BOOK TWO: THE SAGA OF ERIK ‘BRAGI’ RAGNARSON

THE VARANGIANS / UKRAINIANS

(THE LYING SAGAS OF DENMARK)

BOOK TWO

THE SAGA OF ERIK ‘BRAGI’ RAGNARSON

— PRINCE RURIK OF NOVGOROD –

— PRINCE ERIK ‘BRAGI THE OLD’ BODDASON OF NORWAY —

— PRINCE HVITSERK RAGNARSON —

A Novel By

Brian Howard Seibert

© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert

WRITER’S UNCUT EDITION

(Contains Scenes of Violence and Sexuality Consistent with the Viking Period)

(May be Offensive to Some)

Kelowna, B.C.

1984 AD


THE VARANGIANS / UKRAINIANS – BOOK TWO

THE SAGA OF ERIK ‘BRAGI’ RAGNARSON

Table of Contents

1.0  THE FORGING OF TYRFINGR  (Circa 828 AD) 6

2.0  A FISTFUL OF LUCK  (Circa 828 AD) 22

3.0  THE WINNING OF FAIR FAXI  (Circa 828 AD) 36

4.0  THE NOR’WAY  (Circa 828 AD) 52

5.0  RETURN TO GOTAR’S HIGHSEAT HALL  (Circa 829 AD) 74

6.0  VISIT AT HRAEGUNARSTEAD  (Circa 829 AD) 85

7.0  THE SLAUGHTER OF ODDI  (Circa 829 AD) 99

8.0  LANDING AT LIERE  (Circa 829 AD) 111

9.0  CONFRONTATION WITH GREP  (Circa 829 AD) 121

10.0  THE HAND OF GUNWAR  (Circa 829 AD) 135

11.0  BATTLE UPON THE ICE  (Circa 829 AD) 145

12.0  THE REBIRTH OF FRODI  (Circa 829 AD) 155

13.0  THE WINNING OF ALFHILD  (Circa 830 AD) 164

14.0  SUBJUGATING THE SCLAVS  (Circa 831 AD) 182

15.0  FATE OF GOTAR  (Circa 831 AD) 196

16.0  THE KHAZARS  (Circa 831 AD) 204

17.0  DIRGE OF ALFGEIR OR THE VIKING AND THE NUN  (Circa 831 AD) 212

18.0  SEA OF CORPSES OR THE CONQUEST OF KIEV  (Circa 831 AD) 228

19.0  BROTHER GREGORY OR THE SARCOPHAGUS OF ST. STEPHEN  (Circa 831 AD) 237

20.0  THE KHAZAR WAR OR SCORCHED EARTH  (Circa 831 AD) 243

21.0  THE SOUTHERN WAY OR THE CITY OF CHERSON  (Circa 832 AD) 251

22.0  TRADING WITH THE GREEKS OR CONSTANTINOPLE  (Circa 833 AD) 262

23.0  TRADING WITH THE ARABS OR MAGIS IN BAGHDAD  (Circa 834 AD) 275

24.0  GARDARIKI;  ERIK’S KEEP  (Circa 835 AD) 293

25.0  THE BUILDING OF SARKEL  (Circa 836 AD) 302

26.0  THE NOR’WAY REVISITED or RETURN TO GLASSY PLAINS  (Circa 837 AD) 309

27.0  CONFLICT WITH THE KHAZARS  (Circa 838 AD) 327

28.0  THE BATTLE OF SARKEL  (Circa 839 AD) 336

29.0  THE SECRET KHAZARS  (Circa 839 AD) 352

30.0  ESCAPE AT INGELHEIM  (Circa 839 AD) 361

31.0  THE FATE OF GARDARIKI  (Circa 839 AD) 366

32.0  BRAGI THE OLD AND BJORN OF THE BARROWS  (Circa 840 AD) 375

33.0  BROTHER GREGORY’S BABY  (Circa 840 AD) 395

34.0  THE BATTLE OF THE GOTHS AND THE HUNS  (Circa 841 AD) 403

POSTSCRIPT:  AMLETH — THE ORIGINS OF HAMLET. 427

APPENDIX A:  THE SAGA OF ERIK ‘BRAGI’; GLOSSARY OF TERMS.. 430

APPENDIX B:  MAP OF EASTERN EUROPE OF THE NINTH CENTURY.. 436

APPENDIX C:  THE ORIGINS OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF THE HRAES.. 437

© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information or storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to the following works, upon which he has based much of his research and a great deal of his writing:

Saxo Grammaticus.  The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus.  Denmark, c.1200.  As translated by Oliver Elton, B.A. London, 1893, with consideration toward the translation by Peter Fisher.  Cambridge, 1979.

Author unknown.  Arrow-Odd:  A Medieval Novel.  Iceland, c.1200.  As translated by Paul Edwards and Hermann Palsson.  New York, 1970.

Author unknown.  The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (Hervor’s Saga).  Iceland, c.1200.  As translated by Christopher Tolkien.  Oxford, 1960.

Vernadsky, George.  The Origins of Russia.  Oxford, 1959.

Pritsak, Omeljan.  The Origin of Rus’.  Cambridge, Mass., 1981.

Davidson, H.R. Ellis.  The Viking Road to Byzantium.  London, 1976.

Dunlop, D.M.  The History of the Jewish Khazars.  New York, 1967.

Author unknown.  Gautrek’s Saga.  Iceland, c.1200.  Translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards.  Middlesex, 1976.

CHAPTER ONE

1.0  THE FORGING OF TYRFINGR  (Circa 828 AD)

“This sword is renowned in all the ancient tales.”

Anonymous; The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.

On a dark spring night, yet crisp with winter’s cold, Erik saw something come crashing down from the heavens.  He was riding his rounds, checking the herds, the northern lights shimmering in the darkness above him, when the dancing curtains parted for a plummeting star.  Growing while falling from the Boreal sky, the ethereal orb soon caught his eye.  Each time Erik blinked in wonderment the falling star grew larger, all the time coming towards him, at first in silence, then accompanied by the lowing of cattle, then by the stamping of his own mount and finally by the prayers of the field slaves singing out in their native tongues.  When at last he could hear it over all that din, there was a whiz as it passed overhead like an arrow, an arrow of the gods, and a bang as it tore through earth towards Hades.  Ducking while dancing his mount once about, Erik watched the dust rising in a copse of trees a hundred paces away.  A dozen trees had shattered as the meteorite buried itself deep within the earth, but a red‑hot shard that had burst free of the main remained on the surface and set the battered brush ablaze.

Erik gathered the slaves and led them into the woods to put out the fire, but the grass was dry and the flames had spread quickly.  Try as they might to beat it down with tattered cloaks and musty horse blankets, the fire fought back.  It enlisted the help of the wind and the darkness and it fought back hard.  Erik handed one of the slaves, a dwarf, the reins of his horse and sent him back to Hraegunarstead to get the freemen and the rest of the slaves.  They would need all hands to fight this blaze.  “And shovels and axes,” Erik shouted after the dwarf as he rode off into the darkness.  The dwarf’s hair was long and black like his own and he thought it odd that he would notice that while a wildfire blazed behind him and the young Norseman then tore off his own heavy wool cloak, his best, he reminded himself, and set to beating down the flames.  Aligning the thralls on either side of himself along the fire front, he had them working with the wind to drive the fire up into the foothills where Ulf Creek ranged and wandered across the field diagonally to the settlement below.  Beyond the creek there was still snow on the ground and, as more men arrived, he would put them in the fire line where the flames fought hardest, and he would shift slaves from the left flank and put them on the right as though he was some officer directing his reserves into a foreign fray in some battle far away.  Sometimes the wind would shift and the long billow of smoke rising from the fire would blow back in their faces and double them up in fits of coughing and the fire would threaten to get away on them until the wind would shift back again.  As more men came, and soon women too, the fire line grew longer and longer, and the front moved forward up the slope until it met the cold rushing water of the spring swollen creek and the fire died in the wet grass of the creek bed.

Tired and exhausted, the freemen and slaves made their way back to the farmstead, but Erik and the dwarf stayed to watch for flames that might spring up.  In the morning’s light he surveyed the damage and he found the star stone shard, still warm in the dew, weighing a quarter stone.  It was an odd bit of metal, akin to a bog iron nodule and the blacksmith within him was aroused.

“If you wish to pull a sword from that stone,” the dwarf cried with glee, peering up into the forge, “there are a few things you shall need.”

“Go back to your hearth, Dvalin,” Erik cried.  “Go play amongst the coals.”  Erik let go the bellows and tonged the red-hot fragment from the forge.  He set it upon a great flat stone and held it in place with the tongs while he beat it with a forging hammer as hard as he possibly could.  It seemed as though the stone should shatter; Erik flushed with the effort while the metal grew pallid with the blows.  When the forging glow had dissipated he sat down, and he rested.  He was exhausted, and the shard showed barely a bruise.

“But it’s the coals that you need,” the dwarf exclaimed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

Erik sensed that the dwarf knew some secret of this stone from the stars.  “Tell me Dvalin,” he said, patting the wooden bench he sat upon, “tell me what you know of this star stone.”

Onto the far end of the bench climbed the dwarf; he bunched up his fists and he swung his arms and he stomped down to the end where Erik sat; standing there, his arms akimbo, he looked Erik straight in the eyes, his own face tightening up into a wrinkled mass as if giant secrets were about to unfold.  “You need the finest coals,” he exploded, “the hardest you can find, and the largest of bellows, two or more,” and he shot out as many fingers on as many hands.  “…enough to make the metal white hot.  Then, and only then, can you forge your sword.”

“How do you know all this, little one?” Erik asked.  “You’ve seen such stuff as this before?”

“If I tell you my secret,” Dvalin explained, backing off to the far end of the bench, “it is only because … of all the folk of Hraegunarstead, only Hraerik’s foot has Dvalin’s rump not met.  You alone have been kind to me, and kinder yet you will be, for there is a great price to be paid in working the star stone.  Ask me no more of it and I will understand.”  The Dwarf used Erik’s Norse name, Hraerik, when he answered him.

“Ah…,” Erik whispered.  “You would like your freedom, no doubt, in exchange for this secret of yours?”

“What good would my freedom do me here?  My backside would but trade my owner’s sole for every freeman’s foot at fancy.  You must take me back to wherefrom I was torn, back to the east, where giants and dwarves like myself roam free.”

“But that is a journey I have never made,” Erik said, humouring the dwarf.  “And, like as not, never shall.”  A sad hone dulled the edge in his tone.  “How can you ask such a price of me?” he queried the dwarf wistfully.

Dvalin shuffled down the bench, took up Erik’s coarse hand and studied it.  “A ship shall soon be yours,” he started, “and such a journey shall be well within your grasp.”

“No ordinary ship can sail the Nor’Way.  It must have double the cross-members and side-timbers.”

“Shush, shush, shush,” the dwarf exclaimed, his face once more a wrinkled mass.  “Such a journey shall soon be yours, and great though it is, it shall be but one of many long trips you shall make in your long life, my lord.”

“Tell me more of this stone, little one,” Erik encouraged him in amused disbelief.

A sudden calm set about the dwarf’s countenance, even though he still seemed quite troubled.  He sat down beside Erik and, staring into the fire of the forge, began his tale.  “In the land of my birth, in my father’s time, we had no iron.  We knew not how to mine it, nor how to search out the iron nodules in the bogs, but odd times we would find metal stones such as the one you have here and from them we would forge our weapons and tools.  They made the finest blades: better by far than the swords of the  Franks or your Stavanger blades….even better than Damascus steel.  But the star stone was scarce and very difficult to forge and sometimes there was a price to be paid in its working.  When your people came to the east, they taught us an easier way…how to find and smelt iron into steel…and how to whet an edge from stone.  The art of my father and his forefathers was working the star stone…and now it is an art all but lost, known only to some fool of a dwarf mucking about the hearth coals of a far-off land.”

A pained look crossed the face of the dwarf and Erik knew then how he longed for home.  “Tell me more Dvalin and, if what you relate of my fate be true, I’ll take you back to the glassy plains, to Giantland.”

The dwarf cheered up somewhat and continued his tale.  “I have watched the star stone being worked and have worked it some myself, so I know its varying qualities,” and the dwarf’s eyes shifted from the forge to the metal upon the anvil, “but I have never seen such a stone as yours.  Even cold as it is now, it retains some of the hearth‑glow.”

Erik studied the stone for a glow.

“Few see it clearly,” the dwarf explained, “some see it better than others, most don’t see it at all.  But I have heard tales about star stones that glowed from my father and others; tales enough to know that if we do forge it into a sword:

it will never rust,

it will forever remain sharp,

it will neither bend nor break

and the most powerful of berserks

     shall never blunt its edge.”

“I’ll get you this hard coal,” Erik exclaimed, “and the bellows…all the pumps you’ll ever need.  And, if what you say of this ship and my travels be true, I’ll return you to your homeland.  When we forge the sword, I’ll consider the bargain as struck.”

“Get me what I need, and the striking shall come soon enough,” Dvalin replied.  He stared into the flames of the forge once more and he contemplated the price of the forging and he wondered, “How soon is soon enough?”

It was the spring of 828 and there was once a powerful Norwegian Vik-King named Ragnar Lothbrok Sigurdson and he had two sons.  Roller, the elder, was a strapping young man of nineteen, with long blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a fresh ruddy face that women found attractive.  Over the winter Ragnar had decided to take Roller with him on a viking expedition down the coast of Jutland, so in the early spring they sailed off leaving the youngest son, Erik, to tend the homestead.

Erik was a big strong lad, a half year younger than Roller and not as tall, but more powerfully built, with coal black hair and deep blue eyes set under heavy brooding brows.  Hard work had always been his lot, and this was reflected in his harsh features.  Unlike Roller, he was neither handsome, nor well trained in arms, but he had surprising strength and drew the heaviest bow in the district.  A steady hand and a sharp eye made his shot unmatched thereabouts.  He was well trained in the black art of the smith and there was a little of the uncanny about him.  He had learned all the old poems and the ancient tales of many lands that his foster-father, Brak, had taught him, and he could read the runes as well as any skald or witch.  But while Ragnar worshipped Odin and Roller trusted in Thor, Erik showed fealty to none of the gods, putting his faith in the strength of his arm and the stroke of his sword; yet there was still a little of the uncanny about him.

The main hall of Hraegunarstead was a longhall of a size befitting Ragnar’s  station as Vik-King of Stavanger Vik or Fjord and Rogaland Province, being thirty-two feet wide, a hundred and forty feet long and standing twenty-four foot at the gable peak.  It was of massive post and beam construction–the huge squared timbers having been hauled out of the great mountain forest surrounding the farm–with board and batten walls and a steep pitched pole and thatch roof that, from the front porch at the gable end, seemed to arc up into the very heavens.  The posts and beams were detailed in carved reliefs of ancient religious motif–the work of finely skilled craftsmen–and the designs marched down the doorposts and across the great oaken entrance doors, twin story panels at the front of the hall.  The heavy front doors opened with effort into the main hall and there was a vestibule with a great square entrance hearth where a fierce fire roared, keeping the chill of the doorway at bay.  The inner front wall of the hall was studded with pegs upon which guests hung their outer garments and weapons.  In the front half of the hall, sleeping benches were butted up endwise to the heavy plank side walls, twelve on either side, and the walls themselves were adorned with the painted shields and silver inlaid weapons of Ragnar’s hired men.  Halfway down the longhall, two sets of triple highseats faced each other, backed against either wall, sitting above the worn plank floor, each upon its own dais.  The highseats, too, were handsomely carved and behind them the walls were rich with tapestries.  In the back half of the hall two dozen more sleeping benches hugged the walls and again the shields and weapons of warriors graced the greying planks.  Down the centre of the hall ranged six long narrow flagstone hearths spaced out evenly between the two rows of sleeping benches leaving an open area between the two sets of highseats where audiences and entertainments took place.  The wood smoke from the hearth fires rose freely up into the beams and rafters where it blackened them with creosote before escaping through smokeholes in the thatched roof.  Beyond the main hall were the bedrooms, three plank walled chambers on either side with a six-foot hallway between them.  And at the very back of the hall was the kitchen and scullery where the feasts and the meals were prepared.

The longhall was the largest of many buildings at Hraegunarstead, a great meadow of a farm at the head of a fjord, closed off from all other land by the heavily forested mountains that surrounded it.  A large crafthouse where all the wool was spun, and the cloth was woven stood to the south of the hall, while a long shipwright’s shop, where the sturdy ships for crossing the Nor’Way were built, stood to the north, all three facing west, opening out onto the bay.  Farther down the shore was a large smithy shop where iron was smelted, and steel was forged.  The homes of Ragnar’s freemen were nestled into the slope behind these buildings and behind the smithy shop there was a greying dilapidated hall in which the slaves slept.  Between the halls and the rising meadow was a loose crescent of outbuildings: a dairyhouse where the cows were milked, and the cheeses were moulded and a salthouse where the meat was laid up.  There were cattle barns, horse stables, sheep sheds and granaries and beyond them all, the meadows, fields and pastures rising gently to meet the surrounding mountain forests.  And running down from the mountains was Ulf Creek, quencher of fires, wandering its way south-west through the fields then west through the little settlement and just south past Ragnar’s longhall, where a little wooden bridge crossed it, then out across the beach and into the bay. 

That evening at supper all Ragnar’s hired men, freemen, the women and children of the stead and the slaves attended their usual places, save for the men out raiding and one dwarf slave named Dvalin.  Erik’s stepmother, Kraka, sat alone in the highest highseat, which she normally shared with Ragnar.  Roller’s highseat to her right sat empty, but on her left Erik shared his highseat with Dvalin, who was dressed in his finest attire, a patchwork of colourful rags.  The matching highseats on the opposite side of the hall were empty, reserved only for guests of high station.  Below them the people of Hraegunarstead were occupied with their meals, sitting at the ends of their sleeping benches or on stools with their trencherplates on their laps, devouring roasted and boiled meats, baked breads, meal cakes, curds and cheeses, then washing them down with milk or ale.

Kraka marked a tendril of smoke as it fled the flames of a nearby hearth, spiraling past a sooty crossbeam, up into the rafter poles, where it joined with a band of smoke playing about the thatch while seeking a smokehole through which to escape out into the cool night air.  She was worried about her son, Roller.  “Much like smoke a child is,” she mused, absorbed in her melancholy reverie.  Dvalin chose this inopportune moment to belch loudly.  Kraka began shaking her head slowly, first left, then right and her silver-blonde hair danced about her shoulders.  Finally, staring into the trencher that was laid across her lap she said, “I never thought I’d see the day when a slave would sit upon a highseat of Ragnar’s.  And a dwarf at that!  What is this world coming to?” she asked of Erik this seemingly eternal question.

“Mother,” Erik sighed, breaking away from his third helping, “you know full well that I have taken Dvalin aside and extended him some freedom in faith of what he proposes to do.”  Erik felt Dvalin shifting nervously beside him.

“Freedom is one thing, Hraerik,” she said, rising from her seat.  Her trencher, which she held a little away from her body, hung down, threatening momentarily to drop from her fingertips.  She was a splendid woman, tall and lithe with a gracefulness that belied her age.  “But from hearth to highseat in a day is quite another.  Hraegunar shall hear about this when he returns.”  Kraka turned, stepped down from the dais and walked away.  A slender bondmaiden rushed up behind her, caught up the trencher plate and followed her into the chamberway.

Erik watched his stepmother disappear and it suddenly struck him how much she had aged.  “Soon she shall walk upon the bitter green,” he thought, then returned his attention to the trencher upon his lap.  Dvalin, too, resumed his meal, savouring the choice cuts of the high seat spread.

“You said there was a price,” Erik started, “a price that is paid when working the star stone.  Has it to do with the peculiar glow of the metal?”

“It is precisely the glow!” the dwarf cried, then continued his repast.  While Erik watched impatiently, he finished his plate, smacked his chops and wiped his mouth on his cuff.  “Stones that glow like yours, I have never actually seen before, but I have heard of them.  My grandfather told me of a blade that was forged from a star stone that glowed thus.  It is heavenly poisoned, this steel, and when forged to an edge it is death to any man it cuts, for, no matter how insignificant the injury, the wound never heals.  We must be very careful when we work it.”  Dvalin looked about the hall nervously, his eyes finally coming to rest at his old spot among the ashes of his former hearth.

“There is more?”

“It is said,” the dwarf sputtered, staring into the flames of the hearth, “that the blade must always be sheathed still smothered in the blood of its last victim, or it will be the death of its owner.”

“Does it smite the hand that wields it?” Erik laughed.

“It is no joking matter,” Dvalin answered palely.  “The man who carries the unquenched blade, a blade cooled only in human blood, is set upon by a disease that sours his own blood, and, over time, he turns quite ash grey and dies!”

“I am not sure I am willing to pay such a price for this sword you propose,” Erik replied, turning suddenly grave.

            “I believe the choice is beyond us both, for you have the stone and I have the skill and we’ll both be loath not to use them; when the forging becomes difficult…I will put the edge on the blade, for that is when it is most dangerous…when the blade has not yet been consummated in the blood of a human being.”

Over the course of the next week Erik had his father’s hired men about on errands.  Some he sent off in search of the hardest coals they could find, while others he sent to neighbouring steads looking for the largest bellows they could borrow.

At Trondheim, in the north of Norway, Erik’s emissaries located a coal so hard the locals had difficulty mining it and so vitrified it hardly burned on its own, requiring softer coals to keep it alight.

With the required resources gathered, Erik and Dvalin set to work forging the sword.  They employed three bellows to keep the coals fired bright, but even these hottest of coals could only just bring the star steel to a white heat and the forging remained very difficult.  It was like working with ton-stone.  For two days they struggled, hammering out, or pulling, a three-foot blade, pounding in bloodletting grooves, forging the trident guard, beating down the middlepiece and forming the heavy ton-stone pommel until a fine sword started to emerge.  Erik did all the heavy forge work, keeping three slaves sweating at the pumps while Dvalin prepared a special leaden scabbard to receive the weapon.

Finally, when the sword was ready to receive its edge, Dvalin asked Erik, in his lilting native tongue, “Which of your slaves do you least prefer?” and he motioned towards the bellowsmen.

Of all the folk of Hraegunarstead, only Erik had managed to master the language of their dwarf captive.  Ragnar cursed the eastern tongue and likened it to the twittering of birds, but languages came easy to Erik and he had learned to converse with the dwarf at an early age.  “The fat one is too lazy for my liking,” he replied in same.

That night Dvalin snuck away from his new sleeping bench in the high seat hall, roused the slaves to run the bellows and refired the forge in the smithy shop.  While an exhausted Erik slept, the dwarf set about putting an edge on the blade.

The smithy shop was a long-weathered shed of ancient stone construction with its whole front left open to the sea.  The acrid smoke from a score of twisted tallow tapers joined up with the soot smoke from the forge and floated out over the moonlit waters of the bay.  The crescent of candles lit the centre of the shed, leaving the periphery in shadows.  In the darkness at the back, three slaves sweated at the bellows.  Dvalin was at the anvil stone, his haggard features emerging softly from the halo of flickering light, as he patiently tinked an edge onto the sword.  He reheated the blade every few minutes and all the while he sang as he worked.  His worn and cracked voice rose above the sighing of the bellows and wafted out over the lapping waters, a low soft song in that lilting native tongue.  When he hammered on the blade the metal would flash brightly, lighting his wrinkled and whiskered face, a cameo floating in the velvet darkness.  Tinking his way up from the guard, he worked both sides of the blade into fine matched edges.  It was with a patience known only to men of his stature that Dvalin worked the metal.  No file or hone had effect on such steel, its sharpness coming straight off the anvil stone.  The dwarf kept tinking the two edges, reheating the sword in the forge, then tinking some more until the edges came together at the tip of the blade.  He then worked a fine point onto the sword.  And a visible glow remained in both edges and converged at the tip even as the blade grew stone cold.  Dvalin held the sword up and surveyed the work he had done.  He slipped the sword into the scabbard several times to check the tight fit then he set the nervous slaves back to work at the bellows as if to heat the blade one last time.  As the man nearest him, the fat one, stretched upward at the pump, Dvalin withdrew the sword from its sheath and thrust it straight through his belly.  The bellowsman screamed in pain, then pitched forward into his own gore and writhed upon the dirt floor.  The other slaves fled in terror lest they be fated to join him.  But Dvalin remained above him, sword still in hand, as the slave churned up mud in his death throes.  The dwarf drove the blade in yet further, all the way to the hilt.  When he prized the sword free it was crimson with gore and the glow had subsided somewhat.  He then slid the blade, still awash with blood, into the heavy scabbard.

The dawn to which Erik awoke was heralded by the death cry of a slave from the smithy shop.  By the time he had dressed and rushed down to the forge Dvalin was ready to present him with the sword.  “It is done, my lord,” the dwarf panted as he held forth the sheathed blade.  “What shall you name her?”

Erik took up the scabbard in his hands and inspected the guard, still dripping with gore.  He was about to withdraw the blade when Dvalin stopped him with a warning.

“She must never be relieved of her scabbard unless there is slaying to be done, for she must always be sheathed in the blood of her last victim.”

Only with blade in hand, gore dripping off the guard and a slave lying dead on the floor, could the sword’s curse be fully felt.  Erik studied the crumpled corpse at his feet and a shudder ran up his spine, for he had no love of the weird; yet he knew even then he would strike the same deal all over again.  He’d found the stone and in Dvalin the skill and he had been loath not to use them.

“I was going to call her Aurvandil’s Toe, but I think the appendage unfitting the blade, be she half what you claim her to be.”

“She’ll be that and more if one can judge by the forging.”

“I believe you are right, and, in such light,  I shall name her after the only god for which I have respect, Tyr, the god of justice.  I name her Tyr’s Finger.”

“Tyr’s Finger”, Dvalin reflected.  “Tyrfingr.  The name fits the forging.”

It was during the forging of Tyrfingr that the war arrow was passed around Norway.  The war arrow, a dart Odin blessed, was stored up in the rafters of a king’s highseat hall, its presence a reminder to all of their duty to their king, its aloofness a reminder of a king’s duty to all.  Lodged amongst the rafters, played upon by the hearth fire smoke, blackened by the soot until it looked quite burnt, the arrow would remain at rest till chance or mood or circumstance moved the god of war and it was taken down by the king and it was passed amongst his chieftains.  Any who chose not to respond to the call put his life and position at risk.  From the rafters of the high seat hall of King Gotar of Romerike was the war arrow now taken down, and it was passed around the Oslo Fjord, The Vik as it was called, on to Ringerike and Tonsberg and Vestfold.  From Vestfold it was passed on to Agder and then to Jaederen Province and on to Rogaland, over which Ragnar lorded.  As he was yet out a viking, it was his son, Erik, who was obliged to accept the arrow.  Erik passed it on to West Agder and on it travelled up the western coast to Gaulardale, Hordaland and Sogn, Fjord Province, Southmore and Romsdalen, then on to Northmore, Trondheim and Namdalen and at last Halogaland, the northernmost province of the loosely federated states of Thule (Norway).

Back in Rogaland, Erik was obliged to take down from the rafters his father’s own war arrow so it could be passed around the surrounding steads to rouse the forces under Ragnar’s command.  He placed a tall stool on his father’s high seat and Dvalin steadied the stool while his mother looked on.  As Erik felt around the top of the rafter up above him, his hand knocked over a stack of two books and they plummeted down from the timber overhead and Dvalin, looking up, instinctively caught them and the trail of falling dust and soot that followed the books drifted down and about the dwarf’s head and shoulders and his face became suddenly black.  Kraka saw it all and she burst out laughing, as Erik looked down and asked what it was that had fallen.  “It is books!” the little dwarf exclaimed, and he looked up at Erik, two big white eyes bobbing in the sea of black that was his face.  Erik, too, began to laugh, so hard he near fell off his stool and he finally found the arrow and climbed down from his perch, dart in hand.

“What are you looking at?” Dvalin cried and this just started Kraka laughing even harder.  The dwarf did not seem aware of how pitch black his face had become until after he had passed Erik the books and began wiping his eyes with his bunched little fists.

Erik brushed the soot off the cover of the top book and he could see that they were both red leather-bound renditions of the same book, rather small books compared to some the Christian missionaries carried, but bound books, nonetheless.  “I didn’t know father could read,” Erik said, and Kraka responded that he couldn’t.  Erik opened the first book and replied, “At least not in this tongue!”  He passed the book to Dvalin and asked, “Have you ever seen this script?”

“No,” the dwarf answered, “but it looks as though it comes from the eastern realms.  Perhaps it’s Persian.”

Erik opened the second book and near dropped to his knees.  This book was a copy of the first, or rather, the first was a copy of this one, for this one was ancient.  Erik could sense it was older than Babylon itself.  Later he would learn the script was in Aramaic, not Persian.  Chaldean Aramaic to be precise.

“Are you alright, Hraerik?” the dwarf asked and Kraka stepped up on the dais to help.

“I fear there is evil in these,” Erik started, then caught himself.  “I know it’s not Latin, because Brak is teaching me Latin.”

“Brak can read the Christian script?” Kraka asked.

“Yes.  And the Greek of the Romans.  Now he’s teaching me.” 

Kraka was amazed.  “I knew he could read the runes,” she started, shaking her head back and forth.  “After all, he keeps Ragnar’s merchant records and he maintains Stavanger’s Naming Book.”

“He can read the runes in all the northern dialects, and the German dialect too,” Erik started, bragging up his mentor.  “And he can read the Christian script better than a priest.”  Erik could see that Kraka seemed impressed.

She had learned to read the runes, but it was her duty as a priestess of Odin and a healer.  She had to be able to read the chants and the incantations, and recipes for potions and remedies.  Kraka was very impressed.  “Perhaps that is why my father hired him so many years ago,” she started, then looked up to the rafters wistfully.  “I thought it was because he knew the secret of steel.  We’d best put the books back……and tell no one that we found them.”

            And Erik did just that.

CHAPTER TWO

2.0  A FISTFUL OF LUCK  (Circa 828 AD)

“The way I see it, Harald has all the luck he’s ever

 likely to need, while our King hasn’t even a fistful.”

Ulf Bjalfason;  Egil’s Saga.

A narrow greensward ran along the south edge of Stavanger Fjord at Hraegunarstead, between the mountains and the vik, a lush meadow the freemen called the bitter green.  At its westernmost point stood a watchtower where a lookout monitored the bend in the fjord for the approach of ships, be they friend or foe.  Whenever one of their longships returned, all the folk of Hraegunarstead would rush along the bitter green to welcome their elite home.  In an instant it would be known which warriors were not returning from battle.  Everyone ran across that meadow.  Only the old folk walked.  It was said the bitter green was watered by the weeping of new-found widows; it was a verdant green.

A week after the passing of King Gotar’s war arrow a longship was spotted sailing up the fjord toward Hraegunarstead.  It was Ragnar’s ship and the whole household rushed out onto the bitter green to welcome him home.  Erik watched as his stepmother, Kraka, ran amongst the throng along the meadow to greet her husband.  Her agility belied her age.  The people stood about, apprehensive, gathered in small moving knots, facing west and swaying with the fresh spring breeze.  The distinctive white and red sail of Ragnar’s ship could be seen above the waves but, as it neared, no white shield could be seen suspended above it.  Only the Raven Banner fluttered madly above it.  Murmurs raced through the throng as the ship’s bulwarks rose up out of the waters and soon the oars could be seen chomping at the waves.  Men could be made out on the foredeck and then men could be seen scampering about mid-deck, gathering up the sail and unfooting the mast.  As the ship passed along the shore the crewmen at the stern kept their heads downcast, as though ashamed.  The people on shore ran back along the bitter green, following the longship’s progress.  Erik, too, ran with the throng, but Kraka, surrounded by the elders of the stead, walked slowly, as though in a trance.  By the downcast nature of the ship’s crew, it was evident that something was amiss.  Ragnar’s ship was rowed till near the shore, then the oars were raised, and it coasted up onto the beach, scudding softly into the salty sand.  Ropes were let out and the multitude grabbed them up and hauled the ship onshore, as the vikings stowed their oars.  Roller was at the forestem, below the fierce dragon’s head, and was the first to leap to land.  Erik rushed at Roller, grasped him by the shoulders, then hugged him.

“You’re alive at least,” Erik said.  “That much I can tell by looking at your glum face.  How went the raid?”

Roller raised a finger to his lips, glancing back at Ragnar as he ambled down the gangplank to the shore.  Erik could see it was a foul mood he was in.  Ragnar hollered out directions to his crew, stamped across the sand to Kraka, kissed her on the cheek, then stormed off toward his longhall.  Kraka, Roller and Erik followed, leaving the folk of the stead on the beach with the crew.  Inside the hall, Ragnar shut himself up in his bedchamber and would let none enter and would not come out.  His sons shared a high seat and a horn of ale, and Roller told Erik about the raid.

“It was fey,” he started.  “The beginning had dire portents, the middle was bad and the ending worse.”  They could hear Kraka and her bondmaidens attempting to coax Ragnar from his chamber.

“First, we ran into Hrafn Ketil,” Roller continued, “King Gotar’s foremost man, on his way back from Denmark and he and father had words.  When we got into Danish waters we found there was little there worth raiding.  King Frodi taxes his people so heavily that they feel their labours not worth the effort.  He taxes their every transaction: when they buy a cow or sell a sheaf of grain or even get married, a share goes to their king.  The Danes have forfeited their wealth to feed themselves and now have so little left it was unseemly to rob them.  We carried on around Gotland and up to Sweden and we traded for iron bars, as usual, but the Danes had driven up prices so high we could only buy a half supply.  And the ton-stone of the Swedes was in short supply as well, but we got most of it.  Then, as if things were not bad enough, on our way back King Frodi’s sea king, Oddi, tracked us down and offered us battle.  Though he had twelve wild berserks howling at the bow of his ship, father was ready to fight him, but Brak had a word with him and they both glanced back at me and they decided that we would make a run for it instead.  He’s never run from a fight in his life and doing so has crushed him.  Oddi chased after us and we rowed for our lives the better part of a day before we lost them in the dark.  The Danes say that, using magic, Oddi travels over the sea without a ship, monitoring all routes, so we skirted the Danish islands in a weaving path, hiding in bays during the day and rowing nights.  That’s why we’re late and that’s why father’s shut himself up in his room.”

“Who were these berserks?” Erik asked, gazing into his ale.

“King Frodi’s champions.  The sons of Westmar, Frodi’s guardian.”

“They seem to have caused Hraegunar some grief.”

“Father would have fought them had I not been along.  He’s getting on.  It would have been his most glorious battle.  You poets would have written a drapa or two of the battle that would have been fought that day.  All the skalds would have sung praises of father’s bravery.  Now he fears he shall die a straw death and it’s all my fault.”

Erik sensed how deeply Roller was holding himself responsible for the way things had unfolded so he tried to change the subject.  “Gotar has sent the war arrow around,” he started.

“We heard when we touched in at Agder.  The news is up and down the coast.  King Gotar intends to attack King Frodi.  Exactly what he intends to gain by it I can only suspect.”

Erik rose and refilled their cup.

“What is that about your waist?” Roller asked.  “It’s new, is it not?”

“Dvalin and I have forged a sword,” Erik answered proudly, unbuckling his heavy scabbard and passing it over to Roller.  “I’ve named her Tyrfingr.  It must never be unsheathed without being the death of a man,” he warned his brother.

“Father says he’ll not be going to the war thing,” Roller started, taking up the sword and studying the hilt.  “He has his Nor’Way trade to attend to and he wants to leave right away.  This steel is strange.”

“Don’t draw out the blade,” Erik said, putting a hand on the guard.  “Who will go then?  Somebody has to go.”

“Father’s still angry with Brak for advising him to flee the Danes, so he may not be travelling the Way this summer.  And I’d like to attend the war thing.  I’ve a score to settle with those berserks and a war thing sounds like a proper place to start.  What is this metal?”

“I had to accept the war arrow in Hraegunar’s stead, so I’m duty bound to go too.  It’s star steel.  Dvalin showed me how to work it.”

“You must tell me more of this star steel, but here…father comes.”  Roller handed Erik back his weapon.

Ragnar emerged from the chamberway and stamped half the length of the hall.  He stomped up the dais and threw himself upon his high seat.  Brak followed close behind, taking up the third high seat and Kraka, herself, brought them horns of ale.  The two hoary old merchant warriors sat beside each other and fumed.

The young men waited an appropriate amount of time.  “I want to go to the war council,” Roller announced, “and I want Hraerik to come.”

“Brak is going to the war thing,” Ragnar replied.  “You are plying the Nor’Way with me, and Hraerik is to look after the stead.”

“Hraerik accepted the arrow and he should be allowed to attend.  We won’t be gone that long if it’s still your intention to withhold your support from King Gotar.”

“You must learn,” Ragnar expounded, “that the success of a trading company depends upon maintaining your trade routes.”

“Next year you will teach me this?” Roller asked, flashing the broad grin of a favoured son over his drinking horn.  His winsome looks softened Ragnar.

“I suppose it’s important that you learn to deal with kings as well.  You shall represent Rogaland Province.  Brak will steer you clear of strands.”

“And Hraerik?”

“Hraerik shall tend the stead!  With his temper, he’s not likely to stay out of trouble in a court such as Gotar’s.”

“Yes, father,” Roller said.

“And make no deals to support Gotar.  King Frodi has all the luck he’s ever likely to need, while our king hasn’t even a fistful.”

Roller turned to Erik.  “I tried,” he whispered.  He took a long draft of ale, then passed the horn to Erik.

“I’m still going,” Erik murmured over the edge of the horn, and he drew his share of the brew.

Later, Brak called them over to his bench and they made plans for attending the war council in three weeks’ time.  It was decided that only Brak’s and Ragnar’s longships would be used on the mission, as Ragnar required the full complement of his dozen merchant ships…Way-Ranging ships of the special Nor’Way construction…on his trading expedition.  Messengers were sent out to the other steads with orders for raising troops and ships, while the folk of Hraegunarstead gathered up supplies and prepared the two ships for the journey.  Ragnar’s longship required repairs on damages it had sustained during the raiding, so Roller started work on that while Erik oversaw the unloading of the iron and ton-stone.  Once the repairs were made they would leave for Rennes Isle, where the host of Rogaland Province was to assemble.  Ragnar, meanwhile, planned to set off next day on his Nor’Way crossing.

Night had long fallen over the fjord before Ragnar’s preparations were completed, yet, once everyone had retired, Erik had difficulty getting to sleep, disturbed at being excluded from the war thing.  Erik kept Roller up and told him all about the forging of Tyrfingr and of his promise to Dvalin.

“Where is the dwarf, anyway?” Roller asked.  “I didn’t see him playing at his hearth.”

“Dvalin’s been making himself scarce since Hraegunar’s return.  Had you been looking for him you would have noticed a trace of him here, a trail of him there.  He was like the wind today; sensed but not seen.”

“And how do you propose to fulfil your promise to him?  Hraegunar has the only ships that will handle the Nor’Way crossing and he is taking them all on his expedition.”

“Dvalin foresees me crossing soon.  If he is wrong, that is his mistake.  I shall do my best and no more, for I already have the sword.”

“And you’ve still not even seen the blade?” Roller asked Erik.  “Not even tested its bite?” he asked further.  “Knowing that trickster, Dvalin, I should not be surprised if you draw the blade in time of need and it turns out to be blunt.”

“Don’t worry, brother.  She’s had test enough in the hands of Dvalin on one of the slaves.  He sent our bellowsman straight to hades, poor fellow, with a wound cut so keen it’s probably healed by now.”

“I just meant for you not to put too much faith in an untried blade.  Still…,” Roller murmured, stroking the hilts of the sword, “I’ve never seen such metal as this.”

“Hraegunar mentioned Gotar’s luck as being but a fistful next to Frodi’s fortune.  If Denmark is in such ruin, how does Hraegunar gauge the Dane’s success?”

“Rumours are flying that King Frodi has expanded the Southern Way, Hraegunar’s Sor’Way, their supposed Dan’Way.  His new Hun wife has brought them into the Khazar fold.  That is what he has been spending his gold on.  And that is one of the reasons we did some raiding…to hear it for ourselves.”

“Well…has he?”

“It appears he has, but he’s having trouble making it work.  The Baltic is filling with pirates and they plunder his ships.  Yet, with Oddi’s help he could pull it off, and that could very well destroy our Northern Way.  Father figures that King Gotar is planning to either destroy Frodi to protect the Nor’Way and, therefore, lay claim to it himself, or force Frodi to give him a share in the Southern Way trade.  We’re not sure what he is up to, but either way we lose.”

“What can we do about it?”

“Not too much now.  First and foremost, I’ve got to come up with a way to withhold our support from King Gotar without losing too much face.  Father just keeps saying ‘tell him we aren’t going’, but the consequences of refusal are dire.  I must figure us a way out of this, but first we must sleep,” Roller said.

Erik sank back into the straw of his mattress but could only sleep fitfully.  Roller was snoring soundly when Erik cried out in the middle of the night.  Roller got up and woke his brother, saying, “What is it, Hraerik?”, then shaking him, “What troubles you?”

Erik woke very slowly and, rubbing his eyes, looked about as if he had expected to wake up in some other place.  “I had a nightmare,” he answered.  “It came to me as a poem, but it seemed so real.”

“What was it?” Roller asked, and he hunkered down beside Erik’s bed.  “Dreams can be portents and I have an important journey ahead of me.”

“The dream danced like a drapa running through my mind; it started with the beating of kettle drums–war drums–then I was out over the ocean.  There was a fierce battle raging, then next I was on a lone sand bar with our wrecked ships strewn about its shores and in the middle of it an eagle was perched, picking over the carcase of a wolf.”  Erik sat up and rested his crossed arms on his knees then looked at Roller.  He took a deep breath then said, “And the wolf was King Gotar.”

“I see now what father meant,” Roller said.  “It’s revealed in your dream.  Gotar’s fistful of luck may be just enough to get us all killed.  Now you really must come to the war thing.  You may be our only way out of this slaughter.”

The next morning Erik went down to the smithy shed and helped Brak open the crates of Swedish iron bars.  “I’m sorry the shop’s in such a state,” Erik apologized, waving toward the temporary bellows system he had rigged up.

“Yes, a veritable shitstorm has hit our smith works, but that’s alright,” Brak replied, toeing his boot through the bloodied sand floor.  “We’ll get her straightened up and get the iron into the stone boats before we head out to the war thing.  We could only afford a half order of iron thanks to King Frodi’s needs.  That means half the steel, half the swords and half the profits.  At least the Swedes allowed us our full complement of ton-stone for the Nor’Way trade.  The Alchemist’s Guild will pay us well for that.”  Brak stood at the great stone anvil, both fists upon the flat of it.  “With the prospect of us losing access to Swedish iron, Hraegunar had made arrangements with the guild for my training in making Indian steel in Damascus.  I was to be going across the Nor’Way, but I was not coming back this season.  Now Gotar’s war plans have changed all that,” Brak complained bitterly.

The Swedish iron that they had acquired came from a mine near Uppsala that was renowned for its iron purity.  It was essentially carbon free, which would seem detrimental if one’s goal was to make carbon steel, except that normal iron had too much carbon, giving it a brittle quality.  Brak, a trained steel smith, had learned of a process for adding just the right amounts of carbon to the pure iron to produce low carbon steel suitable for the forging of the finest swords and weapons.  The Trident Swords of Stavanger were a commodity sought by many in the northern clime. 

“If we lose access to the iron,” Brak continued, “we’ll need knowledge of this new Indian steel.  And only the alchemists in Baghdad can teach me.  Even the Greeks and Romans have not learned of it,” he added as the two began straightening up the shop.

“Do you know how it works?” Erik asked.

“The metallurgists I talked with in Baghdad told me it is a method of controlled burn out of excess charcoal from bog iron, but how it is done I have not been able to ascertain.  When we soak our Swedish iron in coals in the stone boats of the firing mounds we are adding charcoal to the iron to make varying qualities of steel.  The Indian process does the opposite.  One places bog iron nodules in a stone chimney filled with coals and additives and the firing process removes charcoal from the pig iron to form blooms of the finest steels.  The additives can even prevent the steel from rusting.”

Erik took his scabbard from out of his belt and placed his new sword, Tyrfingr, on the anvil stone upon which it had been created.  “Here is a steel you have never seen before,” Erik challenged his teacher.  “It is from a star stone and Dvalin taught me how to forge it.  He says it shall never rust and shall never dull.  But the blade must always be sheathed in the blood of its last victim, so don’t pull it from its scabbard.”

Brak took the sword up from the stone and studied the hilts.  “Ahh….Dvalin.  You are right when you say I have never seen such steel, but I have heard of it,” and Brak quickly pulled the blade free of its scabbard and studied it.  “And the dwarf put the edge on it?” Brak asked as he just as quickly sheathed the sword.  “There was a famed Alchemist, a smith named Merlin, who pulled a sword from star stone such as this and he gave it to his Briton king.  It is but a legend now.  With the sword this king was able to keep the Saxons and the Angles at bay and keep his kingdom safe from conquest, but the sword had a glow such as yours has, and it eventually poisoned the blood of its master and the Briton king fell in battle.  This was hundreds of years ago and it is only legend now.  But it is the lead scabbard that keeps the poison glow at bay and the fable of the blood….it keeps the sword in its scabbard.  In those ancient times they had no knowledge of the glow or its consequences.  It is the additives in the star stone steel that cause the glow and during battle the glow can become alarming.  That is when it is most dangerous.  Limit your blows and use stabbing strokes.  That is its safest use.  They had no knowledge of this back then and the sword Excalibur was buried with the master it had poisoned.  A sword such as this should always be buried with its master.”

No one knew how old Brak was.  Ragnar had brought him back from the east with him, and Brak continued on as Ragnar’s foremost man.  And now Ragnar was growing old, but in all that time, Brak had not seemed to age at all.

Some said he was an alchemist, some said he was a metallurgist, but Brak only laid claim to being a steel smith.  Not a black smith or an iron smith, but a true “secret of steel” steel smith.

“Do you even know what an alchemist is?” Brak had asked Erik the first time the boy had asked his mentor if he really was one.  And Brak went on to explain that alchemists could specialize in many areas: science, philosophy, geography, medicines, mathematics, metals, chemicals, potions, but originally, most importantly, going back as far in time as tales allowed, they were refiners of gold.  They were masters of the acids and chemicals and processes to turn base gold into the purest of metals.  The rich and powerful have always loved the lustre of pure gold, the purer, the better, so alchemists have always been the favoured guild of kings and queens.  But when alchemists learned to turn copper into bronze, they soon became the favourites of princes and warriors.  Some metallurgists specialized in weapons: swords and spears and arrowheads, while others specialized in armour: helmets and bucklers and breastplates.  And the more powerful the weapons became, the better the defence against them had to become.  So, while lustre of gold drew alchemists close to kings, lust of life drew them closer to princes.  This race between sword and buckler continued on into the age of iron and carries on now into the age of steel.  So, while some might call Brak an alchemist, he always called himself a steel smith.

In the most ancient of times there was a saying that smiths could turn tin into gold, for the best bronze swords and armour would turn one king’s gold into another king’s treasury.  But, in the time of the pharaohs the verse turned to myth and in Babylon it was said that alchemists could turn lead into gold.  And the myth persisted and grew as iron replaced bronze, but it changed once more as steel replaced iron and Romans replaced Greeks and Brak knew it had something to do with the flow of ton-stone from the Northern lands that the Guild had entrusted him with maintaining.  And he still planned to stay in Damascus and Baghdad to find out just what.  His stay might be shorter than planned, but he would find out what.

Erik used a flint and steel to fire up the forges while several grumbling slaves set up the bellows and Brak emptied the first crate of iron bars.  Soon the two smiths were pounding out thin sword blade strips out of the pure Swedish iron.  The strips would be laminated into full blades following carbon impregnation treatment in the stone boats that the dwarves of Finmark had fashioned out of soapstone to Brak’s specifications.  Three carbon steel strips would be forged into one blade, a center strip of higher carbon steel to keep a sharp edge and two lower carbon strips on the outside for greater flexibility, so they were working on the center strips first, so they could be placed in the first stone boat with coal powder, sealed with clay under a stoneboat lid and carburized longer.  The sealed stoneboats would be placed in earthen mounds filled with firewood  and exposed to the flames for several weeks.  Then the carbon steel strips would be forged together using Damascus flux, heat and hammers.  The resulting blades were some of the finest in Europe and were in high demand in the eastern reaches of the Nor’Way trade routes.

“If you know how to make the flux,” Erik asked Brak, “why do you trade for it in Damascus?”

“It’s more efficient to just buy it,” Brak replied.  “A few fox hides and we have enough flux for the season.  And it keeps me a customer with the steel makers there.”

Once they had the stoneboats all in the firing mounds, Erik, Brak and Dvalin started forging swords using carburized strips from the prior year’s stock.  Dvalin pulled an outer strip out of his forge and placed it on the stone anvil, then Erik sprinkled flux on it and Brak pulled a center strip out of his forge and laid it atop Dvalin’s strip as Dvalin began hammering the two together.  Brak sprinkled flux on the center strip as Erik pulled a second outer strip out of his forge and laid it atop to complete the triple lamination and all three smiths began forging the blade with hammers, Dvalin at the tip, Brak at the centre and Erik at the tang.  When the strips were forged together into a common blade, it went back into Brak’s forge for reheating and came out for final forging, then Dvalin started tinking out a tip and edges while Brak forge welded a trident guard onto the tang as Erik began work on the heavy pommel ton-stone.

“I wanted to leave my forge set-up we made for the star stone, so I could try it out on the ton-stone,” Erik explained as he tonged a white-hot piece of the heavy metal from the fire.  He began hammering it into a sphere and the more he hammered it, the smaller and denser it became.  A few more firings and forgings and Erik soon had a very heavy pommel ready for Brak to forge onto the sword.  “This is the densest pommel ever,” Erik started.  “The high heat of these coals seems to work more of the impurities out of the ton-stone.”   

Brak agreed, as he worked the heavy metal into a split he had chiselled into the end of the tang which he forged into an encircling loop.  “The alchemists of the gold and silver guild use chemicals to refine it even more.  I want to find out what they use it for,” he said as he completed the loop.  Brak sat down on the long bench behind them and Erik joined him and they rested as they watched Dvalin finish tinking edges on the blade just shy of the hilts.  Dvalin brought the cooling blade over to the bench for their inspection and approval then put the blade into his forge for one last firing before the quench.  The bellowsmen pumped even harder at the approach of the dwarf and the resting Brak marvelled at the newfound respect the slaves seemed to have for the so recently freed smith.  He surmised it had something to do with the blood in the sand floor.  “I mean to find out what it is they are doing with this refined ton-stone,” Brak began.  Long ago he had told Erik about the significance of the ton-stone.  Sigurd Hring had been a smith of uncanny ability and it was he who had started incorporating the trident guard on their Stavanger swords and it was he who had started using Swedish ton-stone in the pommels of their swords.  The great density of the metal made it an excellent counterweight for the blade of a sword, giving it good balance while keeping the handle compact.  But when his son, Ragnar, had started trading these swords in the east, the Alchemists Guild took notice.  They had another use for this heavy Ton-Stone, a metal quite as dense as gold, that would come to be called, by some, Wolfram, by others, Tungsten.

Dvalin called them over to his forge.  The blade was ready for quenching.  Erik put on his heavy leather gloves then took them off, grabbed his tongs and went over to Dvalin’s forge.  Brak was close behind him with a wet sheepskin and Dvalin had moved over to the soapstone quenching tub and checked the temperature of the whale oil in it then put his ear to the tub and waved them over.  Erik tonged the sword out of the forge and darted over to the tub of oil and immersed the hot blade in the oil and a flame shot up and Brak sheltered Erik’s hands with the sheepskin.  Erik pulled the warm blade from the quench and the flames went out.  “It felt good,” he said, as Brak pulled back the hide.  “No crack,” Dvalin said, taking his ear from the tub.  They all took turns inspecting the blade for warps and cracks and, passing approval, Dvalin handed it to a slave for wipe down and grinding.  Another slave pedalled the grinding wheel as the first slave got to work.  And the smiths returned to their forges and began firing three more strips for another blade.  It seemed a drawn-out process, but it was quite fast for the quality of the blades they were making.

Once the stoneboats had been in the firing mounds for a week or so the smoke holes were sealed, and fires died out and everything was let to cool slowly.  Roller had completed the repairs on his father’s ship and the warriors of Hraegunarstead sailed off to the war thing.  Kraka once more traversed the bitter green, this time to wave goodbye to her son.

CHAPTER THREE

3.0  THE WINNING OF FAIR FAXI  (Circa 828 AD)

“The king gave him a ship, and the oarsmen

 called it Skroter (Fair Faxi).”

History of the Danes;  Saxo Grammaticus.

In a dark remote corner of King Gotar’s high seat hall, he stood, perturbed.  Bobbing in a throng of stout young warriors, all dressed in the raiment and finery of battle, he watched.  Past the soldiery crowding both sides of the longhall, he stared, his eyes sopping up the beauty of Princess Alfhild, King Gotar’s daughter, as she sat upon her high seat on the far side of the hall.  Her beauty had entranced him when he first saw her from a distance.  And her beauty had enslaved him when he next saw her up close.  She had been standing upon her father’s high seat dais and Erik had been carrying a table into the hall and bright light from a window had caught up her form and her presence.  She was a young woman of unusual beauty; her lithe form an embodiment of grace, her flowing blonde hair a frolic of sunlight, her deep green eyes a sounding of oceans and her pink full lips a flushing of sunsets.  Her presence, an elegance, her slightest movement, sensual, she stood before Erik and he froze, captivated by something he had never felt before.  His face flushed, and his forehead broke out into a sweat.  All strength left his body and he let go the table.  It thudded softly on the clay floor and she turned away, oblivious to her conquest, and then she was gone.

As he floundered in his emotions, his feelings huge swells in the tempestuous sea of the war assembly, arguments were being waged for and against an attack upon Denmark and its young King Frodi.  But he was oblivious to it all.  Perhaps it was infatuation, but a woman such as Alfhild he had never seen before.  He should have been attending to the arguments of the war thing, but, as he watched Alfhild from afar, he recollected instead his arrival in The Vik and his first sighting of her.  He was at the forestem of Ragnar’s longship and, as they closed with the shore, he was studying a huge headland that tumbled out into the sea.  On a high scarped knoll, he saw her standing alone, watching.  The day was waning, and the sunlight caught up in her tresses and it flowed and ebbed with her movements along the crest of the cliff.  He waved at her and her hand went up as she tossed forth a flower in answer, the blossom arcing over the edge of the cliff and plummeting down to the breakers far below, swallowed up in the crashing surf.  A loud roaring of warriors brought Erik back from his reverie.

“Furthermore,” Hrafn Ketil shouted, in conclusion to his inspired speech urging an assault upon the Danes, “are we to sit idly by while young King Frodi builds his Southern Way, his eastern empire, at the total expense of our Nor’Way?  And when this southern route collapses, as it surely must, can the Northern Way, our Way, be reopened?”

Again, a great cheer erupted, “Nay! Never!” from the warriors and chieftains as they stamped their feet and pounded their benches.  Erik was still watching Alfhild when he saw his brother step down from the opposing third high seat and walk toward his corner of the hall.

“I don’t like the way this council is turning,” Roller said as he stepped beside Erik.  “Hrafn Ketil covets the Raven Banner and is emboldened by the news of father’s flight at the hands of Oddi.  Now Sigurd’s Way, Hraegunar’s Way has become the Northern Way, Everybody’s Way.”  Roller smacked his palm with his fist.  “He’s stirring up the Vik to defend the Nor’Way so that soon he can deprive us of our rights to it.  Sigurd discovered it, Hraegunar tamed it and now I, Hraelauger, shall lose it to the very people who benefit from it.  King Gotar and Hrafn Ketil plan to claim it as their own.”  The cheering subsided, and the hall began to hum with little pockets of discussion that broke out up and down the length of the chamber.

“But my dream,” Erik started.  “Gotar hasn’t a chance against Frodi according to my portents.”

“If we lose the Way to Gotar or because of Frodi, the loss is still the same to us.”

“Well…we won’t be around to worry about it if we follow Gotar off to war.  The defeat in my dream is quite complete and I saw my fylgja above Gotar’s high seat hall this morn.  If Odin has a warrior on this side, Oddi is that man and soon he will set a death trap for us all.”

“We won’t be following Gotar,” Roller assured him.  “I’ve arranged for you to have an audience with King Gotar and I want you to recite your dream to him, in a drapa, just as it came to you.  If it doesn’t convince him to give up on his plans of conquest, at least it shall give us an excuse not to join him on those strands.”

“For the hand of his daughter, I would follow Gotar anywhere, even out onto those strands; but I’ve little chance of acquiring a hand such as that one.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Hraerik,” Roller laughed.  “Poetry has won many a royal heart.  Now…I’ll signal you when it’s time for your recital.

“Just remember…the telling of fortunes is a dangerous game, best left to charlatans who tell people what they want to hear.  Gotar likely won’t believe your dreams, Hraerik.  He’ll suspect I’ve put you up to this and he may try to hang us both for it.  But it’s the only chance I can see of keeping us out of this war without losing face and station.  We wouldn’t be doing this if father were here, but Brak agrees it may be the only way out of this mess, so, if you want to back out of this, tell me now.”

“Gotar must weigh my poetry against Hrafn Ketil’s words.  I shall not falter in the recital, but if Gotar chooses words of war over poems of peace, I don’t think that I shall be running from this fight.  If my poesy fails to impress our king, then at least let it win me a place in the heart of Princess Alfhild.”

“What good will your words in her heart do when your bones are bleaching on the sands of a strand?  Father would forbid your going and I’m afraid I must as well.  Perhaps this recital isn’t the best idea after all.”

“I shall not turn tail from this contest Hrafn Ketil arranges; not in front of Princess Alfhild.”  Erik was pleading now.  “It was my dream.  Even now, as we speak, the poem comes back to me.  Odin’s mead words shall not be taken lightly by Gotar.  Besides…like as not, the sons of Westmar, King Frodi’s berserks, shall be there.”

“If you are determined to go, then I’m going with you,” Roller said stiffly.  “To keep you out of trouble.  You’ll have to answer to Hraegunar.”

When Erik nodded, Roller worked his way through the crowd to the high seat of King Gotar and had a word with him.

The request of a son of King Ragnar ‘Lothbrok’ was not easily denied, for, besides being of royal descent, Ragnar was a wealthy and powerful leader of men; Erik soon found himself before the king’s high seat.  King Gotar had been told to expect a drapa inspired by prescient dreams and he now signalled for the poem to begin.

Erik recited it thus:

“Drums of war I dreamt of,             dreams of norns it seems of,

 misty shrouded masts of               mighty sea-steeds fighting.

 Gauta-Tyr’s song, Gotar,                 glazes Odin’s blazes:

 glore the victor garners,              gore the vanquished forfeit.

 Steadily the steeds rock                 striking Frodi’s vikings.

 Odd, the sea king, Odin                 aids to halt the raiding.

 Rising waves he raises,                   raging winds he stages,

 hard swept warrior hoard is           harried by the skerries.

 Streamy-horses stumble               stranded where they landed.

 Strung out for the strangling              sleet-of-Har this fleet is.

 Burnished gleam the bared swords,        brightly flashing lightning.

 Know the kettle drums now start              Hnikar’s-storm is speaking.”

Erik’s poem went on for seventeen more stanzas completing a full drapa and, once it had described how Oddi, King Frodi’s sea king, would call upon Odin to provide a storm that would run the Norwegian fleet aground, it went on to warn that the Danes would cause heavy stones to fall from the sky breaking up the stranded ships in the beating surf and that the survivors of this debacle would be slaughtered, their bones bleaching in the sand of a distant Danish shore.  And in the centre of a small island there would rest an eagle picking over the carcass of a wolf.

Erik’s poem struck fear into many of the chieftains entertaining an attack upon the Danes, but King Gotar was visibly angered by it and Hrafn Ketil was furious, preparing himself for a verbal assault upon the bastard son of Ragnar, the chieftain who had so recently fled from the Danes.  But Erik noticed only Princess Alfhild’s reaction as she shook her head in warning, as if to say:  “My father is not to be swayed in this…Your life is in jeopardy…Hrafn Ketil will have your head in a noose if he can.”  All this she told Erik in a glance and in that fraction of a second Erik could feel his life teetering over the great abyss, the vast ginungagap, and it seemed as if the gods were struggling, some for, some against him…some thrusting him into the blank depth…some pulling him back out and it seemed as though he teetered there for quite some time…though he knew it to be less than a moment…and suddenly he felt the course of his life change.  Gotar was doomed; Erik felt it.  He would save his king from Oddi, but Gotar was still doomed.  Paths had been preordained by the norns and in this moment Gotar had made a decision that would drive their paths apart, and Erik saw his own path continuing onward and upward while Gotar’s led off into an unfathomable abyss.  All this Erik felt in an instant and then he knew what he must do.

“It is commonplace that he who covets another man’s goods,” Erik started, eyeing Hrafn Ketil fiercely, “often loses his own.  The unrest of the Danes shall dissipate at the approach of an enemy host.  Quarrelling swine are drawn into tight array at the approach of a wolf.  A native tyrant is oft-times preferred to a foreign king and Frodi shall not allow you the chance to sway his people but shall sally forth to meet you.

“Unlike Frodi, King Gotar,” Erik said, shifting his eye to meet his ruler’s “you are surrounded by loyal subjects willing to try the fortune of this young king for you.  Let your most trusted subjects test the magic of Oddi and the strength of the Danes while you maintain your neutrality.  A blacksmith uses tongs to spare himself the heat of the ingot; a warrior throws first his spear, then draws his sword; use your most loyal subjects to gain your ends and take some thought for yourself.  Allow Hraegunar’s men, your loyal subjects of Rogaland Province, to try the luck of young King Frodi for you!”

A great cheer rose from all the men in the hall and it was obvious that King Gotar was moved by Erik’s appeal.  He leaned over and conferred with Hrafn Ketil, who sat in the third high seat on his left.  They had words for some time, then King Gotar turned to face Erik and smiled ever so slightly.  “My foremost man, Hrafn Ketil, tells me that you are Hraerik Boddason, half-brother of Hraelauger Hraegunarson and son of Hraegunar Sigurdson.  You are eloquent in speech and equally convincing in argument.  Perhaps you have been too long in the shadow of your brother’s blood and brilliance.  Henceforth your byname shall be Bragi, foremost in speech and argument…Hraerik `Bragi’ Boddason.”

Erik stepped boldly forward and said, “Is it not customary for some toothing gift to accompany a naming?”

“Shrewdly spoken, Hraerik,” King Gotar answered.  “What is it you desire most?”  Erik wanted, more than anything, to ask for the hand of his king’s daughter, but, bold though he was, it would be some time before he would make that request, and under totally different circumstances.  “I have a fresh forged sword that yearns to fight the Danes,” Erik answered, looking first at Gotar and then upon Alfhild, “but in King Gotar’s high seat hall I find most need of a buckler with which to build a shield-fort around my heart.”

Alfhild was amused by this and warned her father, “One shield does not a shield-fort make.”

Gotar was more than a little surprised by the interest his daughter seemed to be showing in the dangerously outspoken and, as he saw it, rather brutish young poet.  “Yes daughter,” he replied.  “A mere shield would make for a paltry toothing gift.  Since you ask for a leaf-from-leafy-land, Hraerik, I find it fitting to give you the whole sea-tree.  I will give you a ship that I have just had completed.  She is called Skroter, meaning fancy or showy, but Princess Alfhild prefers to call her Fair Faxi, meaning pretty horse.  The ship has been specially built to suit the name.  You shall also lord over the district of Lither wherefrom you may select your crew.  Alfhild, could you have one of the stewards show young Hraerik to his ship?  Meanwhile, Hrafn Ketil and I have a great deal to discuss regarding a change in plans.”

Alfhild stepped down from the high seat and called over her father’s chief steward.  Alfhild and the frail old man led Erik out of the hall and down toward the Vik to a secluded bay in which her father berthed his ships.  They led him down a quay beside which bobbed a vessel, a showpiece of a ship.

Erik stepped over the brightly painted ochre bulwark and onto the white deck.  “She’s beautiful,” he said, helping Alfhild aboard.  The chief steward watched aloofly from the dock.  Erik examined the longship from stem to stern.  It was some sixty feet in length by ten foot across with benches for twenty-four rowers.  Erik studied the intricately carved forestem with a fierce stallion’s head mounted high at the top.  The horse had a long wicked snout full of bared teeth and it had the ears of a mule, but, most eerily, it had no eyes, having only deep sockets that gave it more the appearance of a horse’s skull rather than a full head.  It almost resembled a scorn pole and that fact sent a shiver up Erik’s spine that he could not yet fathom.  Erik then began working his way down the ship, stepping over the uppermost crossbeams, when his mood changed from enrapturement to consternation.  He realized that this ship’s framework closely matched the heavy construction of his father’s Nor’Way ships.  The crossbeams and floor-timbers were twice the usual number and the clinker-laid strakes had double fastened pine tarred joints.  Princess Alfhild waited patiently on a foredeck rowing chest as Erik concluded his inspection at the inboard rudder port then worked his way forward to rejoin her.  “How many of these ships are there, anyway?” he asked her angrily.

“This is the first,” she replied.  “Father gave Hrafn Ketil another.”  She paused and studied the coarseness of Erik’s face.  There was none of Roller’s winsomeness, but there was a power to it and she decided that this she found attractive.  “As you can see, there is more to this gift than first meets the eye,” she warned.  “You’ve made a powerful enemy in Hrafn Ketil.  He is of the common people, but he is very ambitious.  My father will send him to test the strength of the Danes, not you.”

“I expected no less.  He shall not be my enemy for long then.”

“You have that much faith in your dreams?”

“Enough that I’m sure it’s my death if I follow your father against King Frodi.”

“Yet you were the first to volunteer to test Frodi.  Your grasp of the political surprised me, but it totally shocked Hraelauger.  I was watching him as you concluded your speech.  He didn’t set you up to this,” she said with conviction.  “Perhaps father was right when he said that you’ve been too long in the shadow of your brother.”

“And perhaps he only said that to put dissension between brothers.”

“That should not even be required in your case,” Alfhild scolded.  “Hraegunar ‘Lothbrok’ doesn’t even recognize you as an illegitimate son.  You’re your mother’s son with no right to even a third of your inheritance.  Hraelauger’s mother, no doubt, has seen to that.”

“That is true, and I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t bother me, but somehow I’ve always felt that I have a greater destiny to pursue.  Hraelauger judges himself by what Hraegunar has done, who in turn has tried to match the greatness of Sigurd.  It is a legacy not meant for me.  I am to do something, as yet unknown to me that has never been done before.”

“My mother knows of your foresight.  She says that Kraka, Princess Aslaug, is a priestess of Odin, a witch, but she also says that you have a great gift and that Kraka fears you.  Now I see what mother means.  There is much power in your vision, but what would you have done if father had accepted your offer to test the strength of Frodi?”

“I would have gone off in search of Frodi, for I could not run from a fight before the cheek-lights of the most beautiful princess in the Nor’Way.”  Alfhild blushed at this and Erik kissed her awkwardly.  Then they both heard a cry, far off at first, but closing.

“Help me, Hraerik! Help me quickly!”

“What is that, Hraerik?” she asked.

“Help me, Hraerik! Help me quickly!”

“That is a dwarf,” Erik answered.  “A dwarf named Dvalin.  I heard some of your father’s men talking about having a dwarf throw while the war council was in session.”

“A dwarf throw?  That sounds perfectly awful.  You must help him.”  Princess Alfhild peered over the ship’s side and she saw a brightly dressed dwarf running for his life down the path to the wharf, towards an alarmed chief steward.  Running fast behind him were six sailors, their awkward gaits betraying them as men born to the sea.

Erik leaped down onto the dock, gathered himself up and charged the men as Dvalin ran by him and jumped into the ship.  Erik knocked the first man off the quay and caught enough of the second man to send him spiralling into the quaking chief steward and both of them toppled off into the water, but the onslaught of the others drove Erik back beside Fair Faxi’s berthing.

“Help me with this oar,” Dvalin cried as he wrestled a long oar off the ship’s cross-members.

Alfhild helped him raise the oar up into the air and, when they had positioned it just right, Dvalin pushed it over.  The blade of the oar arced down through the air and smacked one of the sailors across the back, knocking him into the water.  When Erik sent a fourth man into the drink, the remaining two fled back to shore.  Erik helped the rest of the men out of the icy water and sent the sailors on their way.  The chief steward shook himself off on the dock and stood there shivering, looking quite the drenched old dog.  By the time Erik got back on the ship, Dvalin had already made Princess Alfhild’s acquaintance and was busy reading her palm.

“I see a great king in your future,” Dvalin said, bunching up his face and talking with great intensity.  “A very young king, handsome and brave and showing great promise.”

“Spare us your divinations, Dvalin,” Erik said, annoyed at his words.

“I want to hear this, Hraerik,” Alfhild pleaded.

“That is all I see,” Dvalin prudently answered.

“Come, Alfhild.  I’ll walk with you back to your father’s hall.  You stay here, Dvalin.  Watch the ship and stay out of trouble.”

“I’ll stay here and prepare the ship,” Dvalin replied.  “It shall serve our purpose nicely.”  He stomped his foot upon the deck.  “She’s very solid.  What do you call her, Hraerik?”

“I call her Fair Faxi,” Erik said.  “It means pretty horse,” and Princess Alfhild was pleased at this.

“The name suits the craft,” the dwarf replied.

Erik and Alfhild walked up the quay hand in hand, wet steward shivering in tow.  Alfhild turned slightly and waved at the dwarf.  “He’s such a sweet little fellow,” she said.  “And handy with an oar.”

“Yes,” Erik laughed.  “But he can’t read palms worth a damn.”  They both stopped and laughed, then continued up the path.  “Did Dvalin look well to you?” Erik asked as they walked.

“He looked just fine,” Princess Alfhild replied. “I don’t think those brutes got a chance to lay a hand on him.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Erik said, but it was Dvalin’s health Erik was worried about, not his condition.

Erik left Alfhild at the hall, which was quiet now, the assembly having been concluded.  He then walked over to the shore where the ships of Rogaland Province were beached.  Roller and Brak were there, standing and talking between their ships.

“Hoi, Hraerik,” Roller called.  “How’s your ship?”

“She’s a real beauty,” Erik called back.

“And the princess?” Brak asked.

“The ship pales next to her,” Erik replied.

Roller and Brak shook Erik’s hand, congratulating him on how he had shifted the upcoming battle from their camp to that of Hrafn Ketil’s, and the men gathered round and did likewise.  Erik could not have handled it better, they all agreed, and Erik never told them he would have led them out onto those strands himself, for a chance at the hand of Alfhild.

With the approach of evening, Erik and Roller began grooming themselves for their final night’s revelry.  Erik was hunkered down in front of a polished bronze mirror that stood between the beached longships, brushing his hair.  Their men were nearby, on the beach, roasting meats and preparing for a feast of their own, but the real celebration to conclude the war council was up in Gotar’s high seat hall, which Brak and others were already commencing with.  When Erik and Roller got up to the hall the ale was flowing freely and Erik was greeted with toasts and cheers as the brothers walked between benches and hearths.  Roller snatched two horns of ale from a slave girl and he and Erik toasted the men who were cheering them on.  Erik took note that it was the older, proven warriors that were doing most of the cheering, while the few young men his own age that were allowed to attend the war thing sat sullen and envious.

When Erik turned to continue, he found Princess Alfhild standing in front of him, her bright green eyes staring boldly into his.  Wisps of blonde hair flowed past pink cheeks and her red lips parted.  “My father wishes that you join us at our high seats for the feasting.”

“And do you wish this also?” Erik asked.

“I should prefer to share my seat with the young king your dwarf promised me, but, in his absence, I shall settle for my eloquent prince.”

Alfhild led the way to the high seats and Erik could not prevent his eyes studying her movements, her grace, as her body flowed beneath her white silk gown.  The silk had come from the Eastern Romans, the Greeks, via Ragnar Lothbrok’s Nor’Way, and only just now had Erik come to fully understand why royalty placed such a high value on the material.

“Keep your eyes in your head, dear brother,” Roller whispered as he turned off for his own high seat on the other side of the hall.  “Your tongue gets you in trouble enough on its own.”

Erik shared the second high seat with Princess Alfhild, on the right of King Gotar, who sat alone, his queen, Alfhild’s mother, being ill, while Hrafn Ketil and Bari, the king’s foremost skald, shared the third high seat on his left.  Roller and Brak and several notable chieftains sat in the opposite high seats across the hall.  A slave handed Erik a fresh horn of ale, which he shared with Princess Alfhild.  Trenchers of choice cuts and platters of fresh baked breads followed, and the princess soon had Erik’s tongue flowing as fast as the ale.  She wanted to know all about the charming little dwarf she had met, so Erik told her about Dvalin and the falling star stone and the forging of Tyrfingr.  She wanted to see the sword, but, as weapons were not allowed in an Althing hall, he could only promise to show her it later.  As the evening wore on, King Gotar asked that Erik recite his poem once again, but for his ears only this time.  Erik switched  places with Alfhild and recited his poem to Gotar over the arms of the high seat benches.  Once King Gotar was satisfied with the accuracy of the reciting, for a true poet committed his verses to memory word for word, he made praise of Erik’s talent.  Bari, the king’s skald, then rose from his high seat and offered a poem in praise of the generosity of King Gotar, stating that his virtue could not be equalled.  The poem was amiably worded, but was, in effect, a slight against Erik, for it implied that Erik deserved no reward for his warning, nor his offered aid, and that Gotar expected no return on his favour.  As the poem progressed Erik’s temper rose and only Princess Alfhild’s calming words kept him from attacking the king’s skald.  Hrafn Ketil enjoyed the poem and savoured Erik’s anger, while King Gotar sat in muted silence, showing no favour one way or the other as he played his foremost man off against his eloquent guest.  Later, when the drinking bouts started, and the bragging challenges began, and the women were leaving the hall, Alfhild asked Erik to walk her over to King Gotar’s living hall which was located beside and a little back of his assembly hall.  Erik walked the princess there and they stood in front of its great double doors.

“Hrafn and Bari were trying to provoke you, Hraerik,” Alfhild warned.  “You must control your temper lest others use it against you.”

“Hraegunar warns me of my temper all the time, but it is a part of me and I’m loathe to change it.”

“Does he complain of your stubbornness also?” she asked and they both laughed.  Erik kissed her then and they looked into each other’s eyes for a long time, as if they both did not want to part just yet, then Alfhild’s mother called weakly for her and she went inside and Erik turned away from the porch and headed back for the high seat hall.  Alfhild lingered in the vestibule and she watched him as he walked, and he would turn and wave, turn and wave until he disappeared into the darkness.

“I see much in this dream of yours,” Gotar confided, when Erik had rejoined him on the high seats.  “Hrafn scoffs at this, but my wife has told me that many people put great store in this prescience of yours.  In this light, I want to thank you for your offer to attack King Frodi for me, but since you, more than anyone, must have faith in your own visions, I find it only fair to send out Hrafn and his men to destroy the Dane.  They take no heed of your warning, so they shall be the ones to try it.”

“I find your decision in this most wise,” Erik replied, noting the emphasis Gotar had placed upon the word try.

“It is in this light that I have given you such a generous toothing gift.”

“It is a beautiful ship,” Erik acknowledged.  “But of unusual construction.”

“I’m glad you realize the significance of the gift,” the king said.  “And you realize, of course,” Gotar added, “the stakes involved in this test of your prescience.”

Erik was fast learning the subtleties of high seat discourse.  “Certainly,” he answered.

“You shall, of course, become my hired man, Hraerik.”

“I thank you, my king,” Erik answered, “but first I must traverse the Nor’Way.  I have promised a friend a return to his homeland and we must set off as soon as possible.  My friend doesn’t know it, but I sense that he is dying.”

“You shall stop at the district of Lither on the way and select your crew.  My steward there is quite capable and will run the district well for you, should you wish to retain him.  When you return from this voyage you shall become King Gotar’s man.”

“I wish that very much,” Erik answered. “I find The Vik and its people very exciting.”

“It’s settled then,” Gotar confirmed.  “A word regarding Alfhild though, Hraerik,” he said, leaning heavily on the arm of his high seat and speaking very confidingly.  “I have raised her with the purpose of alliance in mind.  She is a princess destined for a king, when the time and circumstances benefit my kingdom.  You seem to amuse her, and I appreciate that, as long as you keep it in mind that she is destined for a fine-blooded king.”

Anger danced dangerously upon the tip of Erik’s tongue and his face flushed with it, but Princess Alfhild’s recent lecture helped him curb his temper and he even began wondering if she had guessed what her father would be saying later.  “I’ll be taking Fair Faxi out with the dawn,” he said coldly.  “You’ll give Alfhild my fondest farewell?”

“Of course,” King Gotar replied.  “May your journey be blessed by Thor.”

Erik stepped down from the high seat and stalked angrily from the hall.  Roller saw all of this and followed him out.  “What’s happened?” he asked, rushing up behind his brother.  “What did Gotar say?”

“Gotar wants me as his hired man, but he wants me to keep my distance from Alfhild,” Erik complained bitterly.  “I told him I sail in the morning.  Will you sail with me, Hraelauger?  Across the Nor’Way?  Dvalin is dying.  Tyrfingr has poisoned his blood.  We must hurry if we are to make it back by the end of this season.  Hrafn will be dead before Dvalin even begins to feel his sickness,” Erik rambled on, “and soon the Nor’Way will be dead as well, unless we stop King Frodi.”

“Hraerik!” Roller shouted.  “Catch hold of yourself!”  And he grasped his brother by the shoulders.

A pained helplessness crossed Erik’s face.  He gripped Roller’s arms as the anger passed.  “When we get back from the east,” he said, “we’ll destroy Oddi for Gotar and we’ll destroy those berserks for Hraegunar.”  Erik let go Roller’s arms and continued walking for their ships.  “That will change Gotar’s mind about me.  He’ll see that my blood is worthy of Alfhild.  He’ll see the stuff I’m made of.”  He patted Roller’s back and looked at him and there was a hot-blooded madness in his eyes that Roller had seen only once before.  There would be no stopping Erik when that look came to his dark eyes and Roller was sure Gotar would rue the day he had abused his brother.

