocket arrows and more bronze tubes were exploding and soon all the dromon fireships were burning, victims of their own inhumane weapons.
The Hraes’ ravaged the peninsular island city of Messembria and the surrounding inland estates before sailing south to Constantinople. The embassy they had sent there in the spring had soon returned to Kiev with news that their complaints had all been rejected by Emperor Romanos Lekapenos. Princes Hraerik and Ivar now had a list of demands that they wanted to, traditionally, nail to the main gates of Constantinople, which meant they would have to draw out the Roman navy in battle, defeat them and somehow overcome the chain that would undoubtedly then be blocking the Golden Horn harbour, which sheltered the main gates. But when the Hraes’ war fleet arrived in Constantinople, the harbour was almost empty. They learned from some local merchants there that the Caliph of Baghdad had stepped up his efforts to drive the Romans out of Judea so, the rest of the Roman navy had left for the Levant to take more troops to Jerusalem.
“The ships they left,” Hraerik started, “are all biremes and don’t look to be fitted with Greek fire. We can take a dozen of our ships, commandeer some local wains, modify them to carry the ships over the peninsula to the other end of the harbour, then sail them up to the main gates and nail up our demands.”
“Fock that!” Ivar replied and he commandeered a twelve oared boat from one of the warships, gathered twelve of his best warriors and had his bearers help him into the boat and they rowed toward a point of the chain that they could just fit under and entered the Golden Horn. They put a white shield on the mast and footed it while they rowed toward the main quay and they berthed the boat in front of the main gates. They unfooted the mast, took the white shield off it and Ivar had his bearers carry him up the dock while he used a small axe to nail their list of demands to the shield and when they got to the gates, he borrowed an axe from one of his men to nail the shield to the right gate. Then they returned to their boat, rowed it back to the chain, went under it and returned to Ivar’s shieldship.
“Or you can do it that way,” Hraerik told his son. “You have to quit putting yourself at risk,” Hraerik told Ivar under his breath. “And my way allowed us some time for pillaging the local estates.”
“I know some of these local merchants,” Ivar replied. “I don’t want to plunder their estates.”
“That’s what happens when you take a Roman wife,” Hraerik lamented, shaking his head.
“Can we just get back to Constanza and get my gold back?”
As they sailed past Messembria, they could still see the burnt timbers of ships in the harbour and Ivar asked, “Did a vision show you how to destroy the bronze tubes of the fireships?”
“Not exactly a vision,” Hraerik replied. “Your grandmother came to me in a dream.”
“Yes. Apparently, she read about it in a future saga.”
“One of our family sagas?”
“No. She said it was a Swedish saga,” Hraerik explained. “All our family sagas are destroyed in the future. But this Swedish saga has you in it and, of course, they call you Ingvar.”
“Nobody can seem to pronounce Eyfur,” Ivar complained. “It’s either Ivar or Ingvar. My mother used to have fits!”
“Well, Eyfura isn’t really a name. Queen Alfhild came up with it. She wanted to name her daughter after herself, but she had already named her son Alf after herself and thought Alf and Alfhild might be a little confusing. When we were retreating from the Khazars before the Battle of the Goths and Huns, she had seen a lonely little pine on a tiny island of the Volkov River and she called it Eyfura, Island Pine, so she named your mother that instead.”
“And she named me Eyfur, after herself.”
“Yes. I told her everybody would end up calling you Ivar or Ingvar, but she insisted on Eyfur.”
“Eyfur ‘the Boneless’,” Ivar mused. “I have the Anglish to thank for that byname.”
“And the whole world fears Eyfur ‘the Boneless’. I could see it in the Romans. When you were being rowed across the Golden Horn in your little boat, the Romans would see you, perched upon your shield, and would suddenly realize you were Ivar ‘the Boneless’ and they would start backing their ships away. It was quite the sight, all those Roman biremes backing off a twelve oared boat.”
“What did grandmother tell you about this Swedish Ingvar?”
“She told me the saga says that you destroyed fire breathing dragonships by shooting fire arrows down their fire breathing throats. And she told me your son, Svein, was in it too.”
“And what does he destroy?”
“He destroys an elephant.”
“But I killed the elephant, with Tyrfingr.”
“It’s a Swedish saga! Exactly which part of it do you think they would get right?” And they both laughed good naturedly.
“You’d best be careful. Your grandfather, Sigurd Fafnirsbane, was a Swedish king.
“And the future sagas call him Sigurd ‘Snake in the Eye’ and they think he actually had a snake marking in his eye.”
“How did he fock up his eye again?”
“He got stabbed in the eye with a blood snake while focking another man’s wife.”
“No wonder our family is so focked up!” Ivar exclaimed. ”What else did she say?”
“She told me that my Gunwar and your Uncle Rollo are in the Christian heaven together.”
“That’s great. It’s nice to see their converting was rewarded.”
“She meant they’re together in heaven in the Christian biblical sense.”
“Oh…not so great.”
“But your grandmother assured me that she and I would be together in Valhall. She told me she is there now, waiting for me. Your mother, Hervor, is there with Oddi and they are living like gods.” Hraerik paused, as though hesitating. “I asked her if I was going to die soon, die in battle. She told me my seat in Valhalla was assured, whether I died in battle or in a straw death, because I had already sacrificed so many young warriors to Odin.”
“That must’ve hurt,” Ivar said. “I mean for somebody who doesn’t believe in the gods, is all.”