CHAPTER FOUR

4.0  THE NOR’WAY  (Circa 828 AD)

“Still further north, the inhabitants that dwell on

 the edge of the Northern sea enter into trade without

 seeing the travellers with whom they are bargaining.”

Geography of Abu al-Fida (c.1300).

Varangers–Way Wanderers.  Erik and Roller had never been Varangians, but their forefathers had.  Their grandfather, Sigurd, had discovered the Northern Way; his son, Ragnar, had tamed the Nor’Way; and now, with a strong wind and the tide, the two brothers, the third generation, set out with Brak from Hrafnista, in the northernmost part of Halogaland, following a route well ranged by their forefathers.  They sailed up the coast, the Nor’Way until they reached the north cape, then struck east along the shores of Finmark.

Although spring had been well under way when they had left The Vik, their voyage north was a step back into winter, for, as they progressed, the air grew cooler and the days shortened until, by the time they had left Hrafnista, sailing under the Raven Banner of Ragnar, they found they were fighting winter once again.  With the advent of heavy snow, Erik had his men run a rope from the forestem to the mast and back to the afterstem upon which they suspended an oxhide covering that was sloped outwards to the bulwarks, enclosing the entire ship from the elements.  The cold brought extremes of weather, either so calm that rowing was required, or so stormy that sailing was impossible, their ship being tossed about, sometimes gaining, sometimes losing leagues.  Finally, a fierce storm the likes of which Erik had never seen set upon them.

With the silent speed of an osprey, the storm swept down upon the dark sea, churning up white foam flecked waves that thrashed back at the striking heavens, buffeting about the Nor’Way ship and battering around the men within her, until day was lost to night and night to day, and all sense of direction was scattered to the raging winds, and the sense of survival in this howling din was shattered from strong hope to mere whim.  Then, like some child abruptly bored with a new toy, the storm abated and, as suddenly as it had arisen, was gone.  There followed a desolate calm, as though the elements had ceased to exist, and Fair Faxi was left bobbing before the White Sea.

The men soon had the storm gear packed up and they trimmed the sail for Kandalak’s Bay.  Everything was back to normal, but for a dreggy sensation that remained from the crossing, like a bittersweet aftertaste.  When a treeline came into view, all marvelled at its greenness and the jaggedness with which it cut the horizon.  The storm was gone, but that peculiar calm remained in the men.  They felt like Way Wanderers; they were Varangians now.  Many people talked of the Nor’Way, even more benefited from it, but they were now among the few who had actually experienced it…an occurrence that stuck with a person for life, which, in the Eastern Realm, under the Raven’s Banner, could be a very short time indeed.

Brak had them land Fair Faxi at a particular point of Kandalak’s Bay where, he explained, trading could be done with a tribe he could only suspect of being some sort of Finn or Lapp, for he had only once actually seen any of them.  They hauled Fair Faxi up onto the white pebbled shore, gathered up their wares and headed inland.  A sparse village stood near the beach, nothing more than a smattering of hide huts in a forest clearing, but it was peculiar in that, though the hearth fires yet smouldered, it was totally deserted.  Brak had the men unwrap the wares and lay them out on bear skins:  a hide piled with swords, a hide with knives, a hide for spear and arrowheads; a hide with cloth, a hide with beads, and hides for various other sundries.  Before each pile of goods, he marked his price in the type and quantity of fur he expected for each item, ranging from a squirrel pelt for a string of beads to a half dozen sable pelts for a double-edged sword.  Then they left their wares and they returned to their ship and they rested, marvelling once more at how green the trees appeared, or begging Dvalin for another story about this strange land, or entreating Erik for a poem or two.  Next day, when they returned to the village they found piles of furs placed before the price markings of the correspondingly depleted piles of goods.  Brak quickly surveyed which items were moving and which items were not and shifted his pricing accordingly.  He saw that swords were selling so he added two sables to the price, cloth was not so he took a marten off an ell’s length.  He paid like attention to all the goods while the men gathered up the furs.

“You don’t count up the furs against the stock?” Erik asked.

“The natives can be trusted,” Brak answered.  “You can count on them to be as honest as they are savage.”

“If they’re so savage, why do they hide from us?” Erik asked.

“When Hraegunar and I first traded with these savages, they did come out to meet us.  In their innocent way they welcomed us, and we broke bread, but a pestilence descended upon them and decimated their tribe and now they shun us.  They still wish to trade, but they avoid us like a plague.  It seems to keep them safe.”

Once again, the men returned to their ship, but now they had furs to sort and grade and bundle.  For three days this phantom trade was carried on.  The fourth day, when they went inland, the village was gone.  Only the piles of furs and the piles of wares remained in the middle of the clearing.  Judging by the speed with which the trading was completed, Brak said that Ragnar had preceded them by about two weeks.

Sailing southeast across the White Sea, they found the mouth of the Northern Dvina.  The river is a northern dancer leaping into Asia from above, with a powerful arm extending from the White Sea into the north-western plain, a second arm reaching east for the Kama River, then a stub of a leg stepping over the source of the Volga River and a longer leg dragging through a puddle of lakes and rivers trailing west to the Gulf of Finland, the whole Northern Dvina system draining a land of immense pine forests and vast tracts of wilderness, rich in furs and rumours of silver.  The first arm of the river crossed through the land of the Biarmians, a fierce Finno-Ugric race that had no interest in trade and, therefore, no tolerance for traders.  Ragnar had always lamented the Biarmians for their sloth and violence, but Brak put it succinctly when he told Erik, “They are a fierce people in a wide wilderness and are quite used to taking what they want.”  Everyone knew trouble waited upriver.  It was only a matter of when.

Erik was at the rudder of Fair Faxi, with the sail trimmed to catch a bit of crosswind, while the men rowed upriver.  Brak and Dvalin were at the forestem watching for Biarmian boats and ambuscades.  Roller yarded in his oar and went back to have a word with Erik.

“Dvalin doesn’t look well,” Erik said as his brother approached.  Roller studied Dvalin and Brak at the other end of the ship.  They were both drawing out maps in the air with their fingertips, apparently discussing the branching of rivers.

“He doesn’t eat.” Roller replied.

“It’s the sickness,” Erik said.  “It consumes from within.”

Roller studied the dwarf and shook his head sadly.  He then studied Erik for a moment and asked, “What do you think of becoming Gotar’s man?”

“Gotar gave me Fair Faxi to bind me to him, to make me his man, to pay me for my advice.  Should my advice be wrong, he shall take my life; if I am right, he’ll relinquish his designs upon the Nor’Way and will consider me a man of great luck, a commodity well worth hanging on to.”  A spell of silence came over the brothers and they both watched Brak and Dvalin for some time.  “Hrafn Ketil died this morning,” Erik said calmly.  “I felt it so surely, the death blow set me back a step.  It was Oddi that did the killing.  The strand hogs are feasting on our fellow Norwegians this fine afternoon.”

“It’s better a few than all of us,” Roller consoled.

Erik looked out over the river.  A breeze ruffled the waters and the current put a pattern into the waves.  “Oddi must pay for this,” Erik said.  “Oddi and those twelve berserks.  They were there today, of that I’m sure.”

“Oddi has only helped us.  Hrafn Ketil was after the ‘Way; now he’s out of the way.”

“Hrafn Ketil was only reacting to events that even now continue to unfold.  Were it not him, it would have been some other.  We should not begrudge him his ambition and allow our animosities to cloud our recognition of present enemies.”

Roller was surprised at the clarity of his younger brother’s thoughts.  There are moments in one’s life when the preconceived character of a sibling suddenly changes, when a younger brother becomes older, or an older brother younger, and Roller judged it to be just such a moment.  ‘Perhaps Gotar was right,’ he thought.  ‘Perhaps he has been too long in my shadow.  Or was it Fair Faxi and the crossing that has changed Hraerik, allowing him to show compassion for an enemy?’

“With Oddi clearing the seas of pirates,” Erik continued, “Frodi shall succeed in establishing his Southern Way.  Then our Nor’Way will share in Hrafn Ketil’s fate.  We must destroy Oddi.”

“Are we doing this for Gotar?”

“We’re doing it for the Nor’Way.  Oddi for us and the twelve berserks for Hraegunar.  Gotar be damned.  I’ll not be any man’s man.”

“And the man’s daughter?”, Roller chided.

“There my sense of direction strays, as though I were in a heavy fog.  My thoughts become murky,” Erik replied, resting his crossed arms on the rudder shaft and staring wistfully across the waves.

“Biarmians!” Brak shouted, shattering Erik’s reverie.  “Storm of darts,” he yelled from the forestem.  “Take cover,” and everyone caught up their shields and took shelter under them.  Immediately a hail of arrows whistled down about them, some striking the ship, most splashing harmlessly into the river.  A second volley rose up out of the underbrush of the riverbank followed by the whine of many bowstrings, the sound carrying out over the water as the arrows reached their zenith and began their soft hissing descent.  The river came alive with the splashing of darts and the ship’s deck danced with a spattering of arrows and one man’s shield sported a fletched shaft, but nothing else came of the shots, and the Biarmians, tiring of their sport, did not pursue the Varangians.  Brak guessed that they had happened upon a war party on their way to a raid.  The man whose shield had been hit, a huge dull fellow named Amlod, praised Odin, founder of the Skioldungs that none had been killed, but many of the men looked at him as though he had been chosen, as though he had been marked.  Brak assured the men that they would not be seeing that lot again, at least not until they were on their way back.  He then took Erik and Roller aside and explained his intentions toward the Biarmians.

“They cost Hraegunar and me two good men last season,” he explained, “and I intend to get wergild from them.  We’ve never had the chance to teach them not to test us.  With the trading season so short, we’ve never had the time.  This trip we’re not doing as much trading, so we’ve got some time to kill.”

While Brak went into details of a punitive action against the enemy, Erik wondered whom, exactly, their enemy might be.  Since blowing into Asia on a storm, they had completed a trading mission and had experienced an attack without so much as having seen a living soul beyond their own party.  Had not the trading gone as well as the attack had gone poorly, this fact would have been more unnerving than amusing.

Two days of rowing had narrowed the river noticeably.  The ship soon reached an extreme bend, beyond which was a Biarmian burial mound set a short distance into the forest.  Brak had the men row for it, and they anchored the ship off a small clearing in the forest before the huge earthen howe.  With not an hour’s daylight remaining, Erik and Brak and twenty men splashed down into the shallow river, waded to shore and made for the mound with the sole intention of looting it, leaving Roller and the others to guard Fair Faxi.  The shore party filed through the woods for a short distance before reaching a second clearing in front of the burial mound.  A rude stockade of sharpened posts had been erected around the site of the huge earthen howe, so Erik boosted up a youth named Ask, who, although he had one leg longer than the other and walked with a limp, was particularly agile in high places.  Over the stockade wall he went, and he opened the gate from within.  The others poured inside, and a force was left to guard the gate, while the rest advanced on the mound’s entranceway.  A carved oaken statue of Jomali, the Biarmian’s main god, sat outside the tomb with a great wooden bowl full of silver upon his lap.  Brak forbade anyone’s touching it.  They entered the tomb down a long narrow tunnel and they soon reached the chamber where the bones and the ashes of the dead were deposited along with the many lumps and blobs of silver and gold that remained of their jewellery following cremation.  The men set about scooping the ashes and precious metals into coarse sacks they had brought for the purpose.  Some tried to sift the silver from the ashes, but soon had the room choking with dust and gave that up.  The men sweated as the chamber warmed with their efforts and the dust soon coated their bodies.  When the charnel house was cleared of everything save the bones, the men carried their sacks, two to a man, back out the tunnel.  As they were gathering up their gear outside the mound, one of the men, the one called Amlod, tilted the silver out of the Jomali’s huge wooden bowl and into his sack.  The Jomali immediately spouted forth a fountain of water and suddenly there came a great rumbling sound from the top of the mound, followed by a deluge of water that rushed down its face, collapsing the tunnel in a sea of mud and sweeping the men all the way out to the stockade gate.  The guards there helped their confederates gather up the loot, but when they opened the gate they could see, by the fast-failing light, Biarmians streaming into the clearing.  Erik had half of his men take up all the spoils and instructed Brak to lead them back to the ship, then he prepared his remaining men for a strike against the growing band of Biarmians.  It was past dusk, but, in the lingering light of the northern clime, the grey figures of the native warriors could be made out as they slinked into the still clearing.  Erik led his men out from the stockade, drew his untried sword, Tyrfingr, and charged the Biarmians.  Brak led his group toward the river and, as they filed along the edge of the clearing, he could just make out the two clusters of fighting men as they melted into each other.

The Varangians and Biarmians crashed together, engaged in a violent death struggle, and above them all, rising and falling like a sputtering beacon, was Tyrfingr, aflame from hilt to tip in the hearth glow of that strange star stone.  Erik’s ferocious strokes left trails and echoes of light in the night sky, and Tyrfingr veritably wailed as she was swung through the air; the spectral aspect of the blade and its terrible effect on their limbs and armour soon had the band of Biarmians turning in flight.  Erik ran after them, still swinging Tyrfingr and bellowing his rage, even though his own men, too, had turned and run for their lives.  Erik chased the natives across the clearing and into the woods, then he stopped and returned to the battleground, where he doused the blade of Tyrfingr in the corpse of a dead Biarmian and sheathed her in her scabbard.  He then sorted through the rest of the dead and found only one Varangian among the many bodies laid about.  In the starlight he could see that it was Amlod, the man who had robbed the Jomali of its silver.  He hoisted the body up over his shoulder and trudged through the woods to the river.  He saw Roller on board Fair Faxi gathering together a rescue party, while Brak was cursing the greed of whoever it was that had dumped the Jomali’s silver and now wouldn’t own up to it.

“I’ve the man here,” Erik shouted, as he waded out into the river.  “I think he’s atoned for his greed,” Erik said, passing the body up over the bulwark.

“He died a warrior’s death,” Brak said solemnly, as Roller pulled Erik up into the ship.  “We’ve a man dead and one missing.”

“Amlod shows profit from his error,” Erik replied.  “We’d better push off or we’ll be sharing in his gain.”

They rowed Fair Faxi hard upriver all night, their torches lighting up the darkness, glowing puddles in the blackness of the water; and always the men watched for starlit ripples in the dark water behind them–for the boats and the canoes of the Biarmians that never came.

In the morning they prepared the dead Amlod for burial, paring his nails and cutting his hair and washing him and wrapping him in a sailcloth along with his weapons.  Brak, meantime, had the men tie lines to the coarse cloth sacks full of ashes and silver and gold and then had them suspend the sacks in the river from the bulwarks.  The waters were soon cleansing the dust from the riches, so that when they lowered the corpse of Amlod into the river and let the body slide beneath the waves, Erik eloquently claimed that they were, in effect, burying him amongst a lesser multitude.

A week of rowing took Fair Faxi up the western arm of the Northern Dvina, and Brak now steered her up the fork that was the other arm, the one grasping for the Kama River and the land of the Permians.  Another Finno-Ugric tribe, the Permians were related to the Biarmians by language, but not by culture.  They were surprisingly civilized, and they handled all northern trade for the Bulgars, a Turkish tribe who had the large market town of Bulghar, south, on the Volga.  The Bulgars in turn handled the northern trade of the Khazar Khaganate, which controlled the eastern trade of the Roman Empire.

Erik first realized the ship had passed from Biarmia into the land of the Permians when he saw people wandering about the shore in broad daylight.  Natives were seen paddling their skin boats along the river’s edge and, although they all watched the longship pass, their stares were due to curiosity rather than fear or anger.

Another week of rowing brought the Varangians to Ragnar’s eastern station, Hawknista, which was run by an old family friend, Arthor, a thin pole of a man who gained his considerable size solely through his immense height.  He had long blonde hair, streaked white, a grey beard with moustaches that near hid his mouth, hazel eyes that glinted like wet rocks in sunlight and a thin red nose that ran a good length of his face.  Brak introduced him to the sons of Ragnar and he welcomed them most graciously to his humble station.

“You’re late arriving,” Arthor commented.  “All the other ships have been portaged across to the Kama.  They’re halfway to Bulgar by now.”

“We haven’t come for the Bulgar trade,” Erik said.  “We’re here to explore parts further east.”

Arthor seemed taken aback somewhat by this announcement.  “The lands to the east are filled with giants and dwarves,” he stammered.  “Why would you want to go there?  No one has gone into the Eastern Realm since the Danish King Gorm lost most of his men there in the time of your father’s youth.”

“I have a promise to keep…an obligation to fulfil.”

“Well, first you must rest and refresh yourselves,” Arthor said, regaining his composure.  He led the men into his longhall.  When Dvalin was brought into the hall on a litter, Tyrfingr’s sickness having sapped him of his strength, Arthor nodded, said “Ah”, then looked deep into his horn of ale.  “Dvalin was captured by Gorm and led what was left of his party back from the Eastern Realm,” Arthor explained, as though Dvalin was not present, of any importance whatsoever.  “The dwarf amused your father, so I gave him to him.  And now you wish to return him?”

“He is dying, Arthor, and I have yet to fulfil that part of a bargain we struck.”  Erik walked over to the bench on which Dvalin lay resting.  He squeezed the now thin frail hands of the dwarf, first one then the other.  Dvalin opened his eyes weakly when Erik stroked a cheek with the backs of his fingers.  “This is very important to me.  He is too ill to guide us, and we need directions.”

“Before I can guide you to this land, I must tell you of the fate that befell King Gorm’s brave expedition,” Arthor started.  Everyone relaxed in their seats and on their benches, for Arthor’s sparkling hazel eyes now glittered far off in the dark past, and they knew the tale would draw on.  A slave girl wandered about with a pitcher of ale, refilling horns as the need arose.

“King Gorm, you see,” Arthor began, “was a reserved monarch, believing that everyone had their station in life and everything had its place.  He was an honourable king of the highest order; yet insofar as tales go, he surpassed even me in the spinning of yarns.  As chance would have it, one of our own men, a stout Varangian named Thorkill, was captured by the Danes and, in return for his freedom, he led King Gorm and a hundred of his men in three way-wrought ships across the Nor’Way.  They arrived here pretty much as you now have: late and wanting to explore areas untouched by man.  He, too, asked for a guide and, as I had already portaged all of Hraegunar’s ships across to the Kama and had nothing to do but await their return, I consented to lead their party east into the land of the giants.”

Arthor drew a long draft of ale, then rested his arms back on his knees, cupping the horn in his hands.  He looked out into the dark hall and recalled, “Gorm was a king of a different sort.  Rather than gain fame through war, he had a flame that flickered inside him–a burning desire to explore.  If he heard of a race in the Baltic reaches that no Dane had ever come across, he rushed out to find them.  When he heard that some Celts had discovered some strange land far to the west, he sailed to them to learn of it.  And, when Thorkill told him about the land of the giants, he was soon sitting across from me in the very high seat you now occupy, Erik.  And Thorkill sat beside him, there where Hraelauger now sits.  And like you, Brak, their foremost man occupied the third seat.

“We set out with the next dawn, following this branch of the Dvina to its source and crossing a short land bridge into Giantland.  We re-launched our boats into a river no man has seen since that time.  It was small at first, but it soon foamed and churned its way, formidably, to the east.  The trees grew in size with the river and soon there was no doubt we were in Thor’s old stomping ground.  When the river seemed more a lake, with the right bank close by and the other lost far off in a veil of ominous mists, we sighted a dark, decrepit, twisted little town that smacked of disease and death.  As we neared, a short thick palisade of vertical logs could be made out surrounding the crumbling ruins of huge halls and spiralling towers.  Lances were set into the logs and upon these sat the severed heads of several men, freshly paled with death.  The bank of the river was high, and the land rose steeply up to the town, which festered upon a low plateau backed by shattered cliffs.  Huge fierce dogs guarded the sloping meadow in front of the town, but they did not bark at our approach.  We thought at first, they were friendly, but as we drew alongside the high riverbank we saw that they were growling ferociously through clenched jaws, a milky froth dripping down from their maws, their heads lowered deceptively, hoping, desiring that we step ashore.  King Gorm had us pass half carcasses of beef over to the shore on our oar blades, and the savage dogs devoured our supplies in no time.  This repast calmed them some and they soon took to sleeping.  Leaving a number of men to tend the ships, we threw out gangplanks and crossed to the shore.  We filed past the sleeping dogs and climbed ladders that led up the plateau and we entered the town through a high gate, as yet not having seen a mortal soul.  Inside the palisade, we saw huge shadowy figures of townsfolk lurking about the darkest corners and alleyways, but none approached us, and we felt compelled to keep our distance from them, not being sure if they were men or ghosts.  Had it caught fire and burned itself to the ground, the town could not have looked more desolate, for the timbers of the buildings were black and rancid with filth and the streets were putrid with waste.  Odours foul and disgusting darted and tangled with each other as we worked our way through the streets.

“Thoughts dance about your head in a situation such as that and you become incredulous at the fact that you are still placing one foot in front of the other in a progressive fashion, when to turn and run for it would be the prudent thing to do, while a slow reversing of the step would require all the courage one could ask of a man.  When Thorkill told us, we were most likely approaching the stone chambers of the giant Geruth, the foot I hated most was the one that made the next step.  Yet, we went on.  We stopped at the entrance to a great stone chamberway carved into the face of the limestone cliffs that stood as a backdrop to the fetid little town.  King Gorm said a few words on courage and the need for exploration of the world around us.  What drove a man, I asked myself as he was speaking, what drove a man to leave a kingdom, his women, strong meads and dark ales, tender meats, roasted and boiled, only to seek out danger in some cesspool of a keep in some strange far-off land?  Surely such knowledge as is required shall unfold eventually in relative safety.  Thorkill interrupted my reflections, giving us all a warning not to touch anything in the hall of Geruth, no matter how enticing, for one’s hand would remain stuck fast to that object as if bound by invisible fetters.  How Thorkill could perceive this threat none of us knew, but he was, in effect, ordering us not to plunder the place.  I was growing more disdainful of this exploration business with every forward step.  Trade offers profit at some risk and war at least offers booty, but exploration was all risk and no reward as far as I could make out.  Two brave Danes called Broder and Buchi led the way, followed by King Gorm, Thorkill, me and the others.

“Inside, the hall was a shamble.  Filth and destruction were everywhere.  Down either side of the huge torch lit room there were chambers fenced off with iron works within which resided all manner of monsters: misshapen giants waving spiked clubs, ghoulish spectres in hooded gowns and beasts beyond description all sat uneasily upon garish iron seats while cloaked figures stood outside each barred cell fearfully brandishing whips.  As our eyes adjusted to the lighting we saw the floor crawling with snakes; massive furnishings lay smashed and broken all about; walls and columns were smeared with filth and gore, and the ceiling was studded with spikes.  The odours virtually danced across our faces till our noses stopped themselves up in protest and our eyes watered in their support.  Yet, despite these offences to our senses, both physical and beyond, we carried on.”

Arthor had been carrying on with his tale through several horns of ale and now his daughters, twelve in all, of varying ages, entered with the evening’s repast.  They were lovely young girls in various stages of maturity, with long beautiful heads of hair ranging in colour from black to blonde.  They first served their guests, then soon joined them in the feasting, a woman for each high seat and then the nearer benches until there were none left for the men at the furthest places.  A sweet young girl with hair the colour of burnished copper sat beside Erik, while a tall brunette graced Roller’s high seat.  An older woman, still pretty, with blonde hair flecked silver, sat at Brak’s high seat and Brak smiled warmly.  They had shared the high seat spread before.  Arthor nodded graciously, pleased with the seating arrangements, and continued with his recollection.

“We crossed the length of the great stone hall and, at the far end of it, below a shattered section of cliff, high upon a dais sat the giant Geruth.  He was sitting upon a lone high seat, a throne, staring off into the darkness, curiously unaware of our presence, and his abdomen had a huge gaping hole clean through it which he would inspect from time to time.  Beside him, just a bit lower down, sat three grossly malformed giantesses resting upon couches.  Their bodies had been smashed by the collapsed section of cliff, as could be ascertained from the fragments lying about them.  They stared about as though still in shock even though the rock had fallen…who could tell how long ago.  Thorkill explained that Thor, on visiting Giantland, had angered Geruth, who hurled a red-hot ingot at him and Thor, using his gloves of iron to catch the bolt, returned it in kind, piercing the giant’s body and bursting a section of the cliff behind, the shards of which shattered the bodies of his wives.  Thorkill again warned us against plundering, though we had yet to see anything we would want to approach let alone touch.

“We trailed across the front of the giant’s dais and off to the left we found a large anteroom haphazardly strewn with objects.  There was a huge gold arm ring, an ivory tusk from some unknown creature and a great drinking horn, exquisitely carved and trimmed in gold and jewels.  We filed past these treasures, all wanting to grab them up, but none of us doing so in front of the others until the last man compulsively snatched up the arm ring and slipped it on all the way up to his shoulder, it was so huge.  The man in front of him then grabbed up the tusk and threw it over his shoulder while the third last man gathered the great horn into his arms.  Such is the power of riches that, no matter how grave the consequences, some cannot resist the temptation of possession.  No sooner had the last item been filched when the arm ring turned into a striking adder, the tusk turned into a huge crescent sword and the horn turned into a great coiled serpent.  The man with the adder about his arm was struck dead and before he even hit the floor the adder had turned back into a gold arm ring and it rang, and it rang as it rattled round, and round and we held our breaths expecting the monsters to be roused.  The huge crescent blade then bit into the man carrying it as he laboured under its great weight, and he stood awestruck as it settled into his body as if some giant feather floating to the ground; he was dead by the time it reached his groin and it fell with a clatter as his remains collapsed on either side of it.  This racket was added to the ringing noise and it seemed sure that soon all hell would break loose.  When the great coiled serpent struck at the third man, it took his whole head in its jaws with deceptive quickness, right on down past the shoulders, and it sucked at him like a child might suck on an icicle until it had consumed his flailing body whole and you could see that the struggles continued inside the snake for some time, but we all just stood there, silent and dumbfounded.  It then swallowed up the other two bodies, growing in size with each gorging and we feared it would next turn on us, but it must have been sated, for a look of contentment came to its cold slitted eyes and it turned back into the great drinking horn, gracing three brand new jewels about its mouth.  Finally, the arm ring stopped its resounding racket, the sword turned back into a tusk and we stood stalk-still in the midst of that anteroom waiting for the giants to strike.  When none came, Gorm led us on.  I, for one, did not want to go on, but I certainly wouldn’t go back.  I would have been perfectly content to stand frozen in the silence and shadow of that huge anteroom for an eternity, if need be, as long as I needn’t go forward or back.  Yet Gorm led us on and I hated my feet for taking me further and I swore to the gods I would cut them off if I ever made it out of that place alive.  Never before had they taken me into such a godforsaken place, and, for this, I could never forgive them.  

“When we came upon a great treasure room, Thorkill again admonished us against plundering, as if we needed any further warning.  This inner chamber contained gilt weapons and armour too large for use by human beings and piled everywhere were heaps of gold coins and well-worked jewellery, but the weapons awed us the most.  Swords were stacked against the stone wall, elaborately worked with gold and silver, standing near as tall as a man; not as tall as I, mind you, but near as tall as some.  Jewelled breastplates, antique in fashion, Greek in style, were so large one could have bathed in them and the helmets you could have sat comfortably upon.  Only the bucklers were of human size, but I suspect they covered the forearm alone, as gladiators were wont to be equipped in the most raucous of Roman times.

“In the centre of all this weaponry hung a large bright purple royal cloak of Roman military fashion that Thorkill told us had belonged to Thor, but which he had forgotten during his battle with Geruth.  For some reason Thorkill was drawn to this cloak, for he would study it, then move on to some other item, then return to study the cloak again.  Thus, did he marvel upon all the goods in the room, always returning to study the cloak once more.  Finally, he tore it away from the wall and draped it about his shoulders.  Suddenly the very rock within which Geruth’s hall sat began to shake violently.  The three giantesses awoke from their stupor and wailed that we robbers be tolerated no longer.  By this time, we were running back through the anteroom, but Geruth still paid us no mind, preferring rather to inspect the opening in his stomach one more time.  As we rounded the corner into the main hall, we could see that the handlers were losing control over their monsters.  Some of the beasts leaped over the iron rails and began tearing their tamers to ribbons.  Yet others tore their way right through the bars and soon the hall was full of them.  They came at us from either side as we ran down the hall.  I had my sword out by then and hacked at several of them.  Gorm was beside me chopping the other way, with Broder and Buchi behind us shooting arrows as fast as they could let them fly.  Thorkill was next, still carrying the cloak, and the rest were strung out behind us.  Our two archers were dropping monsters all around us, yet more would take their place.  We made the entrance at a full run and we hit the sunlight of the street with blinding speed.  I could hear the monsters hard after us and the townsfolk in the street began screaming in terror and fleeing in panic.  There were death screams everywhere and I made a new pact with my feet, falling most in love with whichever foot got closest to the town wall.  We burst through the gate and I slid down the ladder with a hand and a foot on each sidepiece and my rump smacking every rung on the way down.  I hit the ground still flying and I cried `feet don’t fail me now!’  I could hear Gorm close behind me–he ran real well for royalty–and I caught a flash of purple cloak tumbling down the ladder.  Even as we ran across the river flat, those huge fierce dogs were waking up.  The men at our ships had their oars in the water and the gangplanks still set upon the shore.  The first of our party made the ships before the dogs got to us, but many others at the rear were torn to shreds.  We pushed off from the land and rowed for our lives with the dogs leaping into the river after us.

“We disappeared deep into the mists expecting to reach the other bank and work our way back upriver, but no opposite riverbank attended us.  Most of our party had leaped into the same ship, the nearest ship, and there was still room for more.  We had lost forty or fifty men in the town and we soon lost track of the other ships in the fog.  Gorm and Thorkill were aboard, as were Broder and Buchi and everyone seemed to think that I could tell them what had happened to the other riverbank and that I should know where the other ships were.  The heavy mist hung around us like the purple cloak about Thorkill and nobody talked about either.  I tried hailing the other ships–they were dangerously undermanned without us–but although I could hear shouts now and then they sounded as though they could have come from any direction.  I stuck my hand into the current and told the men to row upstream.  I figured if the others had their wits about them they would do likewise.”

Erik looked about the hall while Arthor had his horn refilled with ale.  The meal had ended, and many were settling into some heavy drinking, while others settled into their benches and slept.  Erik admired the beauty of the slender copper-haired girl beside him but refocused his attention on Arthor’s telling of this story, a story Brak had told him many times before.  It was important to Erik that he get the details correct and the story committed to memory.

“We rowed upstream for several hours before we finally came upon a riverbank, but it was off to our left.  I supposed that we had worked our way across the river as we rowed upstream, but somehow, I had expected that the fog should have broken were this the case.  It was the obvious explanation, yet I had a gut feeling that there was something wrong…something I had overlooked.  But we stayed close to the bank and we rowed and soon we all let out a sigh of relief as we ran out of the fog.  The river was much smaller now and ran between two low hills up ahead.  Heavy woods ran right to the river’s edge and branches drooped lazily into the water.  These were not the high riverbanks of our river.  Something was definitely wrong.

“I had the men row over to the shore very gradually.  I could feel that we were being watched, but the river was too narrow to move out a safe distance, so I figured on moving us into a position where we could at least counterattack if need be.  Up ahead I spotted a sparse clump of brush that appeared to have been purposefully cleared.  I sensed that there were men waiting there under cover of the foliage.  As we passed by very close to the bank, I had a man thrust his oar out onto the shore and I dashed along the pole and leaped onto the bank and into the clearing.  The woods came alive with men…dwarves, the whole lot of them.  A half-dozen of the wretches scrambled out from various hiding places and dashed for a like number of tiny trails carved out through the underbrush.  I picked out the largest trail, bent over low and set off after one of them.  When I got back to the ship I had your Dvalin by the scruff of the neck, kicking and wailing his protests in some Elfin tongue.  The men had turned the ship around to come back for me, so we let her drift downriver while King Gorm questioned Dvalin in as many languages as he knew.  It was to no avail.  Next, I drew a map of what I knew of the river onto the deck with a charcoal and pointed to where we wanted to go.  He seemed to understand this.  He went to the forestem of the ship and drew little maps in the air and kept pointing downriver.  Gorm, Thorkill and I all agreed that there wasn’t much to lose by following the dwarf’s directions, seeing as how we were lost anyway, so Dvalin soon had us heading right back into the fog.  We kept the riverbank close to our right and we followed it.  Now and again the dwarf would have us leave off the riverbank and we’d lose sight and sound of it for a while only to have it reappear once again.  It was then that I realized that the far side of the river, which had been shrouded in mist when we came down, was riddled with tributaries.  We had accidentally ventured up one of these when we were rowing upriver.  We broke out of the fog once again and I knew from the river’s size and lay that we had sailed her before.  Now that I knew where we were, I felt obliged to set the dwarf free, but Gorm would have none of that.  I don’t know if he found Dvalin amusing or he just didn’t trust my navigation anymore.

“Dvalin guided us out of that maze of mists and rivers to the land bridge next to the Dvina.  We camped there several days waiting for the other ships, but none came, so we portaged across and returned to Hawknesta.  Gorm had us keep the dwarf as he wanted a guide that could lead him back to search for his missing men.  But the season was growing late and Thorkill became anxious to lead King Gorm back across the way before Hraegunar returned from Bulgar.  King Gorm had me keep Dvalin until the time he should return, then set off with what remained of his men back across the way.  Buchi fell in love with one of my daughters and proposed to stay, as did several others, rather than chance the crossing in an overcrowded ship.

“When Hraegunar got back and learned that Thorkill had led a Danish king across the Nor’Way, he was so furious I had to protect Buchi and the others from his wrath.  Hraegunar then swore that if Gorm wanted to return to search for his men, he would have to ask him first and Hraegunar took Dvalin back with him, across the Nor’Way.

“King Gorm has never returned to search for his lost ships and men and nobody has ever wandered out of those eastern reaches.  I have always felt that this tale could never really end without the return of Dvalin to his homeland, even though he be on his deathbed, therefore, I shall once again act as guide into the land of the giants.”

Although, for many, the night had been late, the rising for all was early.  Brak went around to all the sleeping benches and roused his Varangians.  Erik sat up and the room swam momentarily.  He looked down at the young woman sleeping, cuddled up beside him.  Her mouth was open in a soft satisfied pout and her burnished copper tresses danced in front of her face as she breathed.  She rolled onto her back and the furs tumbled away, exposing the high-prowed breasts of her youth.  It had been her first time and his too; the first time Erik’s rank and position had allowed him a woman, anyway.  Erik covered her up.

A fuzzy greyness crept across the eastern horizon as the Varangians loaded up Fair Faxi.  The sun was cresting pinkly when they pushed her off and a fresh young woman with copper locks waved Erik goodbye from the shore.

Dvalin’s condition had worsened during the night.  He drifted in and out of consciousness.  “He’s fast fading,” Arthor observed.  “and we’ve still some way to go.”

Erik pulled a man off the bench nearest Dvalin and began rowing, setting a pace that soon had them all sweating.  They rowed in rotating shifts all morning, the pace slowing, somewhat, when Erik rested and picking up when Erik resumed.  Brak got the brazier of charcoals going and boiled up some meat in the ship’s kettle.  As with the rowing, they ate in shifts.  By late afternoon they reached the source of the Dvina and the land bridge between it and the river of Giantland, but Dvalin beat them in the race for his homeland.  He had passed on to the other side an hour earlier.  The sun had been warm upon his face, the sky had been very blue and cloudless above him and he had felt little pain.

Roller had been the first to find that Dvalin had left the mortal coil and he wondered what Erik would now do.  Many of the men were superstitious and, having taken Arthor’s tale to heart, were reluctant to venture into the giant’s realm.  Arthor, for one, seemed quite relieved that Dvalin was dead.  He let everyone know that now he was none too enthusiastic about returning to that misty river.

Erik was at first determined to return Dvalin’s body to his people, but when they grounded the ship and he stepped out onto the land bridge and faced east, he at once sensed the calamity of the place.  Some great disaster had attended Dvalin’s people far inland, long ago.  Arthor shifted about uneasily as Erik gave him a long scrutinizing stare.  Erik looked back east and a strange prescience overcame him–a feeling that promised an explanation, an accounting of what had happened long ago, as though Dvalin’s spirit longed to finally speak out, but Erik fought it off.  He had fulfilled his part of the bargain he had struck with Dvalin; he did not want to know what secrets lurked beyond the bridge to Giantland, he did not want to feel the cryptic apparitions of a people not his own, a race in its death throes.  Dvalin, himself, could not have moved Erik to listen to the horror that lurked on the other side.  The feeling would haunt him.

“Stay here with Fair Faxi,” Erik relented.  “I’ll take Dvalin over the land bridge, build him a bier and commend him to his own gods at the headwaters of his people’s river.”  Erik did not even know who ‘his own gods’ were.

CHAPTER FIVE

5.0  RETURN TO GOTAR’S HIGHSEAT HALL  (Circa 829 AD)

            “In all her life         no ill knew she,

             and in her fate      no flaw, either;

             of blemish none    in her body knew she;

             yet cruel norns     came between them.”

The Short Lay of Sigurth (Hollander).

“How does one, through prescience, foresee and feel the death of an enemy half a continent away, yet fail to fathom a woman’s heart nigh half a pace back?”  Such thoughts troubled Erik of late, so, just as King Gorm of Denmark had done a generation before, Erik quit the east early.  Sensing Hrafn Ketil’s sorry fate and having fulfilled his pledge to Dvalin, Erik and his men handed their furs and goods in trust to Brak, who had planned to carry on and meet up with Ragnar in Baghdad and continue with his training in Damascus.  The Varangians then sailed down the Northern Dvina, through the White Sea and across the Barents Sea in much the same rough manner as their first crossing.  At Hrafnista they caught wind of Hrafn Ketil’s death; at home in Rogaland Province they heard confirming news of the completeness of Oddi’s victory and by late summer they were back in the Vik learning first-hand the extent of the carnage.  The sons of Ragnar were well received by King Gotar.  He made Erik his foremost man.

Survivors of the disastrous raid against Sea-King Oddi and the Danes–only six of sixty ships returned–related once more their accounts of the battle for Erik’s benefit.  Their dirges described a panoply of powers that the Danish sea-king had used against them.  They claimed Oddi was skilled in magics, possessing knowledge of his enemies’ whereabouts while resting at home and the ability to raise storms against them even from afar.  He could blind his enemies and blunt their weapons and was noted for being as merciless toward merchants as he was kind to farmers and cattlemen.  Several Danes who had been captured in the fighting confirmed that his powers were such, but, even further, they verified Gotar’s information that King Frodi’s was an unpopular rule.  From the captives, Erik gleaned details that further fleshed out the tale of Hrafn Ketil’s disastrous attack.

The Norwegian fleet had set out in fine weather heading south along the Gotland coast, but Oddi quickly raised up a tempest that drove the ships out to sea and stranded them upon a string of uncharted sandbar islets.  All night the storm had raged, preventing the Norwegians from freeing their vessels.  In the morning, hard on the heels of the storm, the Danes attacked.  Out of the east they came, with the rising sun glistening off a thousand bared swords.  They were a storm in themselves, rolling like a thundercloud over Hrafn Ketil’s strung out fleet.  The vanguard swept by the first few ships, pelting them with arrows that fell like rain, the first smacking droplets presaging the fury of the tempest to follow.  Then came a hail of heavy stones that smashed bones and timbers with equal ease.  It was followed by ships full of howling berserks who dropped like dancing ball lightning onto the decks of the shattered ships, the sound of their weapons biting armour was like a staccato of thunderclaps wafting out over the water.  Lightning bolts that struck down many fine young Norwegian oaks.  And the twelve sons of Westmar were the champions of the slaughter, clearing decks as though a raging fire sweeping through deadfall.  The storm rolled west down the long line of Norwegian ships and behind it followed an eerie calm, the whispered moans of the dying.  Here and there a ship burned, while others broke up among the rocks they were lodged upon, disgorging their gore into the surf and the sea of the Kattegat.  Only the last dozen ships had time to free themselves and, in a running battle with the Danish vanguard, only half of these escaped.  The survivors told of how Hrafn Ketil had fallen early in the fray, killed in one mighty blow by Oddi, and was spared witnessing the tragedy.  Erik mused inwardly at the fate of the man who had coveted the Nor’Way for himself.

When the hearings had concluded, Erik invited Princess Alfhild to go out for a ride.  They had horses saddled up and they set off, heading west, in the late afternoon, following the setting sun as though wishing to draw out the day.  Erik followed the princess for a time and studied the sunlight as it played in her golden hair.  She was fresh and lovely to watch.  Reigning up her horse on the crest of a very green sloping hill, she slipped out of her saddle and to the ground with a graceful strength that Erik would have not expected from a princess.  She began to walk her horse and Erik rode up, dismounted and walked beside her.

“How is that troublesome dwarf of yours,” she asked.  “Is he still up to his terrible antics?”  She stopped and beamed Erik her widest smile.

Erik soaked up her radiance then looked to the ground.  “I’m afraid he died in the east.”

“I’m sorry, Hraerik.  I liked him very much.  He should never have travelled so far.”

“You’re right, my princess.  He should never have left home.”

“And you were right about Hrafn Ketil and our attacking the Danes.  It was too dangerous and now it has all turned out so tragically.  What do you suppose the Danes will do about the attack?  Will they follow up their victory?”

“They very well could.  Your father wants to send envoys to Frodi declaring that Hrafn Ketil was raiding on his own and that he would be seeking no compensation for the slaughter.  I intend to volunteer for this duty.”

“But it’s dangerous, Hraerik.  I’ve heard the tales coming out of Liere.  Can’t you leave it for someone else to do?  We’ve heard nothing but terrible things about King Frodi’s treatment of diplomats.”

“You fret for me?  Your eloquent prince, whose dexterous tongue has won him a ship and gained him a place on the high seat of his king.  But,” Erik confessed, “I would be pleased if you continue to do so.”  Erik stepped toward Alfhild and stroked her cheek as though to check if her blush was real or painted.  He kissed her gently.  “I’ll be leaving soon,” and he kissed her again, but harder.

Alfhild stepped away from him and leaped up onto her horse.  “I hope your glib tongue hasn’t gotten you into more trouble than you can handle,” she chided playfully, then rode off back for the royal stead.  Erik gave chase, but always kept a little behind her.  He told himself it was, so he could watch her, but he knew there was more to it.  He was falling in love with an elusive creature, a fairy princess, who would always be just beyond his grasp.  And a sinking feeling overcame him as he rode.

King Gotar’s hall was similar in construction to Ragnar’s longhall, but an ell longer in every direction.  On either side of the two triple high seats, benches ran to the distant corners of the hall.  There were no bed chambers or kitchens, the hall having been built for audiences and accommodation of warriors only.  Rich tapestries were hung the full girth of the walls.  The finest of these framed the high seat dais’ which rested upon a planked floor.  Beams, posts and pillars were painted and the high seats themselves were profusely carved and enamelled in a gripping-beast motif.

All Gotar’s hired men assembled in the hall the next day and it was proposed that one envoy should lead a ship bearing a white painted shield, a sign of truce, upon its mast into Denmark and proclaim to King Frodi that Hrafn Ketil’s attack was of his own volition.  Roller stepped forward at this proposal and said, “I wish to volunteer for this duty.”  To this Gotar acquiesced, claiming that a more promising representative of the people of Norway could not be found.  Erik had objections though.

“I am against your setting off on so dangerous a peace mission.  It is common knowledge that King Frodi slaughters foreign emissaries with alarming regularity.  Surely there are others who would go in your stead.  Are there no others who would like to go visit the fair King Frodi of Denmark?”  No one volunteered.  Erik was off his high seat now haranguing the men.  “I’m sure King Frodi bears us no malice for our recent attack.”  Yet no one volunteered.  “Are there none who would go in my brother’s stead?” Erik asked and again there was no reply.

“Good.  It’s settled then,” Gotar said.  “Hraelauger shall be our peace envoy if he still so wishes.”

“Yes, my liege,” Roller answered.

Erik walked to face his brother, glowering at him angrily.  He turned to face King Gotar.  “I, too, must volunteer then.  I cannot let my brother face this danger alone.”

“That is out of the question,” Gotar replied.  “I need you to help make preparations should King Frodi decide to attack us.”

“If Frodi attacks us it will mean he has slain our envoy, my brother.  I would be of little use in such circumstance.  I insist you give me leave to aid him, to prevent this occurring.  Give me leave that my eloquent tongue may smooth over any distrust between King Frodi and yourself.”

The other hired men cheered loudly in support of Erik.  Princess Alfhild put in a word for him and soon King Gotar was swayed to give him the leave he so desired.

“That was quite a performance you put on,” Alfhild told Erik later.  “Father would never have let you go, had you played it any other way.”  They had packed a lunch and gone for an afternoon’s ride once again, stopping to eat on a blanket in the midst of a wooded glen.  “Why is this peace mission so important to you, Hraerik?  You were the one who warned father not to attack King Frodi.  You should be the least concerned about how father placates the Danes, and now you risk your life as the Norwegian emissary?”

“Let us say I’m trying to impress your father,” Erik said, lightly.

Alfhild would have none of this levity.  “I’ve been leading you on, Hraerik,” she confessed.  “I enjoy your company, your stories, your poetry.  I have affection for you, Hraerik.  Affection, but no passion.  And now you’ve put yourself and your brother in grave danger because of me.”

“Your concern for my welfare may not be passion yet, but it is the stirrings of greater emotion.”

“You must call off this mission, Hraerik.  I won’t be responsible for your death.  For both your deaths.”

“I have no intention of dying,” Erik replied.  “That would hardly impress your father.”

Alfhild studied Erik’s deep coarse face.  “You’re not on a peace mission, are you Hraerik?” she asked.  Erik did not reply.  She had succeeded in fathoming his intent and her concern turned to fear as she second guessed the madness, the wildness of Erik’s plan.  She rose and staggered blindly to a small oak sapling and leaned on it for support.  “What dark and dangerous course have you set for yourself, my eloquent prince?  What extreme have I driven you to?”

Erik got up and embraced her from behind.  “This isn’t your fault.  It has nothing to do with you.  You must not tell a soul.”  He held her close and could feel her heavy breathing, the pounding of her heart.  He felt the flush of her cheek, then the moisture of her sweet breath.

“I’ve been raised in a royal court,” she started.  “Father has encouraged me to observe the functions of a king since my early youth and he has never kept any of it from me:  the granting of marriages, the planning of alliances, the making of war.  All this I have seen–participated in.  My father has done all this in order that I may be a powerful queen when my times comes.  He has no sons, so I must be strong for him.  Strong and emotionless.  When the time comes that he chooses me a king, I shall be that powerful queen he wants me to be.  I love my father, Hraerik.  He has given me everything he has to offer.  And when he gives me my king, well…I shall try to love him too.”

Erik turned Alfhild to face him.  “And if your father should choose me for you…would you try to love me?”

Tears crested upon Alfhild’s lower eyelids, but they would not flow.  “I was born into royalty.  I was raised on the high seat, constantly looking down.  I must look up.  Do you understand, Hraerik?  I must look up!”

Erik looked into her eyes, not sure of their meaning.  The tears brimmed but would not flow.  Soon they dissipated.

“Mother said this prescience of yours is very rare.”  Alfhild’s eyes grew stone cold.  “She says it comes from your mother’s side, from the east.”

Erik knew her meaning and his body became lead.  In his mind his arm rose and swung down and cuffed Alfhild hard across the mouth, but his body would not respond to this thought.  Alfhild still stood in front of him, her face flushed and questioning.  She could not have read this thought, he told himself, or she would be reeling away in pain.  Blood would be flowing from her mouth and the cut upon her cheek.  She must never guess.  Erik turned himself away from her and braced himself against a huge oak.  She must never guess.  Erik had never struck a woman, not even a slave, and this terrible thought of his shamed him.  “Leave me be,” he stammered.  “Go away!”  He looked out into the shadows, into the darkness.

“Kraka, teach me the runes,” he had cried as a child.  “Teach me to read the runes.”

“The runes are not for the base-born,” she had answered.  He had run off into the deepest woods then, and finally Brak had taken him in.

“Go back to your father,” Erik told Alfhild.  “I need time to myself.”

Alfhild went to her horse and mounted.  It pranced as it stood behind him.  “I can’t let you go!” she said as she sat on her steed.

“I already promised your father I would go to Denmark,” Erik replied.

“No! I mean I can’t let you go,” she repeated.  “Something just came over me and I realized I can’t let your love for me go.”  She dismounted and walked over to Erik.  She took his hand and she led him back to the picnic blanket and she moved the basket off of it and they sat upon the blanket beside each other and Alfhild kissed him deeply.  “I don’t want to lose your love, Hraerik.  I may never get it back.”

“But you said you must look up,” Erik said.

“I’m looking up now,” Alfhild answered, looking up and stroking his hair.  “Do you love me, Hraerik?  Do you really love me?”

“I believe I do,” he answered.  “I love you more than anything else on Earth!”

“I believe you do, too,” she said, “and I just had this thought, this feeling that just overcame me, that if I let you go, I shall die without knowing true love.  Is that love, Hraerik?”

“It is love I shall nurture,” Erik replied, and he kissed her deeply in return.  They kissed and caressed and Erik laid her down on the blanket and he lifted her dress and he removed her riding shorts.  He laid beside her and slipped out of his pants.

“I’ve never been with a man,” she told him.  Erik nodded and kissed her, then he pulled her partially off of the blanket and clear off her dress and he opened her legs and laid above her and he entered her and she took in a gasp as her blood flowed into the green grass.  He stroked his way into her gently and he began a rhythm that wasn’t discomforting and she began responding to his thrusts with thrusts of her own and Erik felt as though he was about to explode and he wanted her to come with him and he began to count backwards in Roman numerals to help hold it off, starting from cent.  When he got down to XXXVI, she began to moan and close her eyes in pleasure and she came at XXI and Erik quit counting and exploded within her.  They were caught up in passion and they hugged each other in ecstasy and held each other for a while.  Erik was still inside her when he realised something.  “I should have worn a glove,” he blurted.

“I’m training to be a healer,” Alfhild replied.  “I just got off my month’s flow a day or two ago.  I’ll be fine,” and she kissed him for his concern.

They laid upon the blanket for a while with Alfhild’s head resting on Erik’s shoulder, then Erik had a Déjà vu thought that this isn’t how things had gone, that his heart had been broken and some god had stepped in and stopped it from happening.  “What made you change your mind and get off your high horse and come back to me here?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” she answered.  “I wasn’t going to, but, like I said, something came over me, like the gods opened my eyes to what was right here in front of me.”

“I just had that thought,” Erik admitted, “like the gods had intervened.”

“Yes,” she said.  “It felt a lot like the gods had intervened.”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t get Kraka to put a love spell or anything on you,” Erik said.

“Oh, gods no!” she exclaimed.  “I wasn’t thinking that.  My mother’s head witch of The Vik and I’m training under her.  You can’t use witchcraft on a witch without her knowing it.”  Alfhild gave Erik a big hug.  “You’re so honest, so sensitive.”

“You’re so beautiful,” Erik told her, getting up on and elbow and stroking her fine golden hair.  He looked into her sparkling green eyes and said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  I saw you on a clifftop the first time I sailed into The Vik and the sunlight was dancing in your tresses and I think I fell in love with you there, at first sight.”

Alfhild blushed at this and put her head into Erik’s chest.  They rested in each other’s arms for a long time.  “If you hadn’t intervened in Hrafn Ketil’s plans, my father might have married me off to him,” Alfhild confessed.  “Thank you for that.”

“Hrafn Ketil wasn’t of royal blood,” Erik stated.

“If he would have beaten Sea-King Odd, my father had promised him my hand.  That is why Hrafn Ketil volunteered to go in your stead.  I wouldn’t have married him, of course.  I just wanted to tell you in case you heard of it through others.”

“My father met up with Hrafn Ketil on his way back from Denmark, so I thought perhaps he’d already had words with the Danes.”

“My father sent him to Liere with a proposal match for me to marry King Frodi.”

“But King Frodi’s married to Queen Hanund.”

“She’s a Hun.  My father, of course, stipulated primus wife status for my hand.  I was to be Queen of Denmark…she would be his concubine.  It’s not fitting for an eastern princess to rule over me.  I mean no offense, Hraerik, but she is a Hun.”

“Would you have married King Frodi?”

“I would have had to if he’d agreed with all the terms.  But he laughed at the offer and called my father just another petty Vik-King of Thule, like Hraegunar ‘Lothbrok’.  Those Anglish Danes are so continental, so European!”

“I’m going to kill King Frodi,” Erik confessed.

“Don’t cross lances with King Frodi, Hraerik,” she warned him.  “He has too much luck!  Just be our emissary and come back to me alive.”

Erik wanted to tell her he had always planned on killing King Frodi for what the Angles had done to his father, but Alfhild thought he was going to do it for her honour, so he left it at that.  “Okay…I’ll spare him then,” he assured her, “and I’ll come back alive,” he hoped, but it would be nice if Princess Alfhild grieved for him if he didn’t.  A little part of him even wished he had planted a fair seed while ploughing a fine furrow, but she was just off her period.

They kissed and fondled for a bit and then things got all hot and bothered again and Erik was soon counting Roman numerals backwards.  They went longer this time and Erik made it to VIII before he abandoned his count.  It was the most perfect moment in Erik’s life, if an afternoon could be called a moment, but Erik wished that afternoon could have gone on forever, so it was but a moment in that sense.  Still, Erik couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been through it before and things had not gone off near as well.  His prescience told him there was something off about that perfect moment, but it was still a perfect moment and the young couple had a perfect return ride back to King Gotar’s highseat hall.

The next morning, the ship, Fair Faxi, sailed out of The Vik, a white shield hanging from her mast.  The morning was an autumn one, cool and bright.  Erik stood upon the foredeck, Roller manned the rudder and Alfhild watched them slip out onto the sea and she waved at them from the heights of that headland that tumbled down to meet it.

CHAPTER SIX

6.0  VISIT AT HRAEGUNARSTEAD  (Circa 829 AD)

“The snake will strike, venom filled, flashing from

 the time worn skull of Faxi.”

Arrow-Odd’s Saga.

Home.

Refuge.

Sanctuary.

The ironic thing about home is that it is never really home until you leave.  It is a place for nurturing, a place for growing, a place of primary explorations and discoveries, but, most of all, it is a place to escape from.  Only beyond the confines of home, out in the unforgiving world, does the place become home.  A refuge to retreat to.  A sanctuary to return to.  Home.

Entering the bay, watching the crowd gather upon the bitter green, seeing the longhall and the boat sheds and the smithy shop, then the homes of the freemen and the shanties of the slaves, and, in the distance, Ulf Creek, the ranging wandering little river, the familiar meadows and forests and grey sequestering mountains, Erik felt, for the first time in his life, that sense of home.

Erik stood at the forestem of Fair Faxi as they swept by the mottled crowd on the greensward.  The people of Hraegunarstead shouted and waved and ran alongside and Erik saw Ragnar and Kraka fall behind.  They both now walked upon the bitter green.

Home.  It was not just a place.  It was a time, and, although that time had passed, the place bore its shadow.  And time, when gauged by the life of a man, was seldom linear and often cruel.  In the course of a few months it had surged forth years.  Suddenly Ragnar was old.

Fair Faxi thudded softly into the sand of the bay and the throng took up ropes that were thrown out to them and they hauled the ship up on the beach.

Ragnar was in much better spirits now than when his sons had last seen him, having successfully concluded another season’s trade in the east while his sons had bided their time in the Vik.  But his body was now stooped, and his hands were swollen and inflamed.  He welcomed the boys home and led them up to the longhall, where ale and food awaited them.

The two youths sat once more upon the high seats of their father and announced their upcoming embassy to Denmark.

Ragnar seemed to ponder the news for some time.  He got up from his high seat, stepped down to the dais and turned to face his sons, arms akimbo.  “And I understand the two of you volunteered for this.  Hraelauger stepping forward first and then you, Hraerik.”

Erik realized then that Ragnar had his own ears in Gotar’s high seat hall.

“It’s bad enough,” he continued, “ that you’ve both fallen in with a luckless king, a king I instructed you not to support, but now you’ve placed your lives at risk, and the lives of your men as well.  Am I to believe that a luckless king such as Gotar is capable of soliciting such loyalty from my sons?”  Ragnar paced a little on the dais, stroking his greying beard.  He waited for an answer, and when none came he said, “I think not.  Why then this foolishness?” Ragnar asked, and he clenched the fingers of his right hand into his whiskers.  “I ruined my reputation running from Oddi, throwing to the winds the chance for that one last great battle,” Ragnar said, his voice rising passionately, his right hand scattering its swollen fingers out into the air then collecting them back up into a fist, which he held below his nose; and he inhaled, as though death in battle was some sweet poesy within grasp.  He exhaled softly.  “I did that, so my eldest son might have his chance at life; and now both my sons volunteer for a fate that I have suffered so to prevent happening.  I would stop you if I could, but you are both now men and you do what you must.  I know what intent lurks in your hearts and whose loyalties you hold dear, so I will give you my support in this and more, but I fear the cruel norns are busy weaving your fate, for I feel that this is the last time we shall be together in this world.”  That said, Ragnar returned to his high seat, sat down, closed his eyes and concentrated deeply as if he himself was doing battle with the norns, the small demi-gods who cast the fates and fortunes of men.

“You will need several ships,” the old man declared, “and much silver if you are to escape your fate.  Kraka converses with the norns and we shall make sacrifices as they require, but it will be very hard.”

As if responding to a cue, Kraka entered the room from the chamberway.  “The norns have voiced their opinions and they say Hraerik is no match for Oddi.  Odin is the god of war and he favours the Danish sea-king, but he does have an equal in Tyr and Hraerik has gained some favour.  But it will be very hard,” she echoed.

Kraka had led a group of cookhouse slaves in with the evening meal and soon all the folk of Hraegunarstead were at supper in the hall.

The next day, Ragnar took his sons out on an early morning ride to inspect the cattle herds and the vast hay and grain fields.  His thralls were busy with the harvest, the cattle were fat with a warm lazy summer and a cooling breeze swept down from the mountains.  Soon they rode down-shore a way to a deserted stretch of beach and Ragnar led them to a small cliff with boulders strewn at its base.  They dismounted and Ragnar pulled his linden shield off his small pony, took a bite out of it and got himself between a huge boulder and a jag in the cliff face and began to prize away on the rock.  Six men would have been taxed to jar it, but he would not allow his sons to assist him.  The berserk fury soon took hold of the old man and, with a great heave, he pushed the boulder upslope and kicked in place a wooden stop that had been stored behind the stone for that purpose.  Ragnar exposed a narrow cave that had been sealed for many years.

When they entered the cavern, the boys looked about and saw six small chests on either side of the chamber.  On their father’s advice they opened the chests along one wall and found silver Kufas from Baghdad, Shekels from Judea and gold Byzants from the Eastern Roman Empire.  They found chains and bracelets of gold from the Orient and silver goblets and plates from the Rhine.  “We mustn’t ever touch the Red Gold Hoard of Byzantium,” Ragnar said, pointing to the other side of the cave, “for the red gold of the Romans is cursed, but this treasure I have accumulated, and you are welcome to take of it what you need.”

Erik and Roller were surprised to learn exactly how wealthy their father was.  There was enough treasure to pay for a small war against King Frodi.  They decided to take only the chest of silver Kufas, even though their father pressed them to take the chest of Roman coin as well.  But the silver, being more common than the gold, was less likely to draw attention.

“All this will be yours when I am gone,” Ragnar declared.  “Fafnir’s treasure must remain here where it may bless our land, but its curse may rest.”  Ragnar searched through one of the chests until he found a gold bodkin, a cloak pin, of unusual construction.  “You see, I haven’t given up on my boys entirely,” he stated, sitting upon the chest.  He waved for the boys to do likewise.  “I’m afraid I haven’t been much of a father to you, Hraerik,” he started.  “This bodkin was your mother’s,” he said, passing it to his youngest son.  “It’s from the east.  I want you to have it.”  Erik took the pin and studied it in the dim light.  It had a gold chain as if to be worn around the neck and it had three tines in the form of a trident.  “Your mother was from the east and I suspect she was a princess of some importance, most likely a daughter of King Olmar of the Poljane Slavs of Kiev.  Shield-Maiden Ladgerda rescued her from the Huns, who were taking her to Attila’s city of Atil to marry some Hun noble.  I fell in love with the woman.  She was beautiful,” and Ragnar stared off into the far wall of the cave and the boys knew that he saw her once again in the mist of a memory, and Erik wished that he could see what his father saw then.  “She died giving birth and I have always blamed you for this, Hraerik.  I hold it against you and I have no right to do so.  It’s wrong, I know, but I can only apologize for my feeling.  I cannot change it.”

Erik clutched the cloak pin in one hand and touched his father’s swollen hand with the other.  He had learned early in life what had happened to his mother and he had his own feelings of guilt.  He would try to forgive his father.  He accepted the bodkin and he chained it around his neck and tucked it away under his shirt.  He would try to forgive himself.

“Kraka has always been envious of the love I felt for your mother, Boddi, and she has fanned the anger I felt towards you, always playing it off against my love for Hraelauger to deprive you of any inheritance.  You must try to forgive her as well.  Hraelauger has always countered her ill will with a brother’s love and has always come to your defence in times of need.  She knows nothing of this treasure and I want my sons to share it equally.”  There was a finality in Ragnar’s voice and the brothers sensed his feeling of doom.

“Can you tell me more about her?” Erik asked.

“She had a beautiful face,” Ragnar started, “soft eyes and long flowing hair…dark as a raven.  She never learned our language, but she treasured that cloak pin more than anything.  She must have carried it from her homeland.  I never found out who she was, but she seemed well educated and her bearing was that of a princess.”

That said, Ragnar got up and left the cave and Erik and Roller followed, carrying the small chest of silver between them.  Once outside, Ragnar used the butt of a spear to drive the wooden stop back from under the boulder and it rolled back in place sealing up the cave once more.  They tied the chest across the haunches of Erik’s horse and they walked their mounts down the stony beach toward home.

While the men were out inspecting the herds, Kraka was in the scullery preparing a magic meal with which to give her son, Roller, the strength and wisdom to make it through his upcoming trial.  Three snakes she suspended over a pot of boiling gruel: two were of a dark hue and these she had hung by the belly and the third had whitish scales and was hanging by its tail, somewhat higher than the rest, and all were spitting their poisons into the potion.  Since Roller did not believe in her magic and Erik, in particular, detested it, she had decided to ply her craft in a deceptive manner by issuing her alchemy as the evening’s meal.  When the men got back and sat down to their supper, Kraka apportioned the strongest parts of the potion to Roller and the rest she set in front of Erik.  When Roller complained of the taste of his portion Erik offered to try it, exchanging their trenchers one for the other.

“This is how forestem comes stern in the great gale of the Nor’Way,” Erik said, laughing.  He then started into his meal and, likewise, was none too pleased with the taste, but he quickly finished it.  When Kraka returned from the kitchen with the ale, she saw the portion that Roller had acquired and she realised that a switch had occurred.  She inwardly cursed the ill fortune that had deprived her son of the strengthening meal and she confessed to the men what she had been up to.

“I have, over a number of years, built up Hraelauger’s resistance to the poisons of the snakes,” she claimed, “but Hraerik, I fear, has no such protection and the meal he has eaten is as likely to kill him as not.”

Erik began feeling the effects of the poison as a dizziness set upon him and a numbness crept into his limbs.  He stood up and would have toppled over had not Roller caught hold of him.  Roller helped him to their bedchamber and Kraka administered potions and salves to counteract the meal.  Still, Erik fell into a deep coma that was filled with a dream, a vision.

His dream took him to a perfect place where nothing, not even time, existed.  A perfect place where all was at peace and he knew this place to be the great abyss, the vast ginungagap.  A nothingness that was perfection in balance; perfection in symmetry.  But nothing escapes the ravages of time, whether it exists or not, and perfection suffers, perhaps, most of all.  A great sadness had overcome Erik and for a very long time the pain smouldered within his soul, but then he saw a minute point form within the enormous void.  It was both something and something else together, and Erik could see that there were many minute points pulsing within the enormous void, pulsing without existing, but with the potential to exist and each was pulsing at its own rate, some fast, some slow.  But the minute point that Erik had seen first suddenly burst forth in two opposing directions, forming a linear anomaly of pulsing waves of positive and negative energy that quickly cancelled each other out as they advanced outwards, linearly, in both directions for an eternity, or at least as long as it took the cadence of the peculiar pulsing to count off an infinite number, then the point panned out in a wave all around itself and the linear universe turned into a planar universe consisting of waves, both negative and positive, bursting forth in all four directions of a two dimensional universe and this too went on for an eternity, or, again, as long as it took the pulsing to count off a second infinite number and then it happened again.  A brilliant flash burst forth in six directions, further sweeping away the abyss,  propagating itself in a three-dimensional world, its positive and negative energy waves in perfect balance, existing, then not existing, then existing in an opposite form, always maintaining perfect balance and harmony within the perfection of the abyss all around it.  Erik saw all this happening from afar, but as the three dimensional universe expanded, it moved towards him and the energy waves rolled over him, first positive, then a vast ginungagap, then a negative wave, over and over again, more than a hundred times and in the wake of the vanguard of each wave, particles began forming and tainting the purity of the energy waves and their newfound mass slowed them and the energy waves passed over them, with the negative energy field compressing positive particles into dark masses and expanding negative particles into an expanding existence within the negative wave and when the following positive wave overcame the negative, the negative particles were compressed into black masses and the positive dark masses expanded explosively into clusters of matter congealed, gravitationally, into hot gases and stars and clusters until the following negative wave compressed them back into black masses, releasing larger negative matter into explosive clusters of their own.  Erik watched all this until the cadence of the universal pulsing had counted off a third infinite number that coincided with his own time of 3.1416…. and the positive matter that had been compressed into a black mass was overcome by a positive wave and the positive matter exploded into particles and congealed into atoms and the stars and the planets were formed.

Erik’s own world was seething now in front of him, boiling with the heat of its own fiery birth and it struck Erik as being not unlike a spot of molten iron and it cooled as it revolved around its own mother star and a blister of star dust slag began to form on the side that faced away from its sun and, as this Pangaea formed, the planet began rotating, producing a more even cooling of the surface until the ocean floor solidified and began collecting up the world ocean and the environment was such that miniscule life was formed in this ocean and it grew larger and evolved up onto the land.  Many times, different forms of life evolved upon the land only to be wiped out by extermination level events and their carbon was deposited in the silts of choked estuaries for use by future life forms.

The earliest successful beasts were reptilian in nature and evolved into a dominant species of dragon-like giants, but the break-up of the Pangaean crust into wandering continents that drifted and collided, and the ensuing volcanism heralded the demise of the dragon reign.  But it was a star stone that came crashing down, a much larger stone, that brought an end to the giants and their carbon, too, was deposited into the silts of choked river estuaries as the annihilated animals and shattered plants were swept away by the rains from the valleys down to the seas.  And soon the timid mammals came down from the mountains and began their evolution to world dominance, culminating in the birth of man.  Erik watched as the first hominids were forced from their forest nests and the terrors of the plains birthed their sentience.  Erik felt great sorrow for this man just learning of existence, feeling only the sensation of loss, not of being.  As man mastered his world, the terror that the beasts had inflicted upon him was gradually replaced by the horror he inflicted upon himself, as though this new-found sentience required blood fuel to keep it alive and wave after wave of new men replaced the old.  Erik was very much at home in this period of man and he sensed his own existence come into being and pass as time swept on.  The sentience of man eventually became self-sustaining and peace and harmony came to the world, but Erik was out of his time and this man of the future was no more a part of him than the first hominids that had walked the grass filled southern plains.  He had a great sense of remorse that the time of his man had passed, and he took no comfort in this peace that seemed to pervade the earth.  It was an age when machines could talk and think and it frightened Erik, but it was this technology, this god of the new western world and the trapped carbon of the old world that allowed man to escape out into the stars and the starborn helped man avoid the world’s next extermination level event.  But more frightening still was the return of the vast ginungagap.  Hard on the heels of exploding existence, perfection awaited its return.  And man, ever fearful of perfection, strode out into the wave of the exploding universe.  And they followed the cries, the cries of worlds rising and falling, the cries of billions of sentient beings dying suddenly by mass extinction only to be saved by time travel, which man discovered to not only be possible, but be required for a universe to come into complete existence.  Erik began to scream with the beings and suddenly a great calm overcame him, and he awoke from his dream to find Roller shaking him awake.  “You were screaming, Hraerik,” Roller cried.  “I thought you were dying!  Thank the gods your fever has broken.  Nine days you have been in this fit.”

“And I have seen things in this fit that no man should bear witness to,” Erik replied, falling back on his bed in a sweat.  But he could not go back to sleep so he got up and Roller helped him and they went into the hall and they sat by the fire of a hearth and they talked until morning came, but Erik didn’t tell his brother about his dream.  It was but a fading memory, leaving not much more than a bittersweet after-taste.  But the dream left a deep mark within Erik, strengthening and reinforcing his already powerful sense of prescience.

In the morning, Ragnar and Kraka were overjoyed to learn that Erik had made a complete recovery.  Nine days he had been in a coma-like state, visiting Yggdrasil, Odin’s great tree of knowledge and Kraka apologized to Erik for her misuse of magic, but she also took him aside and explained that the potion had imparted into Erik the knowledge of all things that were and are yet to be and that this would help him through his upcoming ordeal.  She also begged that Erik always aid his brother, Roller, that they might both come through their test alive, and for this boon she would grant that, should ever Erik fall into dire straits, he need only call out her name and aid would come.

The night before the sons of Ragnar were to leave, a feast was arranged to celebrate Erik’s full recovery and neighbours began arriving from all over the district.  The women of Hraegunarstead had been busy all day preparing food and decorating the hall.  Many of the local youths had joined up with Erik’s company of men and their parents were all invited to attend.  Kraka had also asked a powerful prophetess to come and bless the expedition.  She arrived late into the feasting and was shown her place on the opposite high seat, such being the respect due her lot.

The witch’s name was Thorbjorg and she was attired in a rich indigo tunic and a long blue cloak adorned with beads of amber all the way down the front and around the hem.  This she wore throughout the evening, with a black lambskin hood lined with white cat’s fur pulled up over her head so that her features were almost indistinguishable.  She was middle aged and carried a wooden staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones.  Girded about her middle was a touchwood belt from which hung a pouch containing all her charms, and on her feet were hairy calfskin shoes with thick laces that had tin capped ends.  She was overdressed for the season and wore cat skin gloves, with the white fur turned inside, even when she ate.

The prophetess sat on a hen’s feather cushion on the highest guest high seat and did not eat the same meal as everyone else but had a thin gruel of goat’s milk and an entree of the boiled hearts of various animals culled from the herds of Hraegunarstead.  She ate with brass implements which she brought herself in a pouch about her waist.

After the meal, Ragnar walked to the back of the hall, disappeared into the hallway and came back out bearing a gift for Erik.  He stood in front of the high seats and said, “King Gotar has said that perhaps too long Hraerik has been in the shadow of his brother’s brilliance.  This is the first sense our fine king has made in many a year and the one point that I will agree with him on, but when Hraerik asked for a shield of a stature to match his new and famous sword, Tyrfingr, all he got was a ship.”  Ragnar began, stroking his grey beard in his characteristic manner, then went on, “Now a ship is fine if it never takes you into trouble, but when it does, as they often do, then a fine shield is required.  This is the shield of Shield-Maiden Brynhild, the first wife of Sigurd Fafnirsbane and I sought shelter, under this one, after I reworked it and renamed it ‘Hrae’s Ship’s Round’, from the flames of the dragon ship, Fafnir, until we got in close enough to destroy the fire breathing monstrosity.

“Soon both my sons shall be off testing the strength of the Danes and, while Gotar has given my son a ship to take him into trouble, I shall give him this fine shield that sheltered me in my time of need, and may he ever find safety behind it.”  All the people of the district applauded heartily as Ragnar presented Erik with Brynhild’s finely crafted war shield of red stained linden wood, capped by carved and painted motifs of ancient and religious tales.

Later in the evening Kraka gathered up the free women of the stead and they stood in a semi-circle around the witch’s high seat and they began to chant spells called Warlock-songs.  Soon the witch addressed the audience from her seat.  “Spirits are now present, as are the Norns and Fylgjas, attracted by the sweet singing of charms.  I ask their blessings of this dangerous undertaking of Hraelauger Hraegunarson and his half-brother, Hraerik Boddason.  May the gods be gracious, and may our sacrifices be bearable.”  Once the blessing was finished, the people filed up to the prophetess to have their fortunes told.  Erik would have no part of this and remained at his high seat and drank heavily.  When everyone’s fortunes had been foretold the priestess asked why the eloquent one had not addressed her.  Erik said he preferred to place his faith in his arm, and that Tyrfingr would carve his fortune for him.  Muffled protests ran up and down the crowd in the hall and finally Ragnar leaned over to Erik and told him to have his fortune told if for no other reason than to reassure his companions.  This Erik did.

“Great deeds and far travels lay in store for you, Hraerik Boddason,” the old witch began, “but the ship you have won with your eloquent tongue is flawed.  King Gotar peeked when they laid out the keel of the ship called Fair Faxi.  He watched as the first chip hewn landed keel-side up and that is why he has parted with his prize.  You asked for a leaf from leafy land, but you got a blighted sea-tree.  Death shall strike, venom filled, from ‘neath the time worn skull of Fair Faxi.  The ship must be burned, and sacrifices made, or it shall be the death of your son.”

Erik had risen while the sorceress was preaching and had crossed the hall to her high seat.  He was furious with the witch for condemning his ship and he raised his hand as if to strike her, but he remembered the woods and his picnic with Alfhild and how the thought of that mental blow had staggered him.  He had lashed out at Alfhild only in his mind, yet his love for her had been renewed by her requited love.  And Erik lowered his hand and he pointed at the witch and he said, “I’ve no love for this witchcraft of yours and your threats on my life shall not cost me my ship, but I shall not strike you for this wagging of your tongue.  Just make sure King Gotar doesn’t hear about your lies or your head may wish it had gotten only a slap!”  This said, Erik stormed out of his father’s hall and marched down the beach to his ship.  Fair Faxi rested on the sand, tilted over to one side and Erik sat down on her upper strake, his feet dangling in the air, a star filled fall sky above him, clear and cool and threatening frost.  He thought about Ragnar and what he had given as a toothing gift, ‘Hrae’s Ship’s Round’.  The most famous shield in the north.  “Hrae,” he whispered to himself.  “Hraerik!” he shouted to the Boreal sky. “Hraerik Bragi Boddi Hraegunarson!” he cried to the northern firmament, his hands clutched tightly on the top strake upon which he sat.  He was about to set out on the most dangerous mission of his life and he had never felt so good, so free.  He began to compose a poem for his father:

“Wilt thou, Hrafn Ketil, hear me,                  how I chant the praise of

 Thor’s daughter’s–and, thane, thee!–     thief’s his well-stained foot-blade?

 So that the famous son of                Sigurd grudge not for the

 ringing round of Hild’s wheel        to reap his mead of thank-word.”

Erik’s poem went on to describe the stories painted on the face of Sigurd’s shield, first of Gefion, who with four oxen ploughed out the Island of Zealand from the coast of Sweden, second of Thor’s fishing for the World Serpent, third of Hamdir’s and Sorli’s bloody attack upon Eormanrik, sleeping:

“Warriors’ fall on the fair shield’s                 furbished bottom see I.

 Hraegunar gave me Hrae’s- Ship’s-Round with many a story.”

Erik’s poem continued on to describe the eternal battle of Hedin and Hogni:

“Here you may behold that               hail-of-darts on the shield’s face.

Hraegunar gave me Hrae’s-           Ship’s-Round with many a story.”

(Bragi Boddason the Old; Hollander)

When Erik was satisfied with his poem of thanks he returned to his father’s hall.  By this time, the witch had retired for the evening and the folk were heavy into their drinking bouts.  Eyvind Ingvarson, a visiting Swedish skald, was well into his ale and standing in the centre of the hall between the high seats reciting a poem of ancient tales.  Erik got himself a horn of ale and managed to put back most of it by the time Eyvind had finished.  They all applauded the skald’s poetry and then began a ring dance as they repeated the words and the cadence of his poem and they danced in a ring between the high seats that broke into a line winding its way through the hearths at both ends of the hall.  When Eyvind returned to his bench, Erik stepped out onto the floor and praised the mead-words of the son of Ingvar and then he recited his own thank-words to Ragnar.  Again, there was much applause and once more a ring dance was formed as Erik recited his poem ‘Dream of the Drums of War’.  Erik then took his place on the high seat and all the folk drank and toasted late into the evening.  They carried on as if many would never see each other again and, indeed, many would not.

CHAPTER SEVEN

7.0  THE SLAUGHTER OF ODDI  (Circa 829 AD)

“And his shield was called ‘Hrae’s Ship’s Round’,

 And his followers were called the Hraes’.”

Eyvinder Skald-Despoiler;  Skaldskaparmal.

Three longships snaked along the bends of Stavanger Fjord and brushed past Rennes Isle before heading out into the North Sea and sailing south down the coast of Thule.  Erik called out the cadence of the rowing by stout young men from the district of Lither.  His new ship, Fair Faxi, parted the sea for his brother, Roller, in Ragnar’s old longship and the skald, Eyvind Ingvarson, followed up with a third crew of warriors in Brak’s old longship.  Erik and Eyvind had matched each other poem for poem the night before and held each other in the highest of regard, and the rising son of Ragnar sensed he would have need of a skald to record the revenge he now planned for his father.  And it was an impartial Swedish skald, Eyvind, who captained the third ship, ready to do just that.  No Raven Banner fluttered from the masts of the ships as they stealthily slipped along down the coast.

The three ships then sailed east from Thule, cutting dark waves with their forestems, but lost the favourable winds once they hit the Skagerrak Sea.  The sails were folded, and the masts were unfooted as a warm breeze blew steady from the southeast.  The oars thrummed in unison to a beat set by Erik.  The young man stood proud at the head of his newfound ship and barked out the rhythm for a speed he gauged would soon bring them into Oddi’s sea realm.  Ragnar’s longship followed in his wake and Brak’s ship trailed.  Roller steadied himself against the forestem of his ship and listened as Erik shouted from the afterstem of Fair Faxi.

“Oddi will know when we come,” Erik shouted across the waves.

“You think he travels the waves without a boat?” Roller replied, laughing.

Erik sensed that Oddi would know of their arrival.  The captured Danes he had questioned back at The Vik had alluded to some kind of signal system that Oddi had set up to forewarn the Danes of attack.  Erik did not know the method of transmitting information, but he surmised from the perusal of Brak’s old charts that a likely signal point in a warning system would be on a small unnamed island off the coast of Gotland, so that is where he had set their course.  He would gamble on this hunch and had decided to play it to the hilt.  “We’ll approach the isle I told you of from the east and I’ll show you how he does it,” Erik shouted.

The Norwegian ships were anchored off Smaland and their crews waited for sunset, then rowed them toward the isle out of the dusk, beaching the ships on the eastern shore.  Erik, Roller and a squad of ten men headed inland, leaving Eyvind in command of the rest.  They passed through a forest of oak and beach and they discovered a wooden tower set upon a wooded hill.  The tower was a crude four column affair made of timbers from the surrounding woods lashed together to a total height of sixty feet.  Several scaling ladders, tied together against the east side of it, led up to a round platform, with a handrail around it and a conical thatch above.  Erik saw a lone lookout perched upon a stool in the centre of the platform.  He dispersed his men into the surrounding woods in search of further Danes while he and Roller stepped boldly into the tower clearing and addressed the lookout on the platform.

“Hrae!” Erik shouted.  “Have you seen three Norwegian ships hereabout?” The lookout stared down at the two Norsemen in shock.

“If not,” Roller added, “you’d better signal Oddi and tell him they’re here, because, believe me, we are.”

“Now, come down from your perch,” Erik continued, his arms akimbo, “and tell us how you signal Oddi, cause we’re just spoiling to meet him three on three.”

“I’ll not come down,” the sentinel shouted in the Norse Danish of Zealand, and, no matter how many times the brothers guaranteed his safety and assured him that they only wanted him to do his job and signal Oddi, he would not come down.  By this time, Erik’s men were returning from their search of the surrounding area, so Erik had them gather up wood and pile it round the two wooden columns furthest from the scaling ladders.

“Come down,” Erik shouted, “or we’ll set the tower ablaze.”  There came no response from the platform.  Erik had his men set the wood piles alight and soon flames were lapping their way up the columns.  When the flames were licking at the platform edge and the handrail caught fire on the far side, the sentinel decided perhaps he should try his luck with the Vikings, as they could be no more merciless than the conflagration below him.  With a nimbleness born of dire circumstance the watchman swung himself over the platform edge and onto the ladder.  He scampered down it with practiced ease and landed in the midst of the Norwegians.  Some of the men held him while Roller bound him up.

“How do you signal Oddi,” Erik asked, but the sentinel was as tight lipped in custody as he had been atop the tower.  “Lash him to his tower column,” Erik ordered his men, and they pulled him up against the nearest pillar.  The Dane could feel the heat of the flames off the burning columns behind him and he could feel the tower quaking as it prepared to collapse in upon itself.  Hot cinders drifted down onto his head and shoulders from the blazing platform up above.  When his hair began to smoulder, he relented.

“You shall fight Oddi three on three?” he asked excitedly and, when Erik nodded, he went on.  “We signal by bonfire at night, one fire for each ship under ten and larger fires for each ten above.  Oddi faces his enemies with an equal number of ships, never more, never less.  That, he claims, is why he always wins and that is why he needs to know the strength of his foe.  Cut me loose and I shall signal him for you.”

“You are the only lookout?” Roller asked.

“Yes,” the Dane stammered.  “Now cut me loose and I’ll signal Oddi for you.”

Erik had his men cut the lookout loose, leaving the tower a flaming conflagration, and the Dane led them to a nearby clearing at the top of a hillock that faced out to sea toward the coast of Smaland.  The Dane could see the three Viking ships on the beach far below.  Along the clearing were stacks of cord wood ready for the making of signal fires.  The Dane began directing the men where to build the fires while explaining the signal code to Erik.  “For three ships I’d build three smaller fires, while for, say, thirteen I would build one large bonfire and then three smaller ones after it.  King Oddi says it’s Roman numbering.  And if I put the smaller fires on the other side of the large fire, this number is subtracted from the total.  This system King Oddi taught me himself,” the watchman added proudly.  So Erik’s men built three woodpiles where the Dane told them to and, when darkness came, they lit the fires.

Erik stared into the nearest bonfire and watched the flames dance in the night, tongues of red and yellow and white splaying crazily between logs that crackled and popped and hissed steam and liquor from their severed butts, grizzled old wounds dripping with sapling gore.  “Soon the stalwart oaks of Oddi will be dripping their gore,” Erik mused to his men and he wondered about this path he was on.

The bonfires did their night’s work and set off a chain of signals down the coast of Smaland and Halland all the way to the island of Zealand.  When King Oddi learned of the intrusion he assembled a contingent to meet the Norwegians.  Erik’s ships searched for signs of Oddi, but they made no contact with him until, while beached on a shoreline in Skane, a landing party led by Roller discovered seven ships of Oddi’s anchored in a sheltered cove just on the other side of a peninsula.  Roller discussed what he had found with Erik and Eyvind, adding that Oddi must have seen their ships approach from his hidden position and he was in a quandary as to why the Danes had not attacked them at once.

“He awaits four more ships,” Erik answered.  “Oddi always attacks with an equal number of ships.  He is expecting seven and he awaits four more.”  Erik had the Danish captive brought to their campfire.  “Oddi expects seven ships,” he lectured the lookout.  The Dane flashed Erik a genuine look of surprise.  “You had expected us to find thirteen ships,” Erik went on, “but Oddi has brought only seven.”

“I must have misjudged the watchtower’s location.  You had it burning real good,” the Dane admitted.  “I didn’t think you were really going to meet Oddi three on three, but were setting a trap for him, so I tried to give my sea-king as much of an edge as possible.”

“But I have set a trap for Oddi and we close it tonight.  Seven ships will do.  I had hoped for the thirteen but seven will do.  We shall attack at dawn.”

Erik had his men lead away the treacherous Dane and then Erik spelled out his plan.  “We must now unleash the element that Oddi is professed to control.”  Erik, Roller and five picked men set out in the dark of night in a four oared boat.  With short silent strokes, they reached the cove where the Danish ships were anchored, instead of beached, due to the quantity of catapult ton-stones that Oddi had them loaded up with.  It was ton-stones from Sweden that Oddi had caused to hail down on Hrafn Ketil’s stranded fleet.  Normally, longships could endure the blows of the smaller catapults that could be deck mounted, but the triple density of ton-stones gave their impacts greater timber shattering capabilities.  Erik sensed that it would be a thousand years before ton-stones would be used as projectiles in battle again.

The seven catapult equipped ships were arrayed in three columns with three ships anchored and lashed end to end down the centre and columns of two on either side, so the seven Norwegians each picked a ship, Erik reserving Oddi’s mighty dragon ship for himself, and they swam silently to the side of each.  The men then augured holes in the ships’ strakes just below the waterline.  The gentle lapping of the waves kept the sentries aboard the ships from picking up any noises and soon a near frozen contingent had completed their sabotage and returned to the warmth of their cloaks and their boat.  Erik figured a dozen holes per ship should see the fleet up to its decks in water by dawn.

And with the heavy stones the ships were holding, first light found the Danes up to their knees in water bailing for their lives.  Oddi’s warriors were all aboard fighting off the waves with buckets and pitchers.  So great was the rush to save the ships, that most of the Danes had taken only enough time to buckle sword about waist before swimming out to their foundering vessels.  Their spears and their bows, their war axes and their shields, all were left in camp, save for the shields of a few poor swimmers who had employed them as paddleboards in the crossing.  The Danes were already cold, wet and exhausted when Fair Faxi cleared the head of the cove with Erik at her forestem, Tyrfingr in his hand, a burnished blade flashing the Danes a warning of their fate in the fast-rising autumn light.

“We need not conjure up a storm to beach the ships of the Danes,” Erik shouted to Roller as the other two ships hove into view and ploughed their way into the cove.  Many of the Danes leaped into the waves and swam for their weapons while others remained on board, bailing for all they were worth.  Fair Faxi circled the Danish fleet and blocked the path of the swimmers, her crew firing arrows at the distressed Danish warriors.  Erik stood at the forestem beside a large basket of arrows and fired the darts off his powerful bow so fast and furious he wore through his bowstring before he was done.  Roller and Eyvind’s longships flanked the sinking fleet and fired volley after volley of arrows, the deadly shafts piercing the bailing Danes in the midst of their struggles.  The constant thrush of bowstrings and the continual hiss of arrows in flight, followed by their solid thuds and the sickening crush of softer penetrations, soon had the fierce Danish warriors unnerved.  Oddi was at the head of his dragonship, leading a group of men in an attempt to set up a catapult, but their attackers were too close and the deck too exposed.  When the Norwegians had exhausted their arrows, they pulled their ships alongside the two outer rows of the fleet.  They leapt down onto the flooded and bloodied decks of the Danes and slew the survivors of the airborne onslaught.  Fair Faxi had by then turned upon the centre column and had swept the deck of the nearest ship, then Erik had his men row upon the centremost vessel, Oddi’s dragonship, which, due to its size, still sat with its deck above the waves, and lashing hooks were thrown over the bulwarks.  Boarding planks were dropped across the top strakes and Erik led a well armed crew onto the gore spattered deck of Oddi’s ship.  A fierce battle raged up and down the deck planks, for the Danes, though poorly armoured, wielded their weapons with a ferocity as if they followed Odin himself, and Oddi, a true berserk, was at the forestem of his ship, in the midst of a fury and no steel could harm him.  Erik fought his way to the foredeck, Tyrfingr wailing out his progress, and Oddi did him the favour of working his way back until the two fell into personal combat.

“Your other ships,” Oddi growled in a voice that sounded more bear-like than human. “Where are they?”

Tyrfingr swept down in a powerful arc as the two traded blows and Oddi’s great two-fisted battle sword shattered under the impact.  “There’s always been…just three of us,” Erik shouted and he drove Tyrfingr deep into the bared chest of Oddi.  The great Danish sea-king gripped the blade of Tyrfingr in his hands so tightly Erik could not withdraw it and, as Oddi’s life blood spurted out the gore-letting grooves, and he sank to his knees with his efforts, he struggled to speak through the berserker’s rage and his voice cleared as the fury left him.

“You have found favour with Tyr,” Oddi gasped, “but Odin shall possess you in the end.”  Oddi grew deathly pale as the rage left him and he grasped Erik’s hand over the hilt of Tyrfingr.  “Your first-born shall be named after me and I shall watch over him from Valhall.”  Then Oddi let loose of Tyrfingr and Erik pulled his blade free and the sea king toppled forward, and he died face down at Erik’s feet, and the first of the water to wash the ship’s deck ran over to him in a long straying rivulet and it washed away the gore that was pooling about his countenance.

When the great Sea-King Oddi had fallen, all fighting stopped as both sides witnessed his death.  It would be a most famous death and poems and songs would be composed about it and all who had witnessed it would share in this fame, so the remaining Danish warriors did not bother to take up their weapons after that and allowed themselves to be taken into captivity and were bent over their shields and penetrated from behind.  Of the seven ships under Oddi only his great dragon-ship remained above the waves and carried any survivors.  The rest had been boarded and their crews slaughtered, for so bravely had the Danes struggled that the crews of the smaller ships had fought to the last man.  Erik ordered the captured Danes taken aboard his father’s longship and they all left the deck of the great dragon ship.  When the waves reached the oar-ports the ship quickly slid beneath the surface, taking King Oddi to a watery grave.  A great calm swept across the cove as seven awkward fingers, ship’s masts, clawed up at the firmament and announced to the gods ‘this is where King Oddi has fallen’.

Following the destruction of Oddi’s fleet, the Norwegian ships set sail south for the island of Laeso in search of much needed supplies.  There, they found a people groaning under the burden of Frodi’s taxation and facing winter with hardly more rations than they themselves possessed.  It was while resting at Laeso as guests in the leader’s greathall that Erik experienced a forewarning of his father’s death, and he expressed his fears to Roller and Eyvind.  “Last night, in a dream, I saw Hraegunar’s fylgja and by this I know that father is soon to die,” he explained.  “He will be in need of his longship, and Eyvind should be there to recite him a drapa of our victory and Hraelauger…you should be there with your mother.”

“While I agree,” Roller started, “that Eyvind should return home, I must insist on going on with you, Hraerik.  Someone must cover your back and who else, but a brother can do this?”

“Aye,” Eyvind agreed.  “Hraegunar will be needing a drapa of this great slaughter and his longship for his burial howe, but those are things that I can provide.”

“I had hoped,” Erik said, “to find Frodi’s twelve berserks with Oddi and to have destroyed the whole lot in one fell swoop, but my trap fell short half a dozen ships and now I find I must face them on their own ground, in Frodi’s royal house at Liere.  My plans become too dangerous to share.  The news of Oddi’s destruction is by now up and down the coast, for such is the way news travels hereabouts and I might be better off to go it alone.  The Danes could hardly suspect one ship of destroying Oddi’s fleet.”

“As usual, dear brother, your argument is good.  Eyvind should take both ships back to Norway, sailing father’s ship back home and sending Brak’s with the captives on to the Vik and King Gotar.”

Everyone agreed to this plan, so Eyvind took the supplies and the captives and the two longships north, while Erik and Roller resumed their southward journey in Fair Faxi.  They had thanked the Jarl and his wife and daughter for their hospitality, sparing them any pillaging, and off the north-east coast of Zealand, the now famished Norwegian crew sighted a herd of cattle grazing by the shore.  Erik surveyed the coastline, then sent some men ashore in a four-oared boat with orders to slaughter a cow.  They returned with three carcases.  Erik had the beef hauled aboard and they set off on their way once again while Erik upbraided his men for their greed.  “One cow might not be missed,” he explained, “but three head shall be noticed very quickly,” then Erik wondered if his men could have known it was exactly three cows that he needed.  Erik’s anger was soon to be justified, but for now they were content to row a safe distance from the site of their crime and set to boiling the meat of one cow in the ship’s huge kettle.  When they were dressing down the carcases, Erik had the men strip and clean the small intestine of one.  Into this he inserted a length of horse-hair rope and, as the sheath shrank, they became as one.  Erik coiled the length of intestine and always kept it nearby and, every once in a while, he would study its condition until his men thought this behaviour quite curious.  Once again, they resumed their journey southward and soon Erik sighted a half dozen fast twelve-oared boats closing in on his ship as they followed the Zealand coastline.  The local cattlemen, on learning of the theft, assembled a small fleet of vigilantes and set out in search of the pirates.  Erik instructed his men to lash meat hooks to three ropes, then he gaffed the two remaining carcases and cast all three lines into the sea.  With the submerged beef trailing, Erik allowed the vigilante boats to overtake Fair Faxi.

“Hoi! Longship!” the leader of the vigilantes shouted in Anglish Danish.  “Prepare to have us pull alongside.”

“One boat only,” Erik replied in Anglish, and he had his men raise their left bank of oars.

As the leader’s boat pulled up alongside he shouted, “Who are you and what is your business in King Frodi’s waters?”

Erik looked down upon a handsome young officer of the royal Danish navy and said, “I am Hraerik Bragi Boddason of Norway.  Liere is our destination and merchanting is our business.”  He paused a moment then added, “And you sir…you look like you’re out to correct some mischief.”

“Quite true, I fear.  We are investigating a cattle theft which occurred up the coast.  Have you seen anyone who might be responsible?”

“Not hereabouts, but we did see three Viking ships north of here three days ago.  At first, we thought they might attack, but they looked as though they were off to some mighty battle.  That is of course conjecture, and I’m sure you have speculations of your own that I think a short inspection of our ship might clear up.  A boat has few corners in which to hide a beef, sir.”  Erik thrust down his hand and the two captains locked arms and Erik yarded the Dane up into his ship as though he were a child.

“That it does, sir,” the Danish officer said, straightening out his gear.  “And fewer yet in which to hide three, for that is how many were slaughtered.”  The vigilante walked partway down the ship’s deck then stopped and returned to the foredeck.  “You seem to be totally lacking in supplies altogether, sir, and you’ve three lines slung off the far side of your ship,” the Danish officer said, squinting his eyes suspiciously.  “And that coil you have by your feet,” he added, “looks to be fresh calf’s gut.”

“As for supplies,” Erik explained, “we find that good silver buys us fresher meals than makes salty stores.  Your Sea-King Oddi, assured us that supplies could be purchased from the local farmers, but, alas, it seems that no one has enough to spare with winter coming on.”

“You’ve met up with King Odd?” the Dane asked excitedly.

“Why again, three days ago plying up the coast of Skane with six more ships in tow.  He spoke highly of your farmers and cattlemen.  He had little good to say for sailors and merchants, I’m afraid.”

“That sounds like Odd all right.  There is a rumour up and down the coast that Odd’s fleet was destroyed by three Viking ships.  I was sent out from Liere to investigate this tale and I thought the three missing head might lead me to three pirate ships.”

“Oddi dead?” Erik exclaimed in astonishment.  “These waters turn out to be more dangerous than your sea-king, Oddi, had forecast.”

The Danish captain put his hand to his chin in heavy contemplation.  “You’ve yet to explain that fresh calf gut at your feet or those three lines over your bulwark,” he said sternly.

“Why, the calf gut is said to be the very rope that hanged King Vikar,” Erik said, matter of factly.  “I have found it in my merchant travels and now wish to present it as a gift to your King Frodi, if he will see me.”

“If you’ve seen Odd, I’m sure King Frodi shall be very anxious to speak with you.  Now the lines?”

“Why, we fish for the Midgard Serpent, sir,” Erik explained.  “I don’t believe that Thor has slain the earth girding worm, so I always have lines let out that I might catch the beast.”

“You seem well steeped in the ancient lore, but, if there is only one serpent, why have you let out three lines?”

Erik took up a great battle axe, walked over to the bulwark and hacked away two lines.  “We can catch the worm with just one line, if you wish,” Erik replied.  The Dane had followed him over and quickly began yarding up on the last line when Erik added, “We may very well have caught the great serpent already,” and Erik raised the axe up high as though ready to strike the worm a mortal blow.  “You draw up the line and I shall smite the beast.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a beast on it,” the Dane replied.  “Perhaps you’d best proceed to Liere and leave the serpent for Thor to deal with.  Meantime, I seem to have three serpents of my own to deal with…the Vikings who may have slaughtered King Odd.  They must be true berserks to have caused King Frodi so much grief.”  He backed away from Erik, always keeping his eyes upon the uplifted axe, and he climbed back over the top strake and jumped into his boat.  “You shall no doubt be in Liere before me so let the authorities know what you’ve told me of King Odd.  Tell them you’ve spoken with Lieutenant Einar Cuff of King Frodi’s navy.”

The Danish boats began rowing north up the coast and Fair Faxi continued her southward journey.

CHAPTER EIGHT

8.0  LANDING AT LIERE  (Circa 829 AD)

“Also, as they passed the sand hills, and bade

 Him (Amleth) look at the meal, meaning the sand, he

 replied that it had been ground small by the hoary

 tempests of the ocean.”

Amleth;  Saxo Grammaticus.

The harbour of Liere was a looping exposed crescent of a bay that suffered the wrath of the storms of the sea as direly as any rocky promontory.  Its beach was long and wide and scoured of sand, a cobblestone surface etched by wind and wave.  But occasionally a storm would blow in from the north that was different from the rest, a slow, dull thudding storm that the Danes called Amlodi, and it would churn up the sea deep down to its bed and drive sand far up onto the beach, and the Danes called this sand Amlodi’s meal.  And then smaller storms would come again and glean the shore of sand and return it to the sea–Amlodi’s meal bin.

A small harbour village lined the shore of the bay serving the town of Liere, the house of Danish Royalty, some fifteen miles inland.  Longhalls of the merchant companies, large rans of the chieftains and the homes of individuals all crowded along the bay as close to the beach as Amlodi’s salty spray would allow.  Their yards and gardens a wattled tapestry of greenery and colour amongst the grey weathered collection of buildings.  Beyond the village scruffy little dunes ranged far inland.  The scene was sparse, the village spare.

The sun was well past its peak when Fair Faxi slipped into the wide harbour.  Erik stood at the forestem of his ship and studied the arrangement of vessels on the shore.  He surveyed King Frodi’s naval vessels, dozens and dozens of longships, beached all in a row, ducks out of water, as Fair Faxi glided past them toward the commercial area of the bay.  Erik had Roller steer for a spot that was clear and turned and gave the signal to cease rowing.  Behind Fair Faxi was the strait between Denmark and Gotland, called The Sound, with rough wind whipped waves surging across her cold expanse.  Winter had blown in from the northern sea and there was a chill in the air above the waters and light wisps of snow on the land.  The crisp cold took one’s breath away if allowed.

The shore closed and Fair Faxi nudged gently over the beach sand.  Erik grasped the forestem, jumped up onto the topstrake and leapt down to the beach, but, miscalculating momentum, pitched forward heavily on landing.  He got up off his hands and knees and brushed sand off his pants.  Roller jumped down from the ship and landed beside him.  “Don’t abase yourself before the Danes,” Roller jested.

“Denmark has a peculiar taste that I find hard not to like,” Erik replied, spitting sand from his lips.

“Here comes the harbour pilot,” said Roller, raising a hand in salute.

“Hoi! Captains!” the rather plump harbour pilot called as he approached.  “If you could land yourself as gently as you land your ship, your knees would outlast your keel and your luck would outlast your knees, for as luck would have it, Amlodi has been so kind as to deposit his meal to soften your landing.”  And the jolly little harbour master greatly amused himself with his words, for he was an admirer of fine and clever speech.

Erik responded with a clever verse of his own:

“Striking land, the strake-man        stumbles, goes a tumbling,

 landing on his limbs and                  liking what he’s striking.

 Tripping after trapping                treading Frodi’s dreadnought.

 Sounds like luck is sending          sandy for-get-me-nots.”

“Spoken like a king’s skald,” the harbour master shouted with glee.  “I hope your business will keep you about the harbour and not send you off to Liere.  King Frodi has all the skalds he’s likely to want, but none, I think, as good as thee.  My name is Alfgeir and I’m the harbour master, here to collect your particulars and the beaching fee.”

The brothers explained that they were Norwegian merchants tired of dealing in the rich Nor’Way trade and exploring opportunities in King Frodi’s growing southern route.  The harbour master accepted their story and their fee, along with a handsome gratuity of silver Kufas that got them an invitation to stay as his guests in the harbourmaster’s longhall.  Erik’s men made a camp of their own on the beach in front of Fair Faxi and there they set up a large merchant tent in which to conduct trade.

It so happened that the naval officer who had led the vigilantes in their search for cattle thieves was stationed in the harbour of Liere under the command of the harbour master and he too lived in the harbourmaster’s longhall.  As time went on Einar Cuff became a good friend of both Erik and Roller.  Soon great drinking bouts and entertainments were commonplace in the longhall, financed mostly with the silver of the Norwegians.  Erik would impress the locals not only with his wealth and goods, but with his poetry and his ancient lore and his tales from the Eastern Realm, so it did not take long for Einar to put two and two together and deduce that this Erik was the Hraerik Bragi of tales seeping out of Norway about a young poet winning a ship by his eloquent tongue.  Einar also figured that if Erik was the Hraerik who was King Gotar’s man, then he would most certainly be in Liere for reasons other than trading.  He broached his concerns with Alfgeir, who had also grown to like the two Norwegians, and they decided to set themselves straight on this issue.  One night, when there had been no entertainments planned, Einar and Alfgeir got into a bout of drinking with Erik and Roller, just the four of them.  When they were well into their drinking, Einar made a request of Erik.  “Could you recite me a poem, dear friend Hraerik,” he started, “that I’ve heard of, but not heard, and that is popular in the north these days.”

“I am more kenned in ancient verse than popular poems,” Erik confessed, “but I’ll try my best.”

“Could you recite ‘Dream of the Drums of War’?”

Erik and Roller looked at each other; Erik shrugged and began reciting the drapa.  He paced both voice and step as he narrated his poem and he walked back and forth along the hearth between the fire and the men.  The bright flames were an aura about Erik and his side facing the audience was cloaked in shadows, adding depth to his elocution.  When he had finished he said, “And now that you know exactly who we are, let me add that at no time have we lied to you about ourselves, nor have we tried to conceal our identities.  We don’t expect you to keep our secret, but we would like to know what your intentions are toward us.”

Einar stood up and replied, “Before we can decide what it is we must do, we must know the true intent of your business here.”

“Officially, we are here as King Gotar’s envoys to your King Frodi to express his sincerest regrets for any Norwegian incursion into Danish territory.  Unofficially, we are here to kill the berserker sons of Westmar for the humiliation they suffered upon our father.  We do not expect to survive either task.”

“The sons of Westmar were with Sea King Odd when they chased…” Einar Cuff started, then started again…”You are the sons of Ragnar Sigurdson.” The full weight of Erik’s burden flooded over him.  “King Odd is dead then,” he continued in amazement.  “Odin’s man is no more.  And the sons of Westmar are to follow him.”  He sat down heavily, and his jaw dropped open with the impact.

Einar and Alfgeir mulled over their situation for some time and then came to the decision to do nothing.  Einar did, however, decide to give Erik and Roller a warning of what they were up against by telling them all about King Frodi and the sons of Westmar.  If they were going to Liere, there were things they must know.

The high seats of the harbour longhall were empty that night.  Erik, Roller, Einar and Alfgeir sat on benches about the roaring fire at the back of the hall near the scullery and the flickering flames of the hearth brought their sober faces to life with highlights and dancing shadows.  Einar began his tale in hushed tones, between long draughts of ale, and the deep lines in his cheeks rose and fell like the tide as he struggled with his words.  “King Frodi was seven years old,” he started, “when his father, King Fridleif ‘the Swift’, died.  Huyrwils bane, he who had burned Dublin, he who had ravaged Britain, was no more.  It is difficult to chart the decay of our Denmark, but his death marks the decline.  Prince Frodi was elected king, but a struggle over who would be his guardian took place.  Westmar was a berserker, and Fridleif’s foremost man, but others, the blood of the royal Danish house, wanted a hand in his upbringing.  Whoever controlled Frodi, controlled Denmark, so finally, to keep the peace, it was agreed that a group would raise the young king.  Westmar, his brother Koll, Isulf, Agg and eight others were chosen with the idea that Frodi’s mind as well as his body would benefit.  But as Frodi grew, his supervision diminished.  Some fell out of power, others died, until only Westmar and his brother Koll remained.

“Westmar raised Frodi among his twelve sons, the sons of Gotwar, Koll’s wife.  Now it had happened many years before that Koll had married Gotwar and, when she had born him no fruit, it is said that, in a wild drinking session, Koll had challenged Westmar to pry sons from the barren woman.  That night Westmar broke into the bedchamber of Gotwar and, with Koll’s help, raped her.  In the morning, both men were ashamed of what they had done, but that night of sin had left Gotwar pregnant, so Westmar then assumed responsibilities for her, and the barren Koll dropped his berserker training and became quite the drunk.  Gotwar gave birth to triplets at the same time that Fridleif’s wife gave birth to Frodi’s older sister, Princess Gunwar.  Westmar named all three Grep in respect of their common birth.  And Koll, though displeased with himself, took great pleasure in helping care for the three sons.  No one could truly say that they were not his own.  Westmar and Gotwar had nine more sons, while Fridleif and his queen had only one more child, Frodi, before she died.  After her death, Gotwar raised her queen’s children as her own, so, when Westmar became King Frodi’s guardian, not much had changed.”  Einar drank heavily from his cup then continued his tale.

“Now Gotwar is a woman over-proud,” he said, “conceiving herself as a champion of argument, degradation and flygting.  It was Gotwar who first instilled in Frodi a deep respect for eloquent speech.  She taught him what she knew of poetry and flygting, but King Frodi has never been overly adept at them, preferring to observe rather than participate in flygting competitions.

“After King Fridleif died, Westmar raised Frodi with his twelve sons and attempted to train the young king in the ways of the berserker, as he was training his own boys.  But Frodi was a thinker, much smarter than his peers, and he felt that champions should become berserkers while kings should be philosophers.  He trained in warfare with his foster-brothers and developed into a splendid warrior and horseman, but he never did acquire the mental intensity necessary to transcend physical limits into the realm of the berserker.  The eldest Grep and his brothers, however, were astute apprentices in the art of their father and were closely linked with young Frodi, Grep being his best friend.  All had sworn at an early age to be their king’s lifelong champions.

“As Frodi’s elite warriors and champions, Westmar’s sons excelled, but as friends they failed him miserably.  The twelve brothers had always been wild and reckless, but, as they grew older, they also became exceedingly cruel.  They had no respect at all for the common people and, as their power and control over Frodi increased, so also did their contempt for the local populace.  The brothers established an underground rule of terror, operating within Frodi’s superficially peaceful reign.  They organized a youthful league of chieftains’ and officers’ sons and initially limited their escapades to wild bouts of drinking and exotic orgies in the confines of military barracks, but as they grew older they grew bolder and soon were conducting vile affairs in the town of Liere, in our harbour town and often in the king’s hall itself.  To my knowledge, Frodi has not participated in the immoral activities of his foster-brothers, but he does condone them.  Anyway, as the youths became young men, their activities became wilder and wilder.  Now their orgies are common affairs compared with the secret ceremonies they hold involving the deflowering of virgins.  Young daughters are seduced, bribed, often kidnapped, and forced to participate in the debaucheries.  Young men, friends and even brothers of the victims would select the girls of their preference in accordance with their own unstable pecking order and would ply them with wine, forcing the girls to drink to excess.  They would then bed two or three young girls at a time and fornicate into the early hours of morning.  The next day, they would swap tales of the bloodletting, the vomiting and the general degradation of the women.  And if it sounds as though I speak from personal experience,” Einar confessed, staring down deeply into his cup of ale and seeing who knows what wanton sights. “it is because I, too, was one of these moral-less youths until Alfgeir, here, brought me to my senses.  But Frodi condones all this and more, for even married women are now kidnapped and subjected to gang rapes.  The morality of a whole generation of Danes is being systematically destroyed by young warriors and berserkers with little else to amuse themselves with in this time of peace.”

And now it was Alfgeir’s turn to add to this sorry tale.  “Our youth is destroying itself,” he started, “and, when the older generation protests about the sordid morals of our children, our king refuses to constrain his champions and young officers.  Numerous old chieftains and warriors have died trying to avenge the outrages to their families.  Personal combat is the only recourse left to the people and the sons of Westmar are truly invincible, whether they fight singly or as a group.  They are true berserks, the whole lot, and no steel will mark them when they are in their rage.  So, the general populace continues to groan and suffer under the rule of young King Frodi.”

“And it is not only the common people that suffer,” Einar said, picking up the story once more.  “The eldest Grep, Frodi’s closest friend, eventually tired of this immoderate promiscuity and began to covet the hand of Frodi’s sister, Princess Gunwar ‘the Fair’, but, while our young king’s morals were in decay, his love for his older sister was ever strong and he would not allow her to be approached against her will.  And Gunwar, a gentle blossom amongst the raging turmoil of Frodi’s fortress, had only revulsion for Grep and his berserker brothers.  She judged them to be wild animals and she hated them.  Many of her friends had been accosted and defiled by them and she swore that she would never forgive them.  She also did not trust the power Frodi held over them, so she had her own longhall erected and has staffed it with thirty young warrior maidens, training and becoming a shield-maiden herself.  Gunwar’s hall is off limits to all Danish soldiery and her Valkyries ensure that this rule is complied with.

“This was but the start of Grep’s excesses.  Three years ago, he and Westmar and five of his brothers, along with Gotwar, travelled the southern route and brought Frodi back a wife, Queen Hanund, a princess of the Khazars.  No sooner had their wedding been blessed by Freya when Grep engaged upon the seduction of his queen.  He plied her with gifts and personal favours and soon rumours of their liaisons were widespread, but King Frodi does not suspect his friend and no one dares to broach the subject with him.  Grep remains his best friend, even after his handling of the suitors of fair Princess Gunwar.”

Erik had heard of the terrible murders of the suitors of Gunwar.  The tale had swept across the northern lands at the same time it had torn through the Holy Roman Empire.

Einar could see that Erik and Roller had heard of the black deed, but he followed his lead and carried on with his narration, nonetheless.  “King Frodi so much enjoyed his new married life that he became determined to find his sister, Gunwar, a husband.  Grep volunteered to solicit meritable suitors and he travelled throughout Denmark and Germany gathering up thirty princes and chieftain’s sons, young men of, for the most part, lesser nobility.  He staged a great banquet in King Frodi’s hall, where Princess Gunwar met all her potential husbands.  She was quite pleased with her prospects, for they were very handsome young men, on the whole.  When the festivities were over for the evening, Princess Gunwar retired to her hall and the young men rested on the benches in King Frodi’s longhall.  That night Grep and his brothers murdered the young princes in their sleep and they somehow managed to slip undetected into the hall of fair Gunwar and they lined the wainscot of her room with the heads of those they had slain.  It was a gory tragedy to which Princess Gunwar awakened the next morn, a horrible nightmare from which she yet suffers.  Grep shrugged the incident off by explaining to King Frodi that none of the suitors had been worthy of mixing blood with the descendants of the famed King Fridleif and their Skioldung royal blood.  Since that day, Princess Gunwar has hated the sons of Westmar, Grep in particular, and awaits the day she may exact her vengeance.  If you may expect help from any quarter in your attack upon these berserks, she is most likely of all to provide you aid.”  Thus, Einar ended his tale of warning with the hint of a strategy.

“Can I ask you,” Erik started, “why you are warning us as to the extent of our trial instead of turning us in, as one might have thought?”

“Why…it’s because you have slain King Odd, Hraerik,” Einar Cuff began.  “Odin’s fickle support has flipped on Oddi.  You must be Odin’s man sent down to save our King Frodi from himself and those about him.  Hraegunar Sigurdson is Odin’s man, and I suspect his son is too.”

Pride coursed through Erik at being called the son of Ragnar Sigurdson.  But then a shudder of revulsion followed at being called Odin’s man and he said, “I owe allegiance to no gods, living my life by the strength of my arm.”

“Well, the more to you then,” Einar Cuff humoured him.  “Slaying Sea King Odd in his own kingdom was no mean feat without help from the gods.”

“We’ve a larger task at hand right now and we thank you for your support.  We had better turn in now, for I have a feeling that important occurrences await us on the morrow.”

As Erik and Roller got up and walked to their sleeping benches, Alfgeir turned to Einar and said, “Powerful forces are at work here.”

CHAPTER NINE

9.0  CONFRONTATION WITH GREP  (Circa 829 AD)

“Many a stiff rowlock straineth,      and the noisy Strand of Fish-Gear,

 the Sea, the lands o’ercometh:      men’s hands oft span the stays.”

Einar Skulason;  Prose Edda.

During the night a light skiff of snow fell upon the land and, in the morning, woodcutters discovered the track of a wolf that had dragged the carcass of a calf several miles toward the harbour, dropping it down by the road to the village.  What had the calf been doing wandering loose amongst the dunes and why had the wolf slaughtered and dragged it no small distance only to abandon it outside of town?  The woodsmen wondered if the wolf had lost its way in the darkness and they wondered, too, who thereabouts would discover that a calf had wandered off in the night.

Such early morning talk among the villagers ended with the arrival from Liere of the berserker Grep, the eldest son of Westmar.  Grep always paid attention to news coming out of Norway and there was talk of a skald of King Gotar’s winning a ship by the shrewdness of his advice and there was further talk of this skald setting out for Denmark.  He had decided to investigate the matter of this shrewd spoken one, both for reasons of security and a due interest in clever speech.  Grep, like his mother, was over-proud, and considered himself a disciple of flygting and an advocate of fine and clever speech.

Erik had just finished strapping on Tyrfingr and was slipping his rune bag, which contained the fine calf-gut rope that he had made, about his waist, when Grep rode up to the front of the harbourmaster’s longhall.  The young Norwegian threw a bright red cloak about his shoulders, stepped out onto the porch and was greeted by King Frodi’s foremost man.

“Fool!  Who art thou?”  Grep shouted down from his horse.  He was a big man and his horse was the largest Erik had ever seen.  Grep’s features were hidden under the ancient Vanir armour he had a wont to wear.  A heavy fully enclosed iron helmet covered his head, with but a T-slit to provide for sight and breath.  A massive black iron breast plate protruded from under his dark cloak and studded and banded black leather leggings and sleeves covered his limbs.  Heavy boots and iron banded gloves completed the armour that was more suited to frighting than fighting and, Erik surmised, reinforced the terror in which the villagers held the berserk.  He had both sword and heavy axe strapped on either side and he carried a long lance with a familiar looseness.  “What is your business here?” Grep cried out in a husky muffled voice.  “From whence do you come and what is your goal?  Who is your libidinous sire?  Your wanton mother?  What is your obscure bloodline?  Wandering is for the weak and the worthless; the strong stay with their land and their chattels.”

“It is Grep,” Roller whispered, stepping out onto the porch.  “Do not let him provoke you or we shan’t even get into King Frodi’s court.”

“You know me, Hraelauger,” Erik shouted, stepping off the porch toward Grep.  “Everyone in the hall knows me, nay, the whole village knows me,” and Erik swept his right arm out dramatically.  “In fact, the only one who doesn’t know me is Grep here, King Frodi’s fine young captain.  And he calls me a fool!”  By this time a small group of villagers had gathered, and subdued snickers coursed through the crowd.  Grep was hated by many, feared by all.  “Hraerik is my name, Hraegunar Sigurdson my sire and Boddi was my mother.  Hraelauger here is my brother.  We have business with your king.  We have words from King Gotar of Norway.”

“You?  You are the skald who won a ship by the shrewdness of his tongue?”  And Grep laughed heartily.  “Why have you not come to the court of King Frodi then?  Why do you languish in this festering harbour town?  The last time I saw you,” Grep was shouting at Roller now, “you weren’t nearly as tardy, you and your father, Hraegunar, when you hiked up your shaggy britches and let down your sails and made a run for it back to Stavanger Fjord.”  And again, Grep laughed.

It was Erik, now, who calmed his brother.  Grep was right, he thought.  They had stayed overlong out of Liere.  Was it shrewdness or was it fear?  “We have sought nought but truth.  We have sought nought but knowledge,” Erik replied, for he had decided that their lengthy stay had been a tactical one.  They had learned much.  “We have travelled the world in search of these and have found neither.  We have found only fools,” Erik shouted remorsefully.  “For only fools let their desires run unchecked.  We have travelled the Sound and have found clean winds above the waves and a foul wind over the land.”

“What is this foolish prattle of unchecked desires?” Grep bawled.  “You’re a windy young cock who knows nothing of knowledge and truth.  You know only of your dung heap, you crow solely to a fowl wind!”

“It’s a foul wind I’ve found over this land,” Erik repeated, “where the foremost man is more than his lord’s right hand.  You stand hard and erect for more than your king’s command.  Your queen will no doubt vouch for that!”

“Young cock has become an owl astray.  Your words explain the length of your stay.  You seek truth, yet you spread only lies.  Such talk in King Frodi’s court shall bring you death!”

“I seek truth and my words gauge my soundings.  You have shared more than the cup with your king.  You have tasted the sweet nectar of his queen!”

“I have tasted naught of her,” Grep protested.  “I protect only her interests.  She has kindly rewarded me with gifts of support and counsel.”

“That she has supported you I have no doubt,” Erik exclaimed, and now the village folk were laughing aloud.

“You shall die for your lies!  You’ll not make it into King Frodi’s court alive!”  And Grep set heels to his horse and rode off.

“I’m afraid I have forewarned Grep overmuch,” Erik confessed to his brother.  “We must leave right away before Grep can arrange to meet us with a host.”

“We should have killed him here and now,” Roller hissed.  “He shall pay for his insults against father.”

Erik gathered up a very select group of his men and, after thanking his hosts for their support and for horses, a dozen Norwegians set off for Liere.

On the road to the town of Liere there flowed a small river, or perhaps a large creek, that had carved a pathway to the sea and across it was a wooden bridge.  As the Norwegians approached, they saw a small knot of men gathered about a tall object on the far side of the river.  Erik was the first to make the thing out–a scorn pole–and he warned his men of what mischief Grep was about.  Grep had gathered up a group of wizards and warlocks and pagan priests and they had constructed a totem with which to lay a curse upon Erik and his followers.  The scorn pole consisted of the severed head of a horse, jaw set agape, impaled upon a tall hazel pole carved in ancient runic curses.  Erik warned his men to keep quiet and to let him do all the talking, thereby putting himself most at risk.  When the group of Norwegians had reached their end of the bridge, the head wizard started chanting his spells and his minions followed suit in their unholy prayer and soon the lot of them were dancing and swaying about in some ecstatic state and those holding the scorn pole had it swaying along with them.  Erik’s men were quickly becoming unnerved by all this sorcery, so Erik stepped out onto the bridge and shouted, “May the curses, back upon the bearers, fall!”, and, no sooner had Erik finished, then the head of the horse toppled from the pole and crashed down upon the chief wizard, knocking him from the bridge and smashing him through the river ice.  The priest thrashed about in the water till his black robes pulled him down and the current took him under the glaze.  Panic set in among the wizard’s followers and they fled, forcing Grep to follow in their steps.

Erik crossed the bridge and went down the riverbank to where the priest had fallen through the ice and he traced the current under the ice until he found the body, where it had caught upon a snag.  It was already a purplish blue as it floated under the ice and the current caused the robes to swirl about its corpulent owlish face.  Erik stomped a hole through the ice and hauled the corpse out onto the bank, so that the wizard’s relatives could at least give him a proper burial.  The right hand of the body still clutched a bright shard of ice and Erik thought it a curiosity and wrested the chunk free of the corpse.  He wrapped the ice up in a piece of cloth and told his men that it would make a fine gift for young King Frodi.  The men were still edgy about the scorn pole’s magic and the jest eased their tension somewhat.  It was common knowledge that a gift must accompany an audience with King Frodi, and, in their haste to get to Liere before Grep could raise a host, Erik had forgotten to acquire a suitable present.  Erik’s prescience told him the ice would do more for him in Frodi’s court than the most shimmering of eastern jewels.

East of Liere, King Frodi had built himself a fine new fortress of a design unique to the northern climate, being patterned after Eastern Roman efforts his emissaries had observed out upon the great Asian steppe, or so they claimed.  Roman armies had once established a series of fortified barracks to control the nomadic tribes that from time to time threatened Greek cities on the northern coasts of the Black Sea.  Alfgeir, himself, Frodi’s stout harbour master, said he had paced out and recorded on rune stick the standard dimensions of a Roman steppe fort while on one of the earliest treks down the Southern Way, the Dan’Way.  Erik had gotten a good description of the fortress from his portly patron, so, upon gaining a small rise, he was not as surprised by the sight of it, as some of his men were.  All were men who had worked with their hands upon longhalls, rans, ships and boats, but none had ever seen the likes of this and all sensed the vast labour the Danes had invested in it.

Frodi’s fortress stood a short distance out of Liere, in the middle of a broad low plain between the town and the sea, where it controlled the main north-south road of Zealand as well as the harbour link.  The fortification consisted of a twelve foot high by thirty foot wide circular embankment four hundred feet in diameter, with a twelve foot high post palisade at its crest and a further twelve foot deep outer trench extending beyond its base.  The earthen work was pierced by four gateways in the four directions, the continuous palisade vaulting over these and, although there were no doors, several heavy sledges sat nearby each gate for blocking the openings if necessary.  Zealand’s two main roads intersected within Frodi’s fortress, dividing the interior into four equal quadrants.  Inside the fortress, the roads were paved with logs in a corduroy fashion to keep down the dust, and there was another dirt road running around the inside of the embankment.  Three of the four quadrants were developed, the north-east quadrant supporting two forty by one hundred and twenty foot longhalls, one being the hall of Westmar and his berserk sons, the other the palace of young King Frodi, while the north-west and south-east quadrants each held four thirty by eighty foot halls that were contiguous, forming a square about a courtyard and serving variously as barracks for Frodi’s troops, stables for his horse and, directly across the road from his own palace, the longhall of his sister, Princess Gunwar.  The south-west quadrant contained a huge earthen dugout into which all the rainfall within the fortress drained, the water then being available in quantity during times of siege or for fighting the fires longhalls were so susceptible to.

The small Norwegian party entered King Frodi’s fortress without incident, arriving at the front steps of Frodi’s longhall.  Erik hailed the two guards on the palace porch and bid them request him an audience with their king.  He tossed them each a piece of Arab silver and one of them disappeared into the hall.  Moments later, the guard emerged and motioned for the party to step inside.  Erik ascended the steps and passed by a pair of huge oaken doors, left open to the elements, his troop trailing behind him in their order of rank.  As Erik entered the hall’s foyer, he stepped upon a hide that had been laid upon the floor by jesting court attendants.  The courtiers then yanked upon thongs that were tied to the hide, pulling the slippery skin out from under their Norse guest who, toppling backwards, was caught in the strong arms of Roller.

“Bare is the back of the brotherless,” Erik shouted as Roller helped him back to his feet.  King Frodi was sitting on his high seat on the left side of the hall laughing hysterically; his berserks, sitting at their benches further down the hall, were hooting and shouting in derision; as Erik adjusted his cloak he wondered just what sort of lunatic court he had stumbled into.

“Such childish pranks,” cried Frodi’s sister, “should not be tolerated in the court of a king!”

Erik knew her to be Princess Gunwar from Einar’s vivid description the evening before.  “Her hair is a rich honey gold” Einar had said, “with traces of brown, and her face is as fair as a summer morn, and her form is as gentle as the spring, but don’t let that fool you, for she is marked by Odin, her left eye being a soft hazel blue while her right eye is a hard cold blue that can stare into the soul of a man.  She is a Valkyrie and is well trained in the arts of warfare, but she drinks overmuch in these hard times and has lost much of her lust for life.”  And Erik had seen as Einar talked, that the young Dane had a love for his princess much as he, himself, held for Alfhild, what now seemed ages ago.

“When a stranger approaches a foreign king’s court,” King Frodi replied, “he should be prepared for all manner of welcome.”

As Frodi and his sister continued their argument, Erik surveyed the longhall.  It was quite similar to King Gotar’s, but seemed much darker inside, with an atmosphere almost sinister.  There were no windows near the tops of the walls, light coming mainly from the smokeholes in the roof and from asphaltene torches of oriental origin that burned brightly of naphtha liquid.  Three long hearths ran down the centre of the near end of the hall with twelve benches on either side, the centre of the hall was open with a set of triple high seats on either wall and a further three hearths and twenty-four benches made up the far end of the room.  Beyond that was a hallway that Erik knew led to the bedchambers and undoubtedly, at the very back, a scullery.  As his men began hanging up their weapons and outer garments on pegs at the entrance wall, Erik noticed a limp calf-gut rope hanging on a pin on the wall.  He deftly placed his cloak over it and took out his own calf-gut cased rope from his rune bag, placing it on the next peg.  By this time, Queen Hanund was well into the high seat squabble and, as Erik approached the dais, all fell suddenly silent, embarrassed at the excessive arguing they had indulged in.

Koll was the keeper of the king’s gifts and was the first to address Erik.  “It is customary that all who seek audience with King Frodi present him with some form of gift.”  Koll had been a big strong man but was now overweight and bloated.  His hair was all but gone and his nose was red veined and swollen.  Struggling, he rose up from his bench and crossed the central space to the front end of the hall.  “Have you brought a gift for our king?”

As he advanced, Erik positioned himself so that a long hearth was blazing between them.  Erik then withdrew a bundle from his rune bag and unwrapped the melting shard of ice he had prized free from the priest, passing it over the flames toward Koll.  The wet ice caught up the light of the fire and looked as though it were molten metal pooling above the hearth flames.  Koll was hesitant in reaching over the hot fire and, when he finally grabbed at the gift, Erik held it strongly enough that it slipped from the old man’s grip as he pulled his arms out of the flames, and it dropped with a loud hiss into the hot embers of the fire and disappeared in a cloud of steam and sparks.

His arms still over the flames and an angry look in his eyes, Erik shouted, “What is the punishment for one who loses the gifts of his king?”

Koll stumbled back from the hearth rubbing his arms as though this would cool their burning sensation.  Young King Frodi stood up at his high seat, tall thin and pale with excess, but with fine long blond hair and bright blue eyes,  “My father always passed sentence of death by hanging as a deterrent to greedy courtiers, but I’m sure it was not the intent of the law to punish accidental loss.  How judge you this, my queen?” he then asked and turned around to his lady.

Hanund was a princess of the Eastern Empire of the Khazars, a princess of the Huns, a fierce tribe within the realm, and her features were dark and mysterious.  Her father was Kagan Bek of the Khazar Empire, second only to the Great Kagan.  “My father made it policy to never relax the law and its interpretation.  It upset the general populace if exceptions were made.”

Koll appeared to be quite pleased with her reply and declared, “It is good to see that the justice of King Frodi is applied equally to all.  If a hanging is what you want, my queen, then that is what you shall have.”  And Koll proceeded to the front of the hall and grabbed Erik’s calf-gut rope off the wall.  He had the guard at the entrance bring in a pair of ladders and lash them together at one end to form a hanging ladder, then made the noose up, tying the other end of the rope to the apex of the ladder.  As the guards stood up the ladder in the centre of the hall, Koll got himself up on a stool under the ladder and placed the pliant rope about his own neck saying,  “Since I was the one to drop the gift, I’m sure I can drop myself as well!”  and he kicked away the stool.  Koll plummeted downwards, bracing himself for the landing, but he had not expected it to be so hard.  He felt a sharp jolt of pain from his heels all the way up his spine to his skull, but, as his legs absorbed the impact, it dissipated.  The calf-gut rope had stretched so much that it hadn’t helped ease the landing at all, and Koll began untying the noose as those in the hall laughed out in merriment at the second jest they had played upon their guests.  The laughter was exceedingly shrill and Queen Hanund was laughing the hardest of all and as Koll approached her to take a deep bow he noticed that she hadn’t been laughing at all.  She was screaming and staring at something back behind himself, so, when she covered her face with her hands and began weeping, he turned around to see what it was that had caused her distress and his mouth fell open weakly.  Koll’s body was still under the hanging ladder and the rope had not stretched at all.  It had held firm and had snapped his neck and had forced his tongue out from his mouth and had palled his face with a deathly hue even though his feet still kicked about aimlessly.  Koll’s spirit slowly ambled back to its corpse under the ladder.

“It is bad luck to walk under a ladder,” Erik said, going around it, “for there lurk the souls of the hanged.”

Grep rushed over to his uncle, grabbing him by the legs and lifting him, while a guard slipped the noose off.  “I think there is more to this rope than appears,” Grep cried.

“Quite so, it would seem” Erik said, approaching Koll’s body as they laid it out on the floor, “for it appears more calf-gut than rope.”

As Grep and his brothers hauled away the body of their uncle, Erik started in on a eulogy for the so recently departed Koll.  “This strange occurrence proves his death to be the will of Odin, for just such an occurrence claimed the life of King Vikar of Agder when headwinds stranded his army by some islands off Hordaland.  Through divination he learned that Odin desired a human sacrifice from the host, but when they drew lots, King Vikar’s came up.  The famed hero Starkad was among the host, and was the king’s foremost man and friend, when Odin contacted him and instructed him on how the sacrifice was to take place.  On one of the islands they slaughtered a calf and planned a simulated hanging of their king.  ‘This device seems safe enough,’ King Vikar said, as he studied the calf-gut noose Starkad had strung from a tree.  ‘And I shall mark you for Odin with this reed,’ Starkad added, brandishing a twig of holly.”

Erik paused for a moment and studied his audience.  The berserker sons of Westmar were at their benches at the back of the hall while his own men were at benches at the front.  Between them, on the left high seats, were Westmar and his wife Gotwar on the third high seat, with Gunwar alone on the second, and on the centre high seat sat King Frodi and Queen Hanund.  All were listening attentively, so with some solemnness Erik continued.  “But when it came time for the mock hanging, Starkad’s reed became a spear and pierced his king and the calf-gut turned to strong withy rope as the king leaped from his perch and there he died in a place now known as Vikarsholmar.  And Starkad composed a poem for his king called Vikar’s Piece.”

“Thus, you claim,” King Frodi started,  “that this strange occurrence is the work of Odin?” and the young king looked about his people and said,  “Well-spoken Hraerik Bragi, for your eloquence is known to this court, just as we know you to be King Gotar’s man and emissary.”  Erik was relieved to be called a statesman, not a spy.  “How came you here and why have you come?”  King Frodi asked, putting a flourish in his speech.

“I come from Rennes Isle and took my seat by a stone,” Erik started.  “From that stone I rode a beam, taking my seat by many a stone.  I left a crag and came to a rock and took a seat across from a stone.  Leaving the rock, in my ship Fair-Faxi, we came across a dolphin and another and soon a whole herd we did harvest.  After the dolphins we came across the trunk of a tree, bobbing heavy in the waters, and we trimmed its branches, those still above the waves.”  Frodi listened intently, for it was now apparent a riddle was being wrought.  “After the trunk, we passed onto a log and I made my way through heavy hewn timbers, where wolves, which sated themselves on the carcasses of men, licked the tips of lances.  There, a spear-head rattled off the lance of a king, and it was the grandson of Fridleif.”

“I am at a loss to divine the meaning of your words,” King Frodi said, somewhat bewildered.  And he looked about his sombre retinue and he knew that they, too, were lost.  “You have beguiled us all with your dark riddling!”

“Then you owe me a gift on this match that is done, for I have described a portentous matter in that the spear-head I described was your cousin Oddi, whom I have slain in open combat!”

A sonorous clamour rose up from the Danes in the hall.  Their sea-king had fallen, and they demanded revenge.  Erik was counting on this, but, by openly declaring that it was he who had killed Oddi, there could be no accusations of murder.  The only lawful recourse left to the Danish people would be a challenge to arms.  Everyone knew this, and it became apparent to the Danes that Erik was more than just an emissary for his king.  He was the avenging son of Ragnar ‘Lothbrok’ Sigurdson, and King Frodi knew whose sons he was after.

“Your gift shall be a combat, should such you desire.  Grep has forewarned me of your lineage and of your penchant for revenge, but I must now warn you that the sons of Westmar have never been defeated in combat.”  King Frodi looked at Erik with both admiration and poignant sadness.  “You should never have come,” he whispered.

“A combat is hardly reward for such eloquence,” Queen Hanund cried.  “His words had us all in wonderment!”  The queen was not that well acquainted with Danish law.  Any gift King Frodi presented Erik now would only revert to his vanquisher, once he was, as he surely must be, slain.  But, this time, King Frodi was in accord with his wife.  He took a ring of gold from his arm and he offered it to Erik.  It would be an incentive to whoever slew the man who had slain his cousin Oddi.

Erik slipped the ring onto his arm and slid it up onto his right biceps and showed it off to the now raucous berserks at the back of the hall.  While doing so, he kept his left arm hidden behind his back as though he was embarrassed somehow.  When asked by King Frodi under what affectation his arm suffered, Erik answered, “Jealousy, my lord.  The left arm, having no ring, is embarrassed to show itself in the presence of the right.”

“Such an eloquent rogue I have never met,” King Frodi swore as he stripped his other arm of its ring and presented it to Erik.  The berserk sons of Westmar applauded their king’s generosity the loudest of all, for, in the end, they intended all this gold to be theirs.  Grep was shouting the loudest of the bunch, raising Frodi’s curiosity.  “I wish to know, Hraerik Bragi,” the king said, “how it was you defeated my champion, Grep, in a contest of flygting?”

“It was no great feat, for I merely proclaimed his adulterous behaviour towards your wife and his guilt left him powerless to respond.”

When King Frodi turned to his queen, Hanund gasped and blushed guiltily.  Frodi then flashed his steel blue gaze upon Grep, who was standing at the foot of his bench.  Rather than answer to the charge, Grep decided to attack his accuser and, wresting a spear from a nearby guard, rushed at Erik in a deadly lunge.  Once again, Roller aided his brother, knocking away the spear and plunging a knife deep between the ribs of Grep.  The berserk slid, dying, across the oriental carpet in front of the high seat dais, a trail of blood marking his ebbing flight.

“Bare is the back of the brotherless,” Erik cried as Grep lay bleeding at his feet, “for I’d have been murdered, just as surely as I stand before you, were it not for the actions of my brother, Hraelauger.”

As Grep lay in mortal pain, he waved that his king might come down from his high seat and hear his last words.  While Frodi was descending the steps, Grep stared at Gunwar and she felt his malice ever strong.  “Your sister gave me rings of gold,” Grep gasped, “And I gave them to your wife.”  That said, he died.  King Frodi looked up at Hanund and he looked to his sister.  Gunwar gasped in horror at what had been said.

“I think,” Frodi said to Erik, “that this is a stroke you shall not long enjoy.”  And Grep’s berserk brothers were howling for revenge, the nervous guards holding them back at King Frodi’s bidding.

Westmar rose up from his high seat and spoke out in a choked voice, as Gotwar scurried down and cradled her dead son.  “You have done much to warrant our hostility, so, without further ado, we challenge you, Hraerik Bragi, and ten of your warriors to a combat to the death with my remaining sons.”

“I accept the challenge, but on these conditions: since we are inexperienced at arms and in the way of the berserker, we ask three days grace and choice in the location of the combat,” Erik said.

“So be it,” King Frodi declared, then turning once more on his queen he said, “You were quick to point out your countrymen’s punishment as regards Koll’s misfortunate crime.  What punishment do you declare on yourself for your crime of adultery?”  Everyone knew that, in her eastern realm, Hanund would have been put to death, but in the north the law was laxer and promiscuity more widespread.  When the queen refused to arbite her own crime, Frodi proclaimed angrily, “You are to be banished from my kingdom and returned to the land of your father in disgrace.”  And Hanund wept freely and clutched her sister-in-law Gunwar in her grief.

Again, during the night, a light skiff of snow fell upon the land and, in the morning, King Frodi’s guards discovered the track of a wolf that had dragged the carcass of a calf several miles toward Liere, dropping it off by the road to the fortress.  What had the calf been doing wandering loose amongst the dales and why had the wolf slaughtered and dragged it no small distance only to abandon it outside of the walls?  The troops wondered if the wolf had lost its way in the darkness and they wondered, too, who thereabouts would discover that a calf had wandered off in the night.

CHAPTER TEN

10.0  THE HAND OF GUNWAR  (Circa 829 AD)

            “Brightly beamed the lights of      both her cheeks upon me.

              E’re will I recall it            o’re the heaped up wood-pile.”

Kormak Ogmundarson (10th Century Skald)

“In King Gotar’s high seat hall,” Erik started, “when an embassy visits, each member is appointed a separate seat and bench where he is to lie.”

“That is, no doubt, a custom you Norwegians learned from the Danes,” King Frodi replied, and he gave Erik’s men the choice benches his champions had occupied, for he had sent them away lest they attack Erik before his three days’ grace expired.

“And in Gotar’s high seat hall,” Erik started once again, “when an embassy visits, a feast is prepared, and a steer is roasted, and meats are served in plenty.”  Twilight was approaching and Erik and his men had not eaten since morn.

“Again, that is a custom started by the Danes,” King Frodi answered.  “There is a steer a roasting in the scullery as your senses may observe,” and Frodi took a big whiff out of the air and smiled patronizingly.  But when the feast was served up, Erik’s party ate great quantities of beef and wasted even more, dropping roasts upon the floor and throwing cuts into the hearths.  Frodi was galled by all this and shouted from his high seat, “Does King Gotar allow such wanton squandering of meats?”

Erik took a small bite from a joint of beef, then tossed it upon the floor.  “In King Gotar’s high seat hall the men are left to eat as they please, unless there is a famine about.”

The king shrugged and left the men to eat as they pleased.  After watching them eat for some time, Frodi said, “Tell me, my Bragning prince, does this eloquent tongue of yours have a lesson for me?”

Erik finished scouring a bone bare and set it aside carefully, for there were certain joints that the Norwegians seemed to be picking clean, while others they but tasted and threw away.  He looked up at the king and peered deep into his future and said,  “One must look about oneself and select the loyal few from the pretentious many.  A staunch group is stronger than a wavering host.”

“You shall soon learn just how staunch a group my champions are.”

No sooner had King Frodi mentioned his champions then Westmar entered the hall demanding to know Erik’s choice in the location of combat.  “There is an island nearby called Samso,” he recommended, “where holmgangers are commonly fought.”

“As we are yet inexperienced in land battles,” Erik replied, “I think we shall prefer to fight upon the sea.  My ship was won on advice against fighting the Danes and I intend to break it of this habit.”

Westmar protested.  “Let out upon the sea, the Norwegians shall flee, just as they’ve done before.”

“I’m afraid I must agree,” King Frodi added.

“Since we do not want to fight on land,” Erik began, “and you do not want to fight us on the sea, I suggest we compromise.  There is a frozen dugout within the fortress grounds.  On its ice we shall do combat, your sons gaining the firmness of the land while we Norwegians yet fight upon the waters.”

“What manner of battle can be fought upon ice?” Westmar protested once again.

“That is my choice,” Erik insisted.  “Should your king have no objections, the matter is closed.”

“You gave the Norwegians choice,” King Frodi said to Westmar.  “My soldiers shall surround the pond so that none may leave the ice alive unless victorious.”

“The ice it is,” Westmar growled angrily and stormed out of the hall.

King Frodi turned upon Erik.  “You shall yet find my champions staunch and steady.”

“In the high seat hall of King Gotar,” Erik started, changing the subject, “drinking always follows feasting, with strong liquors to soak up the meats.”

“A more shameless beggar I have never met,” King Frodi shouted, more put off by Erik’s apparent disregard of his champions capabilities than by his requests.  They were the finest berserks of their time.  That fact, none had ever been successful in disputing.

Princess Gunwar rose at her brother’s anger.  She was tall and strong and well-proportioned with flowing gold-brown hair, and her eyes–marked by Odin–one hazel blue, one blue, were by now misted over with the veil of alcohol.  She was alone in her own land and had turned to drink to dull her sensations.  “I shall fetch our guests their ale,” she said, much to Frodi’s chagrin, and she went back to the scullery and brought out slaves carrying cups and horns of brew.  She had a huge silver goblet which she carried over to Erik.  She felt aligned with Erik.  They both bore the burden of common foes.  And she was impressed with how he handled himself and how he had handled her brother.  No ambassador had ever entered Frodi’s court and gotten such generous treatment.

When she offered Erik the goblet of ale, he took up both her hand and the cup it held and toasted his host.  “Most generous of kings, do you award me, as a gift, this that I hold in my hand for the advice I’ve given you, words you shall hold dear for the remainder of your long and illustrious life?”

“Steeply do you scale your words,” Frodi complained, but he nodded that Erik might keep the cup.

Erik, however, grabbed King Frodi’s sister and sat her upon his lap and began to share his ale with her.  “I thank you for your gift, my lord,” he said, and then he kissed her as though she was the dearest gift he had ever received.

“Fool!” Frodi shouted.  “My sister is no slave that I can give away without her own free consent!”

Erik gave the princess a sly wink, took her hand in his, and pulled his knife from his belt.  “Well, if I can’t have all of her, I’ll have to settle for the part you gave me,” and he made as if to cut off her hand.

By this time, Princess Gunwar had begun to laugh and Frodi realized all was in jest.  He was made even angrier by this and taunted, “Should you survive your combat with my champions, you’ll have proved yourself worthy of my sister.”

Erik released her hand, but she stayed upon his lap and they continued to drink from Erik’s cup late into the evening.  When the revelry was such that the women were wont to leave, Gunwar stayed and supped with Erik.  Never had Erik met a woman who could hold her ale as Gunwar did.  Quite drunk, they decided to take a walk and Gunwar offered to show Erik the fortress.  There was a waxing moon shedding a keen frugal light and the frigid night air made clouds of one’s breath and brought clarity to one’s head.  Gunwar led Erik east along the corduroy road and turned left before the harbour town gate.  As she started down the inner road that followed the embankment, Erik watched her strong sure movements, and he followed her up a wooden stairway to the top of the rampart.  They walked around the inside of the palisade until they came to a second staircase and they climbed it to the walkway of the parapet.  Gunwar stopped at an embrasure and stared up at the moon.  She sighed, and the air rolled away from her lips in a dissipating cloud.  She turned to Erik and she said, “Why did Grep say what he did about me?  Hate is all he’s ever gotten from me.”

“That is why he said what he said, and to protect the one who did return his advances.  Now, in the cuckold’s eyes, you and Hanund will always share some guilt.  It is Grep’s revenge on you and may very well have saved Hanund’s life.”

“Maybe it’s just as well then,” Gunwar started.  “Hanund came here an innocent young girl.  It was life in my brother’s court that corrupted her.  There is so much that is wrong here.”  And she sighed, and another little cloud rolled off her lips.  Erik watched her as she shuddered in her thoughts.  She began walking then she realized he had been watching; whipping her head proudly, she turned.  “Why have you come to my brother’s high seat hall?  You are as bold as your Norwegian mountains and yet you remain here, still alive.  My brother has treated ambassadors with nothing but contempt, yet you have gained his respect through your courage and your words.  What makes you so different from all the rest?”

Erik walked up ahead of her and stopped, leaning easily against the parapet.  “Other ambassadors came here hoping they’d survive the effort.  I’ve come here to destroy the sons of Westmar or die trying.”

“You wanted the combat with them?” Gunwar asked, incredulously.  “No wonder you fit in so easily here.  You’re as mad as the rest of us!  Westmar’s sons cannot be beaten in combat.  Grep is dead through his own foolishness, not through anything you, Erik, or your brother, Roller, did.  Do you mind me calling you by your Anglish name?  We seem as one, you and I.  If you hadn’t saved my brother the difficulties in dealing with Grep, he would have set his champions upon you then and there and the boars would be sating themselves on your flesh right now,” she said haughtily, defending her brother’s strength at the expense of his virtue.  Erik’s smile grew solemn, and he watched her eyes, sadly.  Relenting, she stroked his cheek gently.  Princess Gunwar looked out to the long-suffering stars.  “You must leave tonight,”  she sighed, and the night air tumbled, catching up the moonlight in the silver mist that was her breath.  “I shall help you escape.”

“Will you come with me?” Erik asked.  “I’ve been promised your hand, and I wouldn’t mind at all if the rest of you came with it.”

“I must stay with my brother,” Gunwar replied, sadly.  “He is sending Hanund away on the morrow and he shall need me.  He has always been vulnerable, more so now than ever.  You have cost him much:  his wife and his best friend.  Hanund’s father will not take this slight easily.  You may very well have destroyed the Southern Way, his Danepar, before it really got started.  My brother shall be hard on you when his champions have you at their mercy.  You must leave tonight.”

“If I stay and defeat the sons of Westmar, then will you give me your hand?”

“So little time and so much to learn about you,” Gunwar said and she kissed him gently.  “I’ll help you in any way I can against the berserks, for they are destroying our land, but I don’t think you’ll be winning my hand.”

“I’ll take your help then, since you’ve offered it, but I must warn you that I have a plan.  I may yet survive to claim your hand.”

“You may have a plan, and I hope it’s a good one, but I’d rather lose you through flight, than not have you alive at all.  I feel that our fates are intertwined somehow.  Henceforth, my hand is yours and the rest of me comes with it.”  Princess Gunwar put her hand in Erik’s and they walked along the parapet, doing the full circumference of her brother’s fortress.  They descended the rampart and entered Gunwar’s longhall and there they spent the night.

In the early morning, Gunwar awoke from a nightmare that she’d had very many times before.  She was trembling so, that Erik woke up too.  “What is it?” he asked, and he comforted her in his arms.

“I dream every morn, in the half light of dawn, and I see the heads of the thirty princes that came to court me.  The beast–that’s what I called Grep–comes into my room as I sleep, and he lines the wainscoting with the heads of the young men who came to ask for my hand.  Still dripping with gore, they cry out for revenge, but, this time, they cried no more.  And they bid me thank you and your brother.  Thank you, Erik!” she cried, and she buried her head in Erik’s shoulder and she sobbed for a long time.  Erik held her close and he remembered what Princess Alfhild had told him about Hrafn Ketil’s visit here in Liere.  He had offered King Frodi Alfhild’s hand in marriage and he was laughed at and made to fell petty, but he had learned of the thirty heads that had lined Princess Gunwar’s bed chamber and Alfhild had cried at Gunwar’s plight.  Once Gunwar stopped crying, Erik kissed her tears away and they began kissing each other deeply.  They made love in the early morning and then they rested in each other’s arms.

“Do you remember when Gotar’s man, Hrafn Ketil, led an embassy here?” Erik asked her.

“I remember him,” Gunwar replied, “but he didn’t stay long.  He offered Gotar’s daughter, Princess Alfhild, in marriage, then he left as quickly as he’d come, fearing for his life.”

“He said that your brother scoffed at him and said that Alfhild was the daughter of a petty king and not good enough for him.”

“Is that what Hrafn Ketil told you?” she asked.  “My brother’d heard about Alfhild’s beauty and he was very interested in marrying her, but Sea King Odd advised against it.  He said it could fock up our relations with the Huns and destroy the Dan’Way.  My brother has a lot of faults, but insulting other kings is not one of them.  He’s very insecure in his own reign, so he makes it a point not to criticize others’.”

“So,” Erik said slowly, “would he be interested in marrying Princess Alfhild now that he’s lost Hanund?”

“Look at you!  Always the ambassador,” and she could see that Erik was serious.

“Your brother has given me your hand.  I thought it only fair to return the favour.  Alfhild would never stray on him the way Hanund has,” Erik said.  “I know her personally and I know she cried when she’d heard Hrafn Ketil’s lie.”

“Why’d he lie?”

“I think Hrafn Ketil wanted her for himself.  I think he was going to ask Gotar for her hand if he was successful in his attack on King Oddi.  I can’t blame him.  I think I might have done the same thing…wait a second, I think I did just that, but I asked for your hand instead!”

“Your confidence is infectious!” Gunwar declared.  “Now you’ve even got me believing you just might survive!  Returning my brother’s favour indeed!  I’ll have a little sip of your infectious ambrosia and I’ll tell you this…my brother Frodi needs a Princess Alfhild in his life, more now, than ever.”

When Erik returned to King Frodi’s high seat hall, he went to Roller and said, “I’ve paid a guard to go into Liere to bring back a dressed steer.  We shall be feasting in Princess Gunwar’s hall tonight, for she has offered us her aid.”

Roller flashed his brother a broad grin.  “What torments you must have suffered, last night, swaying her to our side.”  But, when Erik could only flush at the statement, Roller knew his brother had found more than a warm bed for the night.

“She wants to thank you for killing Grep,” Erik whispered, “and she figures the best way to do that is by saving your brother.”  Erik gathered up the bones that he had set aside the evening before.  “Now it’s time to prepare for our combat.”

One might have expected Erik and his men to prepare themselves for their upcoming fight by practicing at the weapons which Erik had claimed to be so inexperienced with, but instead they shut themselves up in Gunwar’s longhall and they made themselves four pairs of strange boots from a hide and the bones Erik had put aside, while Gunwar’s shield-maidens and slaves prepared for a second night of revelry.

In the afternoon, Erik and Roller took a walk about the compound and Erik stopped before the huge frozen dugout that covered the south-west quadrant of the fortress.  The sun was shining, and the ice glistened in its brilliance.  “What if it snows?”  Roller asked his brother.

“Then we shall likely die,” Erik answered, and he studied the sky and he tasted the air.  “It doesn’t feel like snow,” he lied.  The dugout was a large one, pie shaped and about a hundred and a half feet on its straight sides.  ‘There’ll be plenty of room to get about,’ Erik thought, ‘if only it doesn’t snow.’  They returned to Gunwar’s hall and they got themselves ready for the feast.

When the feast was underway, once again Erik’s men began devouring their food most wastefully.  Slabs of meat they tossed upon the floor, and joints they threw out hardly touched.  King Frodi was glad to see that the Norwegians were as wasteful with their own beef as they had been with his, but he noticed, once more, that they were particularly careful with some joints of meat, finishing them completely, then setting the bones off to one side.   Again, Princess Gunwar drank with Erik late into the evening, but her maidens played good hostesses and drank with his men even longer.

Erik sat upon the edge of Gunwar’s huge feather bed, taking off his boots.  Gunwar closed the door to her bedchamber and it blocked out the noise of the party somewhat.  “What is this plan of yours?” she asked.  “These strange boots you are making out of ox-hide and bone?”

“Last night I was doomed and tonight you are full of questions?  What has brought about this, dare I say, hope?”  Erik had his boots unlaced and kicked them off, first one, then the other.  He began pulling off his tunic.

Gunwar tucked her dress about her calves and kneeled upon the wooden floor in front of him, resting her hands upon his thighs.  “It’s your men.  They are full of confidence.  Their faith in you is infectious,” and she laid her head upon his lap as if that tenuous faith was all she had.  “They would follow you into the underworld if you but asked them to.”

“In a sense they all have, crossing the great northern ocean into the White Sea and following me into the Eastern Realm.  The Nor’Way crossing is a strange phenomenon that affects every man very differently, yet the same.  My plan is based upon things we Norwegians have learned in the east.  Things that the Lapps and the Finns and the Dwarves and Giants have taught us.  But of all the things we’ve experienced, the great crossing is the most enduring.”

“Tell me about the Eastern Realm” Gunwar pleaded.  “Tell me about the great crossing.”  And Erik began his tale of travel by describing a certain dwarf he had known, called Dvalin.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

11.0  BATTLE UPON THE ICE  (Circa 829 AD)

“He traversed the (frozen?) waters

 On a bone.”

The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus.

Dawn broke and brought wispy clouds that smelled of snow and blustery winds that whipped them about till they spun, and they rolled into a heavy mist, threatening ominously.  The day was a dull hoary grey that reminded Erik of Ragnar’s beard.  The news had come to Erik in a dream: his father was dead.  The premonition he’d had on the Island of Laeso had seemed to come to fruition.  But the news was yet more feeling than fact, so he spared his brother the tidings.  He wondered, too, if he and Roller were soon to follow: if so, the news wouldn’t matter much; if not, Roller would learn soon enough.  Erik looked up from the porch of Gunwar’s hall and watched the scud blowing in from the east, and he wondered what this third day, this day of battle would bring.  He was working on the last pair of boots that his men would be wearing into combat out upon the ice.  Once more they had banqueted in his hostess’s hall and once more they had collected the bones that Erik needed to build his boots.  It was from the Finns that the Norwegians had first learned about the boots, but it was the dwarf Dvalin that had taught Erik how to make them properly, how to select the right materials: the shin bone of a steer, the hide of an ox and the steel pins that only a smith could make to tie the two together.  He thought of Dvalin and he stroked the hilt of Tyrfingr at his waist, as though to refresh his memory.  Life always seemed to work out like the poems and stories with which he was so familiar.  The hero falling just short of his goal; circumstance thwarting honest effort; had he been writing the story, Dvalin would have made it home, and Ragnar would be alive today, but he wasn’t writing it.  ‘I’m living it as I go,’ he thought.

“How will it end?” Gunwar asked, walking out onto the porch.  “How will end this bleak day?  The clouds are heavy.  I prayed to Freya for good weather and we got this,” she said, disappointed. 

“If the snow holds off, it’s as fine a day as we’ll need to get our day’s work done.”

Gunwar sat down on the bench beside Erik.  She placed both her hands and her head upon Erik’s shoulder and she looked up to the sky.  “If you die today,” she whispered, “I’m going to shut myself up in my bedchamber and have the Valkyries set fire to my hall.”  Erik smiled and turned to her, but then realized she was deathly serious, and the blood drained from his face.  “I’ve waited a long time for you,” she continued, “and I’ll not take losing you now,” and she buried her face in his shoulder and Erik could feel her silent weeping.  He cradled her head in his hand and he hushed her like a baby.

It had never occurred to Erik that he should forgo his due retribution to spare a woman the grief of his actions, but he looked down on Gunwar and for an instant he wanted to flee away with her, he wanted to spare the men that had cost Ragnar his life.  He hushed her a few moments until she stopped sobbing.  “I must do this for my father,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” she said, stepping back.  She dried her tears and she stood away from him.  Erik gathered up the boots he had been working on and he went inside.  She prayed to her gods that what she had said to Erik would not weaken his resolve and possibly cost him his life.  She would follow him to the nine worlds of hell if he died.

At noon, the Norwegians gathered up their gear and they headed out to the ice.  They strode down the steps of the porch in single file, Erik in the lead and Roller at his back, and they walked across the log dressed road to the quadrant with the dugout.  The berserks were already there, on the road down the right side of the quadrant, working themselves into their berserker furies.  And King Frodi’s army surrounded the ice and watched over all the preparations.  They were very respectful of Erik and his men, those about to die.  Townsfolk from Liere and from the harbour village, and Alfgeir and Einar Cuff and the rest of Erik’s men were there, gathering on the left road to watch the modified holmganger, or island combat, where water was the isle and the land the waiting deep.  The berserks were invincible in their fury:  no steel could bite them, and each had the strength of six men, and their swords were massive, and some carried great pole axes that were impossible to handle until they were in that manic state.  If Erik had had any qualms about the berserkers dying, they were gone now.  Gunwar was beside her brother, who was presiding over the combat from the apex of the quadrant.  Erik and his men put on their special boots and fastened their bucklers and gathered up their spears and axes.  “Only the victors shall leave the ice alive!” King Frodi commanded, and he took a scarf from Gunwar and he dropped it out on the frozen waters.  It rippled in the wind as it fell, and it blew out onto the ice and it stuck, and it fluttered like a wounded bird, as Erik stepped out onto the frozen waters.  He was unsteady at first, but his skill soon came back to him, and he poled himself out onto the ice with his spear, gliding with one foot, then striding with the other.  Then he planted his pole and he made a turn and his men followed in a line behind him and did just as he had done.  The townsfolk of Liere were awed, for they had never seen anyone skate before.  Erik and his men stood in a row at the far end of the ice, as the sons of Westmar stepped out onto the sheet in boots they had covered in tar and sand in a vain attempt at traction.  A murmur ran through the townsfolk.  While most had only hoped that the Norwegians would win, many now sensed that they just might.