“But she didn’t answer me and she started getting evasive as if I wouldn’t like the answer she would give me.”
“So, how do you feel about spending eternity with her?”
“Well…she was my first love. And she’s still the most beautiful woman I ever saw. You know, when you remember seeing a woman in a certain way, just once in your life, where all the strength leaves your body and you just shiver thinking about that one memory?”
“Ah,” Ivar said. “I call it the Helga effect. I saw her that way the first time I saw her in Chernigov and I almost fell out of my saddle. It was love at first sight. If you saw Alfhild that way once, you’ll be fine with her in Valhall.”
“But ours was an unrequited love.”
“You two never did it?”
“No,” Hraerik lied. “We did sleep together once, but it was after I married Gunwar and I was winning Alfhild for King Frodi. We slept with Tyrfingr between us. It was still in its scabbard,” Hraerik reminded Ivar.
“I keep Tyrfingr in her scabbard,” Ivar insisted. “I was going to use Tyrfingr’s pommel to nail our demands up in Constantinople, but I remembered the curse and the danger and I asked one of my men for an axe instead.”
“Good,” Hraerik said. “Still, you must try to minimize how much risk you expose yourself to. Soldiers come and soldiers go and some soldiers retire to their farms and some soldiers die, but a prince is always at risk. You’re born a prince, you die a prince and there is no retirement in between. A prince will always have to defend his lands so, a prince must learn to manage his risks. Let your best warriors take the vanguard and the greatest risks. Old soldiers are everywhere, but old princes are few and far between.”
“Well, I’m thankful that you, at least, have made it to ‘old prince’.”
“I hope so,” Hraerik said, “but I didn’t like the way Alfhild was getting evasive when I asked her if I was to die soon. I think my days may be numbered. But promise me you’ll minimize risks, at least for the next while. No more Constantinople stunts for a while. Okay?”
“I promise,” Ivar swore.
As the war fleet approached Constanza, masts were unfooted and ships were rowed, hoping to catch the Romans with their gates open, but the people were still on edge up and down the coast and at the first sign of ships, the gates were bolted shut and the women and children locked up inside. But they did catch some divers who were still out in the sea waters. When they got back on land, they were captured and questioned. They had recovered almost all the gold that was recoverable and it was all still in the city. None had been shipped back to Constantinople. There were a few ships that had sunk too far out for divers to get to because the Black Sea bottom dropped down quickly and the depths were too great. Hraerik asked the divers if they had ever heard of the underwater breathers of India and he told them about some of the breathing techniques the Indians used. Ivar set up the siege of Constanza while Hraerik worked with the divers to try to recover the gold from two more ships, for which he offered them a share of the recovered gold. He told the divers they could have their shares of gold outright or he would write them out bank drafts for gold out of a famous banking house in Cherson. The divers may not have known about the underwater breathers of Gujarat, but they all knew about the Hraes’ Trading Company and so they all chose the velum notes. They knew the Romans of Constanza would confiscate any gold they were caught with.
Hraerik spent time with the divers, teaching them how to trap air underwater in silk garments and how to gently fan absorbed air out of the water to replenish the trapped air as they breathed it, but they learned that the system didn’t work well at depths below twelve feet. The air wouldn’t stay trapped in the silk as pressures increased, so, they purchased huge amphora from within the walls of Constanza and they trapped air in the inverted amphora and experimented with breathing the trapped air. They settled on using huge cylindrical ceramic pots that they inverted and let down underwater on ropes from ships above. The divers could swim up into them to breathe, then dive down to the sea bottom to recover more gold by tying ropes to chests and bars and statuary. So, while Ivar was busy trying to starve the Romans into surrendering, Hraerik was supplying them with food and wine in exchange for the goods he needed to recover the rest of the gold.
As the siege dragged on, Ivar became impatient and told his father that he wanted to sail to Bardha and find out what was going on there. He told his father that he wanted to capture the city and treat it the same way they had handled Tiflis. He wanted to capture or crush any standing army they had there and enslave half the town and tax the remainder in the ancient Roman way.
“You’re going to piss off the Caliph,” Hraerik warned. “We got off lightly with him over Tiflis, but only because we had attacked Nicomedia and half the Roman territory in Anatolia. You know, an enemy of my enemy is still my friend, even though he may enslave the odd far-flung citizen.”
“Well,” Ivar said, holding his arms up and turning around. “What do you call this?”
“I would call the siege of Costanza, recovering your own gold. And the Caliph will call our destruction of the Roman dromons in Messembria, avenging our fallen brothers. And nailing a list of demands and concerns to the gates of Constantinople might be called colluding with the enemy. Now, had we entered the Golden Horn with our fleet and destroyed the Roman ships that were sheltering there, and had we pillaged the estates surrounding Constantinople until the Romans had to recall half their fleet from the Levant to chase us off, thereby relieving the Caliph’s forces in Judea, then he might forgive us our transgressions in Bardha. But the way things sit now, you’d better find Roman legions in Bardha before you enslave anybody.”
“You’re right. I’ll crush their standing army and if I find Roman training officers leading their cohorts, I’ll send them as captives to the Caliph and enslave half the town. If I don’t find Romans, I’ll just plunder the city and surrounding area and I’ll give it back if the Caliph gets all pissy about it.”
“Agreed. We can only part with a legion here though.”
“Fine. We left a legion of cataphracts in Phasis and a legion of foot in Tiflis, so, with another legion I’ll be able to handle anything that Bardha has to offer.”