The sons of Westmar worked their way out into the middle of the ice, a crazed howling knot of men.  The Norwegians skated along the arc of the quadrant, closing in on the berserks at an angle.  As they approached, several of the berserks broke away from the group to attack, and the last few men in the Norwegian line skirmished with them.  The Norwegians thrusted with their spears and struck with their swords, but their blows had no effect on the berserks, who didn’t even bother with armour.  The bare shoulder of one of the berserks deflected away a particularly devastating blow, and he shrugged it off without showing signs of pain.  The ice, where an arm should lay severed, was merely sprinkled with sweat.  The Norwegians broke off the encounter and continued to circle the Danes.  Erik could sense that his men were shaken, so he had Roller take the lead and he dropped to the tail of the column and he drew Tyrfingr solemnly.  The berserks were cheering as Roller led the skaters in toward them and, when several came out again to do battle, Erik met with one of them and they traded blows as he passed.  Erik’s sword stroke appeared to have little effect, as Tyrfingr passed right through the neck of one berserk as if it wasn’t even there.  “Magic,” Erik’s thoughts flashed, but, as the white ice was sprinkled with sweat it was also reddened, a few droplets at first, misting up the blank sheet, then huge drops that splashed across the pane, followed, finally, by a head that came tumbling after Erik as he skated along.  The berserk’s great body came crashing to the ice in a crumpled heap and it was the Norwegians’ turn to cheer.  Tyrfingr was glowing now, not visibly in the light of day, but Erik could feel her.

The berserkers began moving across the ice in an attempt to corner Erik and his men.  They gauged an intercept course and charged wildly in their tarred boots, slipping and sliding and falling as they went, leaving a trail of berserks as they progressed.  And, although they had correctly judged their direction to engage the middle of the Norwegian formation, Erik called for the rear half of his men to halt and the berserks that were still in pursuit, slid harmlessly in between them, leaving Roller’s group free to attack the stragglers where they had fallen.  This they did, and, though their blunted  weapons would not bite, they managed to wrest a great poleaxe free from one of the berserks and they bludgeoned him to death under its sheer mass.  The axe seemed more like an anvil mounted on the end of a small tree, and it took Roller and several others to wield it.  When they attacked a second berserk with it, they caught him with a glancing blow that sent him flying across the sheet, but the axe crashed through the ice and disappeared into the waters, leaving a great jagged hole in their island of ice.

Erik’s group had stopped and drawn the main body of the enemy after them.  The berserks gave them chase and, in fact, could run as fast as the others could skate, but the Norwegians just planted their spears and turned sharply away from them, and the berserkers could do naught but skitter and fall in their attempts to stop, while Erik and his men skated to aid Roller’s group in dispatching the fallen.  The berserk that Roller had clubbed senseless came sliding across the ice and one of Erik’s men dispatched him with a sword, for he was no longer in a berserk state and therefore susceptible to steel.  Erik squared off against a huge berserk and warded off a savage blow with his shield, before driving Tyrfingr deep into his ribs.  Tyrfingr’s bloodletting grooves ran red with gore and the lifeblood left the warrior and spilled out across the bright white ice.  The sun was out now, its rays dancing in the blood and the ice, deep crimson rubies settling into a bed of crushed diamonds.  Erik had never seen colours so alive.  He was breathing heavily as he strained to pull Tyrfingr out of the dying berserk’s chest.  He could taste the blood in the air, he thought and, as Tyrfingr came free, he realized he was biting his lip.

One of the better skaters in Roller’s group had kept a berserk down by tripping him and knocking him off balance and causing him to slip, until Erik got over there and dispatched him as he lay upon the ice.  Six berserks remained alive, and they were charging up the ice after the Norwegians.  Erik led his men away from them and toward the hole where Roller had broken up the ice, and, as the berserks closed in, the Norwegians split up once more, skating off on either side of it.  The sons of Westmar could not turn and could not stop, and they could only clench their teeth as they all slid into the ice-cold water of the pond.  Their berserker furies dissipated in the frigid abyss, and Erik’s men planted their spears in the ice and turned and pierced the sons of Westmar into oblivion.

“There seem to be many dolphins about,” Erik said to Roller as they approached King Frodi at the apex of the quadrant.

“For this cold weather,” Roller agreed.

Now, after the destruction of the berserks out upon the ice, King Frodi fully understood the meaning of Erik’s riddle, whereby he had claimed to have shaken free the lance-head of the king, meaning Oddi.  There, too, it must have been the waters that had overcome his cousin, more so than the Norwegians.  Erik was a dangerous man, King Frodi decided.

“I come seeking the hand of your sister, Princess Gunwar,” Erik said, and Gunwar stepped out onto the ice unsteadily and Erik took her arm and gave her support.  She left no question as to her stand in the matter.  They stood out there on the ice, and Westmar came over to young King Frodi and talked to him, and then King Frodi said, “There shall be a banquet tonight in my high seat hall and there you shall receive the hand of my sister, Princess Gunwar, should she choose to accept your request.”

“Westmar has something planned,” Gunwar said later, in her hall, while they were preparing for her brother’s banquet.  “It’s a trap,” she said, when Erik made no reply.  “We should saddle up our horses,” she continued, “and escape while they are preparing for the banquet.”

Erik could see that Gunwar was faltering and he took her in his arms.  She had the strength to survive in King Frodi’s crazed court, but the effort had worn on her and she was now fragile as a flower.  “I’m not going to steal you away from your brother,” Erik told her.  “Wherever we’d go he would follow us with an army.  Such is the way of kings.  He has promised me your hand and his blessing and, Westmar or not, I shall remain to collect them.”  There was no doubt in Erik’s mind.  His heart had met its match and he knew that Gunwar felt the same way.  Gone were the self-doubts he’d had while pursuing Princess Alfhild.  He had accomplished much since then.  He had done Ragnar proud.

That night, in King Frodi’s high seat hall, after the feasting was over and they were well into the bouts of drinking, Westmar leaned over from his third high seat and challenged Erik, who was sharing Gunwar’s second high seat, to row the withy with him on pain of death.  Although Westmar was a huge man, he was getting on in years and Erik’s time at blacksmithing had given him a back and shoulders that were a match for anyone, so he took up the challenge.  There was no spontaneity on Westmar’s part; he happened to have a withy ring tucked in his belt.

Erik and Westmar sat down on the plank floor of the audience area between the high seats, and they put their feet together sole to sole, and they each grabbed hold of the withy ring and they pulled against each other.  First one would rise up off his buttocks and look as though he were about to nose-dive over the other’s shoulder, then the other would rise up off the floor and look as if he were going to go over.  After several minutes of this back and forth rowing, beads of sweat pearled on the forehead of Westmar and his face grew crimson with his efforts, so that the tiny pearls became rubies and it appeared as though he was sweating blood.  Several more minutes of this effort brought sweat to the countenance of Erik, but it was apparent that Westmar was overmatched.  His strength was ebbing.  A quarter of an hour into the bout, Westmar gathered up all his remaining strength and pulled Erik up off the floor one last time, and, when it looked as if Erik might go over, the young Norwegian straightened up his powerful back, lowered his centre of gravity and settled back down.  Erik then summoned all the strength he had and gave an enormous pull that sent Westmar flying over his shoulders and sprawling into a post.  Everyone could hear Westmar’s neck snap, as he was driven headfirst into the heavy fir support column, and the hall shook with the impact and all knew that Westmar was dead.

The old woman, Gotwar, did not even rise up off her high seat to aid her dead husband.  As the guards hauled Westmar, feet first, out of the hall, Gotwar sat and brooded.  They would take the old man to the icehouse, where he would rest with his sons for nine days before burial.  Erik knew that it would be Gotwar’s intention to avenge her kin, so he was not too surprised when the old hag, too, rose up with a challenge.

“Oh, great leader of our northern guests,” Gotwar began her harangue,  “Erik ‘Bragi’ Hraegunarson, well known for words and wisdom, well-travelled, and well accounted for here this day, I challenge you to a duel of words, to a contest of flygting, on pain of death.”

Erik rose up and responded, “One sided this wager seems, for your journey through life is all but spent while mine has just begun.”

They stood across the dais from each other, and they eyed each other as they played a most dangerous game.  Gotwar tore a heavy gold necklace from her throat, and she said, “Well travelled you are, having visited the Eastern Realm, but I received this necklace, from young King Frodi, as a reward for travelling east to the land of the Khazars and bringing him back a young wife worthy of his station.”  She threw it down on the floor between them.  “This shall make up the wager’s difference, but also at stake here is your name, ‘Bragi’.  Your King Gotar must have wished you much trouble, to hand you so handsome a title.”

Erik’s relationship with his king was tenuous at best, but he had won the byname, ‘Bragi’, and Gotwar was the first to challenge its validity.  Gunwar’s whispered pleas could not stop the contest now.  “Begin, old woman!”

Gotwar turned and faced the audience and said:

“When you’re grinding your war-axe on the whetstone,

 does your wagging penis flail the quivering rump?”

All the Danes and the Norwegians at the feast looked amongst each other, searching for someone who could understand her meaning, but there was no one.  Flygting was a contest of insults, but she had insulted Erik more just getting him to compete than she now did when her very life was at stake.  The folk shook their heads in wonderment.  Any one of them could best those words.

Erik was not about to insult the old woman with words, after a nonsensical verse such as that, deciding to best her with this humorous retort:

“When boy becomes man, he grows whiskers to be sheared,

 but his private parts he keeps in a beard.”

The Norwegians immediately began to cheer his words and the Danes were chuckling at first, but soon began laughing uproariously.  The verse had been terse and humorous, its simplicity, itself, an insult to Gotwar.

The old woman went over to the necklace, got down on her knees and picked it up.  She held it up to Erik like a fawning dog, and Princess Gunwar began crying and pleading for the old woman’s life.  Roller came up to Erik and warned him not to spare her, because she was a witch and duty bound to avenge herself against him.  But Gunwar was begging for the old hag’s life, and Gotwar, herself, was swearing that she would only be her foster-daughter’s handmaiden for her remaining days.  Erik took the necklace from the old hag and placed it about Gunwar’s smooth neck, and he said, “Her life is yours to do with as you please.”  And the old woman was at Gunwar’s feet, smoothing her silk dress and adjusting her shoes.  Gunwar rose and led the old woman off to the chambers before Roller could convince Erik to change his mind.  And Roller would have killed the old hag himself, then and there, had he gotten half the chance.  He felt the evil of the old woman, and he wondered at how his brother, with all his prescience, could not sense this.

Princess Gunwar was on her way back from the chambers, when she saw her brother reaching for the knife at his belt.  Erik was standing by Roller’s bench and they were still arguing about his decision to spare Gotwar.  King Frodi pulled the knife from his sheath and flipped it handle for blade.  Gunwar shouted out a warning to Erik, and he turned to face Frodi, just as the young king threw the knife.  Erik side-stepped the blade and it lodged, quivering, in a column beside him.  The young Varangian pulled the knife free of the post and walked toward the young king.  “It would make a much finer gift if you would present me with the sheath that goes with it,” he said, and Frodi slipped the sheath off his belt and gave it to Erik.

Gunwar joined Erik on the steps of the dais and said, “You may give Erik my hand now, since you’re in such a generous mood.”  King Frodi gave Erik his sister in marriage and the Norwegian’s victory feast became a wedding banquet as well.

CHAPTER TWELVE

12.0  THE REBIRTH OF FRODI  (Circa 829 AD)

“Starting in the twelfth century, the Christian kings of Liere started to discredit and dismember what they called the Lying Sagas of Denmark.  These Lying Sagas were the tales of the sons and grandsons of Ragnar Lothbrok, the greatest of Vikings…the Varangians…the Hraes’.  Saxo Grammaticus was complicit in this censorship of Danish history, but in his work, in his Nine Books of Danish History, he left us tales and he left us clues.  My modest attempt to reconstruct them is the rebirth of those sagas, a search for truth and tales of kings so grand, they humbled the kings who followed.”

                        Brian Howard Seibert

Dawn was creeping in from the orient, when Gunwar awoke with a fright.  She saw, by the faint light of a window high up in the wall, that it was snowing, and she prayed her thanks to Freya for the day’s delay.  Erik would not now be at her side, had it snowed the day before.  The rest of the Norwegian party were sleeping at their benches, and more than a few of them were sleeping with her Valkyries and maidens.  The feasting had finished early at the high seat hall, but it had carried on in her own hall until only a few hours earlier.  She was tired, but a dream had awakened her.  For once it was not her old nightmare, but rather a new fear that disturbed her.

“My brother will not let you leave this place alive,” she whispered to Erik, rousing him from his slumbers.  “We must escape,” she urged.

Erik could feel the desperation in Gunwar’s voice, so he peeled away the down coverings and the cool air caught him up and helped him to his feet.  They dressed and went out into the hall, and they quietly roused his men.  They stole out to the stable in Gunwar’s quadrant, saddled up horses, and, when everyone was ready, they mounted them and rode out of the stable and down the log dressed road.  The muffled clatter of hooves on new fallen snow brought shouts of alarm from the royal guards on the porch of King Frodi’s high seat hall.  They swept by the guards and out the harbour town gate, and they rode hard toward the blush of dawn, and they were pelted by the moist falling snowflakes that would melt on contact, and soon their faces were streaming with little rivulets of water.

The horses were spent and steaming in the frosty morning air, when the Norwegian party reached the harbour town.  They trotted up, quietly, to their pavilion and set themselves to work, feverishly packing up their gear and readying Erik’s ship.  Some of his men, Erik sent off to scuttle King Frodi’s fleet.  They tramped through the new fallen snow, down the line of ships that sat high up on the beach, and they stove in several forward strakes of each with their war-axes.  Alfgeir and several of his men arose at the racket but made no attempt to stop them.  Erik gave Einar Cuff all their horses and all the gear left behind and Gunwar gave him a farewell kiss.  The Norwegians hauled Fair Faxi out into the water and they were soon rowing for their lives.

They were barely off when King Frodi and his cavalry stormed into the harbour town and out onto the beach.  The soldiers quickly dragged their ships into the water, ignoring the protests of Alfgeir, and they set to rowing out after the Norwegians.  Pale was the light of dawn and a gentle wind ruffled the waters; King Frodi could be heard shouting over the waves, exhorting his men to greater efforts; and the smell of salty spray was all about, as Erik and his crew rowed hard in determined silence.  One by one, the Danes turned back, as the sea swamped their damaged boats, until King Frodi’s larger lead ship was the only one in pursuit, but it, too, was foundering.  Still, King Frodi urged his men on and Erik had his men stop rowing.  The ship was sinking, the Danes swimming for shore, when the young king launched himself off the forecastle and attempted, in full armour, to catch the Norwegians on his own.  Erik had his men back-rowing toward King Frodi and Princess Gunwar was stern-most, encouraging her brother on, when his strength failed.  Erik and Roller, both, dove into the waves and swam for him; twice he sank and struggled to the surface, and then went down a third time before Erik reached him and hauled him up by his hair, up above the billows.  The two brothers towed the young king back to their ship and the Norwegians yarded him aboard.  Brine poured in floods from his heaving chest, as Gunwar stripped him of his armour and clothes and swaddled him in woollens.  She massaged warmth into his cold white limbs, as he got his breath back, and she made him comfortable, as they waited for his strength to return.  Once his colour came back, a great fit of shivering overcame him.  Erik and Roller had stripped themselves of their garments, and were also attired in blankets, when King Frodi covered his face with his hands and began a woeful dirge:

            “By this orient light I bare my soul

             to the gods who’ve so abandoned me:

             Spare me not from my enemy, but rather

             let him deliver me my doom.

             Pray dear Odin that he has captured me

             from the waves to die more fitting

             by sword or spear or, as Koll did,

             by rope to hang and ever fall.

             Never has a king of note so far fallen

             as the king who bares his breast before you now,

             and low-born the man who crushed me

             with seeming little effort.

             All my short life I have deemed myself

             to be a king of wisdom and philosophy,

             only to learn, too late, my want of wit.

             Repute shattered, let there be no respite.

             Gone is the day I could pride myself

             in all that I’ve accomplished.

             Never more shall I take pride

             in all that I have garnered.

             Gone is my sister, stolen away,

             and gone, again, my honour.

             Razed is the house of Westmar

             and with it, all my strength.

             Ruins remain of my own royal house.

             My queen, stoking a cuckold’s hearth

              no more, reigns no longer in some

             far off land.  Returned to her father,

             she takes with her the Southern Way,

             my child, my creation, the culmination

             of my life’s work.  My Danepar…gone.

             Ill fate has become my lot in life.

             My fylgja has abandoned me.

             Luck has ‘come ‘lusive.

             Life becomes burdensome.

             So, why keep me yet alive?

             End me now, Erik, for the hanging god broods

             and shall cast ill fortune upon you,

             should you tarry with this stroke.

             Feel no remorse at my death,

             for all but life has left me now,

             and nothing can repair

             the sundered soul within this heaving breast.

             No feat could resurrect my ill repute,

             no act reclaim my honour.

             Kill me now in a manner behooving the gods,

             or cast me back into the sea,

             before strength returns and I kill myself

             abominably.”

All were moved by King Frodi’s elocution; Gunwar was in tears when Erik replied thus:

            “Stay the hand that assaults the soul,

             for surely the gods have passed

             empyreal laws `gainst such harsh

             thought and deed.

             Trials are to be met with might,

             and tests with mettle, and with such

             have you risen to this pernicious event,

             enduring torments but losing naught.

             Fate has tempered thee, my liege,

             and the gods perhaps send warning;

             but of loss: you’ve suffered none

             that better times and circumstance

             cannot replace.  Woe to the man

             enduring not adversity,

             shirking responsibility, giving not

             chance, time to repair its ills.

             Suffer then this thought:  that

             many would gladly trade their happiness

             for an opportunity to share in your agony.

             You are young and strong.  Virile with life.

             Who could help but admire

             the determination of a man who’d

             throw himself into the sea to pursue

             one he perceived as an enemy.

             So much for ill repute!  Your rule remains

             as it ever was.  So much for ill fortune!

             Your Southern Way is yet to be gained,

             ’tis much too soon to fear its loss.

             And your wife perhaps is better gone,

             her father’s wrath a trial yet to be endured,

             but the time for tests is over now,

             for the Huns are far removed.

             Your sister is another matter:

             stolen not, she is even now at your side,

             dispensing comfort, as she shall ever be,

             in heart, if not physically.

             I pray you feel not rash in giving her me,

             for if you reclaim her I’ll not dispute.

             All of her that I need, my heart holds dear.

             A boon should you allow me more!

             As to accomplishments…my how

             far we’ve fallen!  If in the future

             you’ll look not back, and laugh at this

             slight stumble, I shall surely be surprised.

             Such confidence have I in your future career,

             that you shall look down from the height of it,

             in your comfortable old age, and you shall feel

             this but a trip in the frolicking of youth.

             And you shall long to taste

             the bitter-sweetness of youthful folly once more,

             for you have lost no power here.

             You rule as though yet in your palace.

             We may have fled you out of fear,

             but we yet obey you out of obligation.

             Had you not dived into the surf, so bravely,

             we’d have made good our escape beyond your command,

             but we could not flee your dire need and so

             now you command us once again.

             We shall return you to your land,

             and you may end us if you so desire,

             but I shall be a brother and have your back,

             should you but ask the favour.

             And you shall rule many lands,

             in a manner so just, you shall bury your past,

             and the future shall remember your rule,

             and the future shall remind all of your justice,

             and the future shall record your reign as

             the Peace of Frodi.”

Erik was clutching at the topstrake of Fair Faxi, steadying himself—his blanket draping him loosely—and staring blankly out over the coast of Denmark.  He let forth a great shiver and all knew it was not from the cold.  He had just had a vision, and, for a moment, all were caught up in it.  Young King Frodi’s eyes were glowing in rapture.  Erik had rekindled his soul-fire.  Gunwar felt the strength returning to her brother, but the aura his eyes now cast frightened her.  Once Erik had dressed, he grabbed the rudder, ordered his men to resume rowing and turned Fair Faxi about.  King Frodi donned his armour and he joined the young Norwegian at the stern.  There was not a word exchanged between them and when they got to shore, King Frodi’s soldiers anxiously dragged the ship out of the water.  The king had his men fetch Princess Gunwar’s horses, and Erik’s original party of twelve rode back to Liere with King Frodi, surrounded by his soldiery.

King Frodi said not a word to anybody all the way back, and when they got to his hall he dismounted and signalled for Erik and his party to follow him in.  He shouted for his steward, as he walked toward the dais, and his steward appeared by the time he had reached his high seat.  “Yes Sire,” he stammered, for he noticed at once the change in his king’s demeanour.  It was the same courtier that had yanked the hide out from under Erik only days before.

“Prepare the court of King Frodi the Third for a royal wedding.  My sister, Princess Gunwar, is to be properly wedded!”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

13.0  THE WINNING OF ALFHILD  (Circa 830 AD)

“By sun and moon I journeyed west,      my sea-borne tune from Odin’s breast,

 my song-ship packed with poet’s art:     Its word-keel cracked the frozen heart.”

Egil Skallagrimsson.

Prince Erik ‘Bragi’ Ragnarson and Princess Gunwar Fridleifsdottir were wed soon after returning to Liere.  As a dowry, the king presented Erik with a district in Jutland and the personal allegiance of a hundred men that became known as Erik’s Centuriata.  Roller and some of the Norwegians stayed with the young couple in Gunwar’s hall, while the rest stayed with Alfgeir in his harbour longhall.  The Danes in Erik’s Centuriata continued to live in their district near Aarhus and Erik saw to their training in both arts and arms.

The coming of spring had stirred within young King Frodi a desire to take a new wife, having long since shipped Queen Hanund back to her father in Khazaria.  Erik had mentioned King Gotar’s daughter, Princess Alfhild, several times in passing and the stripling king began to inquire about her.  Erik told his brother-in-law of his youthful affection for her and he described her poise and beauty.  He also warned King Frodi that she was born and raised a princess and could be cold and aloof, but the Danish ring-giver asked Erik to sue for Princess Alfhild’s hand on his behalf.

“Your eloquent tongue shall surely not fail in its task,” he’d said.

“Are you sure you do not still love Alfhild?” Gunwar had jested, but behind her words was a real fear, and she would not let Erik go on the mission without her.

Erik stood at the forestem of Fair Faxi with Gunwar by his side and Roller manned the rudder.  “I see why you love the sea,” Gunwar said.  The Skagerrak was rough.  Huge crested waves wattled its surface, and the small ship cut through the billows, flexing with the amplitude.  “The sea is so huge, so powerful, it makes one’s life seem insignificant, yet its bare beauty brings out one’s existence.”

“And she treats all men equally,” Erik added, putting his arm around Gunwar’s shoulder.  “Rogaland Province is a few more hours west.”

“May Freya ever bless Rogaland Province for this, my greatest boon,” Gunwar whispered and she put her arm around Erik’s waist.  Erik worried about Gunwar.  He did not want her to lose the ability to stand on her own, as she had been doing for so many years in the court of her brother.  Gunwar, however, had not faltered.  She had been drowning in her king’s evil court and life had thrown her a line.  She had clutched it and she had clung onto it and love had blossomed, and she was not about to let go of it.

When Fair Faxi had beached at Hraegunarstead, Erik learned that, indeed, his father was dead…sort of.  Brak stood on the stony shore to meet them and he confirmed Erik’s portent, but there was a problem with it.  Ragnar had sacrificed himself to Odin by marking himself with a spear, manning his longship with aged warriors and sailing west to attack King AElla in Northumbria.  Brak had returned from the East with the newly acquired knowledge of making Indian steel only to find his lord gone.

He showed Erik the stone furnace he was having built in front of the smithy shed.  It was made of mortared stone about four ells in diameter and had reached eight ells in height at the time.  “It shall stand two ells higher when it is done,” Brak stated as they walked by it.  “We shall be able to fire it with bog iron and the basest of coals and still be able to produce the finest of steels.”  Erik marvelled at its simplicity as they passed.  Kraka was in mourning, depending on Brak to handle Ragnar’s estate for her, and she met them on the porch of their high seat hall.

At a feast in thanks of their safe return, Kraka explained the circumstances of Ragnar’s sacrifice to the boys.  “We divined to learn the outcome of your struggle against Oddi and the sons of Westmar,” she started.  They were all up on the high seats, Erik and Gunwar sharing the third highest, Roller the second, and Kraka, with Brak at her side, on the highest.  “Tyr and Thor had sided with you, and Odin’s support of Oddi was faltering.  Thorbjorg told us you would be successful against Sea-King Oddi, but she warned us that Odin yet supported the sons of Westmar and the hanging-god could only be swayed with a great sacrifice.”  The old woman was near tears and her silver hair danced as she shook her head.  “Hraegunar told me that he could no longer bear to live, having fled Oddi, and that perhaps he should talk to the old witch Thorbjorg about a sacrifice.  This he did, and, after his talk with her, he said that he must stop the snows and he went out to the boatshed, marked himself with a spear and made preparations to attack Angleland.  He said the Angles and the Franks still owed him the return of several trading posts.”

Erik flashed a look at Gunwar.

“He said something else that puzzled me,” the old woman started again.  “He said he must stop the snows, that it mustn’t snow out on the ice.  All this he said and then he marked himself.  What meant he of the ice?”

A great lump caught up in Erik’s throat as he tried to talk to his stepmother.  He stood up at his seat and he stared out into the dark recesses of Ragnar’s high seat hall.  Prescience was one thing, he thought, but making sacrifices to gods was quite another.  He did not believe in the gods and he had never prayed for their help, and now Kraka was saying that his victory had cost them his father’s life?

Erik turned toward them, his face drawn and cold.  “I believe none of this witchcraft,” he began, “but I shall tell you the significance of the snows,” and Erik went on to tell them about the fall of the house of Westmar:

            “Grep came to the harbour town,

             where I tarried overlong, and he

             feathered his word-bow with a shaft

             of flygting not worth drawing upon.

             He faltered at my nith-song, being

             taxed by crimes against his king

             and with truth I shook his scorn-pole

             till his priests had fled or died.

             In the hall of great King Frodi,

             I let his crimes be known,

             were it not for the brother at my back

             he would have paid me off in gore.

             Roller slew the heinous beast, Grep,

             the first crumbling of the house of Westmar,

             beginning the battle of the brothers

             out upon the ice.

             We strapped our foot-blades on our feet

             and strode out on the icy sheet,

             and we thanked the gods and Ragnar now

             for holding back the snow.

             With tarry oxhide sandals,

             the sons of Westmar met us and they

             found they were no match against

             our foot-blades of the dwarves.

             The berserkers blunted all our swords,

             but Tyrfingr, still true,

             bit through the berserkers’ fury.

             None could blunt the edge

             Dvalin put upon her.

             With anvil, Roller smote the ice and

             the bare-shirts soon were dolphins.

             With pikes we shattered Westmar’s house,

             its broken timbers bobbing in the waters.

             We freed the folk of Denmark and they

             blessed me with their daughter.

             When I won the hand of Gunwar, I was

             pleased the rest did follow.

             And when my brother-in-law, the king,

             sent back his queen in dark disgrace,

             I offered to make his suit

             for the ‘lusive love of Alfhild.”

His word-song complete, Erik sat down, and it was Brak’s turn to tell a tale.  “Things are not the same in the Nor’Way as when you left, young Erik.  King Gotar’s wife died over the winter and it is said that he seeks a queen of note and Gotar gets what Gotar wants.”

Erik did not understand his meaning.

“I visited with King Gotar,” Brak went on, “at winter’s close.  He fears an attack from the Danes, but having heard of your great victory over Oddi, he grew hopeful your embassy would patch up his differences with King Frodi, and he had made it known he wishes that the fair hand of Princess Gunwar should bind their new-found peace.”

Now…Erik followed Brak’s discourse and he did not like what he heard.  Worried, he looked at Gunwar, and she returned an equally anxious stare.  “If I fail to press King Frodi’s suit, it will be poor thanks for this gift I do so love,” Erik said, taking Gunwar’s hand in his own.

“I can press his suit for you,” Roller offered.

“I am still King Gotar’s foremost man,” Erik stated.  “And Gunwar is my lawfully wedded wife.  A man, even though he be king, must respect the laws of the land.  Gotar will respect my rights.  I have given him choice council and have repaired his relations with King Frodi to the point where Frodi would be his son-in-law.  He shall respect my rights and I shall not avoid him.”  Erik had made his decision and all there knew Erik and none attempted to dissuade him.  Brak did give him a warning though:

“Keep your guard up against any treachery from your king.  There is reason Ragnar didn’t trust Gotar and even though Ragnar is gone, his ear in the king’s court remains.”

It was decided that Erik should proceed to The Vik as planned, but that Brak would follow later with a chosen band of warriors in the event King Gotar attempted to have his way.

The next day Erik and Roller rode out across the stead and down onto the beach where Ragnar’s treasure lay hidden.  Never trained in the berserker’s art, the two of them could not budge the stone that Ragnar alone had moved.  Erik got out a rope and they used their horses to tow the boulder free, then they went into the cave and they carried out only Ragnar’s treasure and they divided it between themselves.  Kraka had been left Hraegunarstead, but their father had promised them his gold.  They then pulled away the stop once more and the rock rolled back into place, sealing up the cursed Red Gold Hoard of Byzantium once more.

The next day, Erik set off in Fair Faxi with Gunwar, Roller and Kraka, leaving Brak to follow later.  They left Rogaland Province, sailing south then east then turning north into The Vik.  As they approached, Erik saw three of King Gotar’s longships coming out to meet him and he had a bad feeling about this impatient greeting, as if he had something his king badly wanted.  He ordered his men to turn Fair Faxi about and, suddenly, he knew how Ragnar had felt when he had fled the sons of Westmar.  He and Roller exchanged knowing glances as the elder brother worked the rudder and the crew trimmed the sail and then set to hard rowing, but the ships of Gotar had their speed up already and one soon pulled up alongside Fair Faxi.

“Hail!  Is that you, Erik Bragi?” King Gotar shouted from his forestem.  “I would recognize Fair Faxi anywhere!”

“Then why do you greet me with an attack?”  Erik shouted back to him.

“My men have orders to be vigilante until we learn the results of your embassy to King Frodi.  We were almost upon you by the time we made you out.”

It was apparent that Gotar was nervous, fearing imminent attack from the Danes.  “Come aboard and ride with me into our Vik, Bragi.  I have been awaiting your return,” King Gotar shouted.  Erik decided he no longer liked to take orders from this king, but he had his men turn the ship about once more and, as the ships pulled alongside each other, one of Gotar’s sailors threw Erik a line that ran down from the top of his longship’s mast.  Erik caught it up and stood on the top-strake of Fair Faxi, then leaped overboard.  Hand over hand he climbed the rope as he arced toward his king’s longship and he was at top-strake height when he met her, his strong legs absorbing the shock.  He then yarded himself up onto the strake and he leaped onto the ship’s deck.  King Gotar was there to meet him.

“Well done, Erik!” Gotar exclaimed.  “You’re obviously alive and well, so your mission must have been successful.”  He looked like a man who had been over-wary for a very long time.  He had lost more hair since Erik had last seen him, and it was flecked with more grey.  “We have been expecting a Danish attack ever since we learned of your slaughter of their Sea-King Oddi.  It was not a wise thing to do,” he added, fidgeting inordinately.  “But I don’t think I’m mistaken if I guess that that is Princess Gunwar, King Frodi’s sister, aboard your ship, so is it safe to assume you have made our peace with the Danes?”

“Our former enemy is now my brother-in-law, for he gave me Princess Gunwar’s hand in marriage,” Erik explained.

“Ah,” Gotar whispered.  Erik could sense that his king was a very changed man.  His trait that would be judged craft had now become cunning.  The Norse king had been doing some running of his own, only he hadn’t realized it because he had remained at home.  Gotar walked to the forestem of his longship, abstractly dragging Erik by the shoulder beside him.  “Bragi,” he started.  “A year ago, you had some affection for my daughter, Princess Alfhild.  Do you still hold her dear?”

“Yes, my liege.”  Erik knew what Gotar was driving at.  “But it is affection as a friend.  I come to offer you a proposal from King Frodi for the hand of Princess Alfhild.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Gotar mumbled, and he waved his hand, throwing the offer to the wind.  “That would very handily bind young King Frodi and I together, but what of you, young Bragi?  You are still my foremost man.  What binds you to me?  Loyalty?  I think not,” and he snickered to himself.  “No,” Gotar exclaimed, grabbing the top-strake and leaning back.  “I’ll not be bested by this young King Frodi,” and he leaned forward and stared Erik in the eyes.  “Alfhild shall bind you to me.  You shall quietly divorce Princess Gunwar, marry my daughter, Alfhild, and there shall then be a royal wedding between Princess Gunwar and myself.  And young King Frodi can come if he so pleases.”

Erik started to protest, but Gotar interrupted him.  “There is another solution to this dilemma, Bragi, but I wouldn’t want to lose your services.  Your defeat of Sea-King Oddi has made you famous throughout Norway.  How you survived King Frodi’s court, let alone come out of there with a prize such as Princess Gunwar, I’m aching to know.  Remember when I said that too long you’ve lived in the shadow of your brother?” Gotar asked.  “You are a famous skald now, Bragi, and you are becoming too powerful to leave unbound.”

The ships pulled into a shore of The Vik, and, up on that high headland where Erik had first seen Alfhild, there stood a young woman whose flowing blond hair caught up the sun and played with it awhile, and Erik knew it was she.  King Gotar waved at the woman and she waved back.  “You’ll learn to love her just as before, Bragi,” Gotar said.  “And if anyone can warm her heart it will be you, my young skald!”  He slapped Erik across the shoulders, and he was genuinely glad Erik had survived his trials and was soon to be his son-in-law.

That evening, King Gotar held a feast in Erik’s honour and the young poet was asked to speak about his victory over Oddi and his stay in the court of King Frodi of Denmark.  This he did, but his heart was not in it and his faltering voice led many to wonder at his byname, Bragi.  After the feasting, Erik and Gunwar retired to the chamber that had been assigned them.

“He means to take you away from me, Gunwar,” Erik started.  She sat on the bed and looked up at him.  “He wants you, and he’ll kill me to get you if he has to.  In recompense he has offered me the hand of Alfhild.”

“In recompense?” Gunwar exclaimed.  “He offers his own daughter in recompense?  And people criticize the excesses of my brother’s court!”

“He is a true blooded king,” Erik probed.  “You could do worse.”

“When I tried to talk you into fleeing Denmark rather than fight the sons of Westmar and you refused, I knew then I had fallen in love with a man of courage, but I would have loved you no less had we fled together.  Now, when I hear you talk to me of Gotar being a true king and of your life being in danger, I know it is not cowardice speaking.  I can only assume that your feelings for Alfhild are stronger than your love for me.  How fickle is the heart caught between two loves!”

“There shall never be any doubt in my heart as to my love for you, Gunwar,” Erik started, “but I have a plan and, before I place your life in danger, I had to offer you the alternative.”  Erik lifted his wife up off the bed and hugged her warmly.  “Your response gives me great joy.”

The next day, Erik took Princess Alfhild out for a ride in order to discern her feelings toward young King Frodi.  They rode to the spot they had picnicked at a year before and Erik spread a woollen blanket out upon the green grass between two great oak trees and Alfhild sat down, her legs together and off to one side.  She leaned on one arm and she looked up at Erik and smiled.

“I remember our last picnic here,” she started.  “You were setting out searching for fame and fortune and I was waiting for my prince to find me.”

“I remember,” Erik confessed and he returned her smile.

“You’ve found your fame, and now my Bragning prince has found me,” and she reached out and touched Erik’s hand.

Erik held her hand and it was soft and warm.  `How easy it would be to fall in love with her again,’ he thought, then he said, “I remember, though, last time we were here it was a king you were waiting for, and when I asked you if you could ever love me you said that you must look up.”

“I’m looking up now,” Alfhild whispered, and her bright green eyes sparkled like gems and her full lips pouted softly.

“Alfhild,” Erik started slowly.  “I’m in love with my wife, Gunwar.”

“And yet you’re divorcing her?”

“I have no choice in the matter.  I came back to press a suit for my brother-in-law, King Frodi.  He wishes to have you for his queen.  Your father has other plans, as I’m sure you’re aware.”  Alfhild acknowledged nothing.  “Remember when you sat upon a rowing bench of Fair Faxi with a dwarf named Dvalin and he read your palm and he saw in it an illustrious young king?”

“He promised me a great king,” Alfhild reflected.  “A very young king, handsome and brave and showing great promise.”

“Frodi is this promising young king Dvalin saw in your hand.  I would not have come back if I didn’t believe this to be true, and I have not come back without a plan.”

Alfhild looked down at the blanket for a long time.  “What is he like?” she asked shyly, and Erik told her all about the young king.

“My father was right when he said you are dangerous, Erik Bragi,” Alfhild said.  “There is a reason father wanted you to divorce Gunwar and marry me before he marries Gunwar.  If you desert Gunwar and take for yourself the prize that you promised King Frodi, then my father can hardly be blamed for saving Gunwar’s honour by marrying her.  You would no longer be in our young king’s favour, and he would be indebted to my father.  Now, apprise me of your plan and I will keep your trust, but, as you would have me desert my father this one time: in your hour of greatest need, so too shall I desert you.  I shall always be your friend, Erik, and you must forgive me this one slip.  Are we agreed?”

“I’ll forgive you your slip,” Erik agreed.  “I had already surmised your father’s reasons for his selection of the order of events, but we, too, can work this order to our advantage.  Today I shall divorce my wife and on the morrow your father shall give me your hand in marriage.  In the intervening week before Gunwar’s trothal, we shall make good our escape to Denmark, where I shall divorce you and give your hand to King Frodi.  Thus, shall your father’s plan, of my marrying first, rebound upon the conceiver, for Gunwar shall be a free woman, to go where she pleases, and you shall be my wife, duty bound to follow me.”

“Your grasp of the political is even greater than I remember,” Alfhild conceded, and they started into their picnic lunch.

That evening, Erik and Princess Gunwar were divorced by King Gotar.  It was a simple matter, with the young couple both saying, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee,” three times in a public assembly, and, the next day, Erik and Princess Alfhild were quietly married.  The night of the nuptials, Erik watched as Alfhild slipped out of her pure white wedding dress, standing in front of him in a translucent slip of Byzantine silk.  He felt a wave of desire come crashing over him, and he found himself longing, once more, for her love.  Erik thought he had gotten over Alfhild, but, being with her the past few days, and now having her waiting in front of him, he realized he had only been fooling himself.  No one survives their first love unscathed.  Fragments of it lie about the soul, jangling in seeming disarray, only to have a moment’s temptation draw all the pieces together again, as if by some amorous alchemy.  Alfhild slipped under the covers of their nuptial bed and played the part of the seducer.  “It’s not too late to change your mind, Erik,” she whispered.

“You’re not making this easy, Alfhild.”

“I’m testing this power Gunwar has placed over you.  She is a follower of Freya, you know, and has probably enchanted you.”

Erik sat down on the bed beside her.  “If I didn’t care for you, I would join you, but I know your future lies with King Frodi,” and he stroked her soft pink cheek.

“Is this that prescience of yours speaking?”

“No.  It is my heart,” Erik said and he drew close to Alfhild and he kissed her tenderly.  He then stood up and stepped away from her, as if to break some spell she had been working upon him.  “According to my poetic craft, I should be drawing my sword and placing it on the bed between us, but, since Tyrfingr cannot be drawn without taking a life, and I certainly cannot trust myself without a sword between us, I shall take my leave instead.”  Erik kissed Alfhild once more, then gathered up his weapons and went to the chamber door.

“This power Gunwar holds over you, Erik…shall I be able to weave its like upon King Frodi?”

“Only with an open heart,” Erik answered.

“Erik.  Be careful,” Alfhild warned.  “Father has spies about.”  And Erik crept out of the chamber into the dark hallway.

Not so much distrust of Erik, but due, more so, to lack of trust in general, King Gotar had Princess Gunwar’s room monitored.  He placed the captain of his guard and a household slave in the chamber next to Gunwar’s and they had removed a section of wall between the rooms and had covered up their work with tapestries and they sat behind their handiwork and watched their future queen.  Should Erik attempt to garner embraces from his former lover they had orders to kill him.  Into this trap Erik crept.  He opened Gunwar’s chamber door and slipped through it.

“Who’s there?” Gunwar whispered, and Erik could see by the window light that she was sitting up in bed with a spear in her hands.

“It’s me,” was his soft reply.

“Erik?  Thank the gods,” Gunwar answered.  “I was worried it might be old Gotar wanting prenuptial favours.”

“Has he tried anything?”

“No, but I made sure I would be ready if he did,” she replied, and she set the spear against the wall at the head of her bed.  Erik set his own weapons on the other side of the bed, hanging Tyrfingr from the bedpost and leaning the shield Ragnar had given him up on the headboard.  He then undressed and crawled into bed with Gunwar.

Two spies waited until the coupling was over and the soft snoring of Erik told them he was sleeping, and then they, too, crept into the room.  As they padded softly across the wooden floor, both Erik and Gunwar woke, but when Erik opened his eyes he could see that it was too late to even move.  The captain of the guard had already started his sword’s down stroke, and Erik could only think of one word, as though it had been drilled into him from birth, and, as the blade severed a thin shaft of moonlight in its downward arc, he cried, “Kraka!”, and a terrible blackness came down over him.  Erik felt a dull blow to his face and chest and then a sharp blow between, then the smell and sound of linden wood splitting.  Twisting quickly, Erik pulled Tyrfingr free of her sheath and slashed out at his assailant.  Erik’s shield had fallen, no, been propelled off the headboard, and it had protected him from the death stroke.  No sorcery shielded the captain of the guard, though, and he fell to the floor screaming, one leg severed at the thigh and the other still biting upon Erik’s jammed sword.  Erik sat up and tried to pry his blade free and his hair was on end as he awaited a blow from the second man, but it didn’t come for the longest time and he wondered if Kraka’s promised protection had stayed the other man’s stroke as well.  Then Gunwar caught up her spear and she thrust it at the second assailant, piercing him through the chest.  Erik recognized the servant, as he clutched at the shaft of the spear and sank quietly to the floor.

Roller had been sleeping at a bench in the hall, but at the commotion he began blowing upon a horn, a signal that would bring Brak and his selected men out of hiding from a secret cove.  Slaves were rushing everywhere, fleeing what seemed an attack.  Torches could be seen coming up from the beach, for Erik’s crew had also been on standby, and King Gotar was soon rushing down the hallway banging on everyone’s doors.  “Frodi is upon us!” he warned.  “The Danes attack!” he cried, and disarray reigned as the king fled among his slaves to the garrison in The Vik.

Erik and the women got their things together and followed Roller down to the beach.  Erik saw his men as they were coming up from the beach carrying torches and he waved them back to Fair Faxi, and they dragged the ship out into the water and prepared to sail off.  Roller had some of the men go over to King Gotar’s three dragon ships and slash up the sails.  Brak, meanwhile, led his chosen troop, all men who bore King Gotar a grudge, up to the king’s longhalls and they pillaged them, then fired them.  Erik set his men to rowing Fair Faxi out to sea and then let out the sail and a gentle wind carried them down The Vik as the longhalls of King Gotar blazed.

It was dawn and Fair Faxi was well out to sea, when Roller spotted a sail approaching them from behind.  “There’s Brak,” Roller shouted up to Erik from his familiar position at the rudder.  Erik was glad of the sighting, for a gale was blowing in with the dawn, and he knew that the Danes in Liere would be calling this one Amlodi.  He did not want to be caught out on the open sea when this storm came to be.

In the morning, King Gotar returned to his stead with an army only to find his halls laid waste and Fair Faxi long gone.  There was no Danish soldiery to face him and no Danish king to challenge him.  Gotar bellowed out orders angrily and the flower of his own guard wilted under his raging breath.  “The Bragning prince has my daughter and my future queen.  To the ships,” he roared.  “We’ll pursue them at once!  We shall follow them to the gates of hell if need be!”  They launched the ships and, when they found the sails destroyed, Gotar doubled up the crews and they set after the Bragning prince using oars alone.  “We shall row them down,” King Gotar shouted, taking his place at the forestem of his favourite ship.

“Erik will head for Denmark, my liege,” one of his officers complained.  “We need a stronger force, supplies, time to organize and prepare.”

“We shall leave now!” Gotar roared.  “They have only a few hours start.  We shall catch them out on the Kattegat.  Now double-team the oars!”

King Gotar’s officer approached him at the forestem of the ship.  “We must head into shore for water and provisions,” he started.  “We’ll soon be away from the coast and there’s a storm coming in from the east.”  A hot morning sun was beating down upon the backs of the men at their oars and they were pulling up a sweat.

Gotar eyed the black clouds moving in low along the horizon.  “A few more hours at this pace and our men won’t be able to fight them if we do catch them,” the officer stated.  “They need water and food.”

“You just keep up this pace,” Gotar ordered.  “I’ll tend to the battle when it comes.”

The Norse king’s men maintained the pace for several hours more, but still there was no sign of Erik and soon the sun beat down no longer upon the backs of the parched warriors.  The clouds had moved in with surprising speed, and with them came a blustery wind that seemed to blow from all directions.  A cold rain began to fall, and it soon became sleet.  The whipping ice lashed out at the shoulders of the rowers, as their relief crew huddled under the slashed sails between the rowing benches.  The sky went from grey to black and the open sea blended in with it until the two were indistinguishable.

The longships bobbed upon the storm-tossed sea like small twigs in a torrent swollen stream.  The sleet reduced visibility to virtually nothing.  There were times when the ships were separated, their only contact being the beat of their kettle drums, and their crews would row toward the sound until they had regrouped.  And when they got close they had to row to keep their ships from being dashed against each other, so that the sailors had to row to keep together and they had to row to keep apart, and the teams of men not rowing were bailing for their lives to keep the ships afloat.  Thus, they struggled most of the afternoon, on through the evening and well into the night.  Exhaustion and cold took a toll.  Arms were swollen with the blood of inhuman effort as the rowers struggled against the waves.  And the waves fought back, and the kick they’d transmit up the oars would have torn the arms off weaker men.  The sleet lashed out at their bodies, turning flesh red then purple then blue and finally white with the cold.  Oarsmen, soaked with frozen rain that beat down on them from the heavens, were drenched by cold salt spray that leapt up at them from the sea.  The cold was unrelenting, and the sea impartial in its punishment.

Throughout the storm King Gotar never left the forestem of the ship.  He stood there, soaked and blue in the face, staring out at the sea.  He had forced Erik’s hand and his foremost man had deserted him.  Worse, his enemy had eluded him and now he, himself, had to dodge death.  Gotar had no illusions about the danger he faced, yet he knew somehow, he would survive.  He had a score to settle with the Bragning prince, and his anger kept his life fire smouldering through the night of the storm.

A cool frosty dawn greeted King Gotar and his men; the storm had abated and most of them slept the deep deep sleep of total exhaustion; more than one slept the deeper sleep of death.

It took a warm noon sun to rouse most of the crew and the remainder King Gotar commended to the deep.  The Norse king knew that they had been blown out of the Skagerrak and into the North Sea, just southeast of the Orkneys was his guess.  He read the sun and planned his course and then rallied his weary crew.  Weakly they rowed, but only for short periods at a time and to add insult to injury a wind picked up, blowing mildly from the west.  Had they their sails, they could rest, but the Bragning prince had relieved them of that luxury.  As evening approached, they still had not sighted land and most felt they were doomed if they spent another night out upon the open sea.

“The men wish to do battle, my liege,” King Gotar’s officer informed him.  “They would rather die bravely by the sword than die like babes from the cold.  Valhall doesn’t seem that far away anymore.”

“Quite close, it would seem,” King Gotar replied.  “I would join them were it not that I have one more battle to fight here on earth before I partake pleasures in Odin’s hallowed hall.  Tell the men who wish to take their chances with the sea to rally round me in this ship.  The rest may use the other ships to carry themselves into their sea battle.”

Thirty men took up King Gotar’s calling, and the rest divided up evenly into the two remaining ships.  As Gotar’s followers rowed east, the final battle began.  Steel rang on steel as the contest started and the sounds of battle faded as Gotar’s ship disappeared into the eastern dusk.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

14.0  SUBJUGATING THE SCLAVS  (Circa 831 AD)

            “Eke:  from an ill dream did      Eormanrik awake, with

             brands clashing, battle-tumult    baleful, hiredmen wounded.

             Raging war arose in        Randver’s father’s mead-hall,

             both when Erp’s twain brothers,    black as ravens, avenged them.”

Bragi Boddason;  Skaldskaparmal.

Hours.

Minutes.

Seconds, even years.

All are fragments of time in a man’s life, some of great importance, some as meaningless as counting crows.  The few hours head start that Erik had wrested from King Gotar, through chance and fear and circumstance, were perhaps the most important fragments yet patched into the events of his young life.  Two hours kept Erik ahead of Amlodi, that dull brute of a storm that occasioned upon the Kattegat with a ferociousness blessed only by its infrequency, teaching him the perils of the sea. The lack of hours caught up Gotar in its midst, swept him out into a fathomless abyss and taught him just how cruel the sea could be.

Erik was almost upon Denmark before he got his first true taste of Amlodi.  With the Norse king in pursuit, Erik had decided to bypass refuge on both Laeso and Arnholt Islands and, by pushing his men to the limits of their endurance, he managed to gain the Sound by nightfall, just before the storm peaked.  He may have made it to Denmark, had Brak’s old longship not foundered.  Huge cresting swells filled the void between Skane and Zealand and into this ginungagap Erik led his exhausted warriors, dark waters roiling below them, a black sky seething above.  Fair Faxi’s Nor’Way construction made her proof against the storm, but Brak’s longship was old and not so soundly built, and when it began taking on water faster than the crew could bail, it started to break up in the waves.

Getting his ship in front of Brak’s, Erik tossed him a stout line and the elder seafarer secured his forestem to the afterstem of Fair Faxi.  Brak then sent his crewmen down the line and into the raging waters and, a few at a time, they yarded themselves through the waves and up into the stout Nor’Way ship.  One man was swept away when the ships drew so close together that he let go the rope, expecting to catch onto a shorter length only a stroke ahead, and was lost in an instant, but in the darkness and the din of the storm he was not missed until later.  Brak was the last to leave his ship, and only with the greatest of effort did the old man manage to get up over the bulwark of Fair Faxi and slip under the cover of the ship’s oxhide awning.  Kraka welcomed him there and all felt a little more secure now that none had to weather the worst of the storm out in an open boat.

Erik left Gunwar and Alfhild at the forestem of Fair Faxi and went to relieve Roller, who was controlling the inboard rudder.  “This Amlodi is nothing compared to the storms of the Nor’Way crossing,” Erik shouted as he approached his brother.  The men about him who had made the crossing laughed out in agreement and those who had never made the trip shook their heads in wonderment.

“Still, she’s a storm worth passing by,” Roller replied.  “Amlodi’s left us a ship shy.”  Roller grabbed several of the men nearby and put them in charge of the rudder, and he and Erik worked their way through the crowd of sailors to the stern, where Brak was recovering.  As they huddled about under warming hides discussing their besting of King Gotar, Brak mentioned to Erik that, as he was ransacking Gotar’s high seat hall, he had found a servant of Gotar’s dead along with the captain of the guard and that same servant had for years been Ragnar’s eyes and ears in their king’s hall.  “I’m only bringing this up because it appears to have been your spear, Erik, that was run through him.”

“It was Gunwar that ran him through,” Erik started.  “Gotar’s captain slipped into the room to attack me and I remember seeing his sword on the down stroke and I cried out `Kraka’, as you’d instructed me, mother,” and Erik turned to his stepmother and smiled, melting away years of animosity.  “Next thing I knew, there was my shield toppled over me, sheltering me from the death stroke and giving me the time to draw Tyrfingr and slay Gotar’s man.  Unfortunately, Gunwar thought to save me from the second attacker and she ran my spear through him.  She must never learn that he was Ragnar’s man,” and Erik looked around to those about him and the secret was cast in stone.

Fair Faxi weathered the great storm, Amlodi, at sea, and the next morning was calm, warm and bright.  Soon the harbour town of Liere was reached, and both Alfgeir and Einar were surprised to see their young Norwegian captain pulling in with his ship so hard on the heels of the storm.  The long harbour beach was awash with sand, Amlodi’s meal, lending a peculiar lilt to the gait of the portly harbourmaster as he came out to welcome them.  Straight away, Alfgeir spotted Princess Alfhild and, as he helped her over the top strake, he knew his king would be very pleased with Erik’s find.

About the same time that King Gotar made his way back to The Vik, his daughter, Princess Alfhild, was married to King Frodi.  Even as she took her young king as husband, she could not help thinking about Erik and the debt she owed her father.  As she had let her father down, so, too, would she desert Erik in his hour of greatest need.  She was heir apparent in his native land and now queen in his adopted land, so she had little doubt that that hour would come; she would know when the withdrawal of her support was due, and she hoped that it would not cost Erik too dearly.  But she knew deep inside that her dark prince would suffer and she hoped that at least his life would be spared–that the hour, or minute, or second that she had wrested from him, as price of her allegiance, would not kill him.

While Erik’s fortune silently bore its burden, young King Frodi’s future was being openly challenged.  Sclav pirates, operating on the Baltic sea, had learned of the demise of Sea-King Odd and now began to fall, mercilessly, upon the Danish merchants working the Southern Way.  Oddi had subdued the Sclav raiders using a combination of bribes and threats, but the sea-king was no more.  The attacks of the pirates had grown bolder and bolder as the summer progressed, until finally King Frodi decided to send Erik out on a punitive action against them, while he raised a fleet with which to launch a major campaign against the Sclavs.

The night before Erik was to lead the expedition, there was feasting late into the evening.  Erik and Gunwar retired early to spend their remaining hours together.  Something was bothering his wife, that much Erik knew, but he also knew that it would only come out in its own good time.  As they lay in bed together, entwined in each other’s arms, Gunwar said, “Who are these Sclavs that draw my husband from my bed?  From where do they come, that they ravage the Baltic?  Tell me, husband, who are these people that tear you from my breast?”

“Brak once told me a tale of these Sclavs, but he said the truth of it is difficult to ascertain as it is very ancient.  In a time just before Rome’s first falterings, perhaps, in years, four hundred ago, there was a great cooling of the climate over a period of many years, where each year’s crops were worse than the prior’s until famine in both Oster Gotland and Vaster Gotland drove many of their people to set out on a great migration.  I have had visions of this time and, indeed, great sheets of ice came down from the mountains and wiped away many fjord farms and settlements.  The Goths, being most densely populated, were affected the most, so vast numbers of them sailed up the Dvina River and crossed the central marshes, finally settling on the Scythian plain near Roman lands.  There they lived and prospered until the Huns came out of the east and attacked them.  The Ostrogoth king, Eormanrik, killed himself rather than suffer defeat at the hands of these Turks, and the Gothic people fled west to the security of the Roman Empire.  Many ancient poems and tales are told of this time.

“Two centuries ago, when the climate began warming again, Ivar the Far-Reacher, an ambitious King of Oster Gotland, attempted to retrace the steps of his fore-fathers, conquering Kurland, Estland, the lands of the Dvina River and further.  But it was still too cold on the glassy plains and he died fighting in the east and that was it for his plans of empire.  But his followers settled the Dvina River valley and became known as Sclavs.  They hold the key to the first half of your brother’s Southern Way, his Danepar.  They have always caused trouble for merchants using the ‘Way, and tomorrow they shall start to pay.”

When Erik finished his tale, he could tell that Gunwar was still agitated.  “Don’t be afraid for me,” Erik started.  “All our omens are favourable.  Your brother has made sacrifices to Odin and our success has been foretold.”

“I have prayed to Freya and to Tyr and Thor and even to Loki, lest the Sclavs resort to trickery,” Gunwar started, “but unless you believe in the gods, how shall they protect you?”

“If the gods do exist, they can better judge and aid a man by what he does than what he prays.”

The next morning, Erik set out for the Isle of Born with Fair Faxi and seven longships of the Danish fleet.  With him he had his personal Centuriata and stalwart warriors of the Danish navy.  On the island of Born, the local farmers told Erik that the Sclav pirates had set up their base on an islet and were attacking vessels as they plied between Sweden and Denmark.  Erik established his own base in a nearby estuary and had his men cover the Danish longships in leafy foliage.  A little further upriver, he had several engines of war unloaded from Fair Faxi while work parties gathered up huge stones for the weapons.  Once his ambuscade was prepared, he set out in Fair Faxi to search for the Sclav marauders, leaving Roller in command of the Danish fleet.  Sailing up the coast of Born, Erik spotted seven ships approaching him from the north.  He knew they were the pirate ships the farmers had told him about, so he retraced his voyage, leading the Sclavs back up his river estuary and into his ambush.  When the pirates realized that within the leafy banks of the river lurked danger, they were already past the Danish fleet; they were trapped upriver.  Erik put Fair Faxi into shore and signalled Roller to have his men prepare the war engines.  The Sclavs had halted their ships and were attempting to row them out of the trap, when Roller had his men fire the catapults, hurling great stones down upon the enemy.  Timbers snapped, and bones shattered under the barrage and, when the Sclavs finally got out of catapult range, Roller led the Danish longships against them.  Only forty Sclav pirates survived the debacle, and these captives Erik decided to take back to King Frodi.

On leaving Born, the Danish force came upon an eighth pirate ship, with the pirate’s leader on board, or so their captives claimed.  It had foundered upon a sandbar and its crew was struggling to free her.  They doubled their efforts at the approach of the Danes, but to no avail, so they prepared for a fight.  As Fair Faxi drew close, Erik shouted, “Common man meets a common end.  Fortune frowns on the unfortunate.”

“Kings share death with the common man,” the pirate leader retorted.

“We have forty of your men captive now,” Erik replied.  “Forty more would not burden us overmuch.”

“We prefer to share death with kings than captivity with cowards,” was the captain’s reply to that offer.

Erik had the Danish fleet hold back and the grappling hooks brought out, and the men of his Centuriata rowed Fair Faxi up alongside the pirates.  The hooks were thrown, and boarding planks were dropped and a ship to ship battle was engaged.  Fierce fighting soon raged up and down the decks of both boats, but Erik, with Tyrfingr and the picked warriors of his Centuriata, made short work of the brave Sclavs, who fought to the last man.

“These were the bravest of the lot,” Erik told Roller, and he had his men free the pirate ship from the sand and they placed the dead into the ship and they set it afire.  Bright orange flames engulfed the sail and lapped hungrily at the mast as Erik’s force sailed off for Denmark.

While Erik had been off attacking Sclav pirates, King Frodi had been mustering a huge fleet of ships from the Goths and Swedes as well as the Danes.  Erik met up with his fleet and shouted, “Salutations to the forger of a most prosperous peace.  Hail Frodi the Peaceful!”

“I pray your words shall ring true,” King Frodi answered.  “I pray your words are not premature.”

“Sweet is the victory we have wrested from the Sclavs thus far and, though it be but a paltry prize, a presage of great success can be found in it.  The faint glow of dawn precedes the bright light of day.”

Erik was surprised to see the number of ships King Frodi had gathered, and, as they passed by Fair Faxi, he counted more than ten hundred.  He let them all pass, and he took up the rear and he did not see King Frodi again until they made camp along a remote Baltic shore in the land of the Wends.

“You seem to have raised enough of an army,” Erik said, as he and Roller entered King Frodi’s camp.  So far had the Danish flotilla trailed the vanguard, that their king was already settled into his camp by the time the brothers arrived at the shore.

“Being inexperienced in war I thought it best to face the Sclavs with too many than too few.  Come.  We have saved space for you and your men.”

Erik and Roller set up their awnings next to the tent of their king and they drank late into the night to Erik’s victory over the pirates.  King Frodi told Erik that he had brought old Gotwar along as their Priestess of Odin and Leader of Valkyries, as those yet remained her duties, even though she had lost her personal freedom, and he further explained that as priestess she had determined that a sacrifice to Odin would guarantee success in the upcoming campaign, for Odin was the god of hosts and his appeasement was crucial prior to pitched battles.  So, against Erik’s protests, his forty captives were brought forth with the morning and scaling ladders were lashed together and the Sclavs were all hanged from them in sacrifice to Odin, the god of hosts and hanging.  With this, Erik was not pleased, and old Gotwar gave him a wide berth during the ceremony, but there was not much Erik could have done for his captives.  The old pagan religion was an integral and powerful force within their society and to obstruct it was to court disaster.

Two days later, the Danish fleet took harbour in the mouth of the Dvina River and King Frodi’s army camped upon a great open plain that sat far below a distant hill upon which rested the fortified town of the Sclavs.  After viewing the size of the Danish force, Strunick, King of the Sclavs, sent forth envoys suing for peace, to which King Frodi replied, “I am as yet inexperienced in war and it is high time that I rectified the situation.  We shall settle our differences in battle.”

The Sclav officers went back to their hill fort, and several hours later they rode out again carrying hazel poles across their saddle horns.  With these they marked out the battlefield, then they came to the Danish camp and asked King Frodi if he approved of their markings and whether the morrow suited him for battle.  King Frodi approved of the proceedings thus far.

Dawn rose up directly behind the Sclav citadel and purples became pinks and pinks became yellows with the waxing of day.  Birds sang out cheerfully from the woods behind the open plain and the dew sparkled like diamonds in the trees and shone like glistening emeralds in the grass.  Erik gathered his Centuriata about himself, the vanguard of the Danish formation, which he led as one across the great open plain, trampling both the gems and the grass and silencing the birds.  Roller led a small brightly coloured cavalry group that was to protect the right flank of the array, while King Frodi personally commanded the mounted troops defending the left.  Erik had come up with a plan to outflank the Sclav forces on their left and King Frodi wanted to be in the thick of it.  The Sclavs had been assembling, too, and they sent their slightly smaller army forth.  As the formations closed, the battle commenced with volleys from the archers.  Thousands of arrows shot skyward then arced gracefully to earth, landing among the soldiers of both armies, but the darts of the Sclavs met their marks with greater consistency, the light of the breaking day affecting the accuracy of the Danish volleys.  Fortunately for the Danes, the casualties from this feathered onslaught were slight, but the disparity increased, somewhat, as the distance and trajectories closed.  When heavy javelin came into range, the carnage rose again, but, once the shafts had flown and the spears were thrown, the fate of the battle rested with sword and buckler.  Fierce battle whoops erupted, over the pounding of kettledrums and the beating of shields, as the berserks bit their linden targes and flew into their rages.  The armies collided.  Erik’s Centuriata was in the midst of it, facing a toughened knot of experienced Sclav warriors gathered about their King Strunick, who was bellowing forth orders from atop a magnificent mount.  All the tried and true warriors of both sides wore chain mail armour and steel helms with nose pieces, but the inexperienced wore tough leather armour and steel banded leather helmets and carried spears and axes with their stout Linden shields.

Erik knew the battle would not long last if his men could fight their way to, and smite, the Sclavic king, but he had surrounded himself with the cream of his warriors and, though the front line of the Centuriata would fight to exhaustion and withdraw to be replaced by fresh warriors from the rear, they could not vanquish Strunick’s champions.  Erik took note of the fact that the field of battle sloped slightly towards them, forcing his men to work uphill, and he swore to himself that, in future, he would personally inspect a marked site for level, and not approve it from a distance.

Erik urged his men on in their attack of the Sclav vanguard, then withdrew and got himself a mount from a nearby Valkyrie in order to survey their situation.  All the Valkyries wore light chain mail and winged steel helms and white flowing gowns over their armour and they carried light shields for sheltering their wounded and short swords for dispatching the enemy dead and dying.  He stood up upon her mounting stirrup and saw Roller leading his men in a running cavalry battle with Sclav horsemen on the right flank.  The two groups would charge and fight, then withdraw and rest, then charge and fight once again, both sides hoping that, this time, their enemy would crack.  But Erik could not see King Frodi’s cavalry group on the left.  A Danish naval officer rode over from the left flank and shouted, “King Frodi’s troop cracked the Sclav squadron all too easily and he’s set off after them, probably into a trap!”

“I’ll pull together a force to protect your flank,” Erik shouted and the officer returned to his men.  Erik rode up and down the length of the formation, ordering men to press forward and others to stand fast in order to maintain some semblance of a battle line as the fighting wore on, and the superior Danish force inevitably moved forward.  In the places where his men were advancing too quickly, he pulled men from the line until he soon had a troop of foot soldiers to guard the left flank.

The din of battle was horrendous.  Erik had never experienced anything quite like it.  He had been in battle before, but they were mere skirmishes compared to this combat of hosts, which seemed to go on for hours.  The men on the front line fought till exhaustion or injury overcame them, then fell back, replaced by fresh warriors, impatient to join the fray.  There were berserker warriors interspersed among both armies who would fight until they died from wounds or exhaustion, but, for most, fifteen minutes in the thick of it was all one could take at a time.  And, everywhere behind the Danish troops, rode the Valkyries, women warriors who would bandage the wounded and put a quick end to the suffering of those too far gone and who always had a blade stroke for the fallen enemy, be they wounded or already dead.  Erik had never seen anything like it, but he had a feeling that this was but an introduction to something he would see again, and he tried to maintain firm control of the situation, but he sensed their position, in a battle of this scope, with untried troops, was precarious.  Any setback, no matter how trivial, could cause panic among the men and they could break and run.  So horrific was the din of battle.

Erik’s auxiliaries on the left flank were well rested and growing impatient, while Roller’s cavalry on the right were gradually reducing their Sclav counterparts.  The field was clear behind the Sclavs, and they had not even attempted to raise a troop to match those Erik had placed on the left flank.  And still there was no sign of King Frodi.  “The Sclavs know it was a trap,” Erik realized.  ‘They expect their cavalry back any moment,’ Erik thought, ‘and they don’t mind if I tie up a troop or two protecting our left flank.’  If anything, the Sclavs had pulled men from their right flank, so sure were they of their cavalry victory.  Erik rode out past the left flank, beyond and around the Sclav lines in order to have a good look at what was going on behind the field.  Two Sclav warriors broke away from their line and ran out after Erik.  The Norwegian wheeled his horse around the charge, drawing Tyrfingr and lashing out at the rearmost Sclav.  Tyrfingr sang out in the heavy fall air and the blow caught the Sclav on the shield, cleaving past the guard and through his arm.  He fell in agony, and his partner made a run for it, but Erik ran him down and Tyrfingr clove him through, right down to his chest.  Several archers in the Sclav line began to shoot darts at Erik but the range was too far, and the arrows skittered harmlessly across the grass.  Erik dismounted, strung his powerful bow and shot two darts in return.  One caught the first archer in the throat, wounding him horribly.  The other smacked dangerously into a shield the second archer quickly raised to protect himself.  No further shots were made at Erik as he returned to his formation.

The small troop Erik had mustered to protect the left flank cheered his efforts as he trotted back behind their array.  Erik could see that they were impatient to join in the fray and he looked out beyond the Sclavs one last time for King Frodi.  There was yet no sign of him, but there was still no trace of the Sclav horsemen either.  Erik signalled for the troop to follow him, and he thrust them into the left wing of the formation at a point where the Sclavs appeared to be faltering.  He was rewarded immediately, as the Sclav right wing fell back several yards from the weight of the attack.  Erik urged his officers to press on with the attack and he drew Tyrfingr, adjusted his shield and joined in on the assault.  Even in the light of day the glow from Tyrfingr could be made out and, as Erik’s sword sang out again and again, that much more could its luminescence be seen.  Soon the Sclav formation facing Erik broke and ran, and then the whole Sclav right wing collapsed in panicked flight.  Some berserks fought on alone and were overwhelmed while other brave Sclavs retreated to the relative security of King Strunick’s vanguard.  The fleeing Sclav soldiers were met by a troop of cavalry coming out of the woods on the left, but Erik could not make out whether they were Danish or Sclav horse.  When the dispersing Sclavs began fleeing the cavalry, Erik thought they were surely Danes, but one of his older officers assured him that they were just as likely to flee their own forces as their enemy’s.  But the horse ignored the retreating soldiers and rode straight at Strunick’s rear-guard, and, once Erik got himself a horse and mounted it, he could see that it was King Frodi.

Young Frodi led the Danish cavalry into the thick of King Strunick’s vanguard, where most dismounted and fought the Sclavs on foot, but the kings had their combat on horse.  Frodi wheeled his mount in beside that of Strunick and lashed out with a string of heavy sword strokes.  The Sclav king blocked the blows with his shield, but the last blow found a brittle flaw in Frodi’s blade, and half of it snapped off and gashed Strunick terribly in the cheek.  The wounded king spun his horse about and slashed at Frodi, but the Dane blocked the blow cleanly with his shield boss, backed up his horse and charged straight at the Sclav.  The Danish king was a terrible sight as he charged, covered head to toe in blood until there was barely a shiny spot left on his chain mail shirt.  Frodi reigned hard on his horse and it reared up, colliding with Strunick’s mount, which faltered, its forelegs giving out under the shock.  Frodi leapt over the withers of his horse and came down on the falling Strunick with a dagger, slashing at the Sclav’s throat.  King Strunick’s neck erupted in blood and the Sclav king was dead before he hit the ground.

The Sclav warriors who saw the outcome of the combat immediately laid down their arms.  As the news of King Strunick’s death raced through the vanguard and down the remaining wing, so died the fighting.  Within minutes, the only battle raging on the field was between Roller’s Danish and the Sclavish cavalry units and, as soon as they realized what had occurred, the Sclav horse broke off from their long hard fight and retreated to their hill fort, arriving there ahead of the foot-soldiers who had fled earlier.  Roller and his horse were hard on their heels and followed them into the citadel and held the gates.  The Danes on the field accepted the surrender of the Sclav troops in the usual Aesir fashion: the soldiers were bent over their shields and raped from behind.  Then they were tied by their necks to scaling ladders and marched into their fallen fortress.

By evening, a large contingent of Danish forces occupied the Sclav citadel.  King Frodi became determined to provide Odin with a sacrifice, being grateful of his first victory, and, at the same time, punishing the Sclavs.  To that end, Erik had rumours circulated that the Danes had need of men trained in theft and plunder and that the rewards would be great.  Rovers came forward in droves and King Frodi celebrated a great feast with them, then he had them put in chains and he had their fellow Sclavs build gallows outside the stockade of their citadel and he had all the men who’d come forward sacrificed to the hanging god.  Old Gotwar, Priestess of Odin, said that this would ensure King Frodi of Odin’s support in his next campaign.  Erik was personally thankful that only pirates and cut-throats were hanged and that the honourable among the Sclavs he had managed to spare.

Odin’s pleasure with the sacrifice manifested itself when, that night, King Frodi had a dream.  He was to carve a realm out of this wilderness and was to unite all the northern lands in a kingdom of justice and peace, and for all of this he would be rewarded with the title his foremost man had bequeathed him: ‘King Frodi the Peaceful’.  Before he left the land of the Sclavs, King Frodi had new laws drafted up and the laws were recorded for posterity.  Erik, also, drafted himself up some new laws, rules for this battling of hosts.  The Sclavs, meanwhile, coined their own name for Frodi; they called him the Hanging Tyr, Angantyr Frodi, the ‘Hanging God King’.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

15.0  FATE OF GOTAR  (Circa 831 AD)

            “Hearken my song, sinker-      of-sailhorses, for greatly

             skilled at the skein am I      a skald you must have–of verses;

             and even if thou, king of      all Norway, hast ever

             scorned and scoffed at other      skalds, yet shall I praise thee.”

            Sigvat Thordarson;  Skaldskaparmal.

Erik was amazed.  How incredibly one could change in a matter of months.  Alfhild’s bright green eyes still sparkled, her hair still danced in the morning’s light, her lips yet quivered pinkly, but her face was paler than the white marble it had been, and her belly was swollen with the fruit of her king’s love, for she was now well into her pregnancy.  Erik watched as his wife led his queen across the long beach of the little harbour town toward the ships’ landing.  They’d just returned from the Sclavish war, and he watched King Frodi run out across the sand, and when his king fell to his knees and placed his war-hardened hands ever so gently upon that belly, big with child, Erik looked away and began shouting orders to his men.

“Angantyr Frodi,” Alfhild started.  “They are calling you Angantyr Frodi,” she said proudly to her husband.

“Yes!” King Frodi said, looking down into the sand.  “The hanging king,” and he looked up to his wife.  “It is not something in which I take pride,” he lied.  “I only hope that it has appeased Odin.”

Erik joined his king and they helped their women up the beach and into the longhall of the king’s harbourmaster.  It was a sombre homecoming.  Alfgeir explained that, once again, there were reports of a planned assault against Denmark by King Gotar and the Norwegians, and that preparations were in progress.  “The attack is imminent,” he continued.  “We have news that King Gotar has raised a fleet and that his army is ready to sail on a moment’s notice.”

Erik sat glumly upon the second high seat and pondered the news.  Frodi, too, was deep in thought, but offered this:  “It is good that our war against the Sclavs went well, or, at least, that my father-in-law has waited until our return to attack us.”

“We have been working hard on preparations of our own in your absence, my liege,” Alfgeir continued.  “Princess Gunwar has even begun training the women of Denmark in our defense.”

“It’s good,” King Frodi said.  “My sister is a capable warrior.”  He then turned to Erik and said, “I guess we have humbled King Gotar overmuch.  He feels his treachery has been returned too manyfold.  It may well have been better for him had he battled it out with his men upon the sea.  He would have gained fame;  now he shall gain only notoriety.”

“I am sorry it has come to this, but we must carry the contest to King Gotar,” Erik started.  “Our fleet lies fresh beached in the harbour, and our soldiers have not yet packed away their gear.  We must sally forth while the advantage is yet ours to gain.”

Roller echoed Erik’s sentiments, yet King Frodi seemed hesitant to lead a host against his own father-in-law.  “Our warriors are weary from campaigning.  We should let them rest and relax with their families before we subject them to further peril.”

Erik could see the weight in the words of his king.  Their own wives had gotten news and were at the little harbour town to meet them, but the wives of their champions and the wives of the common soldiery had no such advantage.

“I understand your concern, my king, but I think I have a plan whereby the wounded and the weary need only come along for the ride.”  Erik whispered momentarily with Alfgeir regarding the capabilities of the home guard he had mustered, then continued, “And I have our harbourmaster’s assurances that the home guard shall see to the needs of their fellow soldiers.”

King Frodi’s army had set up camp all along the beach of the harbour town, and his soldiers spent the rest of the day relaxing in the warm fall sunshine while the home guard, men too young and too old for military service, fetched wives and families forth from Liere to visit with their husbands and their sons.  It soon seemed that the resources of the little harbour town would be stretched to bursting, but the portly Alfgeir was everywhere, arranging for provisions from one quarter, while obtaining needed transportation from another.  In the evening, King Frodi sponsored a huge feast for his men and their families, and, though this went on late into the night, the army had all its gear packed up and was ready to ship out early the next morning.

Gunwar and Alfhild insisted on accompanying the Danish forces in their sally, Gunwar by reason of leading her own warriors, for Erik’s plan involved a show of Danish force, and Alfhild, though pregnant, for the fact that the attack was upon her father.  No amount of reasoning could dissuade the women from their purpose, so rather than delay the departure of the force, King Frodi agreed to their accompanying it.  Once out at sea, the young king felt more at ease with their mission; with a good salty wind at their backs and a bright blue sky all about them, he began to question Erik about his plan.

Erik stared back at the long formation of ships trailing behind Fair Faxi and began:  “King Gotar may forgive you his injuries, but he shall never forgive me mine.  Therefore, it is I who should handle this problem.”

Frodi stepped back as if Erik had cut him with a knife, and his hand swept out behind them as if to say, ‘What is mine is yours…can I do more?’

But Erik shushed him and went on: “I shall use all that you have so generously offered to bait Gotar into a fight that shall settle our differences.  Remember that, when we faced King Strunick with a superior force, he soon sued for peace?  It is my hope that King Gotar shall react in a like vein.  We shall endeavour to keep your participation in this sortie to a minimum; after all, we do attack your father-in-law.”  This said, Erik turned his back on the Danish flotilla and looked off towards Norway.

It was off the coast of Halland, just past a small island that had but one lone pine, that the Danish flotilla met the ships of King Gotar’s army, and the Norwegian king, on spotting the Danes, immediately halted his fleet and began lining the ships across in battle formation.  King Frodi had his own fleet begin falling in width-wise, and when they had matched Gotar’s force ship for ship they began lining up two deep and still the flotilla trailed off to the south as far as the eye could see.  Soon King Gotar sent a ship forth suing for peace.

“Must father strike son and brother strike brother?” was their message.  “Our king seeks reparations for the wrongs inflicted upon him, no more.”

And Erik had this message ready for the Norwegian emissaries:  “Pick one hundred of your finest men and meet your Bragning prince in combat mortal.  Keep father from son, escape the bad odds you now face and meet me in one final sea battle.  Odin knows your time is overdue.”

King Gotar decided to improve his odds with Erik’s offer and was soon in the forefront of his fleet with one hundred men in his dragonship.  Erik followed suit, choosing a dragonship of King Frodi’s fleet, leaving his brother, Roller in charge of Fair Faxi, which was much too small to hold Erik’s full Centuriata.

As the two ships closed to within shouting distance, King Gotar cried, “A man shows his valour first by requiting kindness.  I have given you your byname with a ship as a toothing gift, and you repay me thus?”

Yet the two ships closed.

“I gave you portentous advice,” Erik replied, “words by which you have kept your life and realm, and you repaid me with a tainted gift.  When the keel of Fair Faxi was laid, you peeked at the first fallen chip and it had landed keel-side up.”  Gotar showed no little surprise at Erik’s knowledge of this, and his own men wondered at such a thing, for it was against custom to watch the first hewings of a keel.  “A witch called Thorbjorg told me of this and warned me that the ship was thereby cursed.  I have repaid her sorely for her advice, for by your face you confirm the truth of her words.”

“You’ve done well by that ship!” Gotar replied.  “And you’ve repaid me for it by stealing my daughter!”

The ships were almost across from each other and the crews had their boarding planks at the ready.

“I offered your daughter the Kingdom of Denmark and the opportunity to wed its King Frodi.  You repaid my efforts by plotting against my king and my life and, had I let you, by stealing my wife.  I repaid you measure for measure in the stealing away of Princess Alfhild!” and again grumbles ran through the Norwegian ranks.

King Gotar looked about himself savagely and his men quieted.  He was surrounded by his own picked berserks and, as yet, he could make out no warriors of renown among Erik’s band.  Feeling a surge of confidence, he shouted,  “Let us have at it then, my Bragning prince!” and the boarding planks fell, and the battle commenced.

Erik threw a huge iron grappling hook over the top strake of Gotar’s ship and felt a tug on the line as a tine caught up in the rowing benches.  He threw the line to one of his men for fastening to their own benches and, when a boarding plank went down beside him, he drew forth Tyrfingr and was the first to leap up onto the plank.  He rushed down it, sword in hand, as fast as he could go, but he felt so exposed up there between the two ships that his own feet seemed motionless.  They pounded upon the plank, beating a slow rhythm, drowning out the shouts that began erupting all about him.  A spear was hurled at him, but he deflected it with his shield, and, when a berserk clambered up onto the plank to face him, Erik lashed out with Tyrfingr and the crazed Norseman was the first to die.  Before the massive corpse could fall, Erik gave it a great kick and it tumbled back onto the warriors who were waiting at the end of the plank.  Erik felt, more than heard, a Dane coming behind him in support as he leapt down onto the deck of King Gotar’s ship.  All warriors fell before the fury of Erik and Tyrfingr, so fierce was their attack.  Berserkers, proof against steel weapons, felt the poisoned bite of Erik’s star stone blade and died in their own blood on the deck of Gotar’s dragonship.  The Norwegian king saw Erik hacking a path through his picked men towards him, and he began to fight his way in the opposite direction, but the cramped quarters of the ship’s deck, or perhaps a sense of fate’s preconception at the hands of the norns, made him turn back and face his young acolyte.

When Prince Erik and King Gotar stood but a sword apart, all fighting around them ceased.  Both the Norwegians and the Danes around them sensed that time was about to shift, forward, backward, only steel would decide that now, but this time would never be the same.  “Ever since I first met you, my liege,” Erik started, “you have kept your axe poised above my neck, whether I be a thousand miles away or standing before you as I am now.  Let us have done with this!”

King Gotar lifted his heavy battle axe, patted its haft and began to say, “And a fine axe it has–” then he swung the axe full force at Erik’s face, and the Bragning prince had barely time to raise the fine painted shield his father had given him to deflect the blow, but raise it he did and, with it, up came Tyrfingr, like a bolt of lightning arcing and striking a huge old oak, splitting its great trunk open, and King Gotar collapsed in his own gore, stone dead.

As King Frodi had predicted, Gotar died with some notoriety.

Leaderless, the Norwegians surrendered to Erik.  He accepted their surrenders as equals and forbade shield bending.

Once back aboard Fair Faxi, King Frodi awarded Erik all of Norway.  Being the sole remaining descendant of King Gotar, Queen Alfhild objected.  “Hold, Angantyr Frodi,” she checked her husband.  “King Gotar was my father.  I do not think it fitting to award Norway to his bane.  Give my kingdom to,” and she looked about herself imperiously, “to Roller.”

King Frodi looked at Erik, and his foremost man nodded approval.  Roller became ruler of seven provinces of Norway that day, and Erik gave him also the District of Lither, which King Gotar had once bestowed upon his Bragning prince.  King Roller left with his Norwegian forces, for most of King Gotar’s army knew the son of Ragnar Sigurdson and followed him willingly, leaving the Danes to return to their own land.

On the way back to Zealand, Erik asked Princess Alfhild why she had denied him the kingship.  “Have you fulfilled your debt to your father?” he asked.  “Was this the one slip you’ll have me forgive?”

Princess Alfhild’s hands clutched the top strake of Fair Faxi, the ship that her father had once built, and tears welled up in her eyes, though she said with a steady voice, “I denied you your kingdom not out of malice, but out of love for my husband, who needs your eloquent tongue and sharp wit more now than ever.  I am afraid of what will become of you when I do withhold my favour, and what will become of those around you!” and she looked at Gunwar, standing proudly by Erik, and she began to cry.

Soon after their return to Denmark, King Frodi and Queen Alfhild had a daughter, and they named her Eyfura, meaning ‘Island Fir’.  The Peace of Frodi held sway over Denmark for three years, during which its king and queen had another child, a son they named Alf, after Alfhild.  Much to everyone’s consternation, Gunwar remained barren.  Erik, though disappointed, never showed it.  It was a time of peace and a time for young love, but there was a brooding cloud rising in the East.  King Hunn, Kagan Bek of the Khazars, had been much put off by King Frodi’s rejection of his daughter, Princess Hanund.  When she had returned to Khazaria shamed and, unknown to the Danes, pregnant, her father allied himself with Olmar, King of the Eastern Slavs, and began raising an army with which to attack the Danes.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

16.0  THE KHAZARS  (Circa 831 AD)

                THE HISTORICAL KHAZARS:

            “Concerning the king of the Khazars,

            whose title is Kagan,

            he appears in public only once every four months.

            They call him the Great Kagan.

             His deputy is called Kagan Bek;

            he is the one who commands and supplies the armies,

            manages the affairs of state,

            appears in public and leads in war.”

            Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan (c. 960 AD).

Gotwar looked ancient.  She had aged incredibly in the three years since Erik had razed the house of Westmar.  Her skin had become a wrinkled patchwork of dry parchment and oily leather and her hair, stark white, was dishevelled and mangy.  Her teeth were all but gone, and her nose was red and swollen and tracked with veins.  She was a Priestess of Odin transformed.  A witch.  Erik shuddered just to look upon her; he avoided the experience, but there was a problem.  The Slavs had closed the Southern Way and the Khazars were behind it.  And old Gotwar knew the Khazars.

Years earlier, when King Frodi had come of marriageable age his regents had cast about for a suitable match.  Caught up in the grip of vice and decadence, young King Frodi foiled all proposals with claims of unsuitability, and when, at last, an equal had been found him in Princess Hanund, daughter of King Hunn, Kagan Bek of the Khazars, he parried by reminding all that his father, King Fridleif ‘the Swift’, had always warned against alliances made afar and that neighbours made the best matches.  Gotwar had been the one to convince him otherwise, and the developing Southern Way played no little part in the politics of it.  King Frodi became determined that the Danes would be the first to seek an alliance with the Orient.

“I convinced young King Frodi to send an embassy to the Khazars,” old Gotwar began, gulping greedily of the fine wine Erik had offered her, “but when he asked me to accompany the mission I was aghast.  It would be a dangerous proposal in a far-off land.  I was too old for it.  Then he offered me gold,” and she pointed at the necklace young Gunwar was wearing, the one Erik had won off the old crony in their flygting contest.  “I was torn between the wealth and the danger, so I asked that Westmar and my sons come along. They were the finest of champions,” she said bitterly, almost to herself, “none dispute that fact”.

She gulped her wine, passionately, and began her tale anew, as one driven, possessed.  “The journey was long and hard, cold and bitter, and dark dangers were everywhere.  The rivers steamed sorrows and the forests breathed death, but, finally, we came upon the great Scythian plain with the oriental delights of Khazaria before us.  The first tribe that we met were the Turkoi, westernmost of the seven Khazar tribes.  They were dark skinned Turkic-speaking nomads.  Dangerous people in a dangerous land, but trustworthy, and great horsemen.  Then we met the Onogur, a lighter skinned tribe that was semi-nomadic and very peaceful.  Finally, we came upon the Khazars, a most curious mix of people.  The Kara-Khazars were as light as the Greeks and very noble looking.  We travelled through lush gardens and vineyards, attended by civilized people that knew the meaning of hospitality and were eager at the opportunity for trade.  They admired our furs most of all and they would happily trade a mark of silver for a squirrel pelt.  They drank wine sweetened with honey and they ate meats cooked savoury with spices.  A party of them took us to see the Kagan Bek in their capital city.  Coming over a low rise, the capital lay spread out before us, a city the likes of which I have never seen.  Covering the many banks of the fanning Volga River estuary, this white brick city of towers and spires rose up into the sky, breaking the horizon into an array of bristling turrets and minarets.”

Gotwar had been famous for her brazen tongue, but Erik had never heard her spin a tale, and she wove her words surprisingly well.  Princess Gunwar was at the edge of her seat as the old woman paused for a refill of her cup.  It was a blustery spring evening outside, but the roaring hearth fires of Gunwar’s high seat hall kept the old woman flushed and her words began flowing again.  “The western half of the city is called Kazaran and is connected to Atil, the eastern half, by bridges of boats.  Kazaran, itself, is surrounded by a high white wall with four gates, and within the walls are the palaces and courts of the Kagan and the Kagan Bek and the homes of the pure-bred At-Khazars.  They are Jewish in religion and remain segregated from the Moslems of Atil.  Only from the At-Khazars can a new Kagan be chosen.  The Kagan Bek may come from any of the Khazar tribes, as has King Hunn from the tribe of Huns in the south of Khazaria.

“Now the Huns are a very dangerous tribe, brave and warlike, and they shape the heads of their warriors at birth to a point so that their skulls might resemble a helmet, though they wear none, and they shave themselves clean, leaving only a long lock hanging from the crest, a plume, as it were, on their helmed head.  So fierce are their warriors, it is said they can strike an Arab dead with a glance, and the Kagan Bek usually rises to power from this tribe.  All tribes fear the Huns, except the At-Khazars, who are very fine warriors in their own right, not so much as individuals, but in fighting as a group.  When we arrived in Kazaran, the Kagan Bek threw a great feast for us and our Onogur guides.  He was very receptive to talk of trade, for the Khazars tax all trade by a tenth, but we feared mention our true mission lest King Hunn take offence.  We were far from our homeland and would only get back by the grace of our host.

“Grep and the rest of my sons made a name for themselves as champions during the days between feasting, and they defeated all who came before them in battle exercises,” Gotwar said proudly, “be they Arab, Hun or At-Khazar.  Finally, on the third day of feasting, Princess Hanund graced us with her presence, for she was a fine raven-haired beauty.  When Westmar alluded jestingly that our young King Frodi was single and in need of a wife, she replied haughtily that King Frodi was in greater need of fame, for she had never heard of him.  Westmar went on, though, describing the attributes of our young king while I plied the young Princess with runes of infatuation and charms of love.  Soon we had her swayed to the point where we might approach her father, so Westmar and my sons went to King Hunn, in the midst of the banqueting, and demanded his daughter’s hand in our king’s name.  At first, King Hunn was reticent, but when Westmar drew his sword partway from its sheath and our sons did likewise and no eastern warriors came forth to meet this challenge, the King relented, saying he would like to hear Princess Hanund’s thoughts on the proposal.  Much to his surprise, the young Princess agreed, and the match was made, and the feasting resumed.  That is how King Frodi got his first Queen.”

Erik thanked Gotwar for the tale and allowed her to remain for supper, which pleased Gunwar.  The old woman had kept her word when Erik had spared her against Roller’s wishes, and she served her young princess faithfully.  Erik saw very little of the old woman, so it was not too taxing having her about.

THE THEORETICAL KHAZARS:

“Concerning the Emperor of the Khazars,

 whose title is Caesar,

 he appears in public only once every four months.

 They call him Caesar Porphyrogennetos.

 His deputy is called Caesar Ordinarius;

 he is the one who commands and supplies the armies,

 manages the affairs of state,

 appears in public and leads in war.”

Brian Howard Seibert (c. 1980 CE)

Porphyrogennetos.  Born of the purple.  Born of the blood of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar (c. 60 BC).  It came to Erik in a dream.  Emperor Valerian was at the head of an army of Twelve Legions.  Seventy thousand men….foot soldiers mostly and a few thousand light cavalry.  Against him was Shapur, King of Persia, with fifty thousand heavy cavalry lancers and another ten thousand mounted archers.  It was the middle of the third century of the Current Era as the two armies melded into one thrashing mass of soldiery, and the battle raged for hours before the Romans began to fall back before the mass of the heavy horse.  Both sides suffered equally under the hot eastern sun.  The Legions kept their formations as they worked their way back to a high bluff around which they settled and held their ground.  Heavy cavalry swept around the square of shields and attacked then retreated at will, for the Emperor’s light horse were gone by now, all dead or captured.  And King Shapur’s mounted archers circled at a safe distance and fired their arrows into the square knot of linked shields, the darts biting bone, finding gaps in the legionary armour.  Supplies were dwindling as the day wore on, with no sign of either side breaking.  When supplies were gone.  That would determine who had won.  And most of the Roman baggage train remained in the valley below with the Persian train beside it, resupplying the mounted archers when they’d expended all their arrows.  And pouring water over the sweating horse of Shapur’s heavy cavalry.

In a break in the fighting, Emperor Valerian rode forth with a group under the white flag of truce and requested terms.  He was immediately surrounded by heavy horse and they swept his party of light horse away with them to the painted pavilions of the Persian king.  Valerian looked back at his Legions still in formation and he watched in astonishment as a Persian supply troop left wagon barrels of water just outside of the shield walls for the parched foreign troops.

“We do not want to kill any more Romans than we absolutely have to,” King Shapur stated, as Emperor Valerian was led into the main pavilion.  “I have a job for them.”

He was half Valerian’s age with dark eyes and black flowing hair.  His white tunic still bore the marks of armour that had recently been stripped off him.  Valerian’s remaining armour was covered in dust and sweat and a bit of blood, and a bit of his short cropped black hair tufted out of his helmet across his steel grey eyes.

“We are not here to work.  We are here to fight,” the Roman Emperor protested weakly.

“Had you worked harder at fighting, perhaps it would be I who was seeking terms from you.  But that is supposition.  What I am going to offer you is choices.  You may fight on and, believe me, you will die.  Or you can live, and your Corps of Roman Engineers and men can build my new capital for me.”

Erik had been given knowledge of all things the nine days he had been in a coma at Hraegunarstead, his nine days upon the tree Yggdrasil, and it told him that south of Susa, Shapur had built his new capital, and he called it Bishapur, and south of that was a small construction town he called Kazaran, the Ran or House of Caesar.

Valerian was the first Roman Emperor ever captured in battle and was likely the only Roman Emperor to build a city, not in a day, just as Rome was not, but over a period of three years.  His men worked hard for their lives and, when the job was done, they were given the opportunity to work even harder for their freedom.  So, they built Shapur a dam, and Shapur, the ever-eloquent host, called it Band-E-Qaisar, or, Caesar’s Dam.  The Roman engineering that went into that weir was so good that the dam was still operating in Erik’s time.

“I have always found it puzzling that you spared me,” Valerian started.  “I can understand you sparing my men and, particularly my engineers, but to spare an old leader like me and to now give us all our freedom….it dumbfounds me.”

“In Rome, they say I use you as a foot stool to get upon my horse.  You are the second most important man in Persia.  I am a king and you are my guest, an emperor.  Even my Prime Minister is not of high enough station to order your death.  By holding you in high station, I ensure that my people hold me in even higher station.  Conversely, you Romans turn on your own so often, it is impossible to know who will next be ascending to the throne of Rome.  By protecting you, I protect myself; that is what the Persian kings have learned over the centuries since the time of the Greeks.  It is a thing Alexander and the Ptolemies learned from us.  But I digress.  As regards your freedom, I cannot let you return to Rome.  You may have suspected as much all along, but I was going to chance it, chance having a friend in Rome rather than an enemy.  We have worked well together over the years, my friend.”  And Valerian nodded in agreement.  “But I have bad news for you from Rome.  Your son, Emperor Gallienus, has been assassinated.  If I return you to Rome, you shall share his fate.”

But Shapur kept his word and gave Valerian and his men their freedom and lands north of the Caspian Sea, across the Volga River from a city called Atil.  And the Romans built their own city there and Valerian called it Kazaran.  Erik’s dream told him the city was so prosperous that the surrounding lands became known as Khazaria…Land of Caesar.  In an ironic twist, the city across from Kazaran, Atil, was the birthplace of Atilla the Hun, scourge of the Roman Empire.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

17.0  DIRGE OF ALFGEIR OR THE VIKING AND THE NUN  (Circa 831 AD)

“First, they laid him in his grave, over which

            a roof was erected, for the space of ten days, until

            they had completed the cutting and sewing of his

            clothes.  They also brought together his goods, and

            divided them into three parts.  The first of these for

            his family; the second is expended for the garments they

            make; and with the third they purchase strong drink,

            against the day when a girl resigns herself to death,

            and is burned with her master.”

                                                            From a manuscript of Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan

In the morning, King Frodi got himself a ladder and went up into the rafters of his high seat hall and took down the war arrows of his father.  He gave one to a messenger to take to King Roller of Norway;  another he had passed around his own native Denmark;  and the third he gave to Erik to take to the tributary Sclavs.  Erik had selected choice men of his Centuriata to accompany him, but, as it turned out, Alfgeir and Einar Cuff had been planning a spring trading expedition down the Southern Way and he had asked Erik to accompany him.  So Erik took only one aghast old woman, Gotwar, with him, for no one knew better the court and habits of the Huns.  They set sail in a merchant vessel bound for Sclavia with a commission to raise a Sclav army, and further instructions to determine the strength and attitude of the Khazar forces.

Erik passed King Frodi’s war arrow onto the subject Sclavs, then their party proceeded on up the Dvina River.  When they came to the Dvina-Dnieper Portage, they unloaded horses and furs and slaves–the wares of Southern Way trade–then unfooted their mast and left their ship hidden in an overgrown grassy cove of one of the Dvina tributaries.  Alfgeir led the mounted party up an old familiar path.  Soon they were deep in the tall forests of Eastern Europe.  It was yet early spring; the weather was cold and wet; patches of snow remained upon the ground in shaded areas and, as the forest grew thicker, its carpet became whiter.  At times, they rode the better part of a day without seeing sunlight, just patches of blue sky straight overhead, framed by the sombre hues of the evergreens all about them.  And the dark drab greens grew, themselves, out of the blackness of shadows, and there was an eerie calm in the woods.  Birds and animals could be heard off in the distance, but never nearby.  Always, silence greeted them.

After several days, they fell into a routine:  the morning breaking of bread, riding till noon, alimentation, consisting of roast meats from the previous evening’s meal, then more riding for the rest of the day; in the evening they would make camp, pitching awnings in the shelter of the trees, and they would hunt small game and cook cakes of bread and roast meats and eat and drink about the campfire, and then they would retire to their sleeping furs and their slave girls and the warmth and companionship available, for these comforts would be gone on the return–the slave girls on sale in some Baghdad market, the furs on their way to Constantinople.  In their place would be cool silks and silvers and the coldness of gold.

One morning, just before noon, Alfgeir was looking for a place to halt for lunch.  A way up the trail they could make out a clearing, but Alfgeir halted the column and looked into the woods suspiciously.  Behind him, Erik, too, sensed something dangerous.  As usual, there was no sound of birds about them, but, disquietingly, there were no animal sounds further down the path.  All stood still and there was a perfect stillness about them.  Erik sniffed at the air, and his blacksmith’s nose picked up a strange hint of oiled steel.  “Weapons,” he hissed, as he took up his shield.  All followed suit, and, as he began to unsheathe Tyrfingr, armed bandits began dropping out of the trees all about them.  Erik wheeled his horse about in the narrow path, and he lashed out with Tyrfingr at an assailant leaping at him from a nearby branch, and he hacked him near in twain.

“Lithuanians!” Alfgeir shouted, riding up beside Erik.  “Warriors stand your ground, all others make for the clearing!”

Arrows began flying out from the trees as the Danes countered against their attackers.  Slaves and merchants whipped their frightened horses and made a dash for the clearing, but many of the slave women were dragged from their animals and carried off into the woods.  Erik caught all this as he battled brigands still dropping from the trees.  Several darts were lodged in his shield, and several merchants had fallen, pierced with arrows, but the Lithuanian warriors paled before the Danish counterattack, led, with surprising effectiveness, by Alfgeir, who seemed to be everywhere shouting instructions.  Erik was caught up in his own battle fury.  His horse had fallen, with an arrow through its jugular, and a knot of native warriors were closing about him, and Tyrfingr began to glow and howl through the air as he swung the blade in deathly earnest, and Lithuanian corpses began piling up all around him.  Then, suddenly, they were gone, back into the trees from whence they had dropped with only a sparse scattering of arrows to cover their flight.  One of these darts arced gracefully towards Alfgeir as he wheeled his horse about.  Erik opened his mouth to shout a warning.  Alfgeir’s mount crossed its forelegs in the midst of its manoeuvre.  Einar Cuff looked up at Erik and followed his eyes in time to see the arrow part the back of Alfgeir’s ribs just below the right shoulder blade.  Alfgeir slumped forward onto the neck of his horse and clung to both mount and life.  Einar ran to his aid and helped his adopted father down from the steed.  Erik joined him as Alfgeir opened his eyes and whispered, “I fear we’ll have nothing but trouble from these Lithuanians.  They’re hard-nosed…” and he lapsed into a coma.

They set up camp in the clearing, and old Gotwar bandaged up Alfgeir’s wound and the wounds of others.  She was still a Priestess of Odin, a witch, and a healer, even in her fallen estate, and she carved out rune cures for the injured.  From a cat skin bag, she withdrew a handful of bones and she cast these upon the ground and she mumbled chants in her low crackling voice as she circled her right hand over them.  She then gathered up the bones and she cast them again and repeated the process.  “The others shall survive their wounds, but Odin cries out for Alfgeir.  It is his fate,” she pronounced matter of factly.

Alfgeir was laid up in a sick-tent a little way from the camp with no one to tend him save the priestess, Gotwar.  The Lithuanians could be heard off in the woods, and sometimes they could be seen at its edge, and once they attempted to shower the camp with arrows until Erik strung his powerful bow and killed an archer with a dart.  But they did not attack.  Einar Cuff said it was because they feared Erik and his sword, Tyrfingr, and the Danish lieutenant expressed much admiration for the weapon.  Still, everyone expected an attack at any moment, and a strong guard was posted.  Their furs were intact, but there were few slave girls left to protect.  Erik had lost the woman he had been sleeping with, so he selected a rather drab young girl, all dressed in black with a white hood, and that night he took her to his tent.

She sat below the awning of his tent, staring out into the darkness, and she spoke to Erik.  “I left Paris to spread the word of Christ amongst the pagans, but, in Frisia, raiders captured our whole mission.  Twelve nuns and two priests they carried off in chains, captives, and they took us north to sell into slavery.  I was separated from the rest and I was taken to a town your people call Hedeby to be sold.”

Erik sensed the grief the young woman felt, and he put a cloak around her shoulders and he, too, stared off into the darkness.

“In Hedeby, I saw a man whom I recognized, and he saw me.  Dirty, dishevelled and in chains, my habit torn and filthy, the Bishop Prudentius saw me and he rode over to me and dismounted. He told me he was part of a mission to Denmark and he promised to ransom me, whatever the cost.  He rode off to get a mark of silver, but while he was gone, I was sold, and I was taken aboard a ship and brought here.”

Erik held the young woman as she sat shivering in the cold night air, and he kissed her.

“His offer still stands,” she proffered Erik.  “Any Christian settlement with a priest shall hold good the word of Bishop Prudentius,” but Erik ignored her offer and led her into the tent and settled her amongst his furs, for he could not understand a word of her French.

The next day, the young woman in black became determined to teach Erik how to speak her language and how to read and write Latin.  She had not given up on being ransomed.

On the second day, it was announced that Alfgeir’s condition had worsened, and on the morning of the third day, old Gotwar took a cat-gut cord with her out to the sick-tent, and a few minutes later she returned and told all that Alfgeir had died in the night.

They packed up their camp and their furs and their dead, and they tethered a string of young slave girls behind Gotwar’s nag, and in a day,  they were out of the Lithuanian lands and into Radimichi territory.  The Radimichi were Slavs, not too war-like and open to trade.  Alfgeir’s family maintained a Danish post there, on the banks of a Dnieper tributary, and, within two days, Erik’s trading company–for all had elected him as their new leader–reached this.  All the while, the young nun had remained with Erik, riding with him and teaching him languages.

The post consisted of several longhalls in a clearing by the riverbank, along with a large stable for horses, warehouses for the storage of furs and goods and a number of boat sheds, where monoxylan, straked dugout boats used by the Slavs in Dnieper trade, were built.  This was the jumping off point for Southern Way trade and it reminded Erik of Hawknista, both in strength and solitude.

The relatives of Alfgeir placed his body in an open grave and covered it with a tent, then divided his possessions into thirds:  one they kept for themselves, the second was used in the preparation of his funeral goods, and the third they spent on feasting his friends and relatives.  Then the family asked of all the slave girls, who of them would like to journey with her master, and the young woman that Alfgeir had last slept with stepped forward and volunteered.  Two females of Alfgeir’s clan were then assigned to accompany the girl wherever she went.  As days of feasting and preparations progressed, she took up drinking and singing in praise of her master and she learned all she could about him from his family.  They, in turn, took exceptional care of her, her handmaidens often combing her hair and washing her feet.

Alfgeir’s family built for him a beautiful ship from oak they had cut and seasoned the previous year, and they rigged it with silks and a crew of wood carved figures, then they hauled it onto the riverbank and supported it between four piles of birch firewood.  They then brought forth a sleeping bench and placed it upon the deck of the ship and erected an awning over this.  Gotwar had been asked by the family to be the Angel of Death in the ceremony, to which she readily agreed.  She placed Alfgeir’s personal effects about the boat in a prescribed manner, while his family drew him forth from the open grave.  Alfgeir’s corpse had blackened with the cold, lips had shrivelled, exposing teeth, but otherwise he remained unchanged.  The family washed his body and cut his hair and pared his nails, then clothed him in funeral garments they had prepared and placed him in the tent upon the ship.  They set strong drink and fruit and basil beside him, and they laid his weapons alongside him.  Then they brought forth two dogs and struck them in two, and a cock and a hen, and a cow and a bull and a mare and a stallion were likewise sacrificed in Alfgeir’s honour.

While all this was going on, the slave girl that was to accompany Alfgeir went from tent to tent of Erik’s company, and she drank and coupled with the men who had befriended Alfgeir, and all of them said, “I do this for the love of your master.”

In the late afternoon, a doorframe was erected and six men of Alfgeir’s family raised the slave girl up, so she could look above it.

“Lo, I see my father and my mother,” she cried.  Then they lifted her above it once again.

“Lo, I see all my deceased relatives sitting,” she cried again, and they raised her a third time.

“Lo, I see my master sitting in paradise, and paradise is so beautiful, so green, and with him are his relatives deceased, and now he is calling for me.  Take me to him, please,” and she fell back into the arms of the men, quite drunk, and they took her to the ship.

Old Gotwar awaited her beside the ship with her cat-gut cord and a dagger.  The young woman gave the old crone the two bracelets from her wrists, and she gave her handmaidens an anklet each, then the six men lifted her up onto the ship and lifted old Gotwar also, and then they clambered aboard, themselves, and all stood upon the oaken deck.

Now all the men of Erik’s company and all the men of the post gathered around the ship with their shields and staves and Erik passed up a cup of strong drink to the slave girl.  She took the drink and she sang over it and she drank it, then said, “With this I take leave of those who are dear to me.”  When she was finished the drink, old Gotwar grabbed her by the hair and hauled her into the tent.  The men about the ship began beating their shields with the staves as though they were marching into battle, and the noise covered the screams of the girl as old Gotwar beat her into submission.  The six men on the deck then entered the tent, one at a time, and had their way with the slave girl.  Then they laid the young woman down beside her master, with two men at her feet and two men at her hands and two men at the cat-gut cord that Gotwar knotted about her delicate white throat.  Then the old crone plunged a dagger deep between the ribs of the wailing slave girl as the two men strangled her, and, all the while, the men outside the ship were beating upon their shields.  Moments later, the young woman set off to join her master in paradise and the living departed the ship.  Had the young woman turned out to be a witch, Gotwar would not have ended her quickly, for witches had to be slain without drawing blood, but such was not the case here, as it turned out, so she was killed with a quick stroke.

Four relatives of Alfgeir emerged, naked, from a building and walked backwards towards the ship carrying torches.  They approached the piles of birch firewood in this fashion, never looking at the ship, and set them ablaze with their brands.  Soon the ship and the tent and the chieftain and his slave girl were one blazing funeral pyre and within an hour all were reduced to a pile of ashes.

Erik and his company had been ten days cremating Alfgeir, nonchalantly spending the time attending to the obsequies of their dead friend rather than to the duties owed their lord, and this without reservation, but, their duties to their captain complete, they set about executing the orders of their king.  To this end, keeping in mind their fragile existence in the world, especially the part of the world in which they presently existed, Erik decided to split his company in two, with Einar Cuff leading the second party.  It was imperative that one group get back to King Frodi with a report on the disposition of the Khazars.  The next morning, Einar Cuff’s group set out on horse, while Erik’s company launched forth in a monoxyla purchased from Alfgeir’s relatives and the young woman in black was at his side.  She had remained at his side the whole ten days as if fearing she might be left behind there and she kept teaching her Dane the French of Frankia because he seemed to enjoy learning languages and was less likely to forget her or replace her, as he apparently, as a trader, valued the knowledge of knowing many tongues.

Monoxylan were clumsy boats compared with the refined straked ships that Erik was used to, but sailing down the Dnieper was no Nor’Way crossing either, and, within hours, his company had passed from the territory of the Radimichi to the lands of the Dregovichi.  The sun was yet high in the east and a steady breeze blew from the north, adding its power, by sail, to the speed of the current and the efforts of the rowers, driving the vessel south towards the Black Sea.  Local fishermen could be seen working the shores of the Dnieper, but no Dregovichi boats came forth to challenge the Danes.  Still, expectation of naval attack grew with each passing day, as Erik’s people plied their way down that immortal river.  The young slave girl, all dressed in black, continued to teach Erik her French as they sailed and rowed down the river, and she was surprised at how quickly Erik was picking up both her own and the Latin tongue, for, while many people read the Roman language, there were very few who still conversed in it.  When they moved into Drevjane territory, activity picked up and the locals could be seen making preparations for war: monoxylan were being built, weapons were being forged and warriors could be seen training; but, again, none came forth to challenge the Danes.  The young woman in black continued to sleep with Erik the whole time and she made sure she pleasured him in Frankish ways that would preclude him from being attracted to the other few slave girls still left in the company.

One night after the woman in black had pitched their tent, she sat before the awning, staring out into the darkness, and she spoke to Erik in her French.  “I left Paris to spread the word of Christ amongst the pagans, but, in Frisia, raiders captured our whole mission.  Twelve of us nuns and two priests they carried off in chains, captive, and they took us north to sell us into slavery.  I was separated from the rest and I was taken to a town your people call Hedeby to be sold.”

Erik already knew this, had sensed this, and he put a Roman red cloak around her shoulders and he stared off into the darkness with her.  “Go on,” he told her in Latin.

“In Hedeby, I saw a man whom I recognized, and he saw me.  Dirty, dishevelled and in chains, my habit torn and filthy, the Bishop Prudentius saw me, and he rode over to me and dismounted.  He told me he was part of a mission to Denmark and he promised to ransom me, whatever the cost.  In retrospect, I realize that he should have just traded me for his horse, but he rode off to get a mark of silver, and while he was gone, I was sold, and I was taken aboard a ship and brought here.”

Erik held the young woman as she sat shivering in the cold night air, and he kissed her again.

“His offer still stands,” she proffered Erik.  “Any Christian settlement with a priest shall hold good the word of Bishop Prudentius,” so Erik accepted her offer and he told her that there was but one Christian church in Kiev and that he would deliver her there.  He then led her into their tent and they settled amongst their furs and made love, and, after, they conversed in her French for a long time.  In the early morning darkness, Sister Saint Charles began her day by throwing up and Erik knew that she was pregnant and that the child was his.  She had finally told him her name, and that she was from a little convent between Rouen and Paris.  Erik had planned on sneaking his ship past Kiev in the early light of dawn but now he changed his plans and took a somewhat bolder tack.

They sailed down the Dnieper in the light of day and in the land of the Poljane, Erik’s party was intercepted by ships of the fleet of King Olmar.  Two ships of the fleet escorted the monoxyla to the main quay of Kiev and Prince Erik addressed the king of the Poljane, who was standing on the wharf, “Why do you prepare such a fleet for war?  For whom is all this armour made ready?  Where are you off to, King Olmar, with a fleet such as this made ready for war?”

“We are off to make war with the son of King Fridleif ‘the Swift’,” King Olmar shouted, referring to King Frodi by his sire’s name, a slander on his lack of renown, and ‘the Swift’ a further slander on his father for his renown at having deferred fighting King Charlemagne of the Franks.  “Who addresses me thus?  Whose shrewd tongue asks such questions of me?”

It seemed that King Olmar had guessed the identity of Erik, who responded to the slur against his king:  “Vanquished fate awaits he who tries the unconquered.  No one attacks King Frodi with impunity.”

“Seize them!” King Olmar ordered, and a large number of Slav troops boarded Erik’s monoxyla.

“It is unseemly for so many to attack so few,” Erik shouted to King Olmar as he, too, boarded the ship.  Erik had his hand upon the hilt of Tyrfingr and his crew were backed up behind him at the stern of the ship.  The Christian nun, Sister Saint Charles, stood bravely beside her Dane, her Ogier.

King Olmar marched through his troops towards Erik.  “One must attack one’s enemies, no matter how lean they be,” and two very stalwart guards seized Erik by either arm, tearing his tunic open.  “What is this?” King Olmar asked, tearing Erik’s exposed trident cloak pin from around his neck.  “Where did you get this?”

“It belonged to my mother,” Erik started.  Olmar scowled in disbelief.  “She was a captive from the eastern realms,” Erik explained.  “Her name was Boddi,” but he could see the name meant nothing to King Olmar.

“I’ve no doubt you got this from someone’s mother,” King Olmar said, angrily.  “Still,” he continued, studying Erik’s dark eyes, “I shall keep this trinket till we meet again, and we shall meet again.  For now, you may carry on.  Meet with King Hunn.  Set the field of battle.”

“That I shall,” Erik reassured him, “but I have rescued a nun from captivity and I wish to turn her over to the priest of your Christian church here.  Can you give me leave to deliver her into his hands?”

King Olmar looked as though to object, for he was a follower of Perun, the Slavic god, and he cared naught for Christians, either for or against, but he looked at the bauble in his hands and Erik could see that he had recognized it as something from his past, and he gave Erik and the nun leave to enter Kiev, but he left soldiers on the monoxyla and the king carried on organizing his fleet.  The two soldiers who had grabbed Erik now escorted him into their city, and the Viking and the Nun were soon standing on the porch of the little wooden church talking to the priest.

“I don’t have a mark of silver to give you,” the priest told Erik, “but I’m sure Bishop Prudentius of Paris is good for it.”

“Well, you have a mark of silver now,” Erik said, pressing it into his hands, and he gave Sister Saint Charles another mark of silver to spend on her way through Christian lands and he gave the young woman a deep kiss and said, “Take care of your child and I shall see you in Rouen some day.  If you need further silver, just tell your Christian brethren to send notice to me, Prince Erik ‘Bragi’ Boddason-Ragnarson, in Liere, Denmark.  We have a Christian church there as well, a bit larger than this one, but not by much,” and Erik departed with his escort and he looked back at the nun a few times before he disappeared down another street.  The soldiers took him back to the quay and held him in a lot more respect than they’d had on the way to the church.  Sister Saint Charles even saw the difference in their demeanour as they walked alongside Erik as he’d left the church.  They walked him down the quay and let him rejoin his company on the monoxyla.  Prince Erik saw King Olmar further down the quay and he had parting words for him.

“Remember,” Erik shouted as his men rowed away from the Slavs, “no one attacks King Frodi with impunity!”

“All brave souls remain unconquered till vanquished,” King Olmar replied.  “Death befalls the brave but once,” he continued, “and is, often as not, unexpected fate,” he trailed off, warning Erik not to put too much trust in fate or fortune.  They were words that Erik would remember, so he thanked King Olmar for this good advice and they parted adversaries, rather than enemies.

Further down the Dnieper, old Gotwar warned Erik of rapids that would soon be upcoming.  She knew of a route that would take them to the Khazar portage with only one land crossing.  Now, the monoxyla they were sailing was well suited to overland portages, being founded upon a dugout base that could be dragged like a sledge without worry of damaging a keel, so Erik followed the advice of Gotwar, and soon they had left the Dnieper and were sailing up the Orel River.  When they had reached its source, they portaged across to the Donets River and sailed down it to the Don.  The Khazar portage was an overland road between the Don and the Volga Rivers, and it was with this goal in mind that they were sailing up the Don when Erik’s keen eye spotted the campfire smoke of a great army inland on the Onogur plains, a great stretch of land covered in rich grasses and almost totally devoid of trees.  Erik had given all their horses to Einar Cuff’s overland expedition, save one, so they now let Erik and the small pony off at the riverbank, then anchored the monoxyla in the relative safety of the centre of the river to await his return.  It had been three weeks since they had cremated Alfgeir, almost all of their journey by river.

Erik rode for a day, enjoying the feel of the horse and the land beneath him, before he came upon the Hunnish host early the next morning.  The vanguard was composed of a huge formation of cavalry, kicking up dust for an enormous column of foot-soldiers that stretched across the great open plain from one horizon to the next.  No one bothered with the Northman as he rode most of the day down the column towards its rear-guard formation.  Erik counted fifteen standards, flags of the different tribes and tribute nations that composed the Khazar empire, and behind each of these standards flew a hundred and twenty group standards with twenty men to a group.  Erik did some quick mental calculations, thanking Kraka for her meal of wisdom, which had enlightened him to the ways of numbers, and came up with a total of thirty-six thousand foot-soldiers, not including cavalry, archers and support personnel.  As Erik approached the rear of the column, a rider came forth from the rear-guard formation towards him.

“Have you ever seen such an army as this?” the stranger shouted in Norse.  Erik could understand the tall, gaunt, battle-scarred warrior that neared him, but the dialect was old, the accent ancient.  His face was shaven, but whiskered, and he had a patch over one eye.  His good eye was bright green and ravenous and shaded by a wide brimmed hat that flopped about as he rode, somehow managing to stay upon his head.  “The Khazars learned all about the handling of hosts during their Arab wars a half century ago.  I am General Ygg,” he introduced himself.  “You must be the Norwegian, Erik Ragnarson, sent by King Frodi Fridleifson of Denmark to determine the strength of the Khazars.”

Erik was surprised that the man not only knew who he was but was expecting him.  General Ygg took Erik to the pavilioned chariot of the kagan bek, which was more freight wagon than cart, having four huge wheels and being drawn by a dozen oxen.  As they neared the travelling pavilion, awnings were raised and, on his throne, sat King Hunn, ruler of the Huns and Kagan Bek of the Khazars.  “What mischief is your King Frodi about?” the kagan bek asked in Greek, not mincing words.  General Ygg translated this into the ancient Norse tongue that Erik could understand.

“King Frodi awaits you not at home,” Erik responded in Latin, “but sallies forth to meet you.  Oft-times he who covets another’s dominion fails in his own reign.”  Once again General Ygg translated, surprised that the Norseman could converse in the tongue of the Emperors of Constantinople.

At Erik’s answer, the kagan bek leaned over and said, “Could this Erik we were expecting be the Erik ‘Bragi’ that falsely accused my daughter of impropriety?” and a cruel smile played upon his lips.  “Seize this man!” he shouted.  “I’ll have his head on a pike, too!”

Instantly, a dozen dark-skinned Turk cavalry officers were around Erik, who had Tyrfingr drawn in an instant.  “It is unseemly for so many to attack one man,” Erik shouted, wheeling his horse about.

General Ygg came to Erik’s aid, saying, “It is unseemly and unwise.  We must allow one man to return to the Danes to terrify them with news of our formidable array.  If they come with too small a host, they will but flee before us.”

“But this is Erik ‘Bragi’,” King Hunn objected.

“Had you spared the others,” General Ygg countered, “as I requested, you could keep Erik and send them back.  The prize fish escapes because we’ve eaten the bait.”

“Tell your King Frodi,” King Hunn began, “that I come to place Queen Hanund’s son, his son, Prince Hlod, upon the throne of Denmark.”

Erik was shocked to suddenly learn that Hanund had been pregnant when King Frodi had sent her back to her father.  Having a cuckold son to lay claim to the Danish throne would certainly be a surprise to his king and threw a whole new complexion on the campaign of the Khazars. 

“Escort him to the vanguard and release him,” the kagan bek instructed his cavalrymen.  “We shall meet again soon enough.”

“You are to be released,” General Ygg explained.  “I’m sorry about your friends.  Had it been up to me, you would all have been freed, but your friends died so that you might live.”

Prince Erik followed General Ygg’s eyes, and behind the pavilioned chariot of the kagan bek, upon the spears of a dozen Turkish lancers, were the heads of Einar Cuff and all those in his party.  Erik caught up his breath and paled with the spectacle, then colour returned to his face as anger welled up within him.  He looked down at the drawn blade of Tyrfingr and it started to glow, and he remembered the dwarf Dvalin and the curse of the sword, and he lashed out in a powerful downward stroke at the Turk nearest him.  Tyrfingr bit into the helm of the man and passed through the mass of his body as though it were not there and passed through the man’s horse and was not sated till biting greedily of the earth.  And, though the follow-through of the blow very nearly unseated Erik, he jerked the broad sword free of the ground as though it were a feather, spun his horse around and charged at the cavalrymen furthest from the Hunnish host, killing two more as he made good his escape.

“This bodes not well for us,” Kagan Bek Hunn related to General Ygg.  “There is magic in the swords of the Danes.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

18.0  SEA OF CORPSES OR THE CONQUEST OF KIEV  (Circa 831 AD)

“The Prince with Eagles Barley      doth feed the bloody moor-fowl:

 The Hord-King bears the sickle      of Odin to the gory Swan’s crop;

 The Sater of the Vulture      of the Eagles Sea of corpses

 Stakes each shoal to the southward   which he wards, with the spear-point.”

                        Thjodolfr;  Skaldskaparmal.

When Erik was a young lad of twelve and living with his foster-father Brak, he had set out on an exploration of the high meadows of their district.  It was late winter, and a thaw had set upon the land.  Erik ventured out onto a frozen lake, to practice skating on a pair of bone skates the dwarf, Dvalin, had made for him, when he heard a quiet cracking in the ice below his feet; Erik froze.  He had wandered out onto thin ice.  When he attempted to backtrack, the ice behind him creaked in protest.  Only when he stood perfectly still was the ice quiet.  He stood upon his bone blades on the ice, perplexed, heart pounding, blood racing.  Further advance would be foolhardy he reasoned but retracing his gliding steps back across ice he may have already overstressed was equally dangerous.  Angling back on a slightly different route seemed his best bet, so, slowly and painstakingly, Erik worked his way off the lake, and only with the greatest sigh of relief did he set his foot blades of the dwarves upon firm ground again.

With just such care and caution did Erik work his way back up through Asia.  And with a like sigh of relief did he set his eyes upon King Frodi once again as the two met up in the settlement of Alfgeir’s relatives in the land of the Radimichi.  Roller was with him, and with them came Gunwar and Alfhild.  The women could not long stay parted from their husbands, so they had joined the Company of Valkyrie, women who dispatched the slain, that accompanied all Odin blessed hosts into battle.

There was frenetic activity throughout the settlement, as armies cleared land and set up camps.  A road had been made of the portage between the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers, and the fine longships of the Danes were set upon wains and hauled by oxen to the southern waterway.

King Frodi, receiving report of the size of the armies he faced, asked of Erik how he should go about tackling such forces.  “It is with boldness that the wolf attacks the bear,” was Erik’s reply.  “We need wolves to gorge upon the carcasses of the enemy;  we have enough men sating themselves upon the king’s treasury.”

Later, when Erik was alone with King Frodi, he told the young king of the news he had learned from King Hunn.  The adulteress, Hanund, had been pregnant when she was driven from Denmark, and now King Hunn, through Prince Hlod, had a claim upon the throne of Denmark.  The legitimacy of the claim was questionable, but it did exist.  Erik admitted to Frodi that he had always perceived the Southern Way to be a grave threat to the Nor’Way, but he was willing to support it as long as all Northmen benefited from it.  Were it to fall under control of the Khazars, through Prince Hlod, or any other means, he would do whatever he could to undermine it.  King Frodi understood Erik’s family rights to the Nor’Way, and he knew where his foremost man stood on the matter.  “I’ve always considered the Southern Way, my Danepar, to be my greatest accomplishment,” King Frodi started, “but I’ve never considered the fact that my claim to it could be challenged from the southern end.  I shall never accept any other than my own dominion over it.”  They decided then and there that all claims from that quarter were to be refuted and the issue was left at that, no compromises, no sharing.

It was decisiveness that Erik had wanted from King Frodi, and that’s what he got.  By week’s end the whole fleet of the Danes and Norwegians had been dragged across from the Dvina and was sailing down the Dnieper.  They came across a small fleet of Dregovichi monoxylan that was making its way downriver to meet up with the fleet of King Olmar, and King Frodi thought it would be mean for so many to attack so few, but Erik gainsaid this, declaring:  “Our wolves must sate themselves with the enemy, no matter how spare the carcass.”  And the Danes fell upon the Dregovichi and slaughtered the small host with little effort.  Erik had in mind, not only an easy victory to whet the appetite of their army, but also a gnawing fear in the back of his mind of the damage a small Slav fleet could do against a broken and retreating Danish navy.  He was taking the advice King Olmar had given him to heart, and he was leaving nothing to fate.

In the land of the Drevjane, the Danish fleet came against the flotilla of the Slavs, consisting of the fleets of six kings or tribes, each comprising five thousand men, at approximately fifty to a monoxyla.  The crude ships of the Slavs were ungainly and drawn up in poor battle array when the lean Danish navy engaged them.  The Danish longships manoeuvred in formation through the huge flotilla, firing arrows and catapulting huge stones at will, ramming the smaller monoxylan when opportunity presented itself, and steering clear of Slav squadrons that appeared combat ready.  In this manner the multitudes of the Slavs were quickly reduced to a hardened knot of monoxylan surrounding the ship of their king, Olmar.  Erik led his Centuriata, in Fair Faxi, straight through this formation up to the monoxyla of the king, and before the violent attack of the bold Norwegian and his terrible sword, Tyrfingr, King Olmar submitted to the Danes.  Erik accepted the Slav king’s surrender most graciously and King Olmar, in turn, had a gift for Erik: a small gold trident cloak pin, which he placed about Erik’s neck.

The true extent of the Danish victory became apparent when the sailing of their longships became hampered by the multitude of corpses and debris floating upon the Dnieper.  As fast as they could clear away the floating carcasses of the dead, other bodies would drift across their path, slowing the speed of the Danish fleet to that of the river.  Adrift amongst the throng of the dead, the Danes fought yet again with the vanquished, as though the slain had arisen once more to defend their lands from the incursion of their victors.

All the kings of the Slavs had fallen in this great river battle, save kings Olmar and Dag.  To gain the allegiance of the defeated kings, King Frodi declared:  that all kings slain should receive a ship’s pyre as funeral rites;  that all captains should be accorded cremation at ten to a ship;  and that the heads of households should be buried with their weapons.  He further ordered the Slavs:  to conduct their future warfare in imitation and support of the Danes;  to make payment for their wives;  and to respect the purity of maidens on risk of severance of bodily parts.  To his own people, he proclaimed that all hired men must attack when facing one enemy, defend when facing two, fall back a step facing three and feel free to run when faced by four or more.  In return for this resoluteness he promised to pay his house carls three marks of silver, his hired men two and retired soldiers one mark of silver each spring.  In this manner King Frodi attempted to instil professionalism in the ranks of his men, but many, Erik included, felt that it rewarded position over courage and rank above accomplishment.

Once the hasty funeral obsequies were completed the Danes and Norwegians continued down the Dnieper, once more resuming their war with the dead.  All the corpses that had been lost in the water and all the ships that had broken up in the waves had floated downstream, choking the huge river and blocking the passage of King Frodi’s fleet.  Only with much effort did the armada succeed in escaping the clutches of the dead.  The journey was particularly hard on King Olmar, for the corpses had been his valiant subjects, and it was for no lack of courage or want of spirit that they were now bobbing amidst the waves.

When the navy made it through the sea of corpses, King Olmar became less despondent and began to tell Erik tales of the Slavs and of the city of Kiev, over which he had lorded.  It struck Erik that he was taking great pains to instruct him on the ways of a people he had barely met, almost as if the king had some unknown purpose, but Erik let him continue at his own speed and paid strict attention to the old monarch.  “After the destruction of the tower of Babel and the division of man into tongues,” King Olmar continued, “a tribe of Japheth’s, called Nordics, became generally known as Slavs, settling the Danube and spreading over many lands.  The Slavs who came to settle the plains about the Dnieper River came to be called Poljane, meaning Prairie Slavs, and our brothers, who settled the forests about the northern part of the river came to be called Drevjane, meaning Woodland Slavs.  We Poljane lived apart, on the hilly shores of the Dnieper, which flows to the Black Sea.  Soon after the time of Christ, the Lord of the Christians, the apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother, came to the land of my forefathers and, journeying up a curve in the river, he stopped on the hills of a shore and made camp.  The next morning, he told his pupils, “Divine grace will shine upon these hills and here will arise a great city which God will have built here, and there will be many churches.”  He went up upon the hills and he blessed them, and he erected a cross upon one of them.  Six centuries later, three Poljane, all brothers, called Kii, Sheck and Koriv, and a sister named Lybed, established a town on those hills and they called it Kiev after the eldest brother.  Some say that Kii was a ferryman, but that is not true.  He was of royal birth and he owned the ferry and he commanded the town.  I know this to be true,” King Olmar said, “because he was my forefather.  All my progenitors, since, have ruled Kiev, including myself, until now,” he ended sadly.

After several days sailing, the Danish fleet came around a great bend in the Dnieper and on the right bank, rising up three hills, was Kiev.  It was a scattering of a city, with fields planted in the valleys between the hills and clusters of buildings crowded about the crests.  At the top of each hill was a stockaded fortress to protect the inhabitants from wandering bands of nomads and cruel eastern hordes.  Curiously, each fort flew a flag sporting a trident, shaped just like the one Erik’s mother had owned.

The fleet pulled up to the wharves and quays along the river that King Olmar’s fleet had been anchored at only weeks before.  Prince Erik was the first to disembark, followed by Kings Frodi, Roller, Olmar and Dag.  The people of Kiev had either fled or barricaded themselves up in their hill forts, but when King Olmar sent messengers up to the hills telling his people to welcome the Danes as liberators from Khazar suzerainty, the people came down and welcomed the Northmen and feasts were prepared and there was much celebrating, for King Frodi and Erik had decided to ally themselves with Kings Olmar and Dag, leaving them in charge of Kiev while they set out to fight the Khazars.  It was good that the populace of Kiev had the opportunity to celebrate their good fortune for one night, because the next day the carnage of the sea of corpses came floating down the Dnieper.  All were solemn that day, Slavs and Danes alike, as the rotting bodies of thousands of warriors and the broken shards of a thousand ships floated with the current past Kiev.  Many of the Poljane who had lost men were out on the shores and in boats searching for loved ones, but the task was overwhelming.  Some were sickened by the smell, others by the sight, so most of the corpses continued on their silent journey to the Black Sea.

Once order had been established in Kiev, the majority of the Danish fleet set off in search of the Huns, with one exception:  Erik and Frodi insisted that their wives remain in Kiev under the protection of King Olmar.  While Erik had no reason to trust King Dag, he had growing faith in King Olmar.  There seemed to be a bond developing between them, and Erik began wondering why King Olmar held him in such high regard.  He knew it had something to do with the trident pin of his mother, but he’d not had the opportunity to question Olmar on it, and he wasn’t at all sure it was a subject he wished to broach.

A day down the Dnieper found the Danish navy at war once again with the shattered fleet of the Slavs.  Again, the ships of King Frodi had to push their way through the sea of corpses, as if the soldiers of King Olmar had risen from their watery graves to cause yet more trouble for the Northmen.  Three more days on the Dnieper, and they reached the mouth of the Orel, the river that Erik had sailed up when he first searched for King Hunn.  It was possible, Erik reasoned, that the Khazars could use the reverse of the route that he had taken in order to reach Kiev.  Were that the case, the Danes should sit tight and await the arrival of the Hunnish host.  But instinct told him otherwise.

“They shall take a more southern route,” Erik proclaimed.  “Their army is too large to live off the land.  They’ll hug the coast, establishing a line of supply and purchasing grain from Greek settlements on the Black Sea.  Their navy shall sail from the Arab sea to the sea of the Greeks and meet up with them at the mouth of the Dnieper.”  Like other Varangians of his day, Erik believed the Caspian and Black Seas to be connected by a waterway.  He was to learn later in life, the hard way, this error in geography.  “The Khazar navy shall accompany them upriver to the Dnieper rapids, where the seven cataracts shall halt them.”

It was decided that the Danish navy would continue down the Dnieper and penetrate the rapids to meet them.  First, they came upon a rapid called Essoupi, meaning Do Not Sleep in the native Slav, a narrow rushing cataract broken by jagged rocks that caused the water to veritably roar.  Experienced Poljane guides had the Danes unload their ships and draft the vessels through a narrow channel by the right riverbank, some hauling on the boats with ropes from the shore, others stripping down and wading through the torrent with them.  Only the strongest of their men worked this rapid and Erik was first among them in the waters.  Daily, these men guided ships through the rapids and nightly they rested, but the rapids were so loud that they had trouble sleeping and had to move some distance from the waters to get some respite.  Erik guessed that was why the Poljane called it Essoupi.

The second cataract, called Ostrovouniprach by the Slavs and Oulvorsi by the Norsemen, both meaning Island Rapid, was similar to the first and was traversed in a like manner.  The third rapid was called Gelandri which the Poljanes explained as meaning Noise of the Rapid and it, too, was coursed in a similar fashion.

The fourth of the seven rapids, the largest, was called Neasit by the Slavs and Aeifor by the Danes, because pelicans nested out in the rocks of the cataracts.  Here, there was no safe passage along the banks, and the troops had to haul their ships out of the water and drag them six miles around the maelstrom.  It was very hard on the keels of the ships, but the Slav monoxylan that accompanied the Danish navy were well suited for the portage.  The troops then launched and loaded their vessels and sailed downstream for the fifth cataract, called Voulniprach in Slavic and Varouforos in Norse, because it forms a large lake.  It was traversed in the same manner as the first, as was the sixth rapid, called Veroutzi and Leanti in the Slav and Norse tongues, meaning the Boiling of the Water.

The seventh and last rapid, called Naprezi or Stroukoun, meaning Little Rapid, was reached just upstream of the Ford of Vrar, a wide and shallow ford susceptible to attack on horseback.  The Stroukoun Rapid was navigable and gave the Danes little trouble.  The Ford of Vrar, however, was a little more difficult.  The larger draft ships had to be unloaded and partly floated, partly dragged along the ford, which was no deeper than a man’s waist.  Downstream from this, the Danes reached the Island of Saint Gregory, where they camped and rested and exercised, safe from Khazar attack.  It was on this island that old Gotwar called for further sacrifices to Odin, and the Danes, being short of prisoners or slaves, complied by sacrificing cocks at the base of a gigantic oak tree there.  Although the old hag demanded more, Erik told her it would have to suffice until they met an enemy unwilling to become an ally.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

19.0  BROTHER GREGORY OR THE SARCOPHAGUS OF ST. STEPHEN  (Circa 831 AD)

            “A few years after the death of the Saint (St. Stephen

            of Surozh) there came a large Russ army from

            Novgorod–Prince Branliv, very strong.”

            Ignatius the Deacon (c.820-842).

The Black Sea seemed the end of the earth to Erik.  He had travelled the farthest reaches of Norway, sailed the worst Arctic ocean storms, buried friends in the eastern marches, and now he stood upon the southernmost shore of the Crimean Peninsula.  It seemed as though he had travelled the length and breadth of the world.  How could there be more?

“Such a journey shall soon be yours,” the dwarf, Dvalin, had told him of travelling the eastern realm, “and great though it is, it shall be only one of many long trips you shall make in your lifetime, my lord.”  This was not the end of the earth, Erik knew.  There was much more.

In fact, Erik was just about at the centre of the known world at that time.  To the southwest was the Eastern Roman Empire, that great hulking remnant of the immense Roman Empire;  to the south was the Arab Caliphate, a young zealous empire at the peak of its expansion;  and to the east was the Khazar Khaganate, a loose confederation of Asian and Caucasian tribes engaged in commercial trade;  further to the west was the Frankish domain, the Holy Roman Empire;  to the south were the Black lands, to the southeast the Indian provinces and to the east Serkland, the land of the Turks;  and to the far, far east was Cathay, the mysterious land of the Chinese dynasties.  This was the extent of the world as far as Erik had learned from the merchants and scholars and kings of his day.  Indeed, it was the extent of the known world of civilized man for many centuries to come.  And beyond all this, Erik had heard, lay a new world to the far west that an Irish monk called Brendan had discovered.  Erik wondered if he was getting old, getting tired.  Was the campaign wearing on him?  It was beginning to seem as if he was taking on the world.  King Frodi’s Southern Way was turning out to be a vaster challenge than he had ever anticipated.

Erik had stepped out of his pavilion to greet the midsummer day.  To the west, he could see the walled city of Cherson, an outpost of the Roman Empire.  On the approach of the Danes they had immediately shut themselves up within their works and had sent a ship off to their emperor requesting aid.  All attempts to discuss a peace with the Greeks had fallen upon deaf ears, so the Danish army began pillaging the countryside thereabout, as much to terrify the populace as to obtain supplies.  They could not afford to have a strong enemy at their rear while engaging the Khazars.  Cherson was too strong a fortress to reduce quickly, so King Frodi had decided that fear would be their protection against treachery.  “It will make them think twice about attacking us,” Erik had agreed.  And Gotwar made her usual sacrifices to Odin, god of hosts, ensuring a successful campaign against the Huns.

The Danish army proceeded east, foraging and pillaging as it went, until it came upon the Gothic city of Sugedea, or, as it was known by the Greeks, Surozh.  Imperceptibly, control of the land had shifted from Greek to Gothic inhabitants, descendants of the followers of Eormanrik, who, four centuries earlier, had made the very same trek that the Danes were now completing.  Resistance increased as the Danes began trampling upon a hardier people.  Erik was on horse when he came upon a monastery and a Danish unit that had faltered in its attack on a stout group of Gothic monks defending a stone sarcophagus.

“Why have you stopped?” Erik asked, rallying the men about himself.  “We must show no sign of weakness.  That is King Frodi’s new law.”

An old Danish veteran stepped forward and pointed to a tall lithe monk in the forefront of the Gothic defense and said, “The monk is crazy.  None of my men will kill a crazy man.  His troubled spirit will haunt them forever, and that is a law,” he spat, “that’s been around longer than young King Frodi.”

“That may well be,” Erik replied, angrily, “but an army cannot cater to the antics of a madman.  I’ll handle this.”  Erik dismounted and, hand upon Tyrfingr, approached the tall figure in the dark flowing robes.  He was a big man, Erik noted, with much the same frame as his brother Roller, but there was a mad glow in his eyes as though he defended something much more important than his very life.  In his hands he held an ancient sword, a two-hander of Vanir design, like the weapon Grep had carried with him to the harbour town of Liere to terrorize the villagers.  The effectiveness of the blade was apparent by the lifeless stare of a young Dane he had slain, there upon the cobbles of the square.  The monk was breathing heavily and drooling from the mouth as he rested both hands upon the pommel of that great sword.  “Is it you who owes me Bishop Prudentius’ ransom, one mark of silver, for the nun?” Erik said in broken Latin.

The mad monk stepped forward and answered Erik in equally rustic Latin, “If you are the one who freed the nun, your mark of silver awaits you in Cherson.  Word of your deed has spread along the coast, as though it was some miracle that had saved the bride of Christ.”

“Why do you resist us so, thusly?  It is a sign of madness,” Erik said.

His Latin being worse than Erik’s, the monk reverted to the ancient language that General Ygg had spoken when Erik had spied upon the Huns.  “We defend the tomb of Saint Stephen of Surozh.  We shall defend his uncorrupted body to the death!”

“Uncorrupted?” Erik responded in Norse.  “How do you mean uncorrupted?”  Suddenly he was intrigued.  The tall monk wiped the drool from his mouth, stood himself up erect and shook off the shroud of madness that had enveloped him, as though he had been awaiting the arrival of one such as Erik.

“Our saint’s body has remained untainted, though dead some years now,” the monk answered, and he lowered his sword to the pavement and approached Erik curiously.  “It is a sign of his holiness.  You, yourself, have an aura of the divine about you,” he said, moving his hands in front of Erik’s face as though he wished to feel the space about him.  “I beg that you respect and protect our patron saint.”

“I wish to see this uncorrupted body,” Erik said.  He remembered Alfgeir’s corpse and how shocked he was at its blackness, just days in the cold ground of the eastern realm.  “If what you say is true, if the body is truly unimpaired, we shall give some thought to respecting your saint.”

Erik walked with the monk over to the sarcophagus.  “I am Brother Gregory,” the monk introduced himself as he led Erik through the tight knot of clergy.

“My name is Erik Bragi,” the Norwegian responded.

“The Branliv Prince you are called hereabouts,” Brother Gregory said, “Eloquent Prince being its meaning.”

Four monks strained at the lid of the tomb and slid it askew, providing an angular opening through which to view the body.  Erik was amazed at the sight of it.  Except for a waxy pallor, the corpse looked as though it had held life only yesterday.  “How long has he rested here?” Erik asked.

“Over twenty years,” Brother Gregory said, placing a hand upon Erik’s shoulder.  “He is our saint, acknowledged by both the Eastern and Holy Roman Empires.”

“And if we spare this saint of yours,” Erik asked almost whimsically, “will you Goths give us your loyalty and support in our struggle against the Khazars?”

“That and more,” Brother Gregory promised.  “Although I cannot speak for our people, I have great influence with them and with my brother, General Ygg, whom you have already met, Erik Bragi.”

Erik stepped back from the monk, but Brother Gregory held him fast by the shoulder.  “We shall support your cause when you need us most in your campaign, for we have no love of the Huns, but we must be careful in how we execute it, as this is our homeland now and we have no realm to return to should the grandiose plans of the Danes fall through.”  Now Brother Gregory drew Erik close to him and whispered into his face, “Further, should you grant me this boon, I shall risk my life to save the life of your firstborn, for I have seen that it is God’s will that he shall need my aid.”

Erik leaned against the sarcophagus.  The stone was cold on the palm of his hand and moist, as of the earth.  “I shall have a son?” Erik asked, weakly.  “You have seen this?”

“It shall be some time in the coming,” Brother Gregory warned, “but you shall have a son.  You must have patience.”

Erik gathered himself up and shook his head.  He had been leaning against the stone sarcophagus, and the Danish troops were beginning to stir, fearing for his safety.  Erik turned to face his soldiers.  “There shall be no more pillaging today,” he announced.  “I want all things taken from the Goths returned to them.  Should there be dispute as to the amount taken, the property shall be returned twofold.”  Erik gathered up his horse’s reins and leapt up onto the saddle.  “I expect my orders to be followed by all.  Brother Gregory shall represent his people in any disputes.”  Erik waved at the monk, wheeled his horse about and rode off to spread his orders to other units.

All followed Erik’s wishes in this matter.  Word soon spread that Erik had had a vision that day at the tomb of Saint Stephen of Surozh, and, though, in fact, it had been Brother Gregory who had had the vision, Erik let the rumour stand.  King Frodi hated to see his treasury so drained, but, against Gotwar’s strongest objections, he too let Erik’s orders stand.  Never had he needed his brother-in-law’s uncanny wisdom more than now.

And, though the Khazar Khaganate awaited them in the east, and the Roman Byzantine Empire still stood in the southwest, and other far flung lands yet watched in mute disinterest, Erik awoke and rose the next day and viewed the Black Sea with a youthful vigour he had, too long, been missing.  It was good that Erik had this brief reprieve from his troubles, for on the morrow they would meet the Huns.

CHAPTER TWENTY

20.0  THE KHAZAR WAR OR SCORCHED EARTH  (Circa 831 AD)

            “Enough guesting to the Ravener    was given, when the Son of Sigurdr

             Came from the North, the Wolf    to lure from the wood to the wound.”

                        Thjodolfr, Skaldskaparmal.

“How great were the forces of King Hunn?” King Frodi asked Erik incredulously, as they sat among the riders of his scouting unit that had come upon the camp of the Huns.

“We’ve come upon a vast array!” Erik started.  “Thick flare the flames of their campfires and whole woods are consumed by the insatiable blaze.  The night sky is alight with the sweet sap’s song and a night breeze flows towards the Hunnish host from all directions in answer to their signal flares.  This spectacle before you now can only be matched by the sight of this army on the move.  The very earth groans beneath its mass;  the creaking wagons of its train sound of thunder, and the rattle of steel weapons peals across the plains.  I saw fifteen kingly standards each with a hundred lesser standards and twenty behind each of these.  And a captain was at the staff of each standard, and a hundred men followed each captain on foot.  And vast are the formations of their archers and much vaster their horse.”

“With what shall we oppose so formidable a host?” King Frodi asked.

“They await us on yon plain.  King Hunn shall make no move until we have drawn up our array.  The Khazars are experienced in the handling of hosts,” Erik said.  “They shall make no mistakes in the drawing up of their lines.  They shall answer our wedge with their crescent and surround and crush us with their mass.”  The warning of King Olmar came to Erik now.  ‘Trust not to fate’ had been the gist of it, and Erik knew the sooth had been said for this moment.  “We must retire towards home,” Erik started sadly, “and cause the enemy to perish of its own huge size.”

“No!” King Frodi exclaimed.  “All the honour we’ve won in the battles we’ve fought will be lost.  I will be called King Frodi ‘the Swift’, like my father!  No one shall follow the standard of King Frodi once he has run from battle!”  young Frodi answered vehemently, clutching up Erik’s sleeve in his tight fist.  “Have we strayed too far?” Frodi cried.  “Cannot this day yet be won?”

The orient light was breaking over the Khazar mountains, the tips of the Mirkwood forest just emerging from the darkness in the distance.  Erik fought back tears as he told his king of the depressing plan that had been forming in his mind while they had tramped along the coast of the Black Sea.  It had been the cause of his melancholy.  “We can yet win this day,” Erik whispered hoarsely, “just not on this day.  We must win it with our minds, not our hearts, in another place, at another time.”  Erik looked up to the faint full moon, and tears streamed down his cheeks as he spoke through clenched teeth.  “We shall return to Kiev, slashing and burning as we go.  We must leave nothing for the Huns.  Their army shall perish of its own vast size.”

King Frodi looked out upon the huge Hun host and he wept in bitter agreement.  The Khazar army was just too large for the Danes to defeat in open combat.  Erik had known this when he had first seen the horde, but he had always hoped that King Hunn would make a mistake, maybe meet the Danes in their own element, the sea, or meet them upon some terrain that would have offered an advantage to the Danes superior fighting ability;  but King Hunn had made no mistakes.  He had followed the military strategy of their day precisely.  Erik had only one resource left to his employ and that was his foresight.  He would not be the last to use the vast size of the Asian plains against an enemy.  A millennium would pass before a small general of the Franks would lead his army across the Scythian plain to his own downfall, and a further century would pass before a tyrant of the Holy Roman Empire would bleed his armies white on those glassy plains in the Asian winter.  But, Erik would be the first to use the one strength of the Scythian plain against a vast enemy…its vast expanse.

Summer was waning as the Danish army made its way back along the sea of Azov.  The sunshine was no longer warm, the sky was no longer blue;  a grey pallor hung over the land as the troops slashed and burned their way along the coast.  Erik knew that the Hunnish host would be following behind, but its very size would keep it from catching them.  And King Hunn would make no mistakes, like sending his cavalry out ahead to fight the Danes alone.  Erik knew he would march his army along as he had originally planned, establishing lines of supply and fortifications as he went, marching all the way to Denmark, if need be, and when the Danes had nowhere left to run, and nowhere left to hide, they would be forced to stand and fight.

The Danes bypassed the Crimean Peninsula, and many found it strange when Erik ordered the retreating occupational forces to bring the mad monk, Brother Gregory, north with them.  Erik met with the monk in his bright pavilion and they argued for several hours, but when they emerged it was apparent that they had come to some agreement, for Erik was smiling and the monk was not nearly as loud as he had been when first led into the tent.  Following the meeting, Erik ordered his men not to plunder the lands of the Goths in their retreat.  Greek settlements, however, were sacked mercilessly.  The Greeks, themselves, were still holed up safely within the walled city of Cherson, still awaiting the aid of their Emperor.  As the occupying Danish forces withdrew from the peninsula, the Greeks gave them a name they were to bear for many years:  ‘Dromitai’, meaning men who run fast.

But not all the Danes would run for it.  The Danish navy remained at the mouth of the Dnieper, the rapids cutting them off from retreat upriver.  King Frodi sent them orders to fend for themselves on the Black Sea.  They could not take the chance of having the Khazar army catch them traversing the Ford of Vrar.

When the Danish army reached Kiev, they joined up with the Danish occupational forces there, including the wives and families of many of the officers.  Queen Alfhild and her children, Alf and Eyfura, were there, as well as Princess Gunwar.  Much construction had been done in preparing Kiev as a major junction of the Southern Way, so it was with trepidation that the Danes returned the city to the rule of King Olmar in return for his promise of neutrality in the upcoming conflict.  Although Kiev was spared, the countryside was not, and the lands of the Poljane and Drevjane were razed in the retreat of the Danes.

King Hunn was patient in his pursuit and the Khazar army, though always trailing, never pressed the Danes.  The Danes razed the outpost of Alfgeir’s family in the land of the Radimichi and crossed the land bridge to the source of the Dvina.  There, the Danes had put up a number of ships too large to portage across to the Dnieper and into these King Frodi placed a precious cargo:  the wives and children the Danes had brought with them on campaign.  They were to sail back to Liere, while the remaining Danish army led the Khazars north into the barren wastelands of the Karelians and Finns.  There, King Ragnar ‘Lothbrok’ had learned a lesson from the Finns about how a smaller host could challenge a larger force and so, that was where Erik wanted to lead the Huns.  The Danish ships set off on a dangerous trip northwest through the land of the Lithuanians, and the army carried on straight north, leaving no trace of the naval expedition’s start.  And so, the Khazars pursued the Danish army many weeks up the marshy banks of the Lovat river, until their provisions began to dwindle and their supplies coming up from the south slowed to a mere trickle.  King Hunn received word that Crimean brigands were wreaking havoc on the Khazar supply lines.  And a Danish naval force on the Black Sea carried out daring attacks on Khazar caravans travelling up the Dnieper, and, in the land of the Goths, Christian zealots, led by a mad monk, attacked the Jewish and Muslim merchants carrying supplies north to Kiev.  Finally, on the shores of Lake Ilmen, the Khazar pursuit ground to a halt.  The Danes set up a large camp on a marshy island at the mouth of the Volkov River, and they called it Holmgard, meaning Island Keep.  From there, Erik began the Danish counter-offensive.  Raiding parties were sent out daily to harass the bogged down horde, and the Khazar supplies further dwindled until the cavalry gave up their horses to the roasting spits, and the foot-soldiers dined upon their attack dogs.  When King Hunn failed to re-establish his supply lines with the south, he ordered a general retreat, but the provisions were gone, and the Danes raided daily and soon disease set upon the Huns.  In their dire despair the Huns committed crimes against nature, as well as man, and they devoured impure rodents as well as their own dead and the Black Death set upon them.

When word spread to the Danes that there was a plague among the Huns, Erik ordered the daily attacks against them ceased.  None could understand why they should not assist the disease, a pox delivered by Odin, according to old Gotwar, in dispatching the Khazars, but Erik remembered the unseen tribe he had traded with on the White Sea coast, and he remembered Brak’s explanation for their shyness.  Once a Norse party had visited the tribe and an outbreak of disease soon followed, devastating the native population, causing the tribe to avoid all contact with the Northmen.  Erik decided to use this native strategy to ensure that his forces, too, did not fall victim to this Odin spawned plague.  There was much opposition to Erik’s order, but King Frodi, as always, gave Erik his full support.

On a cool autumn evening, a group of berserk warriors and worshippers of Odin gathered in a wooded clearing on the shore opposite of Holmgard, and they prepared themselves for a terror raid upon the Huns.  Scouts had headed south of Lake Volkov that morning and found an isolated Khazar unit camped along the Lovat River.  The berserks and warriors were to meet the scouts at the mouth of the Lovat, and the combined force would fall upon their prey at midnight, the hallowed hour of Odin.  Had the enemy been Norse, the night slaughter would have been murder, but the Khazars were Mohammedans mostly, and the midnight massacre would be considered sacrificial.  So, the small but tough troop rode south hard and met up with their confederates in a small camp on the east bank of the Lovat.  They dismounted, stripped themselves of their clothing and began to paint their bodies black with soot and pitch. Equipped with ancient weapons and helmets, they remounted and rode off for the camp of the Huns.

The Khazars had broken their main camp into hundreds of smaller camps in a futile attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.  All camps had constructed their own stockades of stunted swamp tamaracks and pines, and it was atop just such a stockade that Prince Erik’s brother, King Roller, was now perched.  His body was jet black with soot and his sword was painted in pitch and his teeth flashed whitely as he shouted the order to attack.  Blood curdling cries were heard all along the stockade, as the Danes dropped like black wraiths into the camp of the Huns.  Blackened warriors rushed about between the campfires, cutting down the Huns as they emerged from their tents.  Torches were torn from the fires and launched into the pavilions of the captains, and the officers who huddled inside soon fled out into the open to be hacked to pieces by Roller and the other berserks.  Many men refused to leave their tents and they suffocated in the smoke of their awnings, and the Danes, wrongly, thought this to be an act of great cowardice.  Their scouts had not checked on the activities of the camp or they might have determined that the unit carried the plague.  The camp burned that night, saving the Khazars the trouble of torching it, and the Danish berserks and warriors returned to Holmgard with tales of reckless courage.

When Erik learned of the covert attack, he was distressed beyond anyone’s expectations.  He met with King Frodi, and they discussed at length who might have perpetrated such treason, and Erik sent messengers among his troops offering amnesty for all if they would just come forward and admit to their insubordination, but none stepped forward.  After several days, the first outbreak of the plague erupted in the Danish camp.  Roller, realizing it was one of his men, entered his brother’s bright pavilion and confessed to Erik that he had led the attack.

“I do not blame you, Roller,” Erik started, “but rather the warrior within you.  It was unfair of me to ask the cream of our soldiery to hike up their cloaks and run from the Huns, but I had no other recourse, just as it is unfair for me to keep those same soldiers from attacking an enemy that has pursued them with such derision, yet again I have no choice.  You must tell me who the others were, and you must all be kept apart from the rest of us, and those of you who survive may rejoin us, and those who don’t may join Odin in Valhall with their deaths attributed to battle and not disease.”

“I cannot tell you who they all were,” Roller said, protecting his followers, “but I will ask them to step forth and they all shall.”

“To the last man?” Erik asked.

“To the last man.”  Roller stepped towards Erik, stopped himself, shook his head and turned to leave.  He stopped at the entrance and turned back to Erik.  “It was a magnificent slaughter, Erik,” he said nervously and then he left.

Erik followed him out of the pavilion and watched him from the entrance as he made his way through the wooded tent city that was Holmgard.  That evening, a troop of soldiers, some ill, some dying, moved out of Holmgard and set up a camp across the river in a wooded clearing.  Erik saw them off, wishing them all well and wondering if he would ever see his brother alive again.

While the Danes watched a growing number of their comrades die across the cold waters of the Volkov River, King Hunn watched whole units melt into the marshes, many dying, more deserting, until, at last, he led the tattered remnants of the Khazar army south.  The Danish army prepared to pursue the Hun retreat, but Erik would not lead them until he saw his brother, Roller, return safely from across the river.  Roller had not been touched by the disease, but he had watched a lot of his fellows die and this fact changed him, distanced him from Erik.  Roller remained in charge of Holmgard while Erik and King Frodi set out after the Khazars.  The Danish army emerged from the marshes of the Lovat hurting somewhat, but intact, and the stray Khazar units they came across they put to the sword quickly.

King Olmar had showed the retreating Huns nothing but a closed gate, but when the Danes returned he welcomed them as brothers, causing feasts to be prepared and celebrations to be made.  Brother Gregory welcomed the Danes back to the Crimea and General Ygg was there, too, to welcome Erik.  He had completed his service to the Huns with their successful retreat and now offered his services to King Frodi.  The Danish fleet was found anchored in the gentle harbour of Sugedea and even the Greeks of Cherson came out from their defenses and made peace with the Danes.  A naval squadron was dispatched to Denmark to bring back the women and children of the officers, and Prince Erik and King Frodi sat down and planned the development of the Southern Way.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

21.0  THE SOUTHERN WAY OR THE CITY OF CHERSON  (Circa 832 AD)

            “These sentences give good sense if we abstract

             the words Áŋœřȧȿ … ßàþõ, for

             we then get left with the ordinary aetiological

             explanation of the two names of the Rus’,

             ‘Rhos’ and ‘Dromitai’:  they are called ‘Rhos’

             after the name of a mighty man of valour so called,

             and ‘Dromitai’ because they can run fast.”

            Jenkins, Romilly:  Studies on Byzantine

            History of the 9th and 10th Centuries.

Spring came to Kiev like a maiden’s first kiss…soft, warm and fleeting.  The wind blew softly, and the sun shone warmly, melting the last of the snows and when the grass had begun greening and the trees were about to bud there came a late snowstorm with wet heavy flakes settling a foot deep upon the earth.  Winter returned and remained yet a full week longer, then left, and spring came again with a vigour that saw the hills surrounding the city green up with the fury of fresh growth.  Princess Gunwar sat upon a stool at the wooden battlements of the centre fort and looked out on a field of small flowers that seemed to have sprung up overnight.  She admired their ability.  She marvelled at their growth.  She shook her head sadly as she studied her own leanness.

Old Gotwar, completing a long tiring ascent up the parapet stairs, kneeled at Gunwar’s feet, holding forth a goblet of hot herb tea she had prepared for her mistress.  “Drink this, or you will never be with child,” she crooned.

Gunwar took the brew and drank it, making a sour face at its disagreeable taste.  “Does my prince still argue with my brother?” she asked.  The old woman nodded.

In the high seat hall of King Frodi, within the central fort, Erik sat upon the second high seat and discussed the Huns with his king.  “We must pursue them while they are yet weak, before they have a chance to rebuild,” Erik protested.

“We, too, are weak from our exertions last fall,” King Frodi replied, “and we’ve suffered much during this harsh Scythian winter.  The Huns have been severely drubbed, and we’ll have no problems from them for a very long time.  If we move against them in their own territory we give them a chance to recoup their losses in their own lands, employing the exact same strategy we used to defeat them in the first place.  The logistics of a campaign that extensive would be unbearable.”

“They will not rest until they avenge their dead,” Erik continued.  “King Hunn yet holds claim to your throne.”

King Frodi became visibly annoyed at the mention of his former father-in-law.  “We have our Southern Way to build,” he declared.  “Let’s build it!”  Frodi massaged his forehead with his left hand and recomposed himself. “We can learn much from the Khazars about building a trading empire.  I have been studying their form of government.  They have a King they call Kagan, and they have a Grand Prince they call Kagan Bek.  They divide their kingly and commercial affairs, keeping the two efforts distinct and separate.  This seems to me a most workable system, one we may wish to emulate.”

“Have you chosen your kagan bek yet, my Kagan?” Erik asked, and they both laughed, first King Frodi then Erik.

“It is you, my Kagan Bek, who must do the choosing now.  You must gather the merchants about yourself and form a guild, a trading company to engage in both trade and taxation, the trade being for your guild’s benefit, the tithes for mine.  Now, you must choose a name for your trading company.  What would you like to call it?”

At that moment Roller entered the high seat hall.  He had been drinking all morning and was in a foul mood.  “Hrae!” he shouted.  “Do we take up arms against the Huns?  Or do we yet waver in fear?” Roller berated his brother.  He waved over a slave dispensing wine, took a goblet full and sat at the third high seat next to King Frodi.

Since the quarantine that Erik had imposed upon Roller and his men at Holmgard, the two brothers had become distanced.  Erik turned towards King Frodi, ignoring his brother’s goading, and said, “the Hraes’ Trading Company, after my father, Hraegunar ‘Lothbrok’.  We shall call the guild the Hraes’ Trading Company.”

“Are we attacking the Huns?” Roller asked once more, this time addressing King Frodi.

“We must consolidate our efforts in the development of the Southern Way,” King Frodi answered him politely, then turned to Erik and said, “Hraes’ Trading Company?  I like it.”

“I leave for Norway on the morrow,” King Roller said, getting up to take his leave.  “I hope you aren’t underestimating the fortitude of the Khazars, but, if you are, and they do return, call me and I shall come to your aid with all the forces I possess, for I’ve a score to settle with these Huns.”

The next day Roller led a large contingent of Norwegians down to their ships on the Dnieper river and they boarded and set sail for Norway.  Prince Erik and Princess Gunwar were there to see King Roller off, as were King Frodi and Queen Alfhild.  Their farewell embraces were the warmest feelings Erik and Roller had shared in a long while, and Erik hoped that his saving of the Danish forces from the ravages of the plague had not caused him to lose a brother.

All winter, King Frodi had occupied his troops by sending them out to collect tribute of a squirrel pelt per hearth from the Slav tribes surrounding the Poljane.  For the most part, the Slavs paid their dues without excessive complaint, merely paying their tithes to the Danes instead of the Khazars, but, whenever a village withheld tribute, it was dealt with severely.  The army would establish itself in that very village in order to collect tribute from the surrounding villages and, after several weeks of occupation, with its resulting rough handling of citizens and gentle handling of maidens, the tribute would invariably be paid by the villagers to rid themselves of the invaders.  The Danish officers would then lead their men to the next village that had refused to pay tribute and occupy it.  In that manner King Frodi had billeted his troops over the winter as well as got his taxes collected.

When the soldiers returned with the tribute: squirrel, fox, ermine and sable pelts, silver, honey and grain, King Frodi set about upgrading and expanding the chain of fortresses that the Khazars had built during their campaign.  The forts had been conveniently placed, by King Hunn, a day’s travel apart along the route of the Southern Way, to secure and protect the long supply line of the Khazar army from possible attack by the Slavs.  Unfortunately for the Huns, they did not foresee their supply line being throttled close to home by the Danish navy, operating on the Black Sea, and the Crimean Goths, led by brother Gregory.  At any rate, the fortresses were beginning to be of great assistance to King Frodi in establishing military and administrative control of the trade route.  They also led the merchants that Erik brought in from all over Scandinavia to call King Frodi’s kingdom Gardar:  the land of forts.

Attracting merchants to work the Southern Way proved more difficult than Erik had first expected.  The trade route was long and arduous, and it had a dangerous reputation.  There were, of course, a handful of Danish merchants who, like Alfgeir, had plied the ‘Way before King Frodi had even dreamed of taming it, but these were few and far between and many, also like Alfgeir, were dead.  Erik realized that a name was needed for the Southern Way that would generate a feeling of security, so, like a namesake of his, Erik the Red, who, two centuries later, would name a frozen forsaken wilderness Greenland, he encouraged, though took no credit for, the name Gardar.  Boasting of, and even exaggerating, the number of forts protecting the Southern Way helped dispel the fear that many Scandinavian merchants had of the Eastern Realm.  Erik learned that they would much rather ply the meagre northern European trade routes in relative safety–as if any trade in their time could be considered safe—rather than risk life and limb traversing the plains of Giantland.  Even the brave merchants within Erik’s own family were reluctant to abandon the Nor’Way in order to establish a questionable and competing route.  They preferred to keep faith with the customers they had, and to service the paths they had long travelled.  Finally, Erik sent groups from among his Centuriata north into Scandinavia, to Sweden and Denmark and to King Roller in Norway, for aid in garnering recruits for the Hraes’ Trading Company.  Relying heavily on Erik’s waxing reputation throughout the northern lands, both as poet and leader, these men managed to assemble a small army of  merchants and a flotilla of trading ships to sail the Southern Way in late spring.  Erik, meanwhile, travelled with Princess Gunwar to the Crimea to set up prospective trade agreements with the Greek merchants of Cherson.

The city of Cherson was expansive and it left an indelible impression upon Gunwar.  Except for some outlying residential areas, the whole city was walled about by a high stone battlement of Roman style, with three major entry gates of huge oak beams and iron bars.  Once in the city, Erik, Gunwar and their local entourage were stared upon in awe by the Greek citizens as they rode through the streets, especially Princess Gunwar, in her long flowing white fox robe and her polished armour.  She sat taller than most of the Greeks about her, and her long blonde hair caught up the morning sunlight, spun it amongst the tresses and tossed it forth for the citizens to watch in wonderment.  As the party of Danes wound their way through the streets of Cherson, they came to the merchant quarter, to which they had been assigned, or restricted so to speak, for the Greeks feared the Norsemen more than any other people they had faced in a long while.  Their guide led them up to the house of General Ygg.  He had offered them his manse in Cherson as a base of operations, although he, himself, did not come, being assigned, by King Frodi, the job of having the Radimichi build monoxylan at the source of the Dnieper.  But Brother Gregory was there and welcomed them warmly.

Princess Gunwar was impressed by the height and the litheness of the man.  He stood a head taller than her and half a head taller than her husband.  He had servants put up their horses and take their outer garments as he led them through the foyer and into a dining room, where a meal had been prepared for them.  They sat and rested on chairs along the dining room walls and were served wine in goblets as the servants washed the hands and the feet of those who would let them.  Gunwar found the cleansing refreshing and Brother Gregory’s accent intriguing.  He spoke the same archaic Norse that his brother, General Ygg, had spoken in Kiev, but General Ygg had learned to temper his words with Danish phrases that he picked up very quickly.  Brother Gregory, however, spoke unadulterated Goth as it had been spoken four centuries earlier in Sweden, and Gunwar found the language refreshing and entertaining.

Once introduced to Princess Gunwar, Brother Gregory held her hand affectionately and said, “Gunwar…Battle Maiden.  In my language your name would be Hervor…Maiden of Hosts.  You must forgive me if my tongue slips and now and again I call you Hervor.”

Princess Gunwar was impressed by this man of the cloth.  She felt him to be a connoisseur of the flesh as well as the grape, with the smooth tongue of Loki and a devilish twinkle in his eyes.  He was a handsome man with strength and presence.  Had he not have lived in interesting times, he would have made them so.  “Please, call me Hervor if you so wish,” Gunwar breathed.  “It is a beautiful name …. Hervor,” and, as she mouthed the name, she marvelled at its softness.  It was smooth, not guttural like Gunwar.  “You may address me as Hervor whenever you wish.”

When the servants had finished the ablutions, Brother Gregory seated the guests at the banquet table in the Norse fashion, rather than the Latin, with the leading guest seated at the centre of one long side of the table, flanked by his party in descending order of importance, and the host seated across from him, with his own people seated in a corresponding order.  So, the Danes all sat on one side of the table and Brother Gregory, with a few important Goth and Greek merchants, sat on the other.  The dinner turned to business as, after the meal, Erik sat and drank and hammered out an agreement with the merchants of Cherson.

While Erik was busy with the Greek merchants, Brother Gregory offered to give Gunwar and several members of Erik’s Centuriata a tour of his brother’s property.  Gunwar had already seen the entrance to the estate.  There had been a gateway in a high stone wall off the narrow dusty street, with huge oaken doors, and, inside it, on the right of the path was a small vineyard and garden, on the left towered the two-story mansion and at the end was an attached stable with loft.  The entrance to the manor also had oak double doors, and the foyer inside had the guards’ chambers on the left and a long high fireplace along the wall on the right.  At the left end of the foyer was a staircase going up a tower that stood tall at the north corner of the building, and off to the right was the large dining room where the Norsemen had just enjoyed their meal.  To the right of the dining room there was a small heavy doorway leading out into a courtyard surrounding a huge oak tree, and beyond the dining room was a living room with a huge stone fireplace set in the west corner.  Brother Gregory led his guests into the living room and explained some of the religious works of art hanging there.  Princess Gunwar saw icons of a woman with a child and a handsome bearded man, all with auras about their heads.

“The Patriarch has banned the veneration of icons,” Brother Gregory explained.  “We preserve these for the church.  They will be returned once the Patriarch and his iconoclastic beliefs are dead,” he added, sombrely.

Gunwar did not understand the religious implications of what Brother Gregory had said, but she felt the sadness in his words.  Next, they were shown the kitchen, which had a small doorway into the stable, and then Brother Gregory led them back through the house, past Erik and the Greek merchants still discussing their pact, and up the stairway to the second floor, then into a foyer with shuttered windows overlooking the oak tree in the courtyard.  There was a grouping of four guest chambers nested in one corner of the floor, three bedrooms down one long side of the hall and a large master’s bed chamber at the other end.  There were servant’s quarters above the stable and, because the Christians were forbidden to own slaves, Brother Gregory emphasized the word `servants’ and explained to Gunwar that his serfs were bound to him only through debt or duty, not ownership.

“Once they pay off their debt or discharge their duty,” Gunwar asked, “then they are free to go?”

“If they wish,” Brother Gregory answered, “but most prefer the security of servitude.  Freedom is a heavy burden.”  Brother Gregory led Gunwar back down the hall and again up the staircase to the top of the tower.  From the battlements one could see the city of Cherson spreading north across the dusty Crimean plain, rising to meet the grey stone of the Governor’s Citadel, standing on a squat little hill overlooking the harbour.

Gunwar knew servitude and knew only too well the weighty responsibilities of freedom.  She had been bound to the court of her brother, the king, and she had suffered the abuses of Grep and his berserker brothers until alcohol and depression had near swept her away and, after Grep had committed the foulest deed of them all, the slaughter of her suitors, and she groped through the darkest of her days, then there came an arrow of light called Erik and the bright shaft of his spirit shattered the foul darkness of the berserks.  She knew freedom, yet, still, she served the court of her brother.  The tall lithe monk was explaining the lay of the city and Gunwar watched his handsome features and she knew why she’d judged him to be a lady’s man.  He was attractive to women.  Priests and monks of that period were not bound to celibacy and, indeed, many were married and had families.  And then a thought occurred to Gunwar that devastated her.  “Maybe it is Erik’s fault I am barren,” she thought, but she cast that treacherous notion from her mind as fast as she had conceived it.  A great guilt swept across her breast, a betrayal, and she said, “Perhaps we should rejoin the others.”

In the dining room, the Greek merchants were pressuring Erik for a long-term trading agreement when Princess Gunwar and Brother Gregory returned.  Gunwar had several of Erik’s Centuriata carry their luggage up to the second-floor chamber that had been assigned to her and she begged leave of her husband that she might rest.  “Is something wrong?” Erik asked her.  She shook her head and took her leave, but Erik did not believe her.  Erik rose from the table, took Brother Gregory aside, and asked, “What is wrong?”

“I fear she does not like Cherson,” Brother Gregory replied, “for, as she was looking out over the city, a great sadness overcame her.”

Erik returned to the table and concluded the meeting, saying, “We shall trade with you exclusively this year, as the season is all but spent, but next year we shall see.”

The Greek merchants were disappointed at his words, but they had little choice in the matter.  The Norsemen were wearing the quality furs they would be bringing to trade, and the Greeks knew the prices they would fetch in the markets of Constantinople and Baghdad.

Later, when the Greek merchants had left, and Brother Gregory had assigned all to their sleeping benches, Erik joined Gunwar in their chamber and he lay beside her, hoping she would say something.

Princess Gunwar lay beside Erik, wanting to confess the thought that had occurred to her that afternoon, but she could not broach the subject.  She longed to feel a baby, a life inside herself.  She needed Erik and she reached for her husband.  He felt her need and touched her.

The next morning, Erik and Gunwar and their Centuriata packed up their belongings, strapped on their weapons, mounted their horses and bid Brother Gregory goodbye with many thanks, then rode out of Cherson in the early light of dawn.  They rode two days up the Crimean Peninsula and another three to the Dnieper rapids, where their ships sat, anchored and guarded, upstream of the rapid called Essoupi.  The sailors aboard ship, on seeing Erik, rowed into shore, and all helped load the small Danish ponies aboard the boats.  The horses, still shaggy with their winter coats, were led down the riverbank and splashed through the gravel at the river’s edge, out to where the ships had grounded, and the men aboard all came to the shoreward side of boat, causing it to yaw to that side until the top strake near dipped into the waves and a horse could be led on board.  The horse was then led to a place where its weight aided in maintaining the yaw, while other horses embarked, and the loads were adjusted accordingly each time an animal boarded, and, once all animals and personnel were aboard, the ship was poled off the riverbed until it was free and floating.  Then, the wind being favourable, they set the sail and rowed up the Dnieper to Kiev.

The monoxylan had all been built, the tribute had been gathered and the merchants: Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, had arrived and were awaiting the kagan bek’s return, when Erik, Gunwar and their Centuriata came sailing up a bend in the Dnieper River.  King Frodi welcomed his sister and brother-in-law home, and King Olmar, too, was there to greet them.  Erik had hoped that perhaps his brother, King Roller, would have had a change of heart and would have been there to welcome them, but such was not the case.  The Norwegian merchants, many of whom Erik knew personally, reported that King Roller had returned to The Vik and was busy establishing his rule over Norway.  Erik felt it was all part of growing up, this distancing of brothers, but, still, it saddened him.  Although he yet hoped that chance and circumstance would, in the future, draw them closer once again, he knew that they would never be as close as they had been when they had set off from home to avenge their father’s honour at the court of young King Frodi in Liere.  Events, indeed, would draw the brothers back together, but Erik was to deeply regret the tragedy that was to catalyse their repatriation.

The next day, leaving Princess Gunwar with her brother in Kiev,  Prince Erik led the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company on their first expedition down the Dnieper River.  All were in high spirits as they floated down the river, and many were the toasts and boasts ringing out across the still flowing waters of that grand Black Sea tributary.  It was not until they reached the Dnieper rapids that the work really began.  The merchants used the same procedure of portage and fording that the Danish navy had employed the previous year and, two weeks and two drowned men later, the Scandinavians landed in the harbour of Cherson.  The Eastern Roman citizens, in general, were terrified by the presence of so many  barbarians, but the Greek merchants were very pleased to see them.  The Norsemen brought amber, furs and slaves for which the Greeks traded gold, silver and silks.  The Greeks needed these northern goods, for there would be no caravans coming out of the east, out of the crushed Khazar Empire, for many years to come.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

22.0  TRADING WITH THE GREEKS OR CONSTANTINOPLE  (Circa 833 AD)

            “They who followed Bragi the Old were called Bragunar.”

            Snorri Sturluson;  Skaldskaparmal.

Originally founded by the Greeks in 658 B.C. as the town of Byzantium, the city of Constantinople was established as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire by Augustus Caesar Constantine in 330 A.D.  It was to be a bastion of western civilization for over a millennium, with a population of over half a million citizens and a strategic location, between the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus that controlled trade between the Mediterranean and Scythian (Black) Seas.  Twelve miles of stone wall protected its palaces and churches, forums and arenas, cisterns and aqueducts, while six gates allowed access to its streets and houses.  It was on the tip of a peninsula called the Golden Horn, with its harbour of the same name to the north, the Bosporus Strait and Asia Minor on its east, the Sea of Marmara or Propontus to the south and the Lycus River trailing into the continent of Europe on its west.

It had taken Erik a month of haranguing and many bribes to get the leading merchant of Cherson, a Greek called Chaleus, to arrange for an escort to and meeting with merchants in Constantinople.  And this, Chaleus did with style.  An escorting trireme of the Roman navy dwarfed Fair Faxi as it led Erik and merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company from Cherson southwest across the Black Sea to the Bosporus and up into the Golden Horn.  Calm had been the sea passage, with exceptionally fine weather for late fall, but the winter rains were starting as they rowed down the strait between Europe and Asia.  The Greek naval officers had wasted no time in displaying the superior speed of their trireme’s oars while leaving the harbour of Cherson, but the Norsemen showed the Romans how their little ship sped swiftly over the high sea waves once out upon the Pontus Euxinus, so the Greeks took their time leading the longship down the Bosporus, and Erik studied the small towns and many churches crowding both shores of the passage.  The little settlements never ceased, one town blending into the next with the odd monastery or church in between.  And the waters were alive with little boats and ships, fishing craft and merchant vessels.  As Fair Faxi approached Constantinople, the shorelines were crowded with houses, estates and vineyards, and on their left the city of Chrysopolis settled into the Asian coast and up into its hills as far as the eye could see, then, to the south, they saw the Sea of Marmara before heading west up into the Golden Horn.  The high-walled capital of the Roman Empire loomed ominously above the Norsemen, casting deep evening shadows across calm rippling waters, as they rowed up into the long harbour.

The Roman navy was on manoeuvre along the Horn and Erik witnessed a phenomenon he had only heard tales about, an event he suspected had been planned as a demonstration of Roman military might:  the throwing of Greek fire, from a bireme onto the decks of an abandoned old hulk of a merchantman.  Erik had been raised on tales of his father, Ragnar, attacking just such a fire breathing bireme on the rivers of Scythia many years before.  Roman sailors were on the deck of the bireme and the crew manning the hollow tube of the Greek weapon stood out in their flame proofed mail shirts and their shaggy hide breaches and their broad brimmed bronze helms and soon the tube roared a great ‘Hraaaaee’ from the deck of the Greek warship, spouting flaming black liquor into the night air and onto the decks of the little galley while the massive bladders and bellows below deck exhausted their pressurized air.  Erik imagined his father standing at the forestem of his ship shouting ‘Hraae’ right back at the top of his lungs and his crew all shouting ‘Hraae’ in unison to keep up their courage as they rowed straight for the bireme and when the Greeks replied with another flaming ‘Hraaaaee’, Ragnar led his men in a responding ‘Hraae’ once more while fending off the flames with his ship’s green hide awnings and water logged shields, then coming in low, under the arc of fire, to attack the soft underbelly of the beast, grappling and boarding that ship of the Empire and stealing away the hoard of Roman gold, the cursed Red Gold Rings of Byzantium, that the Guild had told him about.  The Greek naval officers of their escort vessel shook their heads in disbelief as the barbaric Norsemen laughed and shouted ‘Hraae” at this demonstration of the Roman Empire’s fiery secret weapon.  Erik would never tell the Greeks that it was his father that had stolen their Emperor’s gold, but he let all the Norsemen in his company know about it and he told them that Ragnar got his ‘Hrae’ in Hraegunar and his famed byname ‘Lothbrok’ from that sea battle.  And that was how his father Gunar became Hraegunar and his byname became Lothbrok, or Shaggy Breaches, and how his own son Erik was in Norse called Hraerik and was destined to become Prince Ruirik to the Slavs of Hraes’ or Rus’.  And how his gifted shield was called Hrae’s Ship’s Round and the tales that were carved into it were to cover up the charred marks burnt into it by the Naphtha flames and how now his company of traders were called the Hraes’.  Erik owed much to the secret weapon of the Greeks.  Poems and tales were still being made of the Hraes Gold, or Regin’s Gold, or the Red Gold or the Hring Gold stolen by Ragnar ‘Lothbrok’ Sigurdson.  It would not become the ‘Rhine’ Gold yet; that would come later in Ingleheim.

The escorting trireme led Fair Faxi to a dock offshore of the Gate of Plateia, where a number of merchants of Constantinople awaited Chaleus and his Norse traders.  It was a sombre and overweight group that welcomed Erik to Constantinople as he stepped onto the solid stonework of the dock, the opulence of Rome self-evident.  Chaleus introduced Erik to the merchants that he knew and they, in turn, presented the rest of their party.  Erik was amazed at how quickly night followed day in the southern climes.  There was no long period of dusk as in the northern lands.  But the Greek merchants had fine carriages at hand to take the Norsemen quietly into the city.  They passed through the immense bronze doors of the Gate of Plateia and travelled down a wide flagstone street lit up with oil-fired streetlamps that burned brightly, passing under a long aqueduct and turning left onto an avenue called the Mese.  Passing through the Forum of Theodosius, they carried on to the Forum of Constantine and there awaited a messenger from the Great Palace of the Emperor, Michael.  An hour passed before a palace eunuch ambled down the busy Mese with instructions that the Norse merchants be entertained in the Triclinium of Augustus, a hall in the Great Palace equipped with apartments and kitchens.  The merchant Chaleus was to stay with the barbarians and was responsible for their behaviour.  Once settled comfortably in their chambers, Chaleus said to Erik, “The Emperor is pleased with the sable pelts we presented him in tithe for the goods we shipped from Cherson.  He wishes more and is willing to pay Roman gold for them.  Further, he requests all sales of sable be restricted to the royal household.”

“We shall see,” was Erik’s taciturn reply.  He was not impressed with his reception in Constantinople.  He had been greeted with intimidation, been compelled to wait on palace slaves and was now being told his business.  He was not looking forward to the morrow’s entertainment.  Chaleus had promised him an afternoon of The Games, chariot racing, at the Hippodrome.

Erik could hear it even though he could not see it.  It made a massive shuffling sound in the cool morning air and one could almost feel it vibrating the cold stones of the Triclinium of Augustus.  One could taste the dust raised into the air by it and every fibre in Erik’s being was instinctively aroused by its ominous and crushing presence.

“It is the mob,” Chaleus explained in his broken Goth.  “They who come to watch the games.”  Erik wanted to see them, but the Greek explained that they, themselves, would be entering the Hippodrome directly from the palace grounds later, then, relenting, he led Erik out into a street of the palace, past the Hall of Nineteen Couches and to the Triclinium beyond the court of Daphne.  There was a small watchtower atop the Triclinium from which advantage Erik could see much of Constantinople.  But it was the mob that caught and held his eye.  By the thousands, people were streaming into the Hippodrome, flowing like a great river of humanity into that ancient sea of stone, flowing from homes into small tributary streets, commingling in the larger avenues, converging on the huge Mese and flowing down through the centre of Constantinople, through the Forum of Constantine, where the masses eddied in small swirling surging bodies before streaming once again into the Mese and on to the stadium.  Erik shivered involuntarily at the sight.  This mob, as Chaleus called it, had to number in the hundreds of thousands: perhaps two hundred thousand—more than twice as great as the army of the Huns.  The thought of so many people gathering in one place awed Erik, but the thought of three or four times as many people all living together here in Constantinople, with even more if one included Chrysopolis and the surrounding towns, staggered him.  From the vantage point of the watchtower, Erik’s overwhelmed senses left the people and moved on to the city of Constantinople, itself.

Chaleus watched the barbarian as he studied the city.  The Norseman showed no signs of being overly impressed, still Chaleus flushed with pride in Constantinople, the mother city of the Greco-Roman world.  “You missed the sights with our night arrival,” he started, as the city of Constantinople lay spread out before them.  “The fortification to the west is the Wall of Theodosius,” Chaleus explained in a medley of Goth and Greek words, “said to be built from the stones of the walls of Troy, not far from here, and to its north the Palace of Blachernae, so named for a Scythian prince who died on that spot.  There you see the Cisterns of Aetius and Aspar,” he continued, pointing,” and then we have the Inner Wall of Constantine and the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Aqueduct that we passed under last night and, there, is the Gate of Plateia, through which we entered the city, and there is the Gate of Perama and beyond them both is the Harbour of the Golden Horn.”  Chaleus gave Erik a moment to absorb the names, then continued.  “As I explained last night, the great avenue running down the centre of the city is called the Mese and, by the aqueduct, is the Forum of Theodosius and then we have the Forum of Constantine and, finally, we have the Hippodrome,” he said, and Erik was drawn back, once more, to the crowd at the stadium.  “Going back to the west,” Chaleus started again, “the gates in the Wall of Theodosius from the north are: the Gate of Charisius on the Mese, the Gate of Romanus, the Gate of Selembria on the Sigma Mese and the Golden Gate.”  Erik could not see any gold on the Golden Gate, but, before Erik could question this, Chaleus continued.  “Down the Sigma Mese is the Forum of Arcadius and the Forum of the Ox.  To our south is the Sea of Marmara,” Chaleus explained, moving to the south-east corner of the tower, “and the Sophian Harbour.  There are the Churches of Saint Thomas and Anastasia and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.  Behind us is, of course, the Imperial Palace grounds and there is the Pentacubiculum and the Covered Hippodrome and, behind it, the Palace of Trichonus.”

Erik could just make out the Palace of Trichonus over top the Covered Hippodrome, and its roof, he could see, was covered in gold.  Chaleus went on to detail the rest of the Great Palace to Erik:  the lighthouse by the sea wall, the Imperial Apartments, the Octagon, the Court of Daphne, the Hall of Nineteen Couches, the Triclinium of Augustus in which they were staying, the Tribunal, the Court of Schools, the Open Square, the Brazen House, the Church of the Apostles and the Magnaura.  The palace grounds ended at the Mese and the Milion, the column at which all distances from Constantinople were measured.  Beyond were the Augustion and the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, the crowning glory of Orthodox Christianity.

“She’s the marvel of the Greek world,” Chaleus declared, as both men, Roman and Barbarian, took in the wondrous beauty of that climax of the First Golden Age of Roman architecture.  “It was built in six years,” the Greek continued, “some five hundred years after the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”  Hagia Sophia sat brooding, a magnificent church, oozing religion, its hundred-foot concrete dome rising higher yet over its surrounding grounds.  “Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Militus built her and his son, Isidorus the Younger, completed her.”  Chaleus considered himself to be a well‑educated man and somewhat of an expert on ships and buildings.  Had he not been born into a wealthy merchant class family that bought and sold properties, he felt he would have devoted his life to the construction of magnificent structures, but this whim of his did not reflect the realities of Roman civilization.  Merchants were the sons of merchants and builders the sons of builders and soldiers of soldiers until even mercenaries passed on their deadly skills to their own offspring.

Erik studied the massive holy structure and, even though he did not show it, he marvelled in its accomplishment.  Both men’s reveries were shattered by the shout of an Imperial Guardsman, an officer of the elite Immortals Regiment.

“What are you doing here?” he shouted, rushing across the stone floor of the tower.  Keeping clear of Erik, he grabbed Chaleus by the throat and shouted, “Showing the barbarian our defences?  This is treason.  I’ll have your head.”

“A mark of silver,” Chaleus wheezed, as the big man near lifted him off his feet.

“That’s all your miserable life is worth?” the guardsman hissed.

“A gold talent,” Chaleus countered.

The officer of the Immortals managed a small greedy smile before Erik remembered a word he had heard shouted many times from the walls during the siege of Cherson.  “Pig!” Erik shouted in Latin.

The guardsman dropped Chaleus, who tumbled backwards into the wall of the tower and watched the fight unfold, sitting.  The Immortal drew his long sword and it flashed in the sunlight.  Erik stepped away from the wall, drawing Tyrfingr, and his sword glowed in the shadows.  The huge Greek swung his weapon with such force that it shattered upon the star stone of Erik’s blade.  He raised his arms as though to say, “I am unarmed,” but Tyrfingr bit deep into his chest and the Immortal died without a word.

As Erik withdrew the sword and sheathed Tyrfingr in the blood of the Roman guardsman, Chaleus rose to his feet, shaking.

“You could have spared the man,” he complained.  “He’d have settled for a mark of silver at sword point.”

“There is a curse on this sword.  It must be the death of a man each time it is drawn,” Erik explained.  “It was him or you!”

“And the glow?  It is part of this curse?”

Erik nodded in reply.

“Can you get more of these cursed swords?” Chaleus asked, his eyes lighting up as the merchant in him took over.

“There is but the one,” Erik laughed, shaking his head, but the interest of the Greek warned Erik of the danger of letting Tyrfingr fall into Roman hands.

“I’ll have my people come collect the corpse,” Chaleus offered as they descended the tower.

“No,” Erik answered.  “I’ll have my Centuriata get him when we’re at the games.”  And, while Chaleus and Erik were busy with the pomp and majesty of the Emperor’s entrance into the Hippodrome, four of Erik’s men covertly carried an empty wine keg to the top of the palace watch tower and spirited a full one down.

The Hippodrome was a huge stone and brick stadium holding over a hundred thousand spectators.  A quarter of a mile long and four hundred feet wide, it was the largest structure within the walls of Constantinople.  The full length of its east side adjoined the Great Palace, then swept around to the south and west in a graceful arc and the tiered stone seats of its western side ran parallel for another quarter mile, leaving the north end open for the entering of processions and parades from The Mese.  Access to the general public was via hundreds of entrances all along the outer wall of the stadium and Erik thought, as they entered the Imperial Section, that if Odin, indeed, had a hall called Valhall, it would be like the Hippodrome, with drinking and games and massive entertainments.

Erik and Chaleus, although sitting in the Emperor’s Section, had not been invited to sit in the Imperial Box.  Surrounded by fellow merchants of note, they sat several rows below and to the left of Emperor Theophilos, who had just taken over from the reign of Emperor Michael ‘the Second’.  As the chariots and teams were being led into the stadium from the north, a Greek merchant asked Erik a question which Chaleus translated for him.  “How would you describe our fair city?” Chaleus asked Erik.

Erik sat stiffly, showing no signs of his earlier wonderment.  “Miklagard!” he shouted, sure that the reception by Michael would have been warmer than that so far proffered by Theophilos.

“Michael’s Keep,” Chaleus translated for the merchant, who smiled condescendingly.

The chariots were soon lined up in front of the Imperial Box and ready to start the race.  A low wall ran down the centre of the field, most of the length of the stadium, separating it into two halves, forming the track around which the four-horse chariots would race.  There were four teams decked out in their respective colours of blue, green, red and white representing the four quarters of the city.  The blue team had the official support of the emperor and the green had the empress’s backing.  The wife of the sovereign ruler of the empire stood up, silk kerchief in hand, and let the bright green and blue handkerchief fall.  Erik watched it float down from the Imperial Box and, as the wind swept the silk out over the reaching arms of the crowd, he was reminded of the handkerchief Gunwar had dropped to begin the Ragnarsons’ duel with the sons of Westmar, out upon the ice, and a sharp pang of loneliness pierced him as he thought of his wife.  The race, meanwhile, had begun, and the chariots were hurtling around the first turn in the course.  The blue chariot was in the lead, followed by the green and the white, with the red team trailing last.  Coming down the far side of the track, the teams maintained much the same order, but, in the desire to win, the green chariot attempted to go inside of the blue team as it went around the last corner.  The two chariots collided with each other, sending the blue team crashing into the wall of the stadium.  The white and red teams swept by the floundering green and crossed the finish line.  The driver of the blue chariot got up out of the wreckage as slaves rushed out to attend the horses.  “It is a bad omen for Emperor Theophilos,” Chaleus whispered, “but a good one for us,” he chuckled, the white team being representative of the merchants of Constantinople.  A brooding scowl altered the face of the Emperor, who had been very pleased and smiling upon learning that the barbarian had called Constantinople, Miklagard.  It was a sombre Imperial party that returned to the Great Palace late that afternoon.

That evening, Chaleus had arranged for a business meeting between Erik and a number of influential merchants of Constantinople at the House of Lanterns, a silk emporium that gained fame by the magnificent collection of ancient lamps and lanterns that burned night and day there.  The street lighting of Constantinople had impressed Erik, as had the water and sanitation systems, but the House of Lanterns stood out in Erik’s mind as a bright spot in a city of lights.  The building itself was of a traditional Hellenic style that Erik had come to recognize and appreciate, thanks to the critiques of Chaleus, with its fluted Dorian columns and bas relief.  Lanterns surrounded the exterior of the building, lighting up the night air, and lamps were set throughout the atrium giving the whole place an unreal sensation of daylight at night.  It was with the intent to impress, that the merchants arranged an evening meeting with the barbarian, but, as fascinated as he was, Erik yet again proved to be a most difficult man to deal with.  The merchants brought the disturbing news that a large mission had been sent to Constantinople from Khazaria and that they were due to arrive at any time.  Chaleus advised Erik to make the best deal he could and then to leave Constantinople at once, but that only served to anger Erik and he presented yet stiffer demands.  He wanted direct and standard tithes between Rhos and Constantinople, with special privileges for Norse merchants there, including free access into the city, free room, board and entertainments and Roman provision of any materials required to repair and re-outfit all ships damaged in their southern journey.  Further, he wanted all Hraes’ merchants to have the right to winter in Constantinople, if they should so desire, and he made it clear to Chaleus that he would not be running from any Khazar emissaries by stating that he would be the first Varangian to take advantage of the wintering privilege.  Erik was not about to let representatives of the tottering Hun Empire winter in Constantinople unmolested, their sole purpose to undo all that Erik had planned to accomplish there.  Erik’s demands, being well beyond the realm of the merchants to grant, would be presented to the Emperor’s officials on the morrow.  The Kagan Bek of Rhos, meanwhile, instructed Chaleus to find out all he could about the expected arrival of the Huns.

It took several days of negotiations between merchants and officials of the Ministry of Finance before a counteroffer could be agreed upon.  In the interim, Chaleus had learned the expected time and place of the arrival of the Huns and told Erik about it.  Erik assembled and armed all members of his Centuriata and led them out to the Gate of Plateia to await the enemy.  They did not wait long, for Chaleus learned of their impending arrival from paid observers who watched and read the signs broadcast by the chain of signal beacons the Greeks had running up the Bosporus and into Asia Minor.  Erik and his force of thirty armed men waited overtly at the gate until they saw three ships of the Khazars, then they walked out onto the dock outside the Gate of Plateia and took their weapons, swords, shields and battle axes, out from under their cloaks and, as the ships approached, they began to beat their shields with their swords, and a few berserkers in Erik’s band began to go into their fits, and it was apparent to the Khazars what would happen if they attempted to land.  The Huns turned their ships away from the dock and looked, for a moment, as if they would try to find another dock at which to anchor, but several of the berserks began to howl at the enemy and one broke free of his companions and dove into the harbour after them and, this being too much for the Khazars, they turned full about and fled the Golden Horn and did not stop until they reached their homeland.  No trace was found of the berserker who had chased them off, but, although stories were circulated that he had caught up to the last ship and had died, half clearing its deck, Erik knew from experience that the cold of the water would have dissipated the fit leaving the berserker to drown in his resulting state of weakness.

Erik thought of Princess Gunwar often in the months to come, as the Varangians wintered in Constantinople.  He had won most of the concessions he demanded, save free access to the city.  The merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, or Rhos as they came to be called by the citizens of Constantinople, required at least one Greek sponsor before they could enter the city, and only in the merchant quarter of St. Mamas were they free to roam about unescorted.  And, for these benefits, Erik had but to promise the Emperor access to all the sables that were brought to Constantinople.  There had been, however, one concession the emperor was not free to give, one favour Erik hadn’t even bothered to request, one element of pagan trade that, in his dealings with Brother Gregory of Sugedea, he had learned was forbidden to Christians:  slavery.  And it was a chance meeting that gave Erik the opportunity to resolve this shortcoming of the Greek trade.

Towards the end of winter, Erik happened to meet several Arab merchants attached to an embassy to Constantinople from the Caliph of Baghdad.  In the few moments they had together, one of the merchants, an older man who introduced himself in Greek as Ahmad Ibn-Yakut, seemed very anxious to talk and told Erik that he remembered, on an embassy to the Khazars and then on to the Bulgars, meeting a Norse merchant called Gunar, who had been interested in establishing trade with the Arabs, specifically slave trade.  He had then, at hand, a number of captives that he sold to them, but he had also a beautiful young Slav princess with whom he would not part for any sum.  Ahmad asked Erik if he knew of the man and, when Erik told him that Gunar or Ragnar was his father, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut commented that somehow Erik had looked vaguely familiar.  Erik found this odd, because all his life he had been continually reminded that he bore no resemblance to his father whatsoever.  Still, because of the Arab’s unusual acquaintance with Ragnar, Erik agreed to meet Ahmad Ibn-Yakut in Baghdad, after the next trading season, to work on a trade agreement between Rus’ and the Arab Caliphate.

In the early spring, Erik, Chaleus and the Centuriata boarded Fair Faxi and set sail for Cherson, leaving the great city of Constantinople, Miklagard, behind them.  Out on the open waves of the great Scythian Sea, Erik had his men commit a wine cask to the waves.

Note:  We may want to add in Prince Imair of Dub-Lin here to put in updates of Ragnar and Ivar, Sigurd and Agnar.  Brak sends him to visit.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

23.0  TRADING WITH THE ARABS OR MAGIS IN BAGHDAD  (Circa 834 AD)

            “The Raesir let the Rhine’s Sun shimmer

             From the reddened Skull’s ship on the Sea-Fells.”

Markus;  Skaldskaparmal.

Ahmad Ibn-Yakut had called her a Slav princess, a slave, a captive that Ragnar would not part with for any sum.  And Erik could not help but wonder if the Arab had met his mother.  Boddi had been a captive, brought back to Thule by his father, but was she the princess Ahmad had seen in Bulgar?  Erik’s meeting with the Arab merchant had been brief, a few passing minutes spent together in a hallway of the House of Lanterns in Constantinople, moments spanning decades, crossing generations.  Threads of fate spinning thoughts of grandeur.  It was all probably coincidence.  Still, when Erik told King Olmar of Ahmad’s sighting of a Slav princess captive, in Bulgar, in the time of his father, the old king could hardly keep himself from tears; but he refused to discuss the occurrence.  Erik spoke of his suspicions with Gunwar, who said only that she would love him as much the child of a captive as the son of a princess.  Erik seemed to dismiss the old Arab’s words, forget about them, and he got back to the business of building an empire for his king.  But when the summer’s trade with Constantinople was successfully completed, and it came time for the Rhos to return home, Erik and his Centuriata found themselves hugging the southern coast of the Black Sea while King Frodi led the rest of the Varangians north.

It was while sailing for the Arab lands that the words of Ahmad came back to Erik, propelling him into the dangers of a southern expedition.  They sailed along the Black Sea coast, past Sinope, to the mouth of the River Halys then began rowing up the tributary.  Ahmad had left a map for Erik in the House of Lanterns in Constantinople, and Erik followed the little lampblack line on the parchment to its source, and they portaged Fair Faxi across to the Euphrates and began a downstream journey into the Caliphate of Baghdad.  Two thirds of the way down that second lampblack line, Erik had his men row in to the eastern bank and they waited for night before Erik led a small party out on horseback to locate the Tigris River and Baghdad–if Erik had read Ahmad’s map correctly.  The Arabs of that time were the world’s foremost geographers and mapmakers and the Vikings the foremost explorers, so it did not surprise Erik, in the least, that, after several hours riding, they saw a reflection of the moon floating on the still waters of the Tigris and, several miles downstream, the faint lights of the city of Baghdad.  Erik sent a man back to inform the others to await his return and he and several men continued into the city.

By morning, after fording the Tigris, they arrived in the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, a new Arab dynasty replacing the long standing Ommayads.  Much of the circular city was surrounded by a long low wall, but the commercial district for which they were bound stood beyond the protective enclosure, so they were not challenged nor was their progress impeded until they reached the house of Ahmad Ibn-Yakut.  It was a huge sandstone house of two and a half stories on the outskirts of Baghdad, and a large eunuch guarding the front doors let them in without question or ceremony.  The Varangians waited in the anteroom until a young man entered, introducing himself as Fadlan, the son of Ahmad, in an eloquent Greek that Erik’s months in Constantinople allowed him to comprehend.

“My father told us to expect Northmen,” Fadlan explained, “so, when our eunuch saw you, he knew right away who you were.  Father is out right now, but we expect him back on the morrow.  I shall have food and entertainment prepared.  You are the guests of Ahmad Ibn-Yakut,” the young man offered, bowing graciously.  There was pride of family in his voice as he talked on his father’s behalf.

Erik thanked Fadlan for his generosity, and the Norsemen were led into a sumptuously carpeted dining room.  They were offered cushioned seats upon the floor and platters of food were brought in before them.  Erik had not realized how hungry he had been until the tantalizing odours rose steaming from the plates, but the Varangians waited for their host to be seated and they watched his manner of dining then they copied it.  The success of the Viking merchant was dependent on the care in which he blended into the civilizations he traded with, but Erik had never dealt with Moslems before and the lack of wine with the meal would have been a notable shortcoming had not Fadlan, realizing the dilemma, procured a bottle from a locked cabinet and offered it to the foreigners.  Erik and his men added small quantities of the wine to their goblets of water, more to prevent illness than provide pleasure.  The greatest enemy of the traveller was not the treachery of native citizens nor the danger of natural disaster, but rather the exposure to unfamiliar diseases.  And the Norsemen were not the first to discover that alcohol cleansed and purified native waters of diseases against which they had little defence.

Following the meal, Fadlan called for the entertainment and several young female dancers entered the room and began a traditional dance, involving the slow removal of veils that the Norsemen found exciting.  Several musicians that had entered with the dancers played upon unfamiliar stringed instruments and exotic flutes and Erik found the music had its own sensual quality quite apart from the dancing.  Erik’s all night trek, combined with the music and the dancing, soon had the wine going to the head of the young Kagan Bek of the Hraes’, and when he awoke the next morning, it was with few recollections of the night before, except that the young woman sleeping in the bed next to him was one of the beautiful young dancers he had been so entertained by the previous night.

A knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Fadlan, who was smiling sheepishly.  “We expect the arrival of my father within the hour,” he apologized.  “Your companions are just down the hall, if you wish to arouse them for a morning meal,” Fadlan said, then left.

Erik was up on one elbow, and he looked down at the young woman who returned his gaze and smiled dreamily.  She stroked Erik’s whiskered cheek with her delicate hand and the value of an hour weighed heavily upon the mind of the Varangian.

Erik was just coming down from upstairs when Ahmad Ibn-Yakut arrived home, and they met once again in a hallway, this time in Baghdad, not Constantinople.  “Welcome to my humble abode,” Ahmad said, greeting the Norseman he had met only once before, and for only a very few minutes, as if he were a long-lost friend.  “I must apologize for my son’s mistake.  He had told me that he offered you wine from my cabinet, which, I’m afraid, wasn’t wine at all, but distilled liquor I acquired in my travels.  It is exceedingly potent.  We Moslems are forbidden to drink and so my son has no knowledge of such matters.  Again, I apologize for my son’s error.”

Fadlan was behind his father and repeated his sentiments.  “I am sorry for my mistake,” he said.  “I hope you were not harmed by it.”

“I hope no harm was done,” Erik told the Arabs.  “as I can barely recollect last night’s events and there is a severe pounding in my head.”

“Only Fazima, your dancer, can tell us of that for certain,” Fadlan explained.  “You carried her off to your room in the evening and that is the last we saw of you two.”

It was Erik’s turn to apologize and, ruddy cheeked, he did just that.

“It is of no consequence,” Ahmad declared.  “She is but a slave, and I hear she did not protest at all.”

Unlike Christians, the Moslems of that time accepted and promoted the dark practice of slavery.  It was in support of the slave system that Ahmad had wished to establish a trade agreement with Erik and the Hraes’ Trading Company, for the one thing the Moslems and Pagans had in common, was their usage of slaves.  After breakfast, Erik and Ahmad started working through a preliminary trade agreement, similar in scope to the Hraes’-Roman arrangement, for presentation to the merchant council of Baghdad.  In the previous two centuries of Arab expansionism there had been no shortage of slaves, captives from war and tribute from subjugated peoples, but, under the Abbasid Dynasty, the Arab jihad, or holy war, lost impetus and a period of peace and prosperity had set in.  A result of this harmony was a severe shortage of slaves that, coupled with the rising affluence of the people, drove up the price of thralls.  After an hour of discussions, Erik’s headache forced them to take a break.  “I have just the thing,” Ahmad exclaimed.  “We shall take a few hours rest in the courtyard.  I have the latest technology arriving, and it only requires you to remain still and at rest.”

True to his word, an alchemist soon arrived with several assistants and two large box-shaped devices were set up in the courtyard.  Ahmad had two tall chairs set up in front of the courtyard colonnades and he and Erik posed for the pinhole cameras.  The chemist carefully spread a thin film of asphaltic paste over two silver plates and placed one in each box so that the beams of light entering through the pinholes in the boxes targeted the full plate diameters.  Erik had gathered his weapons, Tyrfingr and Rae’s-Ship’s-Round and he sat back and relaxed as did his host and occasionally they would sip orange juice out of silver goblets.  Then the alchemist would come out from between the boxes and quickly re-adjust their poses, then return and monitor the exposures.  After two hours he put clay seals on the pinholes and covered the boxes with heavy black drapes.  

It took Erik only two days to come to a full trade agreement with the Arabs.

The night before Erik was to return to his ship, he and Ahmad Ibn-Yakut celebrated their success with a feast.  Following the meal, Ahmad rose and went to a sideboard and retrieved two silver plates and presented Erik with one and Fadlan with the other.  “They were delivered this afternoon,” Ahmad explained, and Erik could see they were identical pictures of he and Ahmad posing in the courtyard.  The pictures were incredibly detailed in various shades from black to very light gray and the clothing details, though slightly blurred, were very fine.  But the courtyard features were outstanding, the colonnades were finely fluted and the architectural details were extremely clear.  Static items seemed very clear while the subject faces and extremities were slightly blurred but very recognizable.  “The alchemist who exposed the plates is our foremost optical scientist and an expert in light sensitive oils and chemicals.  He hopes to soon have films that react faster to light and even some oils that can register colours.  While these exposures have been treated to no longer react to light, it is still best to store them in darkness,” and Ahmad presented Erik with a polished wood chest with a black velvet lining in which the picture could be stored and special inks with which the picture could be touched up.

Ahmad then offered Erik an after-dinner liqueur by apologizing, once again, for his son’s administration of liquor, which, once said, served as an excuse for him to procure another bottle and demonstrate how it should have been drunk.

“I got this liquor from a merchant friend, during a trade mission in Spain, who got it from the Franks, who, in turn got it from the Irish in England.  Have you heard of the Irish?” Ahmad asked, pouring Erik a drink.

“I have heard of an Irishman called Brendan who claims there is a vast land beyond the western sea,” Erik answered.

“Interesting,” Ahmad breathed, pouring himself a drink also.  “I am allowed to drink this because it has been purified through distillation,” he explained.  “At least that is what I say in my prayers,” he added, laughing.  “It is a failing caused by my many travels.”

“Speaking of your travels,” Erik started in a very ponderous and deliberate Greek, “I wish to know more of your meeting with my father, Ragnar, that you had called Gunar.  How did you come to meet him?”

Ahmad studied Erik a moment, sat back, relaxed and sipped his liquor.  “During the Caliphate of al-Rashid, I was sent on an embassy to the Khazars and the Bulgars.  It was a brief period of peace following many years of war and it was my mission to try to maintain that peace.  If you wish to establish a peace,” Ahmad explained confidentially, glancing about himself, “send as your envoy a diplomat;  to end a peace send a soldier;  and to maintain a peace send a merchant.  Further,” he added, “if you wish to know all about the situation in a country, don’t ask your present ambassador to that state……ask the former ambassador, for the previous diplomat often keeps better track of that country than the present one, and when they tell you what is happening there, they will also tell you the why of it.”  The liquor was having its effect upon Ibn-Yakut.  “My embassy to the Khazars was an utter failure.  I was to have ensured a maintenance of peace with their empire in the event of my country’s going to war with Constantinople, but the Khazars remained loyal to their Roman allies and I was lucky to leave their land with my life intact.  There is a secret connection,” Ahmad began to whisper, “between the Khazars and the Romans.  I’ve never learned what it is, but it almost cost me dearly,” he said, drawing a fingernail across his throat.  A white line was left on the dark skin of the Arab.  “Never trust the word of the Romans when the Khazars are involved.  There is something strange, something significant in their relations.  I’ve never been able to place it, but I must emphasize that you must not trust the Greeks.  I know already, from accounts of your Rhos in Constantinople, that you have no trust in the Khazars, and that is good, because they will have your head on a pike if they ever get a chance.”

Erik was beginning to show signs of impatience with Ahmad’s digressions.

“To get on with it,” Ahmad continued, “I left Khazaria, but I did not, as a wise man would, return to Baghdad.  Instead, I carried on to the Kingdom of the Volga Bulgars, and it was there that I met your father.  He was trading with the Bulgars:  amber and weapons and slaves for silver Kufas and Roman gold.  I, personally, bought several of his slaves.”

Erik was waiting eagerly upon Ahmad’s every word.  “You told me in Constantinople that he had a captive, a princess?”

“Yes,” Ahmad said, wistfully.  “She certainly looked a princess.  I tried to buy her, but Gunar would not part with her for any sum.  She was Slav, I believe.  The slaves I bought from your father were Slavs, at any rate.  Poljane, I believe–all of them captives.  They’d been intercepted by thieves on their way to Khazaria and Ragnar told me he’d intercepted the thieves.”

“Can you tell me more about the woman?” Erik said excitedly.

“Ahh…I thought you looked familiar in Constantinople,” Ahmad said, “but it wasn’t Gunar you reminded me of.  It was the woman with Gunar.  He was going to take her back across…what did he call it?  His Northern Way?  She is your mother, Erik?” Ahmad asked.

 The thin white line, though faint, was still visible on the throat of the Arab.  “I’m not sure,” Erik answered.  “She died at my birth and Ragnar, himself, is unsure who she was.”

“I’m sorry to hear she died,” Ahmad added, sympathetically.

“Tell me about her,” Erik asked.

“She was a distraught, frightened young woman when I saw her, but she was still exceptionally beautiful.  Her eyes were dark and mysterious, matching her flowing black hair, much like yours.  She had the fine bearing of a princess, but one sensed she could take care of herself.  In fact, one of your father’s men had tried to take a golden cloak pin from her and she stabbed him in the hand with it.  `None could take that bodkin from her,’ Gunar had told me with pride.  It was a strange, trident shaped thing, more dagger than bodkin,” Ahmad said, “and I think she carried it more for protection than mending or pinning.”  When Erik pulled his bodkin out from under his shirt, Ahmad said, “That is it.  It looked just as that one.”

“This belonged to my mother,” Erik said, sadly.  “It is all I have to remember her by.”

Ahmad Ibn-Yakut felt Prince Erik’s immense sadness and offered him more liquor, then continued.  “Our embassy to Bulgar was a failure also and we were expelled from their land;  and, when we tried to skirt around Khazaria, we were stopped by Hunnish troops.  They were searching for a Kievan caravan that was to have arrived in Atil weeks earlier, so they were caught between taking us back, letting us go, or Allah forbid, killing us outright.  As it turned out, the slaves we bought from Gunar, your Ragnar, were from this caravan, and they spoke to the Huns in their Slav language, and they pleaded for our lives because we had treated them respectfully, so the soldiers decided to set us free.  But the Huns took our slaves north with them in search of the rest of the caravan’s party.  I never learned what precious treasure the caravan carried, but it had been destined for King Hunn, the Kagan Bek of the Khazars, and he was sparing no effort in getting it back.

“As you may guess,” Ahmad concluded, “we made it back to Baghdad with our lives, but not much else, I’m afraid.  That is all that occurred on my embassy to Bulgar and may Allah deem that I never, nor any of my sons, for that matter, ever return to that god forsaken land.

“Tell me,” Ahmad started, leaning close to Erik, “we have but one God to whom we pray for all favours; with your pantheon of pagan gods, how is it you determine which god to pray to for a particular blessing?”

“In our Aesir religion,” Erik answered, “for favours in war we pray to Odin, in personal combat we pray to Thor, for justice we pray to Tyr and for harvest we pray to Frey. I must confess, though,” Erik admitted, “I pray to no gods.”

“You pray not?” Ahmad asked in disbelief.

“I do not believe in gods,” Erik answered.

“How is it you have come to not believe in gods?” Ahmad blurted, as though he had just seen a ghost.

Again, the liquor was having its toxic way with Erik.  “I’ve had visions.”

“A man who has visions yet professes belief in no gods,” Ahmad said.  “This is most curious.  I must know more.  But first a warning,” Ahmad explained, and he looked about the room to ensure it was empty.  “If a believer in the true faith knows you worship pagan gods, he will try to convert you.  If he knows you worship no gods, he will try to kill you.  Tell no other Moslem about this,” Ahmad said.  “Now tell me of these visions.”

Erik talked at length on his visions, telling Ahmad of his nine days of dreams while under the influence of Kraka’s potions. And Ahmad listened intently well into the night.  Before they parted in the hallway of the sleeping chambers, Ahmad said, “When you return next year, I have some people you must talk with.”

The next day, Ahmad’s men escorted Erik and his companions to Fair Faxi on the Euphrates and, after several hours of preparation, the Varangians began rowing up the river that had cradled so much of civilization’s early development.  After several weeks of hard rowing, with very little support from the wind, they reached a bend in the river that told Erik they were now back in Roman territory and would soon have to disembark and portage across land to the Halys River.  Once across the land bridge, the rowing was downstream, but Erik and his men did not relax.  “The sooner they were out of Greek lands and out upon the open sea, the better,” Erik thought.

It was late fall when Erik returned to Kiev.  He had been with Gunwar only two weeks in almost two years.  As he walked up the banks of the Dnieper to meet her, a strange sense of great loss swept across his breast.  She looked older, somehow, her youth slowly waning with the recurring moons, and he knew that he must look older, as well, but they were not growing old together.  Princess Gunwar rushed down to meet him, and they embraced each other as if, together, they could stop up the flow of passing time.

Erik spent the whole winter in Kiev and, while others complained about the bitter cold, he took in the wondrous beauty of his wife, and he enjoyed the company of his king and queen, and he played with brave Prince Alf and Princess Eyfura.  He and Gunwar made great sacrifices to the goddess Freya in prayer that Gunwar should become one with child, but, in the end, when Erik set out in the spring with the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, it was without any sign of his wife being pregnant.

It had been decided that King Frodi would lead half the merchants to Constantinople and Erik would lead the others, the half that wished to trade in slaves and captives as well as furs and amber, to Baghdad.  They met Chaleus in Cherson and, while no Greek merchants joined Erik’s expedition, several Goth merchants gathered up local slaves and decided to travel with Erik’s fleet.

In Baghdad, Erik met his friend, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut once more and stayed with him at his estate.  Ever true to his word, Ahmad indeed had several ancient scholars he introduced to Erik.  They were priests…Magi of the Zoroastrian religion and after their evening repast they had many questions for Erik.  Their religion was ancient.  It was old before acquiring its name from the prophet Zoroaster, almost a millennium before the birth of the Christians’ prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.

“Tell us of your visions,” the eldest Magus requested.

Erik and Ahmad sat alone with six of the Zoroastrians.  Ahmad translated as Erik told them of the visions he had experienced while under the influence of Kraka’s potions.  And the priests burned incense and aromatic oils as Erik talked of the creation of all things, of the universe as being a skull within a skull within a skull, so many layers of opposing matter that kept the elements apart, so they could exist.  He went on to describe events of the past, present and future as though guided in his words by the three Norns of his even more ancient religion.  And the oils the Magi were burning were influencing him, for he had never been able to recall his visions so clearly.  He saw, once more, the timelessly infinite perfection of space and Erik could see, again, the many minute points pulsing variously within the enormous void, and he knew the pulses to be time, or a variant of time, and then he saw once more the minute point that he had first seen suddenly burst forth in two opposing directions, forming first a linear anomaly of pulsing waves of positive and negative energy and he explained to the Magi how they quickly cancelled each other out as they advanced outwards, linearly, in two opposing directions for as long as it took the cadence of the unique pulsing to count off an infinite number, then, again, the point panned out in a wave all around itself and a planar universe came into existence for as long as it took the pulsing to count off a second infinite number and then another brilliant flash burst forth in all directions, sweeping away the abyss.  This perfect anomaly shot outwards, propagating itself in all six directions of the three-dimensional world, until the cadence of the universal pulsing had counted off an infinite number that coincided with his own time and the stars and the planets were formed.  It was that particular infinite number that defined his own time and Erik explained that if he could lower that number he could go back in time and if that number was increased he would go forward in time, for the pulsing was a record of all that ever was and was yet to be.  But, of course, he could not do that.  He could only see that it could be done, that it would be done.

Erik went on to describe the birth of their own world as he had seen it, seething in front of him, and cooling as it revolved around its own mother star as continents formed and the world ocean pooled, and life was formed in it and evolved up onto the land.

Erik went on to describe the rise and fall of the dragon beasts and the mammal evolution to world dominance, culminating in man, who must stride out into the wave of the exploding universe.  “The explosion continues on, even as I speak,” Erik explained.  “All the stars that we can see now, the universe is but a small portion of the ever-expanding wave of matter that follows behind that on-going explosion of particles in all directions, and it shall move forever outwards.  And man, in order to survive, must ride that wave for eternity.”

“And behind us?” the old man coaxed.

“Behind us is only evil,” Erik answered and he saw again the face of evil that had almost taken him when he was nine days under the potions of Kraka and he shook himself free of the trance-like state he had fallen into.  “Pained is the life of the over wise,” he told the old magus, and he shivered involuntarily.

The ancient Zoroastrian sensed Erik’s fear and decided to talk about their prophet and their religion.  “We have, since time immemorial, attended to the preaching of prophets both within our religion and without.  While Zoroaster is the one true prophet, many of our faith attended to the Jewish prophet Moses, three of our Magi followed a star to Bethlehem in Judea to witness the birth of the Christian prophet, first of the star born, and we witnessed, as well, a lightening of the night sky that attended the birth of Mohammed, prophet of the Moslems.  Tell me then, did any celestial occurrence attend to your birth?”

“My birth was attended only by the death of my mother,” Erik answered bitterly.  “But at childhood’s end, I was sent a falling star and from a star stone I pulled a sword,” and he showed the Magus the hilts of Tyrfingr.  “However, I do not claim to be a prophet.  I only wish to understand the meaning of my visions.”

“By understanding the visions of the prophets, perhaps you may find the answers you seek,” the old Magus replied.

“There are no prophets,” Erik explained.  “Only tricksters.”

“Are you familiar with the transmutation of metals?” the old man asked.  “The turning of base metals into gold?”

“Many kings and generals have turned metals into gold,” Erik answered.  “When it was found that tin could turn copper into bronze, kings wasted no time in turning this tin into gold, for the bronze weapons their smithies made turned their warriors into gods and the gold of other men became their gold.”

“And the same thing occurred again when iron displaced bronze,” the Magus replied, growing impatient.  “Our true prophet, Zoroaster learned the secret of turning lead into gold.  The true transmutation of metals.”

“And the prophets that follow him, these three generals you mentioned,” Erik began, “do they know the secret as well?”

“Do not call these prophets generals,” the Magi protested.  “They are prophets of the one true god.”

“Did not this Moses destroy the army of an Egyptian Pharaoh without losing a man?”  Erik asked.  “And did not Mohammad lead an army out of Medina to destroy the warriors of Mecca?”

“And Jesus of Nazareth?” the old man asked.

“His pacifist Christian assault on Rome cost more lives than any Jewish revolt ever did, either before him or after.  Had the Romans not killed him when they did, your Jesus of Nazareth would have had Rome on its knees in forty years.  Without him, it took his disciples four hundred.”

“You have seen all this?” the old man asked.

“That and more,” Erik replied.  “The three Magi you said attended the birth of Jesus were in Judea searching for the Arc of the Covenant…the last Arc, but they could not find it for it was no more.”

“They were attending to the birth of the Christian Prophet, Jesus; the last of the long line of the House of King David and the first of the star born.”

“And like David,” Erik concluded, “Jesus, too, slew a giant with a stone: his sling was a cross. his stone was his disciple, Peter, and his giant was called Rome.”

“You have seen all this?” the old man asked, bracing himself with the back of a chair.  “You have seen the taking of Mecca?  You have seen the fall of Rome?  You have seen the parting of the Red Sea?” 

“Any merchant knows that you part a sea with a ship,” Erik started, “and there are no better merchants than the Semites.”  Erik looked across the room as though he were recalling a vision.  “The early Egyptians believed their Nile Valley was the full extent of the world because that is all they could see, but their natural philosophers, their scientists, deduced that the world was round and calculated its very size just by studying the shadows of their monuments.  But it was for his temple, his monument, that their pharaoh, Ramses needed the science of the Jews…their philosopher’s stone and its technique of lights.  Moses used their stone, their Arc, to light the Pharaoh’s pyramids and secretly used it to transmute, as you say, lead into gold.  They stole the gold statuary of their captors and replaced them with gold plated lead figures and Moses gave the Phoenician fleet this stolen gold to part the Red Sea for his people, but the Phoenicians had other plans.  They were tired of paying for Ramses’ monuments with tithes and taxes on their portages and caravans between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, so they forewarned the Pharaoh of the flight of the Jews and he led his army after them.  Now the Phoenicians brought two types of ships to the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea that day, their fine new cedar horse ships and their aging merchant galleys.  They used their horse ships to ferry the Israelites to the Sinai side, leaving their old galleys behind.  Ramses paid a fortune in gold, his personal gold and jewels and that of his princes, and the golden rings of his champions, for the Phoenicians to ferry his army across the Red Sea after them.  And, as the old Phoenician fleet set off in pursuit of the Israelites in the new  fleet, the Phoenicians struck a second bargain with Moses.  If his people would set up and maintain Phoenician caravan routes across the Sinai for forty years, they would destroy the Pharaoh’s army.  To this, Moses acquiesced, and the Phoenicians scuttled their old fleet.  Their picked sailors swam to shore, but the Egyptian soldiers all perished, for none of them could swim.  It was Moses’ transmuted gold that had parted the Red Sea, but it was the Pharaoh’s greed that had closed it.  Such is the extent to which a merchant will go to escape a tithe.”

“These are the secrets that your visions unfold?” the old Magi asked weakly.

“That and more,” Erik continued.  “In their rush to escape, the Israelites had to leave their philosophers’ stone in Egypt, but only the Jews knew how it worked.  Many Egyptian philosophers died trying to learn its secret.  Moses, meanwhile, built another Arc in the desert, or, rather, he built a War Arc for the plating of gold and a  Covenant Arc to power it. ”

“You must tell me more of this philosophers’ stone,” the old mage started excitedly.  “For its secret has been lost.”

“Ask your Zoroaster to tell you more,” Erik replied.

“I have,” the Magi started, “but there is now a problem with the secret of the stone.  I converse with Zoroaster through this,” the old man said, withdrawing a book from his smock.  It was a little red book, a hand long and a hand wide and about a hand thick.  It was a book Erik had seen before and, as he reached out to touch it, the mage pulled it away, but Erik reassured him with a glance and he touched it with his fingertips.  It was over two thousand years old Erik sensed, and just like the old book hidden in Ragnar’s high seat hall.

“You have seen this book before?” the Magi asked.

“No,” Erik lied.  “But I sense it is very old.”

The priests retired to their chambers discussing the prophecies they had just witnessed in their own Persian tongue.  The Zoroastrian priests determined Erik to be, not a prophet, but an enlightened one, and the old Magi told his acolytes, “He has seen this book before.”

“The visions you have revisited have taken their toll on you,” Ibn-Yakut stated later, trying to calm Erik.  “I have a strong Spanish liqueur you must sample,” he added, walking to his cabinet and coming back with two goblets.  Erik and Ahmad finished off the bottle and when the prince retired to his bedchamber he slept fitfully.  The Old Zoroastrian priest had said that his Magi religion was older than Zoroastrianism itself, and Erik knew this to be true because the Magi religion before the coming of Zoroaster had been the tripartite gods religion Aran, the original base religion of the Aesir and Vanir and Brahman tripartite gods religions.  Zoroaster and his one true god religion had crushed the Persian Aran branch, the eastern branch of the tripartite gods religion and the related Christian one true god religion had crushed the western Roman Vanir branch, leaving only the northern Scandinavian Aesir and the southern Indian Brahman branches to survive them.  But the Christians continued their attack in the north and the followers of Buddha were slowly working upon the other in the south.  And Erik had seen in his visions how they both ended and it was not pretty.

Erik’s visions had also shown him that, while many Magis professed to be the followers of Zoroaster, many other Magis still secretly practised the old Aran tripartite gods religion and were warlocks and witches of the old Aran versions of Odin, Thor and Frey.  Their older magic was very powerful and Erik did not want to have anything to do with it.  His visions had shown him the names of the Aran pantheon of gods, but he had pushed that knowledge into the deep back crevasses of his mind.  He did not trust the old Zoroastrian priest and he suspected that the old Magi knew those three names and the names of the gods that were worshipped below them.  Erik was becoming a man of science, and the only magic he wanted to see was more along the lines of the emulsion exposures he had witnessed between the colonnades.

When Erik’s entourage had concluded their trade with the Arabs and were about to portage between the Euphrates and Halys Rivers, they were met by a large force of Roman troops who demanded a ten percent tithe on all trade passing through their territory as stipulated in the contract that Erik had hammered out with the administrators of Emperor Theophilos.  Erik had little choice but to pay the tax;  he had been bested by the politics of the Greeks, but he became determined to avoid any future Roman taxes.  To achieve this end, when the rest of the merchants returned to Cherson and Kiev, Erik and his Centuriata remained upon the Black Sea and searched for a fabled waterway between it and the Caspian Sea.

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

24.0  GARDARIKI;  ERIK’S KEEP  (Circa 835 AD)

                        “Eirikr draws the land beneath him

                          At the pleasure of the Fetters(Gods),

                          And fashions the Spear-Battle.”

            Eyolfer the Valiant Skald;  Skaldskaparmal.

The Varangians believed that the Black and Caspian Seas were connected, or so it is recorded.  But Erik did not set out solely to discover a waterway between the two seas.  In the fall, after his first successful season of trade with the Arabs, Erik and his Centuriata set out in Fair Faxi to find a river route to Baghdad, other than the Halys river, to avoid paying the Romans their tariff.  While the rest of the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company sailed north towards Cherson, Erik and his personal guard sailed east along the Black Sea coast, beyond Greek lands, searching for a river that led into the interior, a river that would allow them to portage across to the Euphrates or Tigris Rivers and then on to Baghdad.

Several days sail beyond the city of Trebizond, the Varangians were clear of Roman territory, but, as the shoreline turned up to the north and a day’s sail turned into a week’s, no rivers of appreciable size manifested themselves until Erik had sailed all the way to the Kerch Peninsula.  Some of Erik’s men had sailed with the Danish navy when it had been trapped on the Black Sea during the war with the Huns, and they were familiar with the Crimean Peninsula and the Sea of Azov.  They told Erik of a river just beyond the Kerch Peninsula that flowed from the east.  They hadn’t explored it, but the Danish navy had used it as a source of fresh water during their attacks upon Khazar shipping and caravans.  So up the Kuban River the Varangians sailed, into the land called Tmutorokan by the local Alanic peoples.

The land of the Alans stretched from the Black to the Caspian Sea, immediately west and south of the Huns.  They had no love of their eastern neighbours and, when Erik met with some of them, they expressed an interest in trading with the Varangians.  Erik continued up the Kuban, sure that he was about to discover a new route to the heartland of Mesopotamia, and when they reached its source he sent parties south and east in search of the source of the Tigris River.  They did not find the Tigris, which was hundreds of miles to the south, but they did encounter the source of the Kuma River, which flowed off yet further into the east.  While Erik figured that he was as far east as he wanted to go, he thought that the new river might eventually turn south, so he had his men portage Fair Faxi across a rough mountainous valley to a mere slip of a stream that fed into the Kuma.  At first, the stream was so shallow and narrow that they had to float Fair Faxi along empty, with the men pulling her along with ropes while they cleared away the overhanging brush, an endeavour only slightly less laborious than their dragging of the ship on log rollers across the land bridge between the Kuban and the Kuma, but soon the rivulet turned into a creek and the creek turned into a river and the river forked together with another and the two branches flowed into the Caspian Sea.

Out upon the Caspian, Erik turned back to face the land.  It was incredibly lush and green, heavily forested and overgrown with brush.  In passing, it had been a thing more of nuisance than beauty, but, reflecting on that lovely landscape, Erik had to admit to himself that he had been impressed.  The fall weather had been mild, and the climate thereabouts was so gentle that citrus trees abounded in the wild.  The scenery was rugged and mountainous, reminding Erik of his homeland.  It struck Erik that, suddenly, he was homesick.  He missed Norway and he missed his brother, Roller, but most of all, he missed his wife.  He was torn between pushing on and turning back, but, involuntarily, he heard himself ordering his men to set the sail and head south.

The Caspian or Arab Sea, as it was often called, is actually a long inland lake extending almost a thousand miles from the Khazar Empire in the north to the Arab Caliphate in the south, with Turks settling its eastern shore and, two hundred miles across its width, a variety of peoples sharing its western boundary, the Caucasus mountain range.  As the Norsemen sailed south, the land became flatter and drier and soon vast expanses of arid desert were prevalent.  After sailing around an eastward promontory, the coast became dotted with small Arab settlements and fishing villages and the locals gazed curiously at the Norsemen in their sleek longship.

Along the coast off Ardabil, Fair Faxi was approached by a small sloop of the Caliph’s navy and Erik was asked, first in Arab, then in Greek, to explain his intent on sailing the Arab Sea.  Erik told the young officer in charge of the sloop that he was searching for a river that would take them to the source of either the Euphrates or the Tigris and that his intent was to promote trade with the Caliph of Baghdad.  He also dropped the names of several important Arab merchants, including Ahmad Ibn-Yakut, which resulted in the officer giving Erik directions on routes to both river sources.

“The Araks River, north of Ardabil, would take you to the Euphrates,” the officer explained, in Greek that made Erik’s knowledge of the language seem extensive, “and the Qesel Ousan River, to the south, would take you to the Tigris.”

After Erik gave thanks and presented the young officer with a gift of silver, the Varangians continued south until they found the Qesel Ousan River.  They rowed a week up the Qesel Ousan until the river became impassable, then Erik sent parties out exploring south and west until one came back with news of a possible Tigris tributary several days south.  Erik was tempted to portage his ship across to the Tigris and surprise his friend, Ahmad, in Baghdad, but his homesickness got the best of him, and he decided to head back to the Caspian Sea and on to the Kuma and Kuban Rivers.

At the mouth of the Kuban River, before the Sea of Azov, Erik spotted an ideal site for a trading settlement and they pulled in to explore the area.  It was on a wide-open plain in the valley of the Kuban, affording access to sea, river and land trade routes, yet it was sheltered by a ring of heavily forested low-lying hills.  It reminded Erik of Konogard, Kiev, and he knew that the woman he had left behind there would love this place too.  Erik left half his men at the site with supplies and orders to begin clearing the land, then he sailed off to Sugedea to buy materials and hire artisans and craftsmen.  He stayed in the residence of Brother Gregory and sent the rest of his Centuriata off to Kiev to fetch his wife and his gold.

The first building constructed was Erik’s longhall, built by the members of his Centuriata on a central hill of the area that was to become the fortress.  On Erik’s return, work was started on a stockade of logs atop the crests of the surrounding hills, enclosing an area large enough to contain half of Kiev.  The one mile stretch of town facing the Kuban River was left open to the waters for merchant vessels to beach upon, and, in the settled part of the village, docks were built running out into the waters.  When the pioneering members of Erik’s Centuriata had completed the hall, he sent them up the Kuban River to build a portage station on the land bridge between the Kuban and Kuma Rivers.

Erik spent the winter in Tmutorokan building a small wooden and earthen fortress he called Gardariki, meaning Erik’s Keep.  By mid-winter Princess Gunwar had joined him, and, as the walls went up and the buildings were being erected, it seemed to Erik the happiest days of his life.  At last he was creating an empire of his own, and, with the woman he loved at his side, he was indefatigable in his efforts. There was continual communication between Tmutorokan and Kiev and a steady stream of supplies poured into the Kerch Peninsula from Gardar, the Crimea, Constantinople and even Baghdad.  It was a time of frenzied activity for both Erik and his wife, Gunwar, who, with pent up energy from her months in Kiev, poured her heart and soul into the creation of Gardariki. Numerous longhalls were already under construction when Princess Gunwar arrived, and her handmaiden Gotwar demanded the construction of a temple to Odin in a small grove of oak trees within the stockade.  Old Gotwar was still a priestess of Odin, and Erik, though rankled, acquiesced to her demands.

When Brother Gregory arrived from Sugedea, he received permission from Erik to start building a small church for the Christians of the Hraes’ Trading Company.  There were a surprising number of merchants embracing the Church of Christ among the Slavs, Goths and even Varangians of the company.  Although Gotwar protested against the construction of a Christian church, indeed, particularly since she did protest, Erik gave it his blessing.  Soon, there was even a small hall committed to the worship of Zoroaster and his religion.  And Erik had a hall erected for the various Alchemists’ guilds at work in Gardariki.

In the spring, King Frodi led a contingent of the Hraes’ Trading Company merchants to Constantinople, just as he had the year before, but a larger group sailed around the Crimea and through the Kerch Peninsula to Gardariki.  Once all the merchants had beached their monoxylan, longships and galleys and made their camps on the shore within the stockade, the great expanse of the town did not look at all so empty.  When they all embarked upon the Kuban River and began rowing upstream, they formed a string of sailing ships that stretched for several miles.

On the land bridge at the source of the Kuban, Erik’s Centuriata supplied the merchants with rollers, carts and draft animals to aid them in their portage.  The trip down the Kuma was uneventful and, once on the Caspian, they were escorted and aided all the way to the Tigris by the Caliph’s navy.  The furs and the slaves, coined the Fenja and the Menja, of the river caravan sold briskly in the markets and bazaars of Baghdad.  Several weeks of selling and bartering realized personal fortunes for many of the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, well justifying the many months of travel and hardship that would yet be required before they returned to their homelands.

Back upon the Caspian, Erik let his men know of an important trade route he had learned about in Baghdad and had become determined to engage in commercially.  “Camel caravans from Cathay are even now sitting in Khwarizm on the Aral Sea,” Erik said, addressing his Centuriata aboard Fair Faxi and pointing, far to the east.  “It is my intention to establish an agreement with these Cathayans.”  And when the rest of the merchants turned north towards the mouth of the Kuma River, Erik and his men headed east.

Erik left Fair Faxi in the charge of Arab fishermen, in a small settlement on an eastern Caspian shore, and he bought camels and supplies and hired guides, and he led his men east into the Turkish desert.  Nomadic tribes abounded in those parts, hard men, the whole lot, but no one gave Erik and his Centuriata trouble, for they had become very hard to look upon without raising fear.  As the dusky string of camels traipsed into the dry streets of Khwarizm, tradesmen squatting in front of their little baked brick shops would stop their work and stare at the barbarians dressed in the long flowing robes of the Arab, but equipped with the strange weapons of the Norseman, and their women and children would stop their chores and their play and flee to the confines of their hearths.   There was no authority to stop or even question the Varangians as they moved through town, until they had reached the other outskirts, where the caravans all camped, and the leading merchant of the Turks sent a force out to address the barbarians.  A small bribe got Erik an audience with the Turkish hetman, and a larger bribe got him a meeting with the leading merchants of the Cathayan caravans.  With an Arab guide translating Erik’s Greek into Turkish, and a Turk translating it further into Mandarin, Erik managed to arrange for two caravans to meet the Hraes’ Trading Company on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, with silks that surpassed the quality of those in the markets of Constantinople and spices that were scarce in the markets of Baghdad.

At the same time in Gardariki, while the Hraes’ merchants were passing through on their way back north, they witnessed a fire in the Christian church of Brother Gregory.  On Erik’s return, the cleric complained bitterly that it was Gotwar and her pagan followers that had razed the holy place.  He was not the only one to make that complaint.

Erik was overjoyed at being with Gunwar once more.  Her delicate beauty remained unchanged in her husband’s eyes, even though she wore armour and carried weapons.  She left no doubt as to who oversaw Gardariki in Erik’s absence.  “She denies it, of course,” Princess Gunwar complained to her husband, “but I am sure she was behind the ransacking.  Fortunately, the church is stone and the damages were limited to the contents.  Can you question her?” Gunwar asked.  “Of all people, she fears you the most.”

“Why this sudden concern for Brother Gregory’s church?” was Erik’s answer.  “Old Gotwar is your slave to do with as you please.  If she has burned the church and you are displeased, have her hanged.  You are of royal blood.  You can replace her as a priestess of Odin.”

“I cannot,” Gunwar protested.  “I’m not sure I can any longer support our faith.”

“And the Christian faith?” Erik asked.

“It intrigues me.  That is all,” Gunwar added defensively.  “But it may be claimed I am biased towards the Christians.  You, however, believe in no gods.  Your impartiality is unquestionable.”

There is nothing Erik would not have done for Gunwar, except get involved in a religious dispute.  Although he did not doubt that Gotwar had done the deed, he preferred to maintain a secularistic leadership, leaving religious disputes to be resolved by the various religious groups.  Erik left the crime unpunished and personally paid for repairs to the Christian church.  His wife ensured he was rewarded for his wisdom.

King Frodi was having similar problems in Konogard, but his office was less secular in nature.  He was, by the divine intervention of Odin, king, and the Christians were persecuted in the north.  Other, greater problems threatened Gardar and the Southern Way, and King Frodi did not want religious fragmentation to add to the erosion of his authority.  In the north, the Lithuanians were openly attacking the Danish merchants and systematically destroying what was left of the Sclav settlements there.  Meanwhile, in the south, the Khazars were undermining his trade with Constantinople, and Erik’s circuitous trade with the Arabs served only to foment Roman distrust of the Norsemen.  King Frodi was constantly fighting a Roman preference to re-establish their prior trade links with the Khazars.  He, too, sensed a mysterious, almost blood bond between the Khazars and the Romans.

In the spring, King Frodi led a large force of Varangians north into Sclavia to ensure the safety of the Danish merchants travelling up the Dvina River, but the Lithuanians, rather than engage the Danes in battle, carried on a strategy of random attacks against merchant shipping that was very hard to defend against, and losses were heavy.  The merchant ships, the largest number to yet traverse the Southern Way, headed down the Dnieper River and split up at Cherson, an increasingly large number turning east to trade with the Arabs and some with Cathayan caravans.  Thanks to Erik’s efforts in Gardariki, trade with Constantinople looked increasingly uninviting.

It was the success of Erik’s first year of trade with the Cathayan caravans that caused panic among the Greek merchants, particularly the merchants of the House of Lanterns, whose  trade consisted solely of Byzantine silks.  Silkworms had been smuggled out of China by Greek merchants and were tended under the auspices of the Emperor, in a closely guarded process that was Europe’s sole source of domestic silk.  Erik’s Cathay trade threatened the Byzantine monopoly on silks, for the Greeks, through the Khazars, had regulated the influx of Chinese silk by controlling the Cathayan caravans.  The Romans, however, had no control, yet, on the quantities of silk brought in by the Rhos.  This situation threatened the Byzantine stranglehold on European silks, and, while Emperor Michael II had never made a move against the barbarian that called Constantinople Miklagard, his successor, the Emperor Theophilos, did.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

25.0  THE BUILDING OF SARKEL  (Circa 836 AD)

            “We nine winters were playmates together,

              Mighty of stature, ‘neath the earth’s surface,

              The maids had part in mighty works:

              Ourselves we moved mighty rocks from their place.”

            Bragi the Old (?);  Skaldskaparmal

Several years of peace and prosperity attended to the growth of Gardar.  But, while a benevolent emperor, Michael II, ruled in Constantinople at the start of this period, his successor, the Emperor Theophilos bore the people of both Gardar and Gardariki nothing but ill will.  It was said he had a trace of Khazar blood.  And he despised the Rhos circumvention of Roman territory in their trade with the Arabs.  Worse, Theophilos was another Iconoclast, with his political base in Asia Minor, and, religiously, he abhorred the fact that the Rhos were even trading with the Moslems, and he became determined to re-establish the status quo prior to the coming of the Varangians.  To this end, he offered Roman assistance when the Khazars proposed to build a fortress on the Don River to control all trade in the area.  He procured their building materials and provided them Greek craftsmen, and he granted them gold.  Soon ships carrying Constantine masons and Corsican stone were wending their way up the Don, protected by Roman triremes armed with the Helm of Fear, Greek Fire, and the flame throwing tubes that spewed the venomous liquor, and there was naught that the Rhos navy could do to arrest them.  Likewise, the troops of King Frodi were checked by a vast movement of Turkoi, specifically Magyars, into the area through the machinations of the Huns.

“They call the fortress Sarkel, and it’s nearly complete,” Brother Gregory told Erik, on his return to Gardariki from Sugedea in the Crimea.  “It is being constructed to control river and land traffic on the Don Heath.”

“And the Turkoi?” Erik asked.

“Countless thousands,” the cleric answered.  “Were they not in alliance with the Khazars and the Khazars in alliance with the Greeks, Constantinople, itself, would feel threatened by the multitude.”

On hearing this and other disturbing reports about the activities of the Khazars, Erik decided to forgo one season’s trading and sail up the Don River to have a first-hand look at the efforts of the Huns.  With Fair Faxi and thirty of his Centuriata, he bid farewell to Princess Gunwar and sailed north upon the Sea of Azov.  Had he only the one mission in mind, the expedition would have taken only a month or two to complete, but Ahmad Ibn-Yakut’s account of his meeting with Erik’s mother in Bulgar had continued to play upon his mind over the years, and Erik became determined to meet again one man that might have the answers to who his mother had been…..Arthor, that tall pole of a man who ran Hawknista, the man who had seen Ragnar with his mother, Boddi.

A week up the Don brought Erik and his men into contact with the Magyars, skilled horsemen of the Asian steppe.  They peppered Fair Faxi with short arrows from their powerful horn composite bows, but it was more nuisance fire than anything else.  Erik knew from reports that Sarkel would be another day up the river, so he had his men row day and night without respite so that they might beat any Magyar messenger to the fortress.  By gauging their progress and getting full benefit of their sail as only a born mariner could, Erik managed to have their passing of the Khazar fortress coincide with the dawn’s breaking.  Sarkel was on the western bank of the Don River, with the Roman fleet anchored on that shore.  As the orient orb broke above the eastern hills of the Don Heath, Erik had his men silently row Fair Faxi, mast unfooted, along the shadows of the Don’s eastern shore.  Erik surveyed the size and strength of the Khazar fortress by the cold light of dawn.

Sarkel was not a steppe fort in the ancient Roman style, as King Frodi had built so many years before in Liere.  Sarkel was a stone walled fortress of the latest European design with mid-wall bastions, corner towers and portcullis equipped gates.  Erik could see the Roman influence in it, the Emperor’s stamp upon it.  The fortress would not be taken by storm; it would require a siege.  A most difficult effort on the Asian steppe.

While Erik was surveying the defences of the fortress, one of his men spotted a huge Greek trireme casting off from the dock that ran out into the river, along the east wall of Sarkel.  It was a fireship, and it was after Fair Faxi.  “They’ve come to welcome their guests!” Erik shouted.  “Let’s row, men!  Put your backs into it, or that dragonship will be breathing fire down all our necks.”  Erik then had one of his men assist him in re-footing the mast, while his first officer, Ask, harangued the rowers for greater effort.  The Bragning prince knew there was no way the longship, Fair Faxi, could outrace a trireme with its three tiers of rowing benches.  His Centuriata knew that, too.  They had raced with one on the Black Sea.  Erik could feel the wind coming out of the southeast, and he knew that tacking would be required to make full use of it.  Now, tacking in a square-rigged ship is difficult enough out upon the open sea, but tacking up a river with a fire spewing Roman trireme in pursuit was a challenge of enormous proportions that Erik would have passed on, had not his alternative been live cremation.  Fair Faxi was up to full speed by the time the Greek trireme first dipped its oars in earnest in the middle of the Don, but, as both ships proceeded upriver, the superior rowing speed of the trireme became apparent as the distance between the two ships closed.  Once Fair Faxi cleared a northerly bend in the river, her sail caught up some wind and the distance between the two ships stabilized.  By tacking towards the left riverbank, Erik managed to gain a bit of distance, and the full sail gave the men of his Centuriata some respite from rowing.  When Fair Faxi began to close on the riverbank, Erik turned the steering board, and the longship pulled away from the shore as the rowers got back to work, doubling their efforts to take the ship towards the right riverbank.  In this manner, Erik managed to eke out some distance between Fair Faxi and the pursuing fireship.  Then the river took a turn eastwards, and it was the Greek trireme’s turn to gain ground, and the sail of Fair Faxi flapped ineffectively in a crosswind.  As the fireship closed, its captain came out to the fore stem and surveyed their progress against the Rhos.  They were closing fast, he judged, for he had the flame throwing tube readied at the bow of the ship, and he had the slaves they called prisoners below deck hard at work pumping the bellows.  Just as Fair Faxi was almost within firing range the river took a turn to the north, and the flapping sails filled and the Nor’Way ship surged out of danger.  The Varangians could see the Greek captain cursing angrily, throwing his plumed bronze helmet to the deck of his ship.

Several times this cat and mouse game occurred, with the Greek trireme getting almost within firing range when the river ran eastwards and Fair Faxi just surging out of danger when the river turned north.  Then the river turned west and the full force of the north-westerly wind sped Fair Faxi well out of range of the trireme, and the Varangian rowers rested and ate boiled meats while the wind did their work for them.  Soon, Erik spotted the mouth of the Khopel River, a tributary of the Don that ran straight north towards the Sura and Volga Rivers, and ordered Lieutenant Ask to steer for it.

“But Erik, with the Don running west now, it offers us our best chance of escaping,” Ask protested.  He glanced back at the Greek trireme, a mile or so downriver.  “To head north and lose the full effect of the wind shall only give them a second chance to catch us.”

“The Don River remains a major waterway for very many miles, but the Khopel shall quickly diminish in size and soon become un-navigable for a ship the size of that Roman brigand following us.  Besides, the Khopel River shall take us where we want to go, for I’ve a mind to visit the Nor’Way,” Erik shouted, and those of his crew who had made the crossing with him, Ask included, let out a great shout.

“Hraaee!” they cried out in unison, and then Ask shouted at the Greeks from the stern, “And let’s see you follow us through the Nor’Way crossing!”

There was another reason Erik wanted to branch off up the Khopel.  He did not trust the fickle wind, preferring to put his faith in the predictable graduations of the land.  When Fair Faxi was turned up the tributary, she lost much of the wind from her sails, and the Greek trireme followed her up the river and gained perceptibly on her.  Soon, the wind died altogether, and the Varangians were thankful they had not continued up the Don, but were again rowing for their lives.  Erik had a man at the bow taking soundings, and the river grew shallower and narrower as the Greek trireme drew closer.  The Greeks, too, took soundings of the river, and their rowers redoubled their efforts as the river bottom closed in on the vessel’s draft.  When the Roman ship was almost within firing range of Fair Faxi, the Greek captain, once again, had the flame spewing tube at the bow of the ship readied.  Erik, in turn, had his men stretch out the ox hide coverings he had brought along for the Nor’Way crossing.

The Roman incendiary officers could be seen at the bow, wearing their specially insulated scale armour shirts and shaggy breaches, preparing the Greek fire for launching.  They hauled sealed skin bags of phosphorous naphtha from below deck and carefully poured the combustible liquid down the open throat of the bronze flame spewing tube.  Small fires would erupt when the liquid came in contact with air, but the men, wore green hide gloves while handling the mixture, and, once it was down the metal tube, only a small sparkling flame danced about the throat of the tube.  Below deck, prisoners were busy working bellows that pumped air into huge weighted skin air sacks.  When they were within range, the captain of the Greek trireme directed his incendiary officers in the aiming of the flame tube, then he released a spring-loaded valve that sent the pressurized air into the bottom of the tube and the phosphorous naphtha liquid flying out the top in a great roaring ‘Hraaaeee’ of flaming liquid toward Fair Faxi.  The Greek fire surged in a high arc, out and across the waters, landing beside the Nor’Way ship in a frothing, foaming inferno.  Erik leaped onto the top strakes at the aft stem of Fair Faxi and shouted “Hraaee” in return and his men followed in unison.

The Greek captain cursed his own poor aim, again hurling his bronze helmet to the deck, while his men reloaded the tube with more of the volatile fluid.  The distance between the ships had closed, somewhat, when the captain had his men re-aim the tube, and, when he released the valve again, the Greek fire arced gracefully above Fair Faxi and landed on top of the ox hide awning, setting the sail ablaze and scorching the Nor’Way ship from mast to stern.  Just then, the trireme ran out of river and grounded.  The huge ship shuddered under the force of the sudden stop, and the oarsmen below deck were thrown about like rag dolls as their oars lashed out against them.  The officers on deck were thrown forward; the captain clutched at the forestem of the ship and just caught himself from going overboard, as the flaming Varangian ship disappeared around a bend in the river.

Erik ordered some of his men to keep rowing, while others helped him peel back the ox hide awnings, and yet others bailed bilge water over the flaming liquid that seeped through the burning coverings and onto the deck.  The Greek fire burned right through a section of the awning and poured down upon two men at a rowing bench.  Flames engulfed the men as they screamed in horror, and they ran, burning, to the bow of the ship and they dove over the top strake into the river.  Even in the waters, the flames continued to burn about them, and they both disappeared below the waves.  Panic spread through the files of the rowers but Ask kept his composure at the rudder and steered the ship around a bend in the river.  Fair Faxi’s momentum took her around the bend, and, by the time Erik and his crew had cast off the flaming awnings, the men were back at their task, rowing.  Only the mast and the yard yet blazed aboard the Nor’Way ship, and Erik, himself, with inhuman effort, unfooted the mast and heaved it overboard.

The bodies and debris floated downriver, and clouds of smoke rose above the trees from around the bend in the river, and the Greeks let out a great cheer, sure that they had destroyed their prey.  Erik and his men heard the commotion but kept their silence and rowed.

Fair Faxi continued up the Khopel River tributary to its source and was portaged a short distance across land to the Sura River, a tributary of the Volga.  Sailing down the Sura and then the Volga Rivers, the Varangians rowed up a tributary feeder on the left, the Kama River.  A month of river travel past Sarkel, and one more portage to the source of the Northern Dvina brought Erik and his Centuriata to Hawknista, the eastern base of Ragnar’s Nor’Way.  Much to Erik’s relief, Arthor was still alive and running the place, though it was apparent by the shabbiness of the buildings that business had not been all that good.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

26.0  THE NOR’WAY REVISITED or RETURN TO GLASSY PLAINS  (Circa 837 AD)

“Sorrowful deeds     the dayspring saw,

  unwelcome dawn,     the alf folk’s grief;

  thus early morn     the ills of men

  and every sorrow    and sadness quickens.”

Bragi the Old (?);  Elder Edda.

“Welcome, Prince Erik!” Arthor shouted, truly happy to see a son of his old friend King Ragnar Lothbrok.  “You look well enough coming out of the south, a little heavier even.”

Arthor had seemed very old to Erik when he had seen him as a young man, but it was as though he hadn’t aged a bit in the years since Erik last saw him.  Such are the fleeting distorted perceptions of youth.  “I’m older as well as thicker,” Erik said, taking Arthor’s hand in his.  “And you haven’t aged a bit,” Erik added, without a trace of a lie.

“We’ve been hearing great tales about your adventures from your brother, King Roller,” Arthor said, leading Erik into his longhall.  “You must tell us all of your adventures in Erik’s Keep, Gardariki.”

Just then Erik saw her, at a far hearth near the back of the hall, surrounded by two young children and with a baby suckling, a tattered and worn middle aged woman with copper coloured hair that he recognized.  He walked along the hall to her.  “You’re looking well,” he lied.

“Thank you, Erik,” she said, devouring his lie.  She primped and preened her still beautiful hair and begged for more, the babe still at her breast.

Erik couldn’t even remember her name.  “Are these all your children?” he asked.  None of them were old enough to have been his work.

“They’re all that have lived,” she answered.

Erik asked her no more questions, turning and walking back towards Arthor.  He did not want to know any more.  It had never occurred to him that he might have conceived a child here, but when he saw the red-headed woman surrounded by her children a sudden wild hope had swept through his breast.  A son, he had imagined.  Brother Gregory’s vision would have turned out to have been preordained.  Gunwar yet remained barren and Erik would have been overjoyed to have found a child of his being raised at Hawknista.  Such was not the case, however, and Erik began to wonder if there was something wrong with his virility.

“See that she gets some new clothes and the same for her children,” Erik said, passing a purse of silver Kufas into Arthor’s huge bony hand.  “Don’t let her know it was my silver that bought the goods.”

Arthor weighed the purse in his hand with mercantile skill and announced, “We shall have a feast in honour of your return!” and he ordered horns of ale brought in from the scullery as they took their places upon the longhall high seats.  “Trade has been slow across the Nor’Way,” Arthor complained, “and the crushing blow you and your brother dealt the Khazars almost killed trade completely.  Not that I have any feelings for the Huns,” he added.  “King Hunn got what he deserved, near as I can tell, but their defeat almost killed the Nor’Way.”  Arthor went on into detail of the hardship the people of Hawknista experienced, and it seemed to Erik that he was driving at something.  Finally, Arthor got to the point.  “Business is picking up.  We’re trading with the Bulgars again, ’cause they’re trading with the Khazars again, who are trading with the Romans.  The Huns have a trade treaty with Constantinople, Miklagard, as you call it.  Be careful of the Khazars.  They mean you harm.”

“And yet you trade with the Huns?” Erik asked, incredulously.  “Why warn me about the Khazars intentions one minute and tell me of your plans to trade with them the next?”

Arthor looked at Erik perplexedly.  They were sharing Arthor’s high seat and his horn of ale.  “Because one is business and the other personal,” Arthor finally answered.  “The Nor’Way will remain, whether your friends run it, or others take it over.  Your father would maintain the Nor’Way at all costs.  It is his legacy.  Whatever goes on in the world, be it twixt the Danes and the Huns or the Bulgars and the Romans, the Nor’Way shall remain your family’s heritage.  Ragnar discovered it.  And Ragnar tamed it.”

“It is my heritage, yet its very success may destroy me,” Erik said.  “I have moved beyond the legacy of my father.  I no longer need it.”

“You may take that up with your brother, Roller, when he arrives.  Till then let us feast and celebrate your return.  Let us share ale, not hurl harsh words,” and Arthor took up the horn and toasted Erik.

“Roller is coming?” Erik asked.  “Here?”

“He has spent the winter travelling about Norway and Finmark gathering tribute, furs and slaves, for trade this summer in Bulgar.”

“And he’s coming here?” Erik asked again in disbelief.  Erik was overjoyed at the thought of meeting his brother.  For the moment all thoughts of Huns and Bulgars, Arabs and Greeks fell away, replaced by thoughts of his brother and how long it had been since he had seen him.  Before Erik could slide into a deep reverie, Arthor interrupted him.

“Years ago, when you were last my guest, I shared tales with you of bygone days and you shared a poem with us that I remember quite well.  But you are older now with, no doubt, a tale or two more to tell.  Recite for us this poem of yours and others of your  life,” Arthor requested.  Erik had forgotten what a lover of stories Arthor was, be they fact or fiction.  He took up the horn of ale and stepped down from the dais to the audience area between the opposing high seats and he started into his poem, Dream of the Drums of War:

“Drums of war I dreamt of,      dreams of Norns it seems of,

  misty shrouded masts of      mighty sea-steeds fighting.”

and he remembered back years into his past when he was barely out of boyhood, awaking frightened from a dream and telling his brother of their fate should they follow King Gotar.  He remembered his trip to The Vik and his winning of a ship and his infatuation with Alfhild.  He had made an enemy of Hrafn Ketil that day, but, while he was making his Nor’Way crossing, the Sea-King Oddi had taken care of that.  Erik next recited a poem of how he had, in turn, taken care of the Sea-King Oddi:

“We set out from Stavanger Vik,

  my brother and myself, with Ragnar’s heavy blessing,

  Nor’Way silver in our purses,      Norway timber ‘neath our feet.

  We set off into Denmark with revenge upon our hearts.

 The beacons of the sea-king      we soon set to blazing,

 and seven ships that followed,      with augers we did raze.

 Tyrfingr was proof ‘gainst Oddi’s berserk stare,

 and deeply it did bite the quick of Oddi’s life.

 As the waves rolled ‘cross the deck

 of Oddi’s mighty ship, he blessed me with a promise

 of a son named after him.

 Landing in Liere’s harbour town      on all fours on the beach,

 I kissed the sand of Denmark      and found it to my liking.

 Grep came to the harbour town,      I’d tarried overlong,

 with feathered shaft upon word-bow,    he sent his flygt a flying,

 but he faltered ‘neath my nith-song,    small payment for his crimes.”

And Erik’s memories took him back to King Frodi’s high seat hall and his winning of Gunwar’s hand and his song sang of foot-blades shattering the House of Westmar out upon the ice and the wresting ‘way of Alfhild from her father’s home and hall.  Erik’s poem went on to describe the Danish victory over the Sclavs and their crushing defeat of the Slavs and their subsequent flight before the Hunnish horde, followed by their eventual success in the marshes of Lake Ilmen.

When Erik was through, all applauded his courage as well as his song.  A red-headed woman served the Hraes’ leader choice cuts of meat and she always made sure his horn was full, and Erik was reminded of Brak and the older woman who served him so faithfully when Erik had first come to Hawknista, and the copper haired woman attended to Erik’s every need.

Erik had to wait a week for his brother, Roller, to arrive and the whole of that week he pestered Arthor with questions of his mother and further questions about Giantland.  He then told the old merchant that he planned to take his men across the land bridge into that mysterious land that King Gorm had explored many years before.

“I’m not sure who your mother was,” Arthor had answered him.  “Ragnar and Ladgerda rescued her from thieves that had attacked and destroyed her caravan, but we never learned who she was.”

“You mustn’t travel into Giantland,” Arthor warned him.  “Few men return from there.”

“Your mother never met Dvalin,” he answered another question.  “They were not captured at the same times.”

But Erik did not trust Arthor’s recollections of Giantland.  When he had taken Dvalin back to be buried in his homeland, he’d gotten a terrible sensation that an ominous injustice had been committed there and, though fear and the season wouldn’t allow him to at that time, he’d always planned to return to Giantland and learn what had transpired.  Erik felt that Arthor was being evasive with his answers regarding his mother, too, but he had only a gut feeling to go on.

King Roller was as surprised to find Erik at Hawknista as Erik had been on hearing that he was coming.  Roller came rowing up the Northern Dvina with a dozen Nor’Way ships.

“Is the crossing still the experience it was,” Erik asked him, “when we first came across in Fair Faxi?”

“The crossing still turns men into Varangians,” Roller answered, hugging his brother warmly.

All went into Arthor’s longhall for a feast that would last long into the night.  Erik learned that Roller had not yet found himself a wife, and Roller learned that Gunwar remained barren.  “Hraegunar would not be pleased,” was Arthor’s observation on both matters.  The conversation was pleasant and friendly enough, but there was an edge in the talk that threatened to cut through the fabric of sociability and, when he had finished telling his brother of his founding of Gardariki, Erik broached the subject of Roller’s trade with the Khazars.

“We trade with the Bulgars,” Roller corrected him.  “What they do with the goods after that is beyond our control.”

“If the Khazars undermine our trade with Constantinople they will once more become a threat to us,” Erik said.

“The Khazar’s destruction almost killed the Northern Way.  Has Arthor told you how bad it’s been up here?”

Erik nodded in affirmation.  “But the Southern Way is the Way we decided to support,” Erik countered.

“It’s the Way you decided to support,” Roller corrected Erik again.  “We set off for Denmark to destroy the Southern Way and somehow our plans got changed and we ended up helping establish it, but it was never our intention to destroy the Nor’Way in the process.  If the Nor’Way can survive side by side with the Southern Way, who are we to destroy the work of our forefathers?”

“The Nor’Way is surviving by feeding the recovery of the Khazar Khaganate,” Erik answered angrily.  “There is no denying that fact.”

“Had we done as I suggested and followed the Huns into the Caucasus and destroyed them, we wouldn’t have to worry about them.  We Nor’Way traders could then trade directly with the Arabs, as you are doing, much to Constantinople’s chagrin.  Most of the Greek support the Khazars have garnered comes from your trading with the Baghdad Caliphate.  How do you think King Frodi feels about that?”  Roller shouted, rising from his high seat.

“We can’t wipe out the Khazars,” Erik confessed, “for they sit settled on a constriction of the Asian plain, keeping the hordes that sit behind them at bay.  Even now a great tribe of Turks, the Magyars have blocked up the Don and Volga River routes covering the Khazar’s building of a fortress they call Sarkel.  The Magyars are but one of the hordes, and all of Europe would be sore pressed defeating them.  As for King Frodi, he benefits from the Arab trade as much as I do,” Erik replied, he, too, rising.  “We play one off against the other and get the best prices we can for all our goods.”

“So, you aggravate the Greeks, who then back the Khazars, and you expect the Norwegians to abandon the Nor’Way to destroy their trade?  How long do you think it would take the Bulgars to come up north and get the furs from the Permians and the Biarmians and the Finns?  There is nothing we can do here to stop them, so it is better to have your friends controlling the Nor’Way than your enemies.  It will not be us who fail you when the Huns saddle their ponies for war.  Of that you have my word.”

“You’d like to see a war with the Huns, wouldn’t you,” Erik accused his brother.

“The destruction of the Khazar Khaganate would not cause me grief,” Roller countered, “but, if war starts, it will be due to your trade with the Arabs more than anything we do up here.  What is it that draws you so to these Arabs?  To the alchemists of Baghdad?  Is their trade worth risking the whole Southern Way?”  The two brothers eyed each other intensely for several minutes.  “However,” Roller started again, “my mother, Kraka, always warned me to follow your sage advice, and that I have always done, with profit of life and limb, and I will continue to do so in this matter.  Just keep in mind, before you give us your answer, all the suffering the people of Hawknista and Hrafnista have endured waiting for the Nor’Way to recover.”

Roller thus put the fate of the Northern Way into Erik’s hands and all the younger brother could say was this:  “Carry on with your trade.  I shall head east into Giantland.  We’ll discuss this further when we meet here on your return.  You are right when you say it is better we have friends here in Hawknista than enemies.  Let me know all you learn in Bulgar.”

The next day Erik took his brother over to Fair Faxi and withdrew a chest from a stern compartment.  He opened it and took out the picture of himself with Ahmad Ibn Yakut.  “It is a very fine painting of you,” Roller stated, as he sat on a rowing bench and studied it.  “Who is the Arab with you?”

“He is a merchant and alchemist of Baghdad,” Erik answered.  “But it is not a painting.  It is an exposure from a pinhole housing.  It drew itself.  This is the science of the alchemists and they have much more.  This is the future,” Erik started.  “Brak has learned the secret of Indian steel from them….I have seen his swords, but there is much more.  The Romans have stolen Greek fire from the Alchemists Guild, but they have even more powerful weapons.  They have powders that explode when ignited and arrows that fly without bows.”

Roller was still studying the picture.  “You look hungover.  This drew itself?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yes.  And I have learned the secret of the ton-stone that Brak was searching for.  I have joined the Alchemists Guild and we have a hall in Gardariki where we experiment, and I fund their research and science.”

“And they share their secrets?”

“No.  They don’t share their secrets.  And I don’t ask them for them.  The guild is the guild.  It is ancient.  It was old before the Romans.  When the Romans conquered the Greeks, they tried taking over the Alchemists Guild, but it withdrew from the west or hid, so the Romans started a science of their own….a military science of engineers.  And they have been at war ever since, the sciences of the east and west.  That is why the Romans had to steal the secret of the sea fire from the alchemists.”

“And you support these alchemists against Constantinople and they don’t share their weapons with you?” Roller said, shaking his head.

“They share their good science quite freely: medicines, philosophy, optics,” Erik answered, rummaging through his chest, “but the bad stuff they keep secret.  Man cannot be trusted with the weapons of science.  I have seen this in my visions.  This I just got,” he added, passing over a small tube.  “You look into the end….the other end and it allows you to see great distances.”

Roller pulled his eye away from the tube quickly, then let it return to the tube slowly.  “Ahhh….”

“It is an optical scope,” Erik reassured him.  “You adjust it by pulling the other end away from you.”

“Can you get me one of these?” Roller asked.  His eyesight had never been as fine as his younger brother’s.

“It’s yours.  We have a shop in Gardariki that makes them.”

There were amiable partings as Roller and his men continued their journey south and Erik prepared Fair Faxi for an expedition into Giantland.  He brow beat Arthor into accompanying them as guide and they set off the day after.

Crossing the land bridge into Giantland, Erik and his men were soon drifting down the Pechora River in a dense blanket of fog, a solid firmament that blocked vision only, allowing mass and sound to pass.  Waves lapped at Fair Faxi’s strakes as the deadly mist swirled about the men aboard her.  A powerful voice echoed off the waters at the bow giving off soundings as Erik and Arthor discussed their position in low whispers near the mast.  They didn’t bother anchoring at night, for they could see just as well then as they could in broad daylight.  That was the most disturbing thing about the fog:  the day was bright, the sun a powerful beacon in the celestial firmament, yet one could not see the hand in front of one’s eyes.  Some of Erik’s Centuriata were quite disconcerted by this fact and soon there were grumblings of their having penetrated the realm of the gods and tales of Thor’s great feats of prowess dominated the talk of the idle rowers.

As the Nor’Way ship progressed downriver, the waters widened, and the fog dispersed somewhat.  Arthor instructed the men to keep to the right bank and, after several days of drifting and sailing and rowing, Fair Faxi was anchored off the ruined settlement that the men of King Gorm’s expedition had invaded.  Even from the river one could observe that, long ago, the town had been sacked; there was no sign of life and no evidence that reconstruction had ever been attempted on that low plateau above the river meadows.  The savage dogs were gone; only hawks circled the fields, searching for rodents to whisk back to their nests high up in the rocks of the cliffs behind the city.

“The town was in flames when we fled the escaping ogres,” Arthor claimed as Erik led his men across the meadow and up into the town.  The stockade about the town had burned down into blackened pegs, falling away completely in spots.  Log buildings had been levelled by the flames, their charred walls askew and the roof timbers long collapsed.  Only the corduroy roads remained unburned, and evidence of warriors having fallen lay upon them.  A cracked helmet could be seen here and a shattered shield there and broken spears and withered arrows lay about everywhere, but there were no remains anywhere.  Survivors had returned to the ravaged town and buried their dead.  At the back of the town, pressed into the enclosing cliffs, stood one small stone building.  “That is where the giants lived,” Arthor explained.  “Thorkill called it the hall of Geruth.  It is much larger inside,” and everyone saw that it was so when they entered.  The hall was as corrupt and filthy as Arthor had described it years before, but no ogres remained chained in what appeared to be cells.  Erik had several torches lit and they carried on their exploration, back into the depths of the hall.  Huge stone thrones sat at the back of the hall, but there was no sign of the giants Arthor had described.  As Gorm and Thorkill had done many years previous, Arthor led them off to the left into a large and empty anteroom.  At the back of it was the entrance to a treasure chamber which was, though not empty, bare.  All that remained were some huge shields and swords, the weapons of giants that Arthor had described.  Along one wall hung huge cloaks and beside each cloak Erik noted a pair of stilts.  Erik had a man hold his torch and he took the stilts and climbed up on them and strapped them to his legs.  In them, he stood over ten feet in height, and he took one of the long cloaks from a high peg in the wall and he wrapped it about himself.

“Is this the giant you saw?” Erik asked Arthor, taking up one of the huge helmets and placing it upon his head.  His face disappeared in the shadows of the helm and only his eyes flashed brightly in the torchlight.  He took up one of the massive shields, strapped on an enormous sword and armed himself with a large spear to complete the transformation from man to giant.  Arthor looked up at Erik and said nothing.

When they had completed their exploration of the grotto, they returned to the entrance chamber only to find the exterior opening blocked up by a great stone slab.  Fearsome whispers broke out among Erik’s men, so powerful are born beliefs.  “Only giants could have moved such a slab,” some said.  “We shall be trapped forever in the hall of Geruth,” cried others.

Erik took a torch and studied the slab blocking the entrance.  It was solid stone in the shape of a huge coin and had been rolled from a slot in the great stone wall of the building.  Although it had slid into a slot on the other side of the entrance, it had not rolled all the way shut, Erik guessed, from disuse.  Small beams of light filtered in through the top and bottom corners, and Erik could get his fingers in behind the edge of the stone.  Light was not the only element that penetrated the cracks;  Erik could hear voices on the other side of the slab and they were speaking in Dvalin’s native language.  Thinking back to the past, Erik grabbed a linden shield from one of his men and bit into it, growling ferociously, as his father, Ragnar, had done years before.  He then went back to the great stone slab, grabbed it down in the corner of the entrance and began to roll it back, mightily.  The muscles in his broad back bunched up and the sinews in his blacksmith’s shoulders stood out as he slowly rolled the stone up, in his berserker’s rage.  He slipped his body into the opening he had created and, with his back to the doorway, he began to push with all his might.  The stone door was moving, and light shone into the hall when Erik felt a spear in his ribs.  “Don’t kill me,” he growled in the dwarf language and, when the spearhead was backed off, Erik let go the stone and jumped outside the doorway.  The great stone slab rolled quickly shut as the bright light of day blinded Erik, who stood helpless and exhausted as the berserk fit left him.  When his eyesight returned, he was standing in front of Dvalin, the dwarf he had grown up with, but he knew it could not be.  He had seen Dvalin die.

“Where did you learn the dwarf language?” the little man with the spear demanded.

“From a dwarf who sounded just like you,” Erik answered.  “A dwarf called Dvalin.”

The dwarf pointed his spear away from Erik slightly.  “You knew my father?”  Several other young dwarfs kept their spears fast on the Norseman.

It was a question that immediately endeared the dwarf to Erik.  “Your father was my friend.  I owe him much.”

“I am Durin, son of Dvalin,” the dwarf introduced himself.  “He made you that sword, didn’t he?”

“Yes.  It is star stone.”

“I can see that from the glow.”

“Some see it better than others.”

The dwarf smiled and the others in his party relaxed their weapons.  “My father taught you our language well,” the dwarf started, clumsily.

“He was a man of patience.  He always said I had a way with words, still, he showed much patience.  When I was growing up, he and I would talk to each other in your language and none would know what we were saying.”

Durin led Erik off to a place where they could sit and they all sat about Erik in a semi-circle.  “Tell me about my father,” Durin asked gently.

Erik felt the longing in Durin’s voice.  The longing and the pride.

“He was our leader before he was captured,” Durin said proudly, looking about the other young dwarves.  It was apparent to Erik that Durin was the leader here.

Erik told Durin all the tales he remembered growing up with Dvalin, and it was evident that the Norseman had truly loved the little fellow.  He ended his story with the forging of Tyrfingr and then told of the fatal disease that had afflicted Dvalin because of it.

“We watched you with his body.  We were very much moved by your efforts,” Durin said.  “He was the last of my line to know the secret of the forging of the star stone.  I was but a boy when your people sacked our city, but my mother told me that he was captured, and he never got the chance to teach his craft.”

“After my people sacked your city?” Erik asked incredulously.

“I’m sorry,” Durin apologized.  “The one who leads you.  Arthor.  After he and others sacked our city.”

“Now there is a tale you must tell me,” Erik started, “for I am their leader here, and Arthor has told me quite another story.”

The dwarf sat a little closer to the Norseman and told him the story of the land the dwarves called Glassy Plains.  “At first, none but dwarves inhabited the land of Glassy Plains, then Slavs would come to trade, and my forefathers created giants to keep them away from our city.  Then the Norsemen came and we traded our fine steel weapons and furs to Arthor for gold and silks and other rich goods that corrupted our society, and, when we became too wealthy to work, to hunt and to forge steel, we had nothing more to trade; then Arthor came with men unafraid of giants and they attacked our city and killed our men and raped our women and took back the gold and the silk, and then they burned the town.  They captured my father, Dvalin, and that was the last we ever saw of him until our shaman sensed your coming and we went to the source of our river and we watched you with the body of my father.”

A small rumbling sound came from the entrance of the Hall of Geruth, and the great stone blocking it began to roll back.  The dwarves grabbed up their weapons and surrounded the opening.  The butts of half a dozen spears could be seen protruding from the lower corner of the doorway as Erik’s men used the weapons of the giants to prize the slab free.  As the door opened, spear tips, too, emerged, as Erik’s men prepared to charge out of the breach.  “Send out Arthor,” Erik ordered.  “The rest of you, stay inside the hall.”

Durin ordered his dwarves to stand down.

Arthor squeezed out of the opening and the men inside stopped up the great stone with a fragment of shield, but no others came out.  Arthor stood at the entrance, blinded by the light of day and Erik called him forward.  The three men, Erik, Durin and Arthor, went over to the place Erik and Durin had been at before and they sat down, and they talked.

“King Gorm was a true explorer,” Arthor eventually confessed.  “He had nothing to do with the attack on the city.  It was all the doing of Thorkill and myself.  We had been raiding the territories about Hawknista for many years, between trading seasons, while your father was back in Norway.  Thorkill had let it slip that he had been raiding Khazar caravans, so your father fired him and sent him back across the way.  Now, Thorkill knew that the dwarves kept a hoard of gold in the city, so he went to King Gorm in Denmark and he arranged for a Nor’Way expedition for the purposes of exploration, but his real plan was to get the gold for himself, no matter how it affected Nor’Way trade.

“When he arrived in Hawknista with King Gorm and all his Danish troops, there was little I could do but go along with his plan.  We went to the city of the dwarves and we surrounded it and made ready to assault it.  The fact that the city was defended by giants only added to the challenge and the honours we expected to earn, but, when we attacked, it turned out that the giants were a ruse and we overwhelmed their defences.  The dwarves were brave fighters and we lost many of King Gorm’s men, but when we captured their king, your Dvalin,” Arthor said, nodding to Erik and then Durin, “the dwarves fled, and we carried the city.

“It’s hard to explain what takes over in an army when a city is sacked, but I recall only a dark sensation of the aftermath.  We did terrible things with the dwarves we captured, and the women suffered greatly.  We were several days gathering up the booty and we were in no hurry to leave.  We took Dvalin with us as a hostage and left in our own good time.  It was I who concocted the tale of our adventures in Giantland, but, when Thorkill and King Gorm prudently left before Ragnar’s return from Bulgar, they carried my story back to the west with them.  They had ordered that I kill Dvalin, our only witness, but, in return for his oath of silence, I let him live.  I suspected Dvalin made the promise only to await a chance to escape and lead the dwarves again and cause us much trouble, so, when your father arrived from his Bulgar trade I gave him Dvalin with instructions that he never be allowed to return to the Eastern Realm.  You can see why I was a little surprised,” Arthor said, shaking his head, “when you and Roller arrived unexpectedly, many years ago, with an ailing Dvalin in tow.  The rest of the story you know.”

“My father hated Thorkill,” Erik started slowly.  “He drove him out of the Nor’Way trade because he was raiding.  Are you saying he never knew you were in league with Thorkill?”

“He always suspected a connection,” Arthor answered, “but he owed me favours.”

Erik was being very patient in the questions he asked Arthor.  He had gotten the old Varangian talking, confessing, and he didn’t want to give him cause to stop.  “You said Ragnar fired Thorkill because he caught him raiding Khazar caravans.”

Arthor nodded in the affirmative.  “About four years before he came back to raid Giantland.”

“Back in Hawknista you said that my mother was captured some years before Dvalin.  Was she captured in a raid on a caravan bound for Khazaria?”

Arthor began to get nervous with this new line of questioning.  “Yes.  But it was Ladgerda and Ragnar that captured her and numerous other Slavs in their famed attack upon Fafnir, the fire breathing dragonship.  They took her back across the Nor’Way, but, when first the Bulgar and then Khazar embassies came looking for the captives, I had been instructed by Ragnar to blamed the Biarmians for the raid.  When Ragnar came from Norway for the spring trading he learned that Thorkill had done further raiding so he fired Thorkill and sent him back west.  Ragnar wanted no further trouble with either the Bulgars or the Khazars.  They were our partners in the Nor’Way trade and he always preached that we should protect the survival of the ‘Way at all costs.”

Arthor sat back a little and drew his knees up in front of himself and he wrapped his arms around them nervously.  “Ragnar had fallen in love with his captive, your mother, the one the Khazars were searching for.  The betrothed bride of King Hunn, Kagan Bek of Khazaria.  Ragnar sold all of the Slavs to Arab traders, but he refused to part with your mother, telling the Arabs that she was already sold to a Bulgar prince.”

Erik asked his next question very gently, and then Durin sensed that Erik, too, searched for knowledge about a lost parent.  “Who was my mother?”

Arthor looked nervously into the rich verdant carpet upon which they sat.  “We called her Boddi because we found her with a golden bodkin.  We let her keep it, because we knew her to be of noble birth and proof of identity can be very important in ransoming a princess.”

“Who was my mother?” Erik asked, a little less gently.

“She was the daughter of King Olmar, the ruler of Kiev,” Arthor answered.

“I know King Olmar well,” Erik said, flatly.

“I’m sorry I have caused you so much grief, Erik,” Arthor apologized.  “And you too,” he added, nodding towards Durin.

“How shall we end this little standoff of ours?” Erik asked Durin in the dwarf tongue.

“I don’t see much point in seeking revenge,” Durin  said, “and perhaps the best thing for my people now is to resume trade with the rest of the world.  To that end, I would like to accompany you beyond the land bridge to study the ways and the words of other lands.”

“It would be an honour to serve the son of Dvalin,” Erik answered.  “Your father taught me some skill in the working of the star stone.  Perhaps, between us, we can rediscover your father’s lost art.”

“And while we are figuring it out,” Durin answered, “you can tell me about my father.”

The next day, Erik and his Centuriata, Arthor and Durin left the City of Glassy Plains and sailed upriver in Fair Faxi for Hawknista.  They arrived at the trading post a week before Roller and his Varangians returned, then the whole group successfully made the Nor’Way crossing together.  Erik announced in Hrafnista that Nor’Way trade would continue as always and that the dwarves in Giantland would once again be playing a part in it.

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

27.0  CONFLICT WITH THE KHAZARS  (Circa 838 AD)

“Hlod rode from the east,   heir of Heidrek,

  he came to the court       claiming his birthright,

  to Arheimar,         the homes of the Goths;

  there drank Angantyr       arval for Heidrek.”

Anonymous;  The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.

Erik wintered with his brother in The Vik and in the spring,  he set out for a season of Southern Way trade.  Fair Faxi led the small merchant armada that left The Vik, crossed the Skagerrak and Kattegat and traversed the Sound between Denmark and Gotland.  There, a larger Danish merchant fleet, from both Liere and Hedeby, joined the Norwegians, and they sailed past Bornholm and along the Baltic Sea.  A small Swedish flotilla joined them off the Isle of Oland, and a larger group of Swedes from Birka met them at the Island of Gotland.  The merchant armada then crossed the Baltic, traversed the Gulf of Riga and entered the mouth of the Dvina River.

On the Baltic Sea, the merchants had been excited and optimistic; on the Dvina they were calm and sullen.  All took up their shields–some had taken two–and wielded their weapons: bows, spears and slings, arms for fending off enemies at a distance.  Erik saw the ruined city of the Sclavs up on a broad ridge behind the open battlefield where King Frodi had slain King Strunick a decade before.  The city lay in ruins.  “This is Lithuanian territory once again,” a Norwegian merchant whispered to Erik.  “The Sclavs have all fled or died.”  Erik could hear the fear in the man’s voice as he breathed the word Lithuanian.  He had heard that same fear in the breath of men shouting ‘Biarmians!’ when he had first sailed up the Northern Dvina.

“Storm of darts!” someone shouted suddenly, and the quivering twang of bowstrings drifted out of the brush and across the water, and hundreds of arrows could be seen rising, arcing and then falling, as the Varangians quit their rowing and took shelter under shields.  The waters about the ships came alive with the splashing of darts, and the decks of ships and the faces of shields danced with the soft thuds of arrows.  Several slaves aboard the ships died and several more were wounded in the attack.  As each ship passed the copse of trees by the river, it, too, suffered under the feathered barrage, until all ships had finally gone by and every one had sustained some kind of damage.  Further upriver, the leader of the Danish merchants took his ship into shore at a clearing that had been marked by the Lithuanians.  A grassy meadow fell serenely into the river at one end and at the other it was marked by a wooden statue of some unknown native god.  The Danish merchant pulled his ship right up close to the riverbank, for the water was deep there, and he threw his offerings to the Lithuanian god on shore.  All the trailing merchant ships followed the example set by their leader until the shore was piled high with goods, more a tithe than an offering.

“How do you know if you’ve left enough?” Erik asked the leader of the Norwegians.

“Why…they attack us again,” he answered, matter-of-factly.

“I wouldn’t pay the tithe,” Erik said bitterly.  “I’d fight them first.”

“I knew that you would be averse to making an offering, so I had the men of my ship put out a double offering to cover you,” the Norwegian merchant confessed.

Erik looked at the man angrily.

“All the Norwegian merchants chipped in for your share,” the man called Thorolfr added.  “If one ship doesn’t pay, all ships are attacked.”

Erik’s anger passed.  “In Asia Minor, we arduously circumvent Roman lands to avoid paying a tithe.”

“There are many who travel a route further east to avoid the Lithuanians.  There is a town there called Novgorod, meaning New Keep.”

Erik nodded.  “I have heard of it.  Traders there use it as a base for trading with the Khazars.”  Erik peered into the heavy brush, his deep blue eyes penetrating the bush for Lithuanians.  His dark brow and his coal black hair were now flecked with grey.  He held a heavy Turkish composite bow in his hand with a feathered shaft nocked at the ready.  Age had accentuated his sharp features, acutely adjusting the angles of his high cheeks, arcing his eyebrows up ominously, setting out his firm jaw.  The heavy baggy black trousers he wore had a Turkish look to them, and his bright white silk shirt of the Hraes’ Trading Company was piped at the seams for added strength…Hvit Serk, White Shirt is what he was often called, as were his men.  He had his bright red Roman cloak drawn up, so it hung from one shoulder in a bunch.  He had one foot up on a ship’s rib and his black Danish boots were the only Norse clothes that he wore.  Even his weapons differed from those of the Danes and Norwegians about him.  Tyrfingr, of course, still hung at his side, and his round linden shield was hung from the ship’s top strake, but his bow was a Turkish composite hornbow that he had spent many hours mastering.  Its heavy draw weight gave it superior range and power and made it a weapon unequalled on the Asian plain, and Erik had tried to train his troops in Gardariki in its use, but old habits die hard.  The strange, warlike little dwarf, Durin, who never left Erik’s side, added to the mystery of the man.

“Next year,” Thorolfr began, “I, too, shall lead my merchants through Novgorod.  To Kiev, of course,” he concluded, nervously.  Thorolfr knew he no longer addressed a countryman.  He was talking to a citizen of the world.

All winter, rumours had been circulating in Gardariki and then Khazaria that Erik was a man no longer of this world, that he had been killed investigating the Fortress of Sarkel.  He had been expected to return in a month, and, when he failed to do so, Brother Gregory and several Goths set out to learn what had become of him.  Questions placed in the proper ears in Khazaria elicited stories of a Varangian ship’s destruction on the Don River earlier that fall, and, once the news travelled to Gardariki that it had been Erik ‘Bragi’ in command of that ship, the news returned to Khazaria.  King Hunn was overjoyed at the news of Prince Erik’s demise, but none was happier than his grandson, Prince Hlod, Princess Hanund’s son.  The former Queen of Denmark had not forgotten that it was Erik who had exposed her infidelity and his brother Roller who had killed her lover.  She had never failed to remind her son just who it was that had deprived him of a kingdom, and Prince Hlod had, early on, made plans to regain his lost position and tarnished prestige.

In the winter, Prince Hlod went about his grandfather’s kingdom garnering supporters to his cause, and in the spring,  they set off for Kiev.  In the main city of the Varangians, Prince Hlod addressed his father, King Angantyr Frodi, in his high seat hall.  “I have come to claim my inheritance,” he began.  “I’ll have half of Prince Erik’s lands and treasures, for he deprived me of my rightful place.”

“You’ll have your third when I am dead!” King Frodi answered him angrily, referring to a bastard’s share of an inheritance.  “We, too, have heard the rumours of Prince Erik Bragi’s death, but they remain rumours, and if they should become fact, my sister, Princess Gunwar, your aunt, shall inherit the lands and wealth of my Kagan Bek.”

Then General Ygg stepped forward.  “There is no proof that he be your son, my liege.  He is more likely the result of cuckoldry.  He buries your friend before he is dead.  Send him away thankful he yet has his head!”

“You’ll have your third when I am dead,” King Frodi repeated himself.

Then Prince Hlod said, “I shall have my share of Erik’s wealth, for there is treasure enough in cattle and steed, in weapons and stead, in bright rings and burnished blades for a nephew and his aunt.  Through the Mirkwood Forest shall I wend with warriors plenty, until I get my rightful share.”

Finally, King Frodi said, “Broken bucklers and shattered lances shall be your lot, your share, your inheritance should you take up arms against the Hraes’.  If Prince Erik is dead, he shall rise up from the grave to fight for his lands and his love, fair Princess Gunwar.  Now leave us!  Thankful you’ve yet a head!” shouted the Great Kagan of Kiev.

The tithe the Scandinavian merchants had paid the Lithuanians must have sufficed, for they did not attack again.  Soon the river caravan was in the relative safety of the land of the Dregovichi, and all the merchants cheered as they cleared a bend in the river and saw the settlement of Surazh.  There, they beached their boats in a clearing, spent a night cleaning themselves and resting in the longhalls King Frodi’s troops had built, then, next day, they loaded their goods upon wagons King Frodi’s craftsmen had prepared, pulled by mules King Frodi’s retainers supplied, and they set off for the settlement of Smolensk, three days travel away.  Erik, however, had Fair Faxi mounted upon wheeled axles and towed by a team of mules along the portage route.

At Smolensk, Erik met the kinfolk of Alfgeir, the Danish merchant and friend that Erik had buried years before, and there were toasts and greetings and memories shared in that reunion.  Again, the merchants spent a night in longhalls built by King Frodi’s troops.  In the morning they purchased monoxylan built by craftsmen of the local Slav populace, the Radimichi, then loaded up their wares and, with fresh ships, the river caravan set off again, this time down the Dnieper.

Erik looked like a ghost from the grave as he stepped out of Fair Faxi and onto the dock at Kiev.  The rumours that he had been killed had circulated throughout the city, and, being Kagan Bek of both Gardar and Gardariki, as well as having been popular with both Varangians and the local Slavs, the Poljane, Erik had been mourned by all.  King Frodi had gone down sadly to the shores of the Dnieper to welcome the arriving Southern Way merchants only to find the very element of his grief alive and leading them.  He was beside himself with joy as he hugged his brother-in-law warmly.  King Olmar, too, was overjoyed to see Erik, and a happiness blazed within him too powerful to burn for just a friend, but he submerged it and merely shook Erik’s hand.

On meeting his grandfather again, Erik wanted to cry out in the repatriation, “Grandfather!  At long last, my Grandfather!”, but he did not.  King Olmar’s coldness towards him was apparent, and the old monarch must have known all along, ever since he had taken Boddi’s cloak pin from Erik and given it back again, that Erik was his blood kin.  “What a terrible thing it must be to be a king and not acknowledge your own grandson, for politics or whatever reason,” Erik thought to himself.

High upon the palisade of the centre fort of Kiev, Princess Alfhild watched Erik and a dwarf step onto a quay, and the sight took her back to a bright sunny day when Erik had won himself a ship through his words and had saved the dwarf Dvalin from humiliation.  She realized, now, how close she had come to loving Erik, and she cried because she knew that soon it would be time to avenge her father, King Gotar, by withholding her support from him.  Gotar had raised her to be the consummate politician, and she would not fail him in her final task.

Erik’s reunion with the people of Kiev, was, of necessity, short-lived.  The next morning, he carried on down the Dnieper with the Varangian merchants, who were joined by King Frodi and Slav and Hraes’ contingents bound for Constantinople.  This season, however, at the Dnieper Rapids, they came upon thousands and thousands of Magyar horsemen and their families migrating across the Asian plain.  With the completion of the Fortress of Sarkel, the Khazars no longer required their services, guarding the Don Heath, so the Finno-Ugric Magyars, or Turkoi, as the Greeks called them, began a westward trek that was to culminate in the founding of the nation of Hungary, named after their native Dzungaria on the north-western border of Cathay.  The Hraes’ viewed the invading tribesmen as enemies, and it was only with great difficulty that they managed to get their boats down the Dnieper.  At Cherson, Greek and Goth traders joined the merchants, who then split into groups bound for Constantinople and the Caspian Sea.  It was at Cherson that King Frodi and Erik, Kagan and Kagan Bek, parted company.

Erik and his group had to stop and wait for Goth merchants, who were surprised by the fact Erik was alive, and had been ready to forgo the season’s trade due to the premature news of his demise.

The citizens of Gardariki were overjoyed to learn the news that Erik was yet alive, Princess Gunwar being so overcome with excitement that she sailed forth to meet him on the Sea of Azov.  Old Gotwar was caught by surprise with the news.  She had wanted to go with her mistress, but her old age would not let her keep up with the feverish pace with which Gunwar readied herself, and the old woman missed the boat.  Erik and Gunwar spent a beautiful night together aboard Fair Faxi, with a half moon and a full sail above them.  Gunwar informed Erik that, since they had been apart so long, there was no way she was going to be kept in Gardariki, and that she would be travelling to Baghdad with her husband.  Erik agreed on one condition: Gunwar would have to dress as a warrior, since Moslem women were not given the freedom that Norse women had.  To this Gunwar gladly agreed.  She said, “I’m as fine a warrior as most of the men of Gardariki, and certainly finer than any the Arabs have.”

When Erik and Gunwar returned to Gardariki, old Gotwar was waiting on the quay along with most of the citizens of Tmutorokan.  There was a great feast prepared and ready, so the merchants planned on a two-day stopover in which to enjoy the celebration.  Gunwar noticed that Gotwar seemed agitated and disturbed as she dispensed her medicines to her mistress.  Later that evening, during the feasting, Gunwar fell ill.  Gotwar claimed it was food poisoning and was life threatening, but Erik took note that no others had suffered like symptoms.  The old priestess of Odin, using all the medical skills she’d acquired through her witchcraft, plied Gunwar with medicines and herbs until her mistress recovered somewhat from the illness.  “Her entire system shall require a cleansing that may take several weeks, but you have my assurances that she will be alive and well upon your return from Baghdad,” the old crone told the leader of the Hraes’.  For once, Erik felt thankful that he had spared the old woman’s life, and he set off for Baghdad with his merchants, while Gunwar remained in Gardariki to convalesce.

The trade in Baghdad went very well, but Erik was disturbed to learn that his friend, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut had been ill all the previous winter.  His son, Fadlan, was taking over the family business for him.  Erik again got the sensation that time was shifting.  It was as though years, but not time, pass until suddenly some event trips time and it shifts forward to catch up with the years.  Erik realized then that time is relative;  years are but the continuum.  Time had treated Erik relatively well;  he was still young, though many in years.

At the end of the summer trading season, when the Varangian merchants attempted to return up the Dnieper, they found the rapid portages effectively blocked by the Magyars.  Still under orders from the Khazars, the Magyar tribesmen refused to let any merchants pass.  The traders that they managed to capture were stripped of their wealth and allowed to carry on to Kiev.  The rest of the Varangians returned to Gardariki.

Erik was again separated from Gunwar, as he led the stranded merchants across the Sea of Azov and up the Don and Donets Rivers, where they portaged across to the Orel River, a tributary of the Dnieper.  Erik had them carry a message to King Frodi requesting relief from the Magyar blockade, but he, himself, returned to Gardariki in Fair Faxi, before the Greek triremes stationed out of the Fortress of Sarkel could learn of his movements.

In Khazaria, Prince Hlod once again spent the winter garnering support for his cause from the Onogur, the At-Khazars and Kara-Khazars as well as the Huns.  This time, though, he levied troops from the tribes loyal to his grandfather, King Hunn.  He then sent messengers to Gardariki and Kiev informing the Hraes’ of his intention of taking Tmutorokan for himself.

Erik, too, sent messengers to Kiev requesting, once more, that King Frodi raise an army to raze the Magyar blockade and send reinforcements to the defence of Gardariki.  He regretted having led his Varangian merchants up the Don and sending them back to Kiev.  He could have used those stalwart men in the defence of Tmutorokan.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

28.0  THE BATTLE OF SARKEL  (Circa 839 AD)

“The Mighty One of Hlidskjalf      Spake his mind unto them

  Where the hosts of fearless      Harekr were slaughtered.”

                        Thoralfr;  Skaldskaparmal.

The evening supper was ready, trenchers full and steaming, but King Frodi was in a rage.  He paced up and down the audience area of his high seat hall in Kiev.  “Full many were the chieftains that attended to my banquets.  No shortage had I of warriors when the Southern Way ground gold for all.”  He glared about himself at the empty benches and the fearful few.  “Now that time of need has come, where are the hosts of Angantyr Frodi?”

“Calm yourself, my husband,” Queen Alfhild spoke from the high seat.  “Erik is a man full well capable of fending for himself.”

“Even now,” King Frodi pressed on, “Prince Hlod is raising a host with which to advance his claim on Gardariki.  And Erik has asked for my help in resisting his attack.  What kind of a king, a kagan, leaves his prince, his kagan bek to fend for himself?”

Queen Alfhild sat angrily a moment before answering.  “Erik is not a prince, but a bondmaid’s son, yet he rules as King of Gardariki, if not in word, then in deed, for you have not even set foot in Tmutorokan.  Let Erik then defend his land!” she cried.  “I’ve heard quite enough of what Erik wants, and what Erik does,” and she fled the hall for her bedchamber.

King Olmar sat mutely on the opposite high seat through her whole tirade.  When she stormed out of the hall, he joined King Frodi on the audience floor.  “Erik is no bondmaid’s son,” he reassured King Frodi.  “His great feats tell of his noble birth.  We must send him what help we can and raise a host in the north to come to his aid.”

“Where have all my liegemen gone in my time of need?” King Frodi asked the ruler of the Poljane.  “Why have they deserted me?”

“Because I rule a subjugated people, your wife has not approached me,” King Olmar started in a low whisper, “but she has obtained oaths from many of the Hraes’ chieftains that they not defend Gardariki and that only Gardar is to be defended if attacked.  Many of your princes blame Erik for our trouble with the Khazars.  The young ones especially.  The ones who’ve come of late.  The ones who were not here when Erik fought my fleet and the hosts of the Huns years ago.  But even though Erik laid me low, I shall send him what aid I can muster.  And I hear that General Ygg is raising a troop of Goths to aid in the defence of Gardariki.  Join us in sending what aid we can and send messengers to Denmark and Norway and Sweden asking all Varangians to aid Erik in his struggle.”

“I shall do as you suggest, noble Olmar,” King Frodi answered.  “Now I must have words with my wife,” he said in a hard, heavy voice.  “Everyone!  Leave my hall!”  he commanded.

King Frodi stormed angrily to the back of his hall and went down the hallway between bedchambers.  His own huge double chamber doors were shut but not bolted, so he opened one door and slipped into the room, closing it fast behind him.  Alfhild was already asleep in their bed.  “Why have you deceived me?” he asked gently, brushing her hair, still bright in the candlelight, off her pale, pink skin.  She was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  The sheets of silk outlined her fine form, from her soft gentle shoulder to her tapering waist, then up over her firm round hip and on down her flexed thigh and calves.  Her petite feet poked out from under the coverings.  She rolled over onto her back and the sheets showed the fine form of her breasts rising and falling as she breathed softly.  “How have you turned all my lieutenants against me?” King Frodi asked himself, biting on a knuckle in anguish.  “My queen, my queen!”

“Is that you, my lord?” Alfhild whispered softly.  “Come to bed.  My feet are cold.”

“How have you turned my men against me?” King Frodi asked again, this time addressing his question, most directly, to his wife.

“What do you mean?” Alfhild countered.  “Have you gone mad?”  She sat up shivering, cowering under her sheets.

“Olmar told me you’ve had my men swear oaths against helping Erik!” Frodi shouted.  “You’ve turned on me, foul daughter of Gotar, treacherous princess of politics!”

“Olmar told you this?  And you believe him?  A Slav?” Alfhild cried.  “Have you been drinking?” she shouted, accusingly.

“Don’t lie to me, wench, and I’ll spare your life, for this is stately treason I accuse you of.”

A red blush surged across Alfhild’s pale countenance as the seriousness of her husband became apparent.  King Frodi stood above her, flush with rage, a monarch beside himself in anger.  “Erik and I struck a bargain many years ago,” Alfhild, fearing for her life now, began confessing, “when he came to Norway with your suit for my hand, that in return for my betrayal of my father, as vengeance, I should someday betray Erik.”  Alfhild began to cry.  “This is his day of reckoning.”

“Day of reckoning, indeed, foul wench!” Frodi breathed cruelly between clenched teeth.  “Erik has ever done naught but serve us.  And, in harming Erik, did it not occur to you that you’d be harming my sister, fair Gunwar?  Day of reckoning, indeed!”

Alfhild, remembering her duty to her father, countered, “Served you?  Served himself is more like it!  Erik has ever served you by besting you in every action, every thought, every deed, in every respect!  Where would you be without Erik?  Back in Liere?  A tenuous King of Zealand?  Lording over some perverse, demented gang of thugs you called champions?  You were the blight and shame of Europe until Erik made you a real king.  You’ve always, and shall ever be, his shadow!” cried Alfhild.

King Frodi was a madman, beside himself by then.  “Shadow?  Who should know more about shadow than you, darksome wench?” and Frodi grabbed Alfhild’s wrist in one hand and her throat in the other, and he began to strangle the life out of her.

Alfhild, though slight, was strong and she managed to kick Frodi back off her and she crawled back to a corner of the bed and her fear was replaced by a fierceness born of fate.  “Ever have I loved Erik, and Erik alone,” she confessed.  “If not for Erik’s love of Gunwar, I’d have had him in your stead,” she hissed.  King Frodi paused in his mad attack.  “My father, King Gotar, wanted to give Erik my hand in return for your sister’s, but Erik refused.  My father even bed me with Erik, and I tried, oh how I tried, to seduce him, but he’d have none of me, so wrapped up was he in your sister.  That’s when he allowed me this one slight,” she said, holding up a finger, “if I helped him escape with your sister.  That’s how you got stuck with me,” Alfhild finished, and she began sobbing uncontrollably.

King Frodi crawled onto Alfhild’s corner of the bed.  “You whore!” he shouted.  “You bedded with Erik, didn’t you,” and he grabbed her once more and began to strangle her, banging her head against the headboard.  “You harlot!  You whore!” he ranted, and Alfhild turned red in the face.

“Erik would have naught with me,” she sputtered, gasping for breath.

“Erik is too good for a loathsome harlot such as you!” Frodi shouted, relaxing his grip somewhat, allowing Alfhild to breathe.  Tears streamed down the king’s cheeks as he looked up to the heavens for relief, his chest heaving with his anguished breathing.

Alfhild’s eyes showed nothing but a cold contempt for the plight of her king, a malevolent evil.  “You asked me how I corrupted your captains,” she whispered, hoarsely.

King Frodi looked down upon her, tears still streaming from his eyes.

“Why, I slept with every one of them,” she cried, laughing most foully.

King Frodi placed both hands about the red, bruised throat of Queen Alfhild, and he began strangling the life out of her.  She didn’t even bother to struggle until near the end, then up came her hands and she tore at her husband’s face with her nails and she clawed, and she clawed to the very end.

All Gardariki and the surrounding land of Tmutorokan was in a state of emergency.  Reports had come back from Khazaria that King Hunn and his grandson, Prince Hlod, were raising an army with which to further their claim on the Hraes’ lands.  Erik, in response, was busy levying a host with which to meet them.  A battlefield had been marked out on the Don Heath, just south of, and across the Don from the Fortress of Sarkel and north of the Mirkwood Forest, between the lands of the Goths and the Huns.

Once Erik had quickly gathered up his host he bid goodbye to Gunwar and to Brother Gregory and to all the rest left at home.  Surrounded by his full Centuriata, including Durin, the dwarf, Erik set off at the head of his column, which numbered in the tens of thousands, counting mercenaries and auxiliaries.  They marched from Tmutorokan to the Don Heath in the cold wet weather of early spring.

Prince Hlod awaited them there.  Fifty thousand strong, the Huns awaited the forces of the Hraes’.  They were camped on a rise, with the east bank of the Don River on their right, the sheltering Mirkwood Forest on their left and the Don Heath in front of them, a lush expansive valley trailing from the Mirkwood to the Don.  On a low hill on the other side of the valley, the columns of the Hraes’ converged and made camp.  Far beyond the bright pavilions of the Huns, on the other bank of the Don stood the Fortress of Sarkel, guarded by grim At-Khazar troops and Greek mercenaries.  They would not be taking part in the next day’s struggle.  They would not fight unless Erik won the day, for Sarkel was the nut Erik wanted to crack.  The fortress would only fall by siege, and that required complete command of the field.

Erik called his Centuriata and officers together in the early evening and briefed them on his strategy.  His plan was to employ a wedge formation with a strong right wing, to separate the Hun army from the Mirkwood Forest and to drive it around and into the valley, cutting it off from the Don and the safety of Sarkel.  Total annihilation of the Khazar army was his objective.  Any Hun troops that escaped the battle would head straight for the fortress, where they would be difficult to dislodge.  Erik had full confidence in the success of the Hraes’ army, for a dream had come to him.  A portent.

Alfhild, his Queen, had come to him the night before, very sad and dishevelled, with blood upon her fingers, a Valkyrie of Odin.  Erik sensed that she was dead, and it saddened him, but she promised him victory over his old enemy.  “You must be the first on the field,” she had warned him.  “Don’t let the enemy be the first to cross the valley floor or Odin will shackle your troops with bonds of fear.  Lead your men in the charge and shoot ten arrows into the host of the Huns, then all the dead shall be dedicated to Odin and the victory shall be yours.”

Erik began to explain to his officers the lay out and the order his formations were to take, then he outlined his planned sequence of attack, explaining to his men that it was to be he who led the attack, and none were to fire their weapons until he had first fired ten arrows into the host of the Huns.  Once all questions were answered and all points of strategy were clear, Erik retired to his pavilion to rest.  A myriad of dreams had kept his sleep light the night before, so Durin, his faithful dwarf comrade, guarded the entrance with orders to let none pass.  Exhausted, Erik sat resting at the head of his cot.  Green eyes caught Erik’s’ from the dark shadows of the pavilion, and out from a corner stepped Alfhild.  “Who goes there?” cried Erik.  “What manner of spirit are you?”

“There is no one out here,” shouted Durin.

“I am a Valkyrie of Odin now,” Alfhild whispered softly.  She was beautiful now, not distraught and dishevelled, as she had come to him the night before.  Her hair had the glow of sunlight on gold and her eyes were painted moon dog shadows.  Her pink lips pouted sadly and when they parted, gloss white teeth caught up the light of the tapers.  She was wrapped in a silk sheet, and, as she stepped in front of the tapers on the table, the light showed her heavenly form through butterfly threads.  Her soft white hands held a small yellow flower to her breast.  “You shall vanquish the Huns on the morrow,” she promised.  “Tonight, your valour shall grow for the flower of Norway.”

“Stay back, spirit,” Erik cried weakly.

“What say you, my liege?” Durin cried from without.

The apparition of Alfhild threw the flower up into the air and it came cascading down the cliffs into breakers that were Erik’s hands.  Alfhild was at his side now, a soft wave crashing upon the crags of his soul.  She unbuckled Tyrfingr from his waist and she cradled the sword as she had once hugged Dvalin, then she set it aside and she undressed Erik.  She laid him back, naked, onto his cot and she opened her silk sheet and slid onto him, her nakedness brushing against his own.

“Please don’t” Erik whispered, Erik lied.  He had always dreamed of her, wanted her, cried for her.  He had always loved her, and she loved him.  They were youths again, picnicking in the forests of The Vik, only this time Alfhild had not put him off, and he had not imagined slapping her.  Instead, she drew him to her and she kissed him with her warm sweet lips, and he kissed her back, against an oak tree, and, when he pushed her, she pushed back, and when he thrust his way into her, she thrust back, and they began a rhythmic dance that led from tree to meadow then to blanket on boughs.  Then they rested, and Alfhild asked Erik a question.  “Can one change one’s nature and thereby change one’s fate?”

“Life is a growing experience,” Erik assured her.  “Anything is possible.”

Durin was alarmed by the sounds from the pavilion, first the cries, then quiet, then the sighs, now Erik’s solitary voice, so he poked his head cautiously in through the entrance and he saw his master sleeping fitfully atop the cot.  “He’s not even undressed himself,” the dwarf muttered, and he covered Erik with a heavy wool blanket.

Alfhild took her silk sheet away and left Erik with coarse wool, as she disappeared into the darkness, but the pleasure of her presence carried on in sweeping wave after sweeping wave.  Suddenly, out of that darkness of the tent, Erik saw Gunwar’s eyes, one blue and one hazel, then the hazel eye faded into darkness and the blue eye grew as bright and cold as a sapphire.  An old man with a floppy brimmed hat and a patch over one eye stepped out of the shadows.  Erik thought the man must be Odin.

“She has lied to you,” the man, who looked as Odin must, began.  “She has just now become my Valkyrie and already she wants your soul for herself.  She shall learn that you are yet my man.”  The man who looked like Odin walked into the light of the tapers.  Long blonde strings of hair thrust down from under his hat, and his face was stubbled in red and blonde whiskers.  He was tall and gaunt and ruggedly handsome.

“I am not your man, Odin!” Erik shouted.

“With whom does Erik converse?” Lieutenant Ask questioned Durin as he walked up.

“I fear it is with Odin,” Durin replied in his fresh and broken Scandinavian.  “He dreams.”

“Preordained,” Odin said, “is the nature and fate of man,” walking towards Erik’s cot.  “You have always been my man.  The Sea-King Oddi was my man until I allowed you to slay him.  Westmar and his sons were followers of Odin until they crossed swords with Odin’s man, Erik.  Even the Moslem King Hunn received a lesson in pagan piety from my Erik.  I made your most resounding victory go against your grandfather, King Olmar.  Were he half the father that your mother was daughter,” and Odin grinned and shook his head wistfully.  “Always I have given you victories, and now you must follow my advice.  Draw up your host and wait….wait for the Huns to attack, then fire ten arrows over the battlefield to commend the slain to your master, and I shall grant you the day.”

“But Alfhild told me to attack first,” Erik complained.

“She lies to you.  If you attack first, your army shall be routed, and you shall be slain.  That is her wish.”

“I do not trust you,” Erik said.  “How am I to know who tells the truth?”

“It is said that liars seldom tell the truth.  I shall fathom a small truth for you, as an act of faith.”

Erik said nothing.

“Do you remember this verse?” Odin began, pacing a little.

“When you’re grinding your war-axe on the whetstone,

 does your wagging penis flail the quivering rump?”

“That is the verse with which old Gotwar lost the flygting contest to me,” Erik declared.  “It is a nonsense verse.”

“It is the verse with which Gotwar chose to lose the flygting contest,” Odin explained.  “It is a curse of infertility.  The act of flailing is to bare fruit, rather than to bear it.  She lost the contest in order to exact revenge for the loss of her twelve sons and, that done, she now seeks to avenge the loss of her husband, Westmar.”

Erik paled at the revelation.  “You say, ‘that done.’  What mean you by this?”

“Simply that she has already exacted revenge for her twelve sons by depriving you of twelve sons that were fated to you and Gunwar.  Always old Gotwar has stayed by Gunwar’s side, and always she has plied her with herbs and medicines.  It is not by chance that Gunwar has remained barren.”

Erik felt his stomach rise up at the news of the fate of his children.  A ghastly pallor overcame his countenance.  He leaned against his cot for support.  “What mean you by, ‘the loss of her husband’?” Erik then asked.

“I will tell you if you go forth now and fire ten arrows over the field of battle.  Not before,” Odin answered him, and he sat with one leg up on the table with the tapers.

Erik began to dress himself, but realized he was already fully clothed.  He went out of the pavilion into the night.

“Where go you, my lord?” Durin asked Erik.

“Fetch me my steed, good Ask,” Erik ordered.  “I shall be back presently, faithful Durin.”  Erik looked about his own person, went back into the pavilion, and came out with his heavy horn bow and a quiver of arrows.  “Let no one enter,” he said to the dwarf.  Erik ran off to meet Ask, who was coming back with the horse.  He leapt upon the mare and rode off to the field of battle.  There he dismounted and stabbed ten arrows into the ground in a line and he took up his bow and he fired them, one after another, as rapidly as he could.  They arced across the moonlit sky as though one great flexing shaft, and the last arrow left the bow before the first arrow had landed, and, when the last arrow landed, they were all planted within an area no bigger than a man.  Erik could not see the arrows, over a quarter mile away, but he knew the result of his effort, and Odin, too, knew of the fine shots Erik had just loosed.  No archer in either camp could have performed such a feat.  Erik mounted his horse and rode back to his tent.  He tied the horse to an awning post, nodded at Durin and entered the pavilion.

“That was fine shooting,” Odin said.

“Enough praise!  To the quick of the matter.”

“My priestess, Gotwar, has been using a secret herb to make Gunwar barren for a sufficient span of time to have cost you twelve sons you would normally have seeded.  Her sons’ vengeance complete, she plans tomorrow night to avenge the death of her husband by poisoning your wife, Gunwar.”

“You are lying!” Erik screamed.  “You wish to draw me away from the field of battle for who knows what hellish reason.”

“It is interesting you should use that term, for Hell bound your Gunwar is.  She has left the pagan faith, so, though she be a true warrior princess, Valhall is without her grasp, and, though she wishes to become a Christian, she has not yet been baptised, so their heaven, too, is beyond her.”

“How do I know you are telling the truth?” Erik cried.

“I’ll never lie to you, Erik.  Such action does not befit a god.  I may betray you, but I shall never lie to you.”

A madness, a fever, swept over Erik, but still he did not move.

“Nine months ago,” Odin began again, “when you returned from the north, you and Gunwar conceived a son.  Can you surmise such?”

“On the Sea of Azov, aboard Fair Faxi?”

“Very good,” Odin declared, condescendingly.  “And, during your homecoming feast, Gunwar became ill?”  Odin paused for Erik’s nod.  “It was Gotwar’s medicines that brought on the sickness.  She’d heard from Gunwar that you were planning on taking your wife to the Caliphate of Baghdad, and, left at home in Gardariki, she would have been unable to ply her birth damping medicines, so she poisoned Gunwar to keep her home, and she plied her with medicines to abort your twelfth seeded son.  Had your son gone full term, he’d have been born this coming morn, but now, her sons’ vengeance complete, old Gotwar intends to mortally poison Gunwar.  Then your victory over her shall have gone full cycle to defeat.”

“What you tell me smacks of evil most foul and cuts to the very quick of my soul.  Such a complex tale, full of the warp and woof of the fabric called fate, needs must be born of truth.  Why have you waited twelve sons to tell me of this, darksome Odin?”

“It is your thirteenth son I wish to protect, ’cause, like you, he shall be Odin’s man.  You shall meet him some day, just as Olmar finally met you.  I can protect him from the magics of Gotwar, but, now, only you can save the Christian Gunwar.  Do you wish me to tell you more?  Or do you rush off to save your wife?”

But Erik could not answer him.  He was out the pavilion, screaming instructions at Durin and Ask.  “Get me two more horses,” he shouted at Ask.  “Young and strong, with a desire to run hard.”  Then he turned to Durin.  “I must rush forth to save Princess Gunwar from poisoning at the hands of her old maid, Gotwar.  You must take charge of my officers for me.  Don’t let them rush to the attack in tomorrow’s battle, as I’d instructed.  You must hold them back until the Huns have crossed the valley floor.  Only then must you attack, and not before.  Do I make myself clear?”

“I understand your orders, Erik, but how will I get your Hraes’ to follow my orders?”

“They are my orders!  Remind them of that!  Ask and my Centuriata will help,” Erik added, as Ask came towards them with the horses and some sacks of grain and skins of water.  Erik mounted the mare he had kept at the pavilion and rode to meet Ask.  They tied the horses in a line behind the mare.  “Durin is left in charge with my orders,” he shouted to Ask.  “You and the Centuriata are bound to help him.  Do not question his changed orders, for they come from me!”  Then Erik rode off in the direction of Gardariki.

All night Erik rode across the Don Heath, switching from horse to horse to conserve their strength.  The Mirkwood Forest was on his left almost all the way to the Kuban River.  Erik stopped in the morning to water and feed the horses as they made the Kuban, but it was apparent that the mare would not be up for much more of this gruelling punishment.  Erik was as exhausted as the mare, so he let her loose in a meadow by the river.  All day he rode the two young stallions along the river plains, and the dust the horses kicked up in the still morning air trailed back behind Erik for many miles.  By evening, Erik could see Gardariki on the bank of the river, almost hidden behind a low hill.  One of the stallions faltered going up the hill, so Erik got on the other, leaving the spent horse behind.  Atop the hill, Gardariki was spread out before him, but the last stallion stumbled going down the slope and Erik fought hard to regain control of the beast.  Not one of the citizens of Gardariki recognized the madman flailing upon that foam flecked steed as Erik rode into the fortress.  And not until he had reached his own longhall did he rein back on the desperate stallion.  Haggard and dusty, Erik leapt from the steed and rushed into his high seat hall.

Instantly, he perceived the situation.  Gunwar sat upon their high seat, aghast at the sight and surprise of her husband’s arrival.  Gotwar and an old crone were nearby, and the old priestess of Odin held a wine goblet in her hand and was offering it to her mistress.

“Get away from her, witch!” Erik shouted, unsheathing Tyrfingr.  The blade’s luminescence floated in the air before Erik.  Gotwar did not move, fixing a hard stare upon Erik.

“Erik, have you gone mad?” Gunwar exclaimed.

“Stand away from her!” Erik shouted, walking towards the necromancer and her crone.  Gotwar continued to fixate her evil stare upon Erik, and his walking seemed to slow, as though he were wading through a heavy river current.

“Stop this at once,” Gunwar demanded, but she remained in her high seat.

“Vengeance is mine,” Gotwar hissed at Erik, edging towards her mistress with the wine in outstretched hand.  “Your wine my lady,” she said, but Gunwar remained frozen in her seat.

Erik struggled to get within reach of old Gotwar, but the closer he got the harder it became, until, a few feet from the witch, Erik could not move at all.  He stood with his blazing brand, Tyrfingr, poised overhead, ready to strike, but he could not move.  Gotwar held Erik in a trance with her evil eye, but she could not coerce a terrified Gunwar to take up the wine without gazing upon her also.  Erik sensed her dilemma and stopped struggling against her glare.  Feeling an increase in control, Gotwar bulged out her eyes and, lizard like, kept one eye on Erik while shifting her other eye onto Gunwar.  The princess began to reach for the wine.  Erik gathered up all his remaining strength and swung Tyrfingr.  At first the blade did not move, then it lashed forward like a spring unleashed and sliced through the old hag’s neck.  Eyes still bulging and intractile, Gotwar’s lifeless head clattered across the stone floor of Erik’s high seat hall.

With the old woman’s spell broken, Gunwar rose in horror.  “Erik!  Have you gone mad?  What have you done?”

Erik hauled Gotwar’s crone by the hair over to the high seats and threw her down onto the floor cobbles, into the spilled wine.  “You can lap it up now,” Erik told the old woman, “or you can be burned as a witch later.”

The old crone lapped the wine up off the floor, then quickly went into convulsions and died.

Gunwar watched the old woman’s last breath, then looked over to the head and corpse of her handmaiden.  “What means all this?” she cried.

“The wine was poisoned,” Erik explained.  “Dark forces are at work here, and I had a portent that old Gotwar was planning to poison you.  That is why I returned.  To save you.”

Gunwar stepped down from the high seat and rushed over to Erik.  They embraced and Gunwar wept softly into Erik’s shoulder.  Erik went into no more detail.  He took his wife to bed and they made love, at last free of the web of intrigue Gotwar had bound them with.

“What of your army?” Gunwar asked Erik after.

“Odin promised victory for our host,” Erik answered.  “The battle will have been decided by now.  Our fate flutters in the shadows of our battle standards.  There is nothing we can do but wait,” and he slept for a full day.

The next afternoon, Erik awoke from his deep sleep.  He could hear Gunwar outside their bedchamber, preparing something in the pantry of their high seat hall.  Shortly, she entered the room with some lunch for her husband.  “Is there any word back from the Don Heath?” Erik asked.

“No,” Gunwar replied, “but I am worried.  There is an ominous sense of foreboding about Gardariki today.  It is hard to explain.  Brother Gregory is holding a special evening mass today, even though it is Thor’s day.  I wish to go, and I would like you to go with me.”

“You go to the mass,” Erik said, keeping in mind what Odin had told him of Gunwar.  “Tell Brother Gregory I must wait here in my high seat hall for word of the outcome.”

Word came while the Christians of Gardariki were in mass.  Much as Erik had come, so, too, did Durin.  Haggard and dusty, on a spent stallion, the dwarf rode up to the high seat hall.  He dismounted and ran in, kneeling in front of the Kagan Bek of the Hraes’.  Erik sat sombrely upon his high seat.  “It has not gone as Odin promised?” he surmised.

“It has gone badly,” an exhausted Durin proclaimed.  “We waited for the Huns to lead the field, but they would not come.  We waited half the morning and still the Huns would not attack.  They peppered us with arrows from their hornbows and our bows had not the range to respond.  I could hold your legions back no longer.  The officers of your Centuriata grew impatient with the orders of a cripple and a dwarf.  I have failed you,” Durin sobbed.

“I’m sure you did all that anyone could have done,” Erik consoled the little fellow.  “I should have never left my men.”

“Where is Gunwar?” the dwarf asked in a panic.

“Do not worry,” Erik answered.  “I arrived in time to save her.  Gotwar is dead.  Carry on with your news.”

“We led the field with your Centuriata in the vanguard.  Only once we were across the valley floor did the Hunnish host attack.  It was as if they, too, were following your orders.  There, the battle raged for many hours, with neither side showing fear.  Champions fell on both sides, with your Centuriata in the thick of it.  I was at Ask’s side when he was terribly wounded by the Hun Prince Hlod, and only when your Centuriata was bled white did the Hraes’ host show signs of wavering.  Then a fresh force came forth from the Fortress of Sarkel, Greek mercenaries, and they joined the Huns.  That is when our wedge was cracked and soon it was a general route.  I managed to catch myself a stalwart stallion and a mare for the wounded Ask, and we fled for our lives.  Due to my small size, the stallion carried me all the way here without resting so I could carry the news of our defeat.  I looked back on the host of the Huns though, and they were not in pursuit.  They were reeling from the battle as much as we were.  Only the Greek mercenaries of Sarkel turned the field for the Huns.  Had we been fighting on our side of the valley, things may have gone differently.  I have failed you, my lord,” and Durin began weeping bitterly.

Erik knew how exhausted the dwarf was, so he put him to bed in a bedchamber in the high seat hall, and he waited for his shattered army to begin trailing into Tmutorokan.  The next day, the wounded Lieutenant Ask led the bruised and battered remnants of the once proud Hraes’ army back into Gardariki.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

29.0  THE SECRET KHAZARS  (Circa 839 AD)

“…attention to experience can open doors to reality

  which are locked to a man purely of reason.”

            James Robert Enterline;  Viking America

As the battered and torn remnants of the Hraes’ army returned from the Don Heath, Erik prepared to depart for Constantinople in search of aid.  King Frodi and the Hraes’ had traded with the Greeks for many years, and it was Greek support of the Khazar aggressions that was threatening Hraes’ domination of the Southern Way trade.  “I know many powerful merchants in the Roman capital and we still have a valid treaty with them.  I garnered the support of Emperor Michael; I shall sway the sympathies of Emperor Theophilos, too.”

“The Khazars, too, have much support in Constantinople,” a worried Gunwar cautioned.  “It is far too dangerous!”

“It is the only option open us,” Erik argued.  “The Huns must surely think me killed, dead amongst my Centuriata–brave souls–so they will not be in a hurry to press their attack.  Again, Prince Hlod will send emissaries requesting Gardariki as his rightful inheritance.  He shall be loath to attack his supposed father’s sister.  We must use this time to garner support from other areas.  Your brother has failed to get more than a few messengers past the Magyars on the Dnieper, but I have just gotten word that King Olmar shall soon be arriving with a host.  A fresh army shall give the Huns second thoughts about attacking the Fortress of Gardariki.”

“I shall defend Gardariki in your absence,” Gunwar cried.

“No!  You must stall your nephew, give me time to rally support to our cause, to hire mercenaries for a fresh Hraes’ army, to get the Greeks to help lift the Magyar blockade.  Stall the Huns for time and time alone.  If the Hunnish host does not waver at the arrival of King Olmar’s forces, you are to gather up the people of Gardariki and flee to Sugedea.  The Goths shall protect you there.”

“But,” Gunwar began to complain.

“No buts!” Erik ordered.  “Under no circumstances are you to engage the enemy!  Understood?”

Princess Gunwar nodded, sadly.

Then Erik did one thing he was to regret for the rest of his life.  He gave Gunwar Tyrfingr.  The sword he and Dvalin had forged he passed on to his wife.  She took up the weapon, the crux of its shadow falling across the high seat, as a true defender of the faith, for she had been baptised in the Greek Orthodox ceremony by Brother Gregory the day before.  She was the first royal convert of the Hraes’ to Christianity.  There would be others, but she was the first, and she was determined to convert all the Hraes’ of Gardariki and Gardar to the faith, and to defend their land from Arab, Turk or Khazar.

“I leave the security of my household in your hands,” Erik told Durin.  “Do not let anything happen to Princess Gunwar.”

The dwarf nodded solemnly.  “I shall let no harm come to your wife.”

Erik boarded Fair Faxi, crewed by fresh young Varangians replacing the lost souls of his Centuriata, and he waved goodbye to his wife.  It was the first time in a decade that Fair Faxi was manned by other than Centuriata members, and the fact saddened Erik greatly.  Gunwar waved goodbye to Erik, and a tear trickled down her cheek as she watched her pagan husband sail off into the west.

Good winds and fine spring weather gave the mission false portents of success.  Several weeks of sailing had the confines of the Bosporus on both port and starboard of Fair Faxi, and soon the walls of Constantinople came into view.  A Greek trireme came out from the Golden Horn and escorted the Norsemen to a dock.

The Varangians were afforded all the courtesies entitled them by treaty with the Greeks, and Erik’s first stop was the House of Lanterns.  There, he attempted to elicit support from the many merchants that had traded him silks for his furs and amber.  But the Greeks were aware of Erik’s situation: they knew of the uncountable horde of Magyars on the Hraes’ Dnieper waterway, and of the Khazars’ Fortress of Sarkel on the Don River;  they’d already heard of the Hraes’ defeat on the Don Heath, and they were quite prepared to watch Gardariki fall to the Huns.  They would but buy their furs from the Khazars now.

After several days of solicitations, Erik found some merchants who either attempted to get him an audience with the Emperor Theophilos or turned him in to the Imperial Guard.  Erik was not sure which.  But the result was that he was either arrested, or held for an audience, with Erik again unsure as to the intent.  His men, meanwhile, were given a place of residence in the merchant quarter of Constantinople, the St. Mamas Quarter, in accordance with the Hraes’ treaty with the Greeks and they were provided for.

After a week of confinement, Erik began to wonder if his requests for an imperial audience were getting through to the Emperor, but one evening, in spring’s early dusk, a man in a dark purple cloak came to visit Erik in his cell.

“I represent the Emperor,” the man said, as the Immortal Guardsman let him into the chamber.  He was a middle-aged man with short cropped hair and a neat appearance.  He entered the room with the easy confidence of one familiar with command.  “Your application for an audience with the Emperor is reported to be for a request of relief from Greek support of the Khazars in their attacks upon your Rhos people.  Your inquiry is being considered, but, I’m afraid, it does not look promising.”

Erik offered his visitor a chair.

“The main problem, you see,” the emissary explained, “is that the Emperor Theophilos is a Khazar.  On his mother’s side, that is.  He is fully cognizant of the, shall we say, difficulties that have developed between the Hun tribes of the Khazars and the Rhos barbarians.”

“There are two sides to every story,” Erik countered.  “The Emperor Michael always showed us favour in our dealings with him, but the Emperor Theophilos has shown us nothing but contempt.  It is my intention to reverse this situation, if possible.”

“Erik Bragi, is it?” the emissary asked.  “It is one thing to marry a Khazar princess, and quite another to be birthed by one.  Perhaps if you knew more about the Khazars you would appreciate the strong ties between our two peoples.”

It was apparent that the Greek was going to touch upon a rather lengthy subject, so Erik offered him some wine from a pitcher on a small table in the corner of the room.  Erik poured himself a goblet and sat down at the table.  The Greek noble pulled his chair up to the table as well and continued his tale.

“Almost three centuries after the death of our Christian Lord, Caesar Valerian set out from Rome with a large army to fight the Parthians, led by Shapur, in Persia.  Overconfident, with the might of Rome behind him, and its iron legions under his command, he attacked the Parthians in their native lands and was resoundingly defeated.  He was the one and only Roman Caesar to be captured by an enemy, and the greater part of his army fell into the hands of the Parthians as well.  Their king, Shapur, treated Valerian shamefully, for he was a barbarian, unused to the courtesies afforded man through civilization.  He used Valerian as his personal slave and subjected him to all manner of humiliation, even using the beloved Emperor as a footstool upon whose back he stood while mounting his charger.  The Roman Caesar suffered years of such abuse, yet, whenever an enslaved officer or soldier of his shattered legions came into his presence, they would abase themselves before him as though he remained a Caesar still in Rome.  This must have made a strong impression upon Shapur, who had dreams of re-establishing the splendours of the ancient Persian sovereigns such as Cyrus and Darius, or perhaps he realised that mocking the blood rights of an Emperor of Rome was only undermining his royal presence within his own realm.

“Whatever the reason, after enduring years of grinding captivity, Caesar Valerian was offered the chance to be repatriated with his legions if he swore allegiance to the Persians and was willing to settle and protect one of the far-flung border provinces of King Shapur’s growing Sassanid Empire.  Since aid from the Roman Empire had not materialized, Valerian accepted the offer of the Persians, and, with all his soldiers yet willing to follow him, he set off for the Caucasus Mountains and established a small dominion that was sworn to protect the north-eastern limits of the Persian Kingdom.  His men and their descendants were known as the Caesar’s people, and his imperial bloodline has been carried down through the ages in the great kagans, the sacred rulers of the Khazars.  It is Imperial Roman blood, no less purple than that of our own line of Emperors’, and the Emperor Theophilos has both Roman lines coursing through his veins.  Now, perhaps, you comprehend the difficulties I face in obtaining a royal audience for your cause.”

Erik nodded.

“But I shall keep trying,” the emissary said as he prepared to leave.

“You have my thanks for your efforts,” Erik assured him.  “Please come back soon and tell me more of the Khazars and of your own people, too, for you appear to be a storyteller of no small eloquence, and I, in turn, shall recite for you the poetry of the northern lands.”

The emissary did return several times to visit Erik in the two months he was held captive by the Romans, and, when the court official could not come, he sent an aged scholar, versed in the ancient histories of Rome and other civilizations, to read Erik Latin and Greek scripts.  The old scholar often left the heavier Latin texts in the cell, rather than trudge them back the next day, and Erik would secretly practice reading the script of a language a nun had taught him on a trip down the Dnieper River years before.  When the old scholar returned the next day, Erik would compare what he had read to what was read to him.  In this manner he covertly furthered his literacy.

Livy’s history of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, particularly caught up Erik’s imagination.  With Erik’s alleged nephew, Prince Hlod, accusing him of usurping Gardariki, Erik was naturally drawn to the tale of the Roman Prince Brutus, who survived his uncle’s murderous usurpation of his father’s kingdom by playing the fool, a part played so well that the very name Brutus became synonymous with the Latin words for dull witted.

“Why wouldn’t King Tarquinius have just slain Prince Brutus outright?” Erik asked the royal emissary one cool spring evening.

“The slaying of one born of the purple, even in such early times of Rome’s history, was frowned upon by the people.  King Tarquinius may even have had some affection for the boy, so, as long as he appeared to be no threat to the rule of the king, he was allowed to live.  When the Tarquin sent him off with his sons to Greece, I personally believe it was likely intended that he was to be slain in far off lands, but Brutus amused his sons with his mad antics, and for that reason was not killed.  His apparent madness protected him from such foul murder.  Cursed are those who kill the mad and, at the very least, his foolishness provided amusement for and endeared him to his cousins.”

“It was solely for that amusement,” Erik said, “that Brutus was allowed to live.”

“Precisely,” the emissary agreed.

“What really makes the tale,” Erik added, “is the fact that young Brutus gains the favour of the gods while supposing to perform some of his greatest buffoonery.  When Brutus hollows out a cornel stick and fills it with gold, then offers it to Apollo while the sons of King Tarquinius consult the Delphic Oracle, it becomes apparent that the prince’s deranged behaviour covers a covert act of vengeance.  While the king’s sons laugh at Brutus and think him that much more a fool for offering a mere stick to Apollo, the young prince gains celestial favour by means of the gold hidden within the cornel.”

The imperial official sat back in the Spartan chair of the chamber and smiled.  “You are right, Erik Bragi.  It is the twofold benefit Brutus gains from his actions that really makes the story.”

“And when the king’s sons are told that the first one to kiss his mother will succeed to the throne, Prince Brutus comprehends the oracle’s words and falls face first into the sands on the shore of Rome, kissing the soil of his motherland, again gaining the favour of the gods while reinforcing the belief in his sheltering madness.  Once more his duplicity is double edged.”

“I like your perceptions, Erik,” the emissary declared happily.  The wine and the conversation had put him in a bright cheery mood.  “I shall see that you get your audience with the Emperor Theophilos.”

The next morning an officer of the Immortals came to take Erik before the Emperor.  The heavy-set Greek showed the Norseman every courtesy as he directed him past the Gallery of Daphne and the Triclinium of Augustus and around the Excubitors Schools and the Court of Schools to the Palace of Magnaura, where the imperial throne room was located.  Past more officers of the Immortals, the guard led Erik up to the great oaken doors that sealed the throne room from the elements.  More Immortals toiled to open the heavy twelve-foot-high doors and Erik’s guide led him over the threshold into the immense chamber.

The throne room was like nothing Erik had ever seen before.  It was a large hall with huge stone columns running down the interior on either side, supporting a heavy oak beam and slab roof, and was barren of all furniture save for the emperor’s throne high upon a marble dais.  At the base of the dais, on either side, were two golden statues of lions, and off to the right of the dais was a brazen tree with mechanical birds upon it that twittered and sang and moved to their own music.  When the mechanical lions roared Erik was reminded of the strange dream he had had in his youth, under the influence of the poisonous brews Kraka had concocted.  In the dream he had learned of all things past and future, the future holding lasting peace for man when machines could talk, and here he saw, with his own eyes, machines that twittered and roared, as though presaging the power of machines.

“You are impressed with my mechanical fauna?” the Emperor Theophilos asked, as he walked into the chamber.  When the leader of the Roman Empire sat down, Erik got a full view of the man and stepped back in disbelief.  The Emperor and the emissary who had visited Erik so many times in the past few months were one and the same.  “Come forward, Erik,” the Emperor said.

“I had a dream once,” Erik began.  “It told me that when machines could talk, man would at last find peace, but these are not the machines I had envisioned.”

“We talked much about dreams and stories when I came to you as my own emissary.  Now I am the Emperor Theophilos and this is the audience I promised you.  State your purpose.”

“Many times, have I told you my purpose here,” Erik answered, regaining himself, “but not while you were in your official capacity, I see.  You know full well that I seek aid from Khazar attack, or, if not that, at least Greek assurances of non-intervention.”

“And you know full well that we cannot give you those assurances,” the Emperor said, perplexed.  “The Khazars have always been our allies.  They’ve helped us in over a century of wars with the Arabs.  Can you promise your Hraes’ people will always help us against the Arabs?”

“It is not the Arabs that Constantinople and our Hraes’ lands will need protection from,” Erik said.  “Our greatest threat shall come from the east,” he said wistfully.

“More dreams?” the Emperor asked.  “You Norsemen place great weight by your dreams.”

“The Magyars are but a presage of the things to come.  Soon, the Khazar Empire shall crumble, and Turks shall come in swarms out of the east, and they shall overcome Asia Minor and, eventually, Constantinople itself.  It shall be an Emperor named after this city, Constantine, who shall fall before the shattered walls, defending her.”

“Were I true to my dreams and my own Khazar blood, not only would I withhold you aid, but I would refuse you your freedom; but I have come to know you as a friend these last months, expounding upon you the written word, sharing with you the ancient tales of both our peoples.  It would not seem fitting to reward friendship with treachery, therefore, we have prepared an imperial request that you may take to the Franks granting you free passage through their lands.  In that way you may circumvent the Magyar blockade and make your way back to the land of Gardar, for only your great kagan, King Frodi, has the power to help you now.”

“I am grateful for your generosity,” Erik told the Emperor.

“We shall send your ship back to Tmutorokan, and we shall provide two senior officials and an escort of Immortals to guide you to the land of the Franks.”

Once more Erik thanked Theophilos, and that was the last he ever saw of the emissary cum Roman Emperor.

CHAPTER THIRTY

30.0  ESCAPE AT INGELHEIM  (Circa 839 AD)

“…along with his envoys the Emperor sent also

  some men who called themselves and their own

  people Rhos;  they asserted that their king,

  Chacanus by name, had sent them to Theophilos

  to establish amity.”

Prudentius, Bishop of Troyes;  Annales Bertiniani (839)

The embassy that the Roman Emperor, Theophilos, sent to the German King, Louis the Pious, consisted of: two state officials, Theodosius, Bishop of Chalcedon, and Theophanes, Imperial Spatharius, along with a cavalry troop of officers of the Immortals, as well as several Norsemen led by Erik, Kagan Bek of the Hraes’.

The two Roman ambassadors carried with them gifts and a sealed letter from their Emperor.  Theophanes explained to Erik, as they travelled the old Roman road through Dacia, that the Emperor had written to King Louis the Pious about Erik’s situation and begged the western sovereign to assist the Rhos in returning to their homeland.  The ambassador even showed Erik the sealed letter, but Erik made sure he noted into which chest Theophanes returned the document.  Later, in the impenetrable darkness of night, Erik slipped into Spatharius Theophanes’ pavilion and purloined the letter.  Taking it back to his own tent, he gently prized the seal open and he read the parchment.  The Emperor Theophilos, true to his Khazar blood, had written a request that Louis the Pious put to death Erik and his Varangians.  Erik put down the letter.  Such deception and treachery were the warp and weave of the ancient Roman legends, Erik told himself, yet, it had been Theophilos who had taught him the tales, and it had been Theophilos who had expounded upon the duplicity within them.  While the wily emperor had wanted Erik dead, apparently, he did not want Erik’s blood upon his hands.  Such were the efforts of a deep mind, Erik reflected, and, while his respect for Theophilos, the Emperor, waned, his regard for Theophilos, the emissary, waxed.

Erik opened his chest with his exposure plate in it and he withdrew a pen, some ink and camphor oils, and Erik made a minor modification to the personal letter of Emperor Theophilos.  The new instructions requested that King Louis the Pious extend to Erik and his men all required assistance in returning to their homeland, instead of the former request that he execute them.  That was how Theophanes had originally told Erik the letter read, and now, indeed, it did.  Erik studied his handywork and was satisfied it would pass scrutiny.  He then carefully heated the back of the wax seal over a candle and reapplied it to the envelope.  Stealing out into the night, Erik returned the letter to the chest in the Spatharius’ pavilion.

Ingleheim was a small town on the Rhine River in Germany, where Louis the Pious had his palace.  It was there that Bishop Theodosius presented his Emperor’s letter to the King of the Franks.  Although Erik’s seal tampering had fooled both Theodosius and Theophanes, King Louis, well-practised in the scrutiny of wax seals and such, became suspicious that the seal had been opened, and when he read the letter he suspected that its contents had been altered.  When he questioned the ambassadors on this mystery, they pleaded innocence, having been told only that the Rhos, according to their Emperor, were, as noted, to be given safe passage north.  King Louis then asked them if Erik or any of the Rhos could have altered the letter, but Bishop Theodosius assured the king that they were pagans and barbarians and quite illiterate.  Erik could make out some of the conversation in German.

“Who are these people, the Rhos?” King Louis asked the bishop.  “Who is their king?”

Bishop Theodosius answered, “They are Swedes and their king is called Kagan.”

On hearing that the Rhos were Swedes, King Louis grew very suspicious, for the northern provinces of the Holy Roman Empire were currently suffering from Viking raids executed by Danes, Norwegians and Swedes.  The Frankish king ordered Erik and his men detained until he could learn their true purpose of being in Germany.

Again, Erik found himself imprisoned by an emperor, however, this time he and his men had no treaty with their hosts guaranteeing them proper treatment, so their accommodations consisted of one common cell in the dungeons of the pious one’s palace.  And, as with his previous stay in prison, Erik was again visited by a stranger.  The Frankish king’s court poet visited Erik often in his prison cell and Erik told him many tales of the Eastern Realm: tales of his father, Hraegunar fighting the fire breathing dragonship Fafnir of the Roman navy, and tales of the Goths and the Huns on the Scythian steppe.  Erik also taught the poet many poems from the northern lands, including some about Germany, itself, before the advent of Christianity had caused clerics and officials to purge the state of pagan poetry and sorcerous tales.  Saga rune sticks and scrolls were burned along with witches, and the Aesir religion and witchcraft were banned from the land.  It was not without risk that the young Frank poet learned the ancient rhymes of his forefathers, and not without price.

“Teach me the pagan poetry and I promise to help you in any way that I can,” the young German told Erik.

“First, you must put in a good word for us to your emperor,” Erik had stated when he first began to teach the Frank.

“Now, you must send a message out to my brother, King Roller of Norway,” he added, several weeks into the lessons.

“Finally, you must help us escape,” were Erik’s words once he had caught the young man up in the spell of mystic and historic poetry.

Erik and the young German had spent many weeks planning Erik’s escape from the dungeon confines, when word came to Ingleheim that there was a large Norwegian fleet anchored at the mouth of the Rhine River, and that the Viking leader sent word demanding the release of Erik Bragi Ragnarson.  It was said that King Roller of Norway personally led the raiders.  At first, King Louis refused to release Erik and the Rhos, for he had not heard any word from Emperor Theophilos on the true meaning of the altered letter, and Erik, growing impatient, wanted the young German poet to carry on with their own plan of escape.

“I will help you if you so desire,” the young man offered, “but I shall have to flee with you.  The king knows that I visit you daily and I will be the first one they’ll suspect of aiding you.  If I am to teach others the poetry of the ancients, I must remain in the court of my king.  Let me talk to the king, convince him that you should be returned to your homeland, and, failing that, I shall help you escape,”

Erik agreed to the plan, and, when Roller advanced the Norwegian fleet up the Rhine, the young poet’s suggestion to his king was well received.  In the dead of the night, the young poet had the guards release Erik and his men and their gear from the cell and he led them to a waiting troop of Frankish cavalry that would escort them from the courtyard of the palace to the Norwegian fleet on the Rhine.  Erik rode off to his brother and the young Frank poet was promoted in the court of King Louis, and his recounting of the ancient poetry Erik had taught him made him very popular with the local nobility.

“I thought I might never see you again,” Roller said, as Erik climbed aboard his longship.

“Never have I been so glad to see a friendly face,” Erik answered.  “Charlemagne’s son is truly a poor host.”

The two brothers embraced each other on the deck of Roller’s ship as the Frankish cavalry trotted off into the dawn.  Boyhood memories came back to Erik as he recalled all the times Roller had bailed him out of youthful escapades.  Erik had thought the days long done whereby he and his brother, Roller, could experience the closeness they had shared in their youth, but the day of their being reunited was so joyous that Erik had to admit he had been wrong.

“I must raise an army,” Erik told his brother, as they sailed up the west coast of Jutland.  “I shall go throughout the northern kingdoms and I shall raise an army to fight the Huns.”

“As I told you before, you have the full support of all my forces,” Roller said.  “You must set out, at once, for Gotland and Sweden.  I’ll raise armies in Norway and Denmark, and we’ll meet up with the hosts you raise in Sweden.”

“Thank you, brother,” Erik answered.  “Never have I been so glad to see a friendly face.”

“Bare is the back of the brotherless,” was Roller’s reply.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

31.0  THE FATE OF GARDARIKI  (Circa 839 AD)

“One morning at sunrise Hervor stood on a

watchtower above the fortress-gate, and she saw

a great cloud of dust from horses’ hooves rising

southwards towards the forest, which for a long

time hid the sun.  Presently she saw a glittering

beneath the dustcloud, as though she were gazing

on a mass of gold, bright shields overlaid with

gold, gilded helms and bright corselets; and

then she saw it was the army of the Huns, and a

mighty host.”

Anonymous;  Hervor’s Saga.

Erik had left Gardariki in the spring, and it was summer before the crew of Fair Faxi returned without him.  They brought news that Emperor Theophilos had sent Erik and several crew members along with a Roman mission to Frankland.  From there, Erik was to be allowed make his way to Gardar and King Frodi and gain the aid of the Kievan Hraes’.  Princess Gunwar heard their report, but she did not believe it.  She knew that, if her husband had failed to gain the support of the Greeks, Emperor Theophilos would not allow Erik to go elsewhere for aid.  Her husband was either imprisoned or, more likely, dead.  All at once a great sense of loss overwhelmed Gunwar and she near fainted.  King Olmar caught her up and helped her to her high seat.  A handmaiden loosened Gunwar’s platemail byrnie, then began fanning her with a silk kerchief.

“Erik is dead!” Gunwar whispered to King Olmar.  “I fear my husband is dead.”

“Have faith,” Brother Gregory said, reassuring her.  The Christian cleric and the Slav king exchanged worried glances.

“Take care for the child,” King Olmar said.

For the second time in her life, Gunwar was pregnant, but, with Gotwar out of her life, the baby was expected to go full term and was due in the late fall.

“You croon and worry over the baby as though it were your own,” Gunwar remonstrated them.

King Olmar had arrived in Gardariki with a troop of Slav soldiers shortly after Erik had set out for Constantinople.  He brought word that Princess Alfhild was dead, slain by her husband, and that King Frodi had fallen into an abyss of alcoholism and degradation.  In an unexplained fit of rage, he had had all his senior officers hanged, and shortly after that King Olmar had gathered up his Slav troops and abandoned the capital for Gardariki.  The presence of his soldiers had helped to ensure that the victorious but decimated Hun army retreated back into Khazaria to regroup rather than press on into Tmutorokan.

The day before Fair Faxi had returned, ambassadors of King Hunn and Prince Hlod had visited Gardariki with demands that Princess Gunwar relinquish her rights to Tmutorokan.  The Hraes’ army had been crushed in the Battle of Sarkel, and the Huns believed, once again, that Erik was dead.  Gunwar had sent the emissaries home with a firm rejection of their demands and had assured them that Erik was still very much alive, drawing his famed sword Tyrfingr from its scabbard and showing them its strange glow as proof of her husband’s escape.  She had then sheathed the sword and sent the ambassadors back to the land of the Huns with reassurances that her husband still lived, but now she was no longer so sure of that claim.

In the early fall, a messenger that Gunwar routinely sent out to attempt to contact her brother, King Frodi, got through the Magyar blockade.  She managed to gain an audience with the king, and, even more incredibly, she made it back through the Turkoi barrier.  In Gotland, she found General Ygg at the head of a large contingent of Goth troops bound for Gardariki, so, being in the guise of a male warrior, she joined them on the return home.  Gunwar announced that there would be a great feast of welcoming for General Ygg and his Gothic host, but she had a private audience with her messenger.

“It is like Denmark of old,” the messenger claimed, “when King Frodi ruled with his berserker champions.”   She had been a long time with Gunwar’s shield-maiden retinue.  “He is in a drunken and tragic state, and crime runs rampant in Konogard.  All the citizens of note have fled the capital, and a new cadre of young officers control the city with a vile hand.  We can expect no help from your brother,” she concluded.

Gunwar stood up off her high seat and paced.  Age had not touched her at all.  Tall and lithe, she walked the dais, her long blond hair flowing over her platemail byrnie, which was loose at the bottom, allowing room for her pregnancy.  She had resumed wearing her warrior’s armour the day Erik had left; male warriors viewed a woman in war gear with a certain uneasy reverence, and Gunwar knew she would need all the leverage she could muster in order to hold their crumbling little trading empire together.  ‘Her’ crumbling little empire, Gunwar corrected herself, as the weight of Erik’s likely death came down upon her.  She wished she could die with her husband, but she felt the baby within her and she was thankful.  A small part of Erik was growing within her.  Erik’s son.  Gunwar felt it was a boy.  Now she had to hold her little empire together for him.

As summer waned and the seasons changed, the demands of the Huns grew increasingly aggressive.  Military units replaced ambassadors in presenting the Hun terms, and these were, in turn, replaced by cavalry regiments.  Finally, in late fall, word filtered into Gardariki, as news often does in a city under siege, that the Huns had raised a huge host and that it was on its way to Tmutorokan.  When the rumoured army failed to materialize, the Gardariki Hraes’ breathed a sigh of relief.  There had been a revolt in Atil, the capital of Khazaria, and the loyal Hun regiments were recalled to put down the rebellion.  Several noble houses of the At-Khazars had attempted to overthrow the rule of the great kagan, and King Hunn, as kagan bek of the Khazars, was forced to return to the capital to rescue his Caesar.  At the approach of the feared Hunnish host, the rebellious At-Khazar forces fled the country to shelter among the Magyars.  There, beyond reach of the Khazar regular forces, they continued to foment trouble for the Khaganate.  But the Hun army was freed up to carry on its campaign against the Hraes’.

Just when the people of Gardariki began to believe that the season was too far gone for the Huns to renew their campaign, that they would be spared from Khazar attack until spring at the earliest, just then did the Hun army penetrate through the Mirkwood Forest.  Thousands of cavalry troops led the way, as the Huns emerged from the trees onto the grassy plains of the Don Heath, followed by many more times their number in lightly armed foot-soldiers, complemented by archers and slingers and support troops.  Trailing back into Khazaria for many miles, the column of soldiers worked its way into the land of the Hraes’.

One morning, King Olmar and General Ygg returned to Gardariki from a scouting expedition and called Princess Gunwar forth to the fortress gate.  From a high stone tower of her city wall, Gunwar saw a mighty cloud of dust rising up on the eastern horizon, obscuring the orient pearl of dawn, the sun, and rolling slowly across the plain.  An aura glowed gold beneath the dusty cloud, evincing glittering armour and bristling raiment, as the fiery mass of the Hunnish host blazed across the eastern firmament.

The sight of such a fine array, or perhaps its dire portents, caused Gunwar’s water to break and she went into premature labour.  She was two weeks early when her contractions began up upon the walls of the city.  Her handmaiden helped her down the stone stairs, across the compound and into her high seat hall.  From the bed in her chamber, Gunwar gave the order to sound the general alarm.  Soon the church bells were heard ringing and there was a great movement of troops as the Slav king and the Goth general rushed out of the high seat hall and rallied their warriors.  The dwarf, Durin, sent for Brother Gregory, and he arrived in Gunwar’s bedchamber just as her baby was being born.

Two of the princess’s shield-maidens were at each side as Gunwar cried out in agony.  A midwife was at the foot of the bed massaging her swollen belly.  Durin stood back a little and watched a small crown of hair issuing forth from between the princess’s legs.  Gunwar was breathing in short gasps and pushing hard.

“Stop pushing,” the midwife said, as the head of the infant cleared its mother, and she untangled the blue-white cord wrapped about the throat of the baby and cleared mucus from around the nose, mouth and eyes.  “Now push!” the midwife said, and the rest of the baby slid out into the cool still air of the room.  Gunwar cried out in pain.  Durin watched, in awe, the spectacle of birth.  Brother Gregory saw his premonition come to life from the doorway.  Suddenly, the still body came to life, and it cried.  “The knife,” the midwife said once she felt the pulsing of the cord cease, and Durin stepped forward and cut the umbilical cord with his dagger.  The midwife drew a brand from a nearby brazier and cauterised the cord, then passed the brand to Durin and raised the infant so that Gunwar could see.

“It’s a boy!” Brother Gregory exclaimed, as the midwife passed the infant up to his mother.

Immediately, Gunwar ceased her painful sobbing and, as if by magic, all pain was gone, and a passionate glow overcame her.  “I knew it was a boy,” Princess Gunwar said weakly, exhausted, but radiant with the aura of motherhood.

Just then, King Olmar and General Ygg entered the chamber.  General Ygg surveyed the situation in dismay and said, “The Huns are but a day’s march away, my lady,” but King Olmar went straight to the child in Gunwar’s arms and exclaimed, “It’s a boy!” and he held the child up, proudly, for all to see.

The next day, Princess Gunwar sent King Olmar and General Ygg out onto the plains outside Gardariki and they marked their battlefield with hazel poles and then they challenged the Hunnish host to battle in two days’ time.  This was, of course, done against the protests of all her officers.  General Ygg recommended a general retreat to the land of the Goths and offered Gunwar and the Gardariki Hraes’ sanctuary there.  King Olmar suggested that they sail up the Dnieper and fight their way through the Magyar blockade.  The dwarf Durin was the only one to side with Gunwar in her desire to fight the Huns.  After the battle of Sarkel he had no love of the Khazar army.

After two days respite, in the soft frosty glow of false dawn, the Hunnish host drew up in battle array, their ranks bristling with gilded barbs, their war ponies pawing at the hoarfrost dew.  Gunwar led a smaller but determined force out from the protective walls of Gardariki and onto the field of battle, leaving her new-born son suckling at the breast of a nursemaid.  The dwarf, Durin, rode before her, in the vanguard of the Gardariki Hraes’, with King Olmar leading his Slav troops on the left flank and General Ygg commanding his Goths on the right.  With her long blond hair tucked up under her Greek helmet, and her body clad in her platemail armour, Gunwar looked every bit a Roman cavalry officer.  She drew Tyrfingr from its sheath, raised the famed sword above her, and gave the signal for her army to move forward.  The Huns, in turn, began their advance.

First the archers on both sides loosed their arrows, then the heavy infantry hurled their spears, and then the armies merged, two wavering lines blending into one mass, and the fighting began in earnest.  Up and down the main line of battle, the standards danced, first advancing a little, then falling back.  Mounted soldiers and officers fought side by side with foot-soldiers all along the front, while Hraes’ cavalry regiments fought the Hun horsemen on the outer flanks.  A dull clattering roar sounded across the plain and would not stop.

As the sun rose up high into the late fall sky, it looked as though neither side would budge, but a savage blow from a Hun horseman’s lance knocked the helmet off Gunwar’s head, and the force of it stunned the princess momentarily, as her bright flowing locks leapt about the gold gilt mail on her shoulders.  Regaining control of her mount, Gunwar lashed out at the Turk with Tyrfingr and killed him.  All the Huns before the princess fell back and none would withstand the fierce blows of the female warrior and it looked as though the Hunnish host was breaking up before her attacks, when Prince Hlod slinked in from her blind side and pierced his aunt with a bright golden lance.  Princess Gunwar dropped Tyrfingr into the battlefield dust, and she clutched at the lance stuck between her ribs, and she pulled the spear free of her nephew’s grip.  She held the lance ever so gently and she slid from the saddle of her mount, then she kneeled by her husband’s cursed sword, and, like someone grown suddenly tired, she lay down beside the blade and she died.  Durin flew into a great rage and he drove back the cowardly attack of the Hun prince, then leapt down from his mount, but he was too late–Princess Gunwar was already dead.  The dwarf dragged her body into the sheltering ranks of the Hraes’ army, then he laid Gunwar across the saddle of her mount and he tied her in place.  He then gathered up his own mount and he led Gunwar’s horse in trot back to Gardariki.

General Ygg came to the vanguard from the flank and attempted to rally the Hraes’ forces, but their losses were too great and the Hun warriors too numerous.  Soon a general panic came over the Hraes’ army, and everyone began to flee to the safety of the walls of Gardariki.  King Olmar and his Slav troops fought a brave rear guard battle as the Hraes’ and then the Goths fled the field.  Within the walls of Gardariki, calm returned to the troops and they took to the battlements and prevented the pursuing Huns from overrunning the city.  Once the surviving rear guard forces had entered the fortress, King Olmar broke away from the fight, looking for Gunwar in her high seat hall.  He found General Ygg and Durin and Brother Gregory there, all gathered in a semi-circle about the serene body of Princess Gunwar laid out upon her dais. 

“How died she?” King Olmar asked.

“Slain from behind by her nephew, Prince Hlod,” Durin answered.

“Oh, infamous day!” General Ygg cried.  “Murderously early the evil whelp claims his inheritance.  Pray to your God, brother that Erik yet lives to avenge her.”

But Brother Gregory did not hear his brother, Yggerus.  He was busy administering last rites to the slain Princess Gunwar, but by her Christian name, Hervor, for she had been newly baptised in the faith.

Outside the hall, chaos reigned.  The citizens of Gardariki were in a panic and frightened groups of women and children thronged in and about the small stone church of the Christians.  King Olmar and General Ygg took joint control of the Hraes’ troops and began to organize the evacuation of Gardariki, placing all the ships in the city on standby for a retreat to the land of the Goths under cover of darkness.  As evening came upon the steppe, the victorious Huns withdrew from the walls of the city and returned to their war camp.

When Brother Gregory had finished his obsequies over the body of Princess Hervor, he looked about himself to find everyone gone.  The high seat hall was deserted and quiet, and even the sounds from without ceased suddenly.  Then Brother Gregory heard the crying of an infant, and Durin entered the hall from the bedchambers carrying Erik and Hervor’s baby in his arms.  The child was crying as Durin placed him up to Hervor’s cheek, and the rivulet of a tear from the infant could be seen running down her pale dusty countenance.  “She didn’t even get to name him,” Durin cried.

“What is to become of the child?” Brother Gregory asked the dwarf.

“Erik placed me under oath to protect his household, and, again, I have failed him.  I must take the child across the Nor’Way, to King Roller of Norway, Erik’s brother.  The Huns must never know he is alive, for he has a just claim to Gardariki.  He must be raised in the north, safe from Khazar treachery.”

“I shall help you,” the cleric offered.

“I intend to take him in his father’s ship up and across their family’s Nor’Way.  The path will be through Hun lands, long, hard and dangerous.  All would understand if you chose not to go.”

“I give you my word that I shall do all within my powers to see that you fulfil your oath.”

That night, Brother Gregory, King Olmar, General Ygg and Durin buried Princess Hervor in an unmarked grave beside the small stone church of the Christians.  Then King Olmar and General Ygg began to argue over what was to be done with the baby.  King Olmar wanted to take it back to Kiev.  General Ygg wanted it raised amongst the Crimean Goths.  But Durin and Brother Gregory insisted on taking him to Erik’s family in Norway.  General Ygg finally relented, so when the midnight evacuation of Gardariki took place, all the ships of the Hraes’ sailed to the mouth of the Kuban River, and, while the rest of the fleet sailed west for the Crimea, Durin and Brother Gregory sailed north in Fair Faxi, bound for the Don River and beyond.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

32.0  BRAGI THE OLD AND BJORN OF THE BARROWS  (Circa 840 AD)

“That’s what my kinsman Bragi the Old did when he had to face the

  anger of King Bjorn of Sweden.  He made a drapa of twenty stanzas

  overnight and that’s what saved his head.”

Prince Arinbjorn; Egil’s Saga (c. 1230 A.D.)

“You must garner the support of the north,” Brak told Erik.  “You must get all of the Aesir behind you.”

Back in Rogaland Province, Erik placed a tall stool on his father’s highseat to take down from the rafters Ragnar’s hidden books, the two red leather-bound renditions of the same book he had found so many years before while searching for a war arrow.  This time it was Brak, not Dvalin, who steadied the stool while his stepmother looked on.  Erik felt around the top of the rafter for that pair of books and when he felt them he immediately knew which one was the ancient original.  He took it down, leaving the second copy where it sat.  He passed the book to Brak.  “This book is older than Babylon itself,” he said, climbing down from the stool.  “I’m not sure what language it is written in.”

“It’s Coptic binding,” Brak said, carefully opening the ancient book.  “The binding is older than Coptic and the writing is Aramaic.  Chaldean Aramaic perhaps,” Brak said as he studied the print.  “It is the script of the Alchemists of Zoroaster,” he added.  “What makes you think it is older than Babel?”

“I can feel its age.  It’s ancient.  The other book is a recent copy of this one.”

Brak marvelled at this gift of Erik’s and he looked at Kraka and they both shook their heads.  “The copy was made by the monks of an English abbey,” Brak started.  “A Christian priest stole the original from Ragnar and replaced it with the copy.  When Ragnar found out he had been deceived, he led a force against the monastery, got the original back and filled that priest full of arrows, he was so pissed off.”

“But how did father know it was a copy?”

“I think it is time you heard the whole story,” Brak began as they took their places on the highseats and refreshed themselves.  “Shortly before your father, Ragnar, destroyed the fire breathing dragonship Fafnir and re-established the Nor’Way, I met him in Volsunga and presented him with an offer from a group of Magis out of the Caliphate and they paid me to set up a meeting with the Norse traders.  The head Magi wanted Ragnar to take that little red book to the farthest reaches of the world and to safeguard it with his life and for this boon he paid Ragnar with some valuable information.  A Roman bireme named Fafnir would soon be bound for Khazaria with a cargo of gold for the kagan to build the fortress of Sarkel and, because the ship had the Helm of Fear, Greek fire on board, there were to be no escort vessels.  The Magi also told your father how to beat the fire breathing serpent ship by using raw sheep skins soaked in sour wine or vinegar.  So Ragnar, who went by the name Gunar at that time, asked me if I wanted to join in on the adventure and the rest of that famous little viking raid is known by all, pretty much everywhere, by now.  Years later, the Alchemists requested their book back from Hraegunar and, since Fafnir’s red gold turned out to be cursed, your father didn’t feel overly inclined to hold up his end of the deal, but during one trading season he did return the book to the Alchemists Guild and that’s when they told him it was a copy.

“Hraegunar knew that the book had disappeared from his longhall for a time, just when a Christian priest was looking for converts in Rogaland Province, but then it had turned up again, so Hraegunar put two and two together and tracked down that priest at his monastery and got the original book back.  He hid both books up in the rafters along with his war arrows and I guess he just forgot about them.  The Alchemists never asked for them again anyway, so I guess they just sat up there.”

“So, you have joined this Alchemists Guild?” Kraka asked.  “Roller said you have, and he seemed to be very impressed by them.  He showed us the scope you gave him.”

“Yes…they call it an optical scope.  Did Roller also tell you what I learned of the ton-stone?” he asked Brak.

“Your brother said they were turning ton-stone into gold.  I knew they were turning lead into gold, but ton-stone?”

“They used to plate lead objects with gold.” Erik started, “to pass them off as gold, until a Greek named Archimedes came up with a buoyancy method of quickly checking the density of gold against the lighter lead.  Soon, many gold statues and works of art and the gold bars in kings’ treasure houses were turning out to be gold plated lead, so the Guild lost a great source of revenue until they found a replacement for the lead in the ton-stone we place in the pommels of our Stavanger swords.  While we use thew ton-stone to counterbalance the weight of our sword blades, with further acid refining, the alchemists are able to get the density of the ton-stone to exactly match that of gold so that their secret plating process is now undetectable by Archimedes’ testing.”

“That’s amazing,” Brak responded.

“They are experts at just that sort of thing.”

“No.  I meant it’s amazing that you learned what they were up to.  I set out to find that out when I was training to make Indian steel in Baghdad but I didn’t get anywhere.”

“I had to join them to learn about it.  Even Ragnar’s Red Gold Hoard of Byzantium, his cursed treasure,” Erik went on, “was red because the Romans put copper in the gold, giving it its reddish hue, and that marked it as the Emperor’s gold.  Anyone found with the red gold would answer to the Emperor, hence its curse, but the Alchemists Guild has special acids and processes to reverse this marking of gold.  That is one reason I’ve joined them.  And that book is the other.  They want that book back.  And, again, I want to know what they’re up to.”

Erik took Brak and Kraka to his room and he took a silver plate out of a small wooden chest and he showed them the picture of himself that had rendered itself.  “You look hung over,” Kraka said as they studied the fine work.

“I travelled the Silk Road as a youth,” Brak said, “and I saw pinhole boxes in Cathay that could do this.  But this is much finer work.”

They returned to the highseats for more refreshments.

“That is why I need to control the Huns,” Erik stated.  “I have so much work to do.  I must work with the Alchemists’ Guild and learn as much as they will allow me.  They need my visions.  They want to harness my abilities to communicate with Zoroaster.”

“But Zoroaster is long dead,” Brak said.

“I know.  That is why they need the book.  Zoroaster wrote it and blessed it with his own hand.  And eleven others.  With the twelve books, the Mages can talk to the dead.  The past, the present and the future.”

“Like the three norns?” Kraka asked.

“Yes,” Erik answered.  “But I have had a vision since I left Gardariki when I was in a cell in Constantinople.  I dreamed that a Golden Horde, a tribe of Turkic horsemen will ride out of the east in the future and, because the Khazar Empire is not there at the gate of the Scythian steppe to control them, they will destroy the Romans and Constantinople and roll right across Europe, just as the Huns tried four hundred years ago, but this Golden Horde will not fail.  So, I have to be careful in how we deal with the Huns.  They must be stopped, but the Khazar Empire must not fall.”

“That will be difficult,” Brak said.  “You must garner the support of all the northern lands to get the host you will need to win, but they’ll want the spoils.  They’ll want to plunder and pillage Khazaria.”

“I’ve heard that Prince Hlod recently rode into Kiev and demanded his fair share of the Danepar, the Southern Way trade,” Erik started.

“And how did that go?” Brak asked warily.

“King Frodi was in a drunken stupor and told him he would get his bastard’s third once he, himself, had passed on.”

“Well a third is not bad,” Brak said and Kraka gave him a look.

“It’s a bastard’s third,” Erik repeated.  “Prince Alf would get a share, Princess Eyfura would get a share and Prince Hlod would get one third of a share, the bastard’s third.”

“And what happens to the remaining two thirds of his share?”

“Prince Alf would get a share, Princess Eyfura a share and Prince Hlod would get a third, and, again, that two thirds share left over would be split as before until there is nothing left.  They drag it out to embarrass the illegitimate heir.”

“So, Prince Hlod told him to fock off, right?”

“Worse.  He told Frodi he would take Gardariki as his share.”

“But Gardariki is yours.  It’s part of the Nor’Way.  It has nothing to do with the Danepar.”

“Still, we expect an attack in the spring.  I want to have a host ready to counter it and then perhaps we can negotiate.  If Prince Hlod gets a quarter of the Danepar he may be satisfied.”

“Offer him more than a bastard’s third of the Southern Way,” Brak agreed, “but he can’t have any of the Nor’Way.  That is Hraegunar’s, Roller’s, yours, the Hraes’.  And if we can’t carve up Khazaria, people are going to go to Scythia and fight the Huns unless you can make them want to go.  You must garner their support without spoils!”

“How am I going to get military support from kings and princes without offering them spoils of war?”

Brak thought for a few moments then offered, “By doing them favours and calling in favours.  I have seen where a cause becomes popular and champions are drawn to it just because other champions have joined it.  It becomes a cause that garners its own support, a movement.  You must visit with Jarl Ladgerda in Trondheim Fjord and enlist the aid of her Thule troops and shield-maidens, then you must go to Angleland and enlist the aid of your half-brothers Ivar, Siward and Agnar and their Danish and Anglo forces there, and then go to Ireland and visit with Queen Imaira and her son, your half-brother, Imair and get further help.  Your father, Ragnar, is presently fighting a war with the Franks, so he won’t be able to help you.”

“Is he still trying to get the sons of Charlemagne to kill him?” Erik asked.

“He tried to get King AElla to do it, but he ended up defeating him and AElla ran to the Mercians for safety.  Ever since he marked himself with Odin’s spear he’s been trying to get killed in battle, but he keeps winning, even against incredible odds.”

“That’s the kind of help I need.  We’ll be going against incredible odds,” Erik told Brak.  “If anybody can get a movement rolling, it will be King Hraegunar ‘Lothbrok’ Sigurdson.”

“It’s an Aesir thing,” Kraka reminded her stepson.  “By marking himself with a spear, Odin blessed, he is dead to us, but he can lead hosts into battle in the hopes of death and Valhalla.  But he can’t aid us.  His sacrifice must be solely for Odin.”

It was beliefs just like that one that drove Erik away from the Aesir religion.  The tripartite gods religions were religions of conquest and required such sacrifices to take place.  Human sacrifices for victory in battle, witchcraft for success in life and love.  That was why Erik was drawn to the science of the Alchemists’ Guild.  Their magic was manufactured.  It had a cause and an effect.  It could not always be explained, but there was a process to it that did not involve sacrifices and blind belief.  But he kept that to himself because, right now, he needed Aesir support for his cause, for his movement to aid Princess Gunwar and Gardariki.

“Once you get Ladgerda on board,” Kraka started, “the rest of your relatives will join in and get your movement going.  You have been in the east a long time, but your brothers and sisters in the west still benefit from your efforts there and will come to your aid.”

So Prince Erik took a small warfleet from Stavanger and went to Lade in Trondheim and to York in Angleland and to Dub-Lin in Ireland and he convinced his relatives to gather together armies in support of his cause.  They were all to meet him in Birka, Sweden, his last stop, at spring’s equinox.  Then Erik sailed for The Vik and met with his brother, King Roller, who was gathering troops in his kingdom and from the Danes of both Zealand and Jutland and he told him that his movement was growing momentum and all were meeting in Birka at the next spring’s equinox.

Prince Erik left Norway for Sweden, intending to raise a host there to support his cause against the Huns.  With an elite troop of Norwegian cavalry behind him, he rode south into Gotland only to learn that a war had broken out between the Goths and the Swedes.  Gestiblind, King of the Goths, was losing his struggle against a more powerful Swedish King Alrik.  When Gestiblind learned of Erik ‘Bragi’s arrival in his kingdom, he immediately sent his foremost man, Skalk ‘the Skanian’, a veritable giant of a man, to enlist the aid of that most renowned skald.  Skalk rode out to the Norwegian camp bearing gifts and entertainment, and during the ensuing feasting he inquired of Erik what his business in Gotland might be.

“I intend to raise a mighty host with which to fight the Huns,” Erik replied.  “To this end I wish to gain the support of your king.  It is an honourable cause.”  And Erik went on to explain his situation.

“I have no doubt about the honour of your mission,” the giant, Skalk, declared.  “I cannot speak for my king on that matter, but I shall pledge myself to your cause, should you but give ear to my message.”

Erik nodded for Skalk to go on.

“King Gestiblind wishes to enlist your support in his campaign against King Alrik of Sweden.  I’m here to extend you an invitation to an audience with my liege.”

“I have just learned of the conflict between your peoples,” Erik answered.  “I need the aid of both the Goths and the Swedes in my upcoming struggle with the Huns.  It pains me to see two noble people decimating each other, while the vile Huns carry on their aggressions unchecked.  I shall speak with your king, but I shall pledge my efforts foremost to settling the dispute between your peoples amicably.”

“That is perhaps the best answer I could have wished for,” Skalk the Skanian agreed.  “I shall set up your audience with my king, and, again, I pledge my support in your struggles with these Huns.”

Several days later, Prince Erik was in the court of King Gestiblind discussing his possible support of the Goth effort.  Erik could see a lot of the Gothic General Ygg in King Gestiblind.  They appeared as if cut from the same cloth, both tall and lean and well whiskered.  The eloquent prince and the sagacious king got along well from the very beginning, Erik entertaining the king with his witty maxims, and Gestiblind responding with clever and amusing riddles.  Basing his judgement more on gut feeling than anything else, Erik determined to aid the Goths in their struggle against the encroaching Swedes, but, rather than attack King Alrik directly, Erik decided to first attack his son, Gunthion, Governor of Wermland and Solongs.  To this end, Erik got the loan of a brave vanguard of Norwegian warriors from King Roller and placed Goths on their right wing and Skanians on their left, and, when he led them against Gunthion, unfortunately the Swedish governor died in the confrontation.

While the Goths were celebrating their victory, Erik set forth to make peace with King Alrik.  He listened to pleas from the Swedish king that he quit the struggle, for his father, Ragnar, and the Swedish king maintained a secret alliance, but Erik refused to turn his back on the Goths.  When King Alrik offered to fight a duel with King Gestiblind, Erik told him that the Goth king was no longer fit for the holmganger, but that he would stand in the king’s stead.

Erik left that night but returned the next morn with King Gestiblind and the allied Goth army.  King Alrik arrived at the battlefield with his Swedish host and it was decided that the result of a personal combat between Erik and the Swedish king would determine the outcome of the day.  A combat circle was gouged out of the sand between the two armies.

Erik sorely missed not having Tyrfingr at his side, for the sword he had, although of good Stavanger steel, was no star stone blade.  And King Alrik’s blade was fashioned by dwarves and famed for its strength.  They fought their duel for over an hour on that un-named Swedish plain, and the dust they raised swirled about their struggle, and the two hosts sweated under the hot sun as they strained to see the outcome.  The Swedish king, though older than Erik, was in admirable physical condition and, following a short respite, launched a particularly violent assault against the younger prince.  As Erik put his all into his own defence, parrying the blows with both shield and sword, determined to weather the storm as it were, his blade failed and snapped off under a mortal downward blow;  but his sword did deflect Alrik’s blow just enough to miss his body and the Swedish blade bit mercilessly into the Norwegian’s right thigh.  Erik grunted heavily under the pain of the blow as its force drove him downward onto the gritty soil.  King Alrik wrenched his sword free, preparing to dispatch Erik with another like blow, but when Erik raised his broken shard of Stavanger steel to protect himself, the great Swedish monarch held back his mighty stroke.  “For love of your father, Hraegunar,” he declared, “I shall allow you a fresh sword and a poultice for your leg.”

King Gestiblind, himself, bandaged up Erik’s wound and urged the eloquent prince not to continue the battle.  When Erik would have none of that idea, Skalk offered Erik his own sword.  “This blood-snake will not fail you,” the Skanian said, “but you cannot hold yourself back when he attacks.”

“I didn’t know it, but he is a friend of my father,” Erik explained, as Gestiblind bound up his wound with a special poultice to stop the bleeding.  “I don’t want to kill him unless I have to.”

Skalk the Skanian got up and looked down at the prone Erik and, head shaking, arms akimbo, said, “Well it looks to me like you’re going to have to.  And the sooner, the better.”

“Skalk is right,” King Gestiblind concurred.  “If you go back into the ring you’d best be quick about it.”

When Erik re-entered the combat circle, King Alrik launched another vicious attack that Erik staved off only with great difficulty.  The older man had benefited, too, from the respite, getting back his wind and most of his strength.  He knew his opponent was weak from loss of blood, growing weaker with each succeeding attack.  His enemy could put no weight on his right leg, which led to his hopping about on his left as he manoeuvred in defence.  King Alrik attacked Erik on his weak side, always slashing at him across from the left, at the same time exposing his own unshielded right side, but Erik continued to hop backwards in a circling retreat to his own left, apparently unable to move to the right.  Soon King Alrik tired of the cat and mouse game;  he raised his right arm across his left side, planning a massive stroke from which Erik’s paltry hopping could not escape, then lunged to his right till he was almost on top of Erik, but Erik did not hop weakly backwards as expected.  He put his full weight on his right leg and stabbed upwards with the Skanian’s sword, piercing King Alrik’s chain mail shirt at a weak point in the armpit and driving the blade up to the hilt and out the side of his neck.  The Swedish king spun away from Erik with the force of his own blow and flung himself upon the ground, quite dead.

As King Alrik’s gore soaked into the dusty Swedish plain, King Gestiblind made Erik the ruler of the land he had just conquered.  “As long as I rule Gotland,” the old king proclaimed, “so, too, shall you rule Sweden,” and, when he dubbed Erik with his sword, the eloquent prince, suffering great loss of blood, fainted dead away.

After several days’ rest, Erik commanded the allegiance of King Alrik’s officers and, with King Gestiblind’s and his own picked troops, headed off for Birka, the trade centre of Sweden, to establish his realm.  With the coming of winter, Erik had decided to further his plans for attacking the Huns by enlisting the aid of Finns and Permians.  As previously agreed, King Gestiblind and Skalk the Skanian were busy putting together Goth and Skanian forces to lead into Hunland.

Erik took up the reigns over his newly won land and became determined to overcome a strength of the Huns that had long plagued his Hraes’ troops: the long range of their hornbows.  No matter how hard he tried he could not duplicate the power of the Turk hornbow he had acquired.  Perhaps it was the injury to his leg that gave him a greater appreciation of just how much power thigh muscles can generate, and perhaps it was while watching the little lever mechanisms of a duplicitous emperor’s twittering birds that he learned how to harness that power, for Erik devised a new footbow that could be drawn using leg power while standing and then loosed from the standard archery shooting position by a lever and it shot a long heavy arrow with greater range and power than any other bow in existence.  And he trained a troop of Swedish archers to be proficient in its use.  Never again would a Hun host be able to rain arrows down upon his warriors while standing just outside the range of the Norse bows.

A Swedish prince named Bjorn had taken it upon himself to erect a huge barrow for the late King Alrik, and every day Bjorn would visit the mound of his late great king.  Erik’s followers warned him that, of all the Swedish leaders present when Erik had defeated Alrik, only Prince Bjorn had refused to swear allegiance to him.  Erik had spared him because he was a fellow skald, be it, one of minor note, and he seemed harmless enough, asking only to be slain and buried with his fallen king.  Besides, Prince Bjorn would spend his days on the barrow of King Alrik, writing poetry and throwing the barrow’s stones at birds that happened by.  On windy days, he would assemble a triangular, diamond shaped silk kite he had purchased from the Hraes’ Trading Company, a new item imported from Cathay, that he would let out into the wind on a silken string from atop the barrow and sometimes it would rise up into the air so high that people had trouble even seeing it anymore.  Children would gather around the barrow to watch the kite and sometimes men would come up to the barrow and ask questions about the kite and it all seemed quite harmless, even frivolous.

Norwegians and Goths and even some of the Swedes in Erik’s retinue warned him that the young prince was either mad or dangerous.  One bright fall day Erik left his longhall and walked over to the barrow of King Alrik and decided to find out for himself if Bjorn was mad or not.

“Good morning Prince Bjorn,” Erik started.  “It’s a fine day to go fly a kite.”

“Yes lord,” Bjorn replied.  “And it’s a fine Hraes’ kite that has flown the Silk Road all the way from Cathay.”

“Some people are saying you are mad to be flying your kite all the time.”

“I am but mad north-north-west;” Bjorn said looking up at the birds flying above, “when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a hernshaw.”

The subjugated Swedes called him Bjorn ‘of the Barrows’ and thought him mad, but Erik decided that he was an eccentric poet who liked the neufangoled kites just brought in from Cathay.  Prince Bjorn, however, found that flying his kite allowed him to talk freely with members of the Swedish Freedom Movement as they passed by without raising the suspicions of the Norwegians or the Hraes’.

Once word of Erik’s victory over the Swedes worked its way into the realm of King Frodi, remnants of the fleet of the Hraes’ Trading Company made their way to Sweden and joined their recuperating leader.  They brought with them tragic tidings.

Ask, one of Erik’s early followers, limped into the high seat hall of King Erik Bragi Ragnarson.  Erik was overjoyed to see his friend and, as he stepped down from his high seat, he said, “Dear Ask, as you can see I’ve acquired some of that limp of yours.”  That said, a serious look came over Erik’s countenance.  He had only one question to ask, a question that he did not want to ask, a question that was as good as answered by the mere presence of Ask and his followers.  “You bring news of Gardariki?” he asked.  “Does it still stand?  And Gunwar?  What has become of my wife?”  All these questions Erik found he had for Ask, and he blurted them out one after another.

“Gardariki has fallen to the Huns,” Ask began sadly, quietly, “and Prince Hlod has slain your wife, the fair Princess Gunwar.”

“No!” Erik shouted.  He turned away from Ask and he staggered onto the dais and clutched his high seat for support.  “This cannot be true.  You are mistaken,” Erik cried, turning quite pale and clutching his injured leg.  He was still weak from loss of blood and suddenly he grew faint and, collapsing, was caught up by his retinue.  They took him to his bedchamber and they laid him down to rest and the priestesses of Odin fed him herbs and potions, but still he did not recover.  He remained unconscious and in a fever, and many thought that he would die of his wound and his grief.

Bjorn of the Barrows took this opportunity to lead a revolt by the common people against this foreign domination, and without Erik’s strong hand at the helm of his company of followers, it was a bloodless succession.  When Erik finally came out of his fever, he learned that Bjorn was now King of the Swedes and that he and his retinue were under house arrest and armed guard.  King Bjorn’s first command as ruler of Sweden was to condemn Erik to death as soon as he was fully recovered from his illness.  Prince Erik welcomed the sentence, for he felt he could no longer go on without Princess Gunwar.

Erik’s recovery was very slow and he spent his days locked up in his bedchamber attempting to compose a poem in memory of his slain wife.  But the writing was going slower than his recovery, and, as days drew into weeks and his health began to return, a date was set for his beheading.  The last few days, Erik worked feverishly on the poem for his wife, but the words just would not come.  It was the day before his execution before Erik finally completed the work and, when Eyvind Ingvarson told King Bjorn that it was done, he had Erik brought to his hall to recite it.

Erik was brought forth to the highseat hall and given a place of honour opposite King Bjorn.  Swedish maidens brought him ale, and a fine feast was spread before him.  Once Erik had had his fill, he strode out into the open area between the high seats and began to recite his poem:

“I sit down and I try

 to write a song how you’ve left me now,

 but the words won’t come,

 the words won’t come.

 And my memories,

 they flow like white water, echoing…

 how it used to be,

 it used to be.

 Gunwar, Gunwar,

 will I see you again?

 Gunwar,

 will I see you, will I see you?

 My mind’s eye, it sees

 the radiant glow of your beauty

 through the dust of

 the Don plain.

 Soul wandering all alone

 as you wait for your lover

 to join you

 in heaven.

 But the God of gods will

 look down, my life fades on the morrow,

 and cast my soul

 to the winds. Tween

 earth and stars, I shall always remember

 the dream of your love

 in my heart.

 Gunwar, Gunwar,

 will I see you again?

 Gunwar,

 will I see you, will I see you?

 Take me back through time,

 back to the day that I met you;

 Westmar’s champions,

 how they baited me.

 Roller saved me,

 and I won the hand of my lover;

 Oh, the fates did bless,

 my guilefulness.

 But the god of storms

 threatened snow and my father did sacrifice

 his life to stem

 the tide, and

 the storm’s depart will always bring back

 the dream of your

 love in my heart.

 Gunwar, Gunwar,

 will I see you again?

 Gunwar,

 will I see you, will I see you?

 On foot-blades of bone

 we razed the house of Westmar,

 and old Gotwar

 did curse me.

 Twelve sons swept up in time,

 she tried to poison my lover,

 but, with Odin’s aid,

 my wife I saved.

 But fate would not

 be denied fruition in vengeance,

 and her nephew

 blindsided my wife,

 with golden spear, fratricidally,

 he snuck up and took her

 sweet life.

 Gunwar, Gunwar,

 will I see you again?

 Gunwar,

 will I see you, will I see you?

 The lands of

 Tmutorokan, they cried out in anguish,

 for my wife’s blood

 wet the sands of.

 As she died out

 upon the Don Plain, my blade died beside her;

 ’twas the curse of

 Tyrfingr.

 And the cycle has gone

 near full round, for I die on the morrow,

 her vengeance is

 gone to the winds. Though

 gods keep us apart, I shall always remember

 the dream of her love

 in my heart.

 Gunwar, Gunwar,

 will I see you again?

 Gunwar,

 will I see you, will I see you?

 I sit down and I try

 to write a song how you’ve left me now,

 but the words won’t come,

 the words won’t come…”

Erik’s poem was a drapa in length, and, when he had finished, everyone in the hall, King Bjorn included, rose up and applauded his work.  “A poem, a song, such as this,” the Swedish king began, “shall commend your fair Princess Gunwar’s memory to the ends of time.  If you could but write such a fine poem on my behalf, I’d be inclined to pardon you.”

“Had you lived such a life as my Gunwar, and died as bravely, then, and only then, could I write such a fine poem on your behalf.”

“Because you are a fellow skald I shall ignore your slight, but should you change your mind on into the night and sit down and write me a drapa:  my offer shall still stand.”

Erik looked hard into King Bjorn’s eyes and saw that he was dead serious.  He stepped closer to the king and said, “Would this offer include your support in my cause against the Huns?”

“Your poem has told all, most eloquently, how the Huns have slain your wife, Princess Gunwar, most foully, fratricidally,” King Bjorn replied.  “If you gain the support of the Danes and Norwegians, yes, and even the Goths, you may count on my support as well.  This I swear.”

“You shall have your drapa,” Erik stated.  “My death shall come at the hands of the Huns or, fates willing, theirs at mine.  I must return to my hall and compose,” Erik concluded.

When the Swedish guardsmen came forward to take Erik back to his hall, King Bjorn waved them back.  “He knows his way!” Bjorn stated impatiently.

Sitting in his high seat hall, with not a soul astir, Erik began working on a drapa for King Bjorn.  The pain of Gunwar’s loss had given him great difficulty while writing her poem, but the prospect of avenging her death made the skaldsmith’s words flow off his tongue like droplets of sweet dew in a field full of flowers.  But there was the problem of accomplishments or lack thereof.  To write a full drapa of someone who was yet to accomplish great things, and Erik was being polite, would be a challenge.  The only thing that Bjorn of the Barrows had accomplished so far was to play the mad fool to bide his time while he plotted against his king and then Erik remembered an old Roman tale that the Emperor of Constantinople had read to him while anonymously visiting him in his Byzantine cell.  It was about a Roman prince named Brutus who feigned madness to buy time to overthrow his usurping uncle, King Tarquin.  Emperor Theophilos had seemed to go out of his way to point out that the name Brutus meant powerful, strong, but above all else, dull.  Erik could think of only one Norse name that would cover those attributes and that was Amlodi, the dull powerful storm that pounded the Kattegat on occasion, so he named his character Amleth.  By starting his drapa in the Palatine throne room of ancient Rome and by comparing the Roman Prince Brutus cum Amleth to the Swedish Prince Bjorn of the Barrows, Erik was able to string enough heroic actions together to compile a full heroic drapa that sounded both sincere and complimentary and, by morning, he had composed and memorized the whole thing.

No record remains of Erik Bragi’s poem for King Bjorn of the Barrows, only tales of its telling, but the Swedish king was most pleased with the verses and he not only spared Erik’s life but added a postscript to the byname King Gotar of Norway had given him.  “You are now Bragi the Old,” King Bjorn announced.  “Bragi as given you by King Gotar, meaning eloquent in speech, and the Old, meaning you are of the old Danish Fridleif-Frodi line of kings by marriage and shall avenge your wife, Princess Gunwar’s death with the help of the people of Sweden.”  And the Swedish King provided for Erik and his Hraes’ people over the rest of the winter, and he held Erik in the highest esteem.

The poems that ‘Bragi the Old’ wrote when he had to face the anger of King Bjorn of Sweden and the story that he made a drapa of twenty stanzas overnight to save his own head became a rallying cry across the northern lands and kings and princes flocked to Gotland in the spring to wreak vengeance on the Huns for the death of Princess Gunwar.  And King Bjorn of the Barrow’s investment in a poem on his behalf by the famous skald, ‘Bragi the Old’, was a good one, for that is all that was ever recorded about him.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

33.0  BROTHER GREGORY’S BABY  (Circa 840 AD)

            “Prince, this tribute is not good.  We have

             conquered them with a weapon having one edge,

             which is called the `sabre’;  but their weapon

             has two edges and is called `sword’, and (later)

             they will have tribute from us and from other countries.”

            Khazar Elders;  The Nikonian Chronicle.

After the flight of the Hraes’, the Hunnish host swept into Gardariki and pillaged and burned the town.  Although the Huns had won a great victory before the gates of Gardariki, all was not well in the Khazar Khaganate.  The most noble houses of the Kara-Khazars, Emperor Theophilos’s secret Khazars, had long since fled the growing power of the Huns and, while Kagan Bek Hunn and Prince Hlod were away fighting Princess Gunwar and her Hraes’ army, it took all that Kagan Humli could do to hold his empire together.  His powerbase was severely eroded by the flight of the elite of his tribe, and he was dependent upon his kagan bek, King Hunn, to keep the other tribes within the fold.  He was a king without an army, but, being the supreme holy leader of the Khazars, born of the purple, Kagan Humli yet wielded great power in the multi-ethnic city of Atil-Kazaran, so when the victorious Hunnish host returned to Khazaria, he showed his displeasure with the actions of King Hunn and Prince Hlod by forbidding the army from entering the city of Atil.  When the kagan bek and his grandson appeared before the great kagan, the old emperor chastised them for the slaying of their own kin, Prince Hlod’s aunt, Princess Gunwar.

“Fratricide is a crime most foul in even the most backwards of cultures,” the great kagan began.  “Our Jewish faith strictly forbids the act.”

“Great Kagan, Prince Hlod slew his aunt in mortal combat,” King Hunn explained.  “Princess Gunwar wore the armour of a warrior and brandished her husband’s famed sword, Tyrfingr, and she swung the sword well, for all around her lay the corpses of our finest soldiery.  Prince Hlod attacked her in defence of his countrymen, and the deed, though distasteful, was one of courage, for which my grandson should be praised, not chastised.”

Kagan Humli looked then to Prince Hlod for confirmation that all that had been said was true.

“My aunt was a warrior maiden, and I slew her before she slew me.  All about her, our host was falling back, and our best warriors lay dead all around her.  Had I not slain her, our vanguard would have fled the field.”  Prince Hlod looked about him at all the Kara-Khazar officers still in the great kagan’s retinue.  He then unsheathed the sword, Tyrfingr, and he held the pulsing blade in his hands, offering the hilt to his supreme commander.  “This, her sword, is unmatched in any land.  I offer it to you, my lord, as a sign of the unwavering loyalty of the Huns.”

The Khazar kagan took up the blade and studied it.  “Our scimitars have but one edge, this sword has two,” he observed, and he stared deeply into the strange metal of the blade.  “We must enjoy our victory over the Hraes’, for soon they shall return with more such swords, and it shall be we who will be laid low.”  Kagan Humli then gazed upon Prince Hlod.  “Take it!  The sword is cursed.”  And he handed the blade back to the young prince.

After crossing the Sea of Azov, the dwarf, Durin, and the cleric, Brother Gregory had sailed Fair Faxi up the Don Estuary, with its tiny precious cargo, to the Fortress of Sarkel.  As Erik had done several years previous, the dwarf and the monk waited till just before dawn to navigate past the anchored Greek ships and the shore defences of the fortress.  This time there was no sighting and no pursuit as the Hraes’ ship slipped past the Khazar outpost, but, in dawn’s early light, Durin saw a great Khazar encampment outside the walls of the fortress, as though an army had laid siege to Sarkel.  All wondered at the spectacle as Fair Faxi slipped past the fortifications.  They could not even suspect that the Kara-Khazars had fled the might of the Huns and were now travelling west to meet up with their allies, the Turkoi, and begin a great journey into Europe, where the Magyars were to become the Hungarians and the Kara-Khazars were to settle in the land of the Wends, remaining forever faithful to their Jewish religion.

Durin led the Hraes’ up the Don River and into the Khopel tributary, and once they reached its source they portaged across land to the Sura River and on up the Volga to the Kama tributary.  One last portage to the Northern Dvina and they were soon outside the walls of Arthor’s settlement of Hawknista.  A month of hard rowing and harder living had gotten the Hraes’ there with, to Brother Gregory’s surprise, Gunwar’s baby no worse for wear.  His nurse maiden, a young, large breasted, blonde Anglish woman who had been torn from Angleland, was suffering culture shock from the sudden expedition north.  She clung to Brother Gregory like the baby clung to her breasts and they shared an awning together.

As the Hraes’ beached their ship a large force of Varangians came out from the settlement to meet them.  Arthor, tall, lean and enduringly grizzled, stood out at their forefront.  “Hrae! Durin!” he shouted in cold greeting.  “It has been a long time!”

‘Not long enough,’ thought Durin of the man that had captured his father. “Too long, Arthor!” Durin lied.  “I have with me one Brother Gregory,” he said as the two groups closed together, “a Goth from Gardariki.”

“A Christian?  So far north?” Arthor asked.  “Well, how do you do brother?  I’ve never met a Christian before.  Heard a lot about you Christians, though.”

“Only good things, I hope,” Brother Gregory said, watching the tall Varangian, more or less eye to eye.

“Not a one,” replied Arthor staring back at the monk.  They stood eyeing each other for a time, with Durin wondering what was to become of this confrontation of giants, and then Arthor decided that this Christian was clearly a man of mettle and he warmed to him somewhat.  “But, then again, I have to deal with the blackest bunch of merchants this side of the Nor’Way, so what can one expect.”

“I pray I can prove them all wrong,” Brother Gregory responded gruffly.

“Come into our trading post,” Arthor said.  “We have sweet meats and bitter ales.”

All afternoon and well into the night the Hraes’ enjoyed the hospitality of their Varangian hosts.  To avert any questions as to whose child was travelling with them, Brother Gregory passed the baby’s nursemaid off as his woman and let Arthor assume that the child was his.  He then told the Varangian leader that he had a most urgent and secret message for Erik’s brother, King Roller of Norway.  With the infant between them, the monk and the nursemaid spent the night together under the furs of the bench Arthor had appointed them.

The next day, arrangements were made for Brother Gregory to take Fair Faxi across the Nor’Way to Hrafnista in Halogaland.  Durin would not make the journey.  Brother Gregory assured the dwarf that he could complete the delivery without him.   “The Northmen have little respect for dwarves,” Durin explained to the monk.  “I must return to my people.  I have been away from them for too long.”  The two men stood on the bank of the Northern Dvina, and when Durin looked off to the east his countenance had lost its youthful demeanour and a great tiredness had set upon it.  His youthful adventure had come to an end.  It was time for him to lead his people.  Soon, a dugout boat paddled by dark-haired dwarves came down around a bend in the river and came near, but not up to, the bank.  Durin waded out to the canoe, turned and waved goodbye to Brother Gregory and the Hraes’, then climbed into the boat as many small hands reached out to assist him.  The dwarves then turned around to face the stern of the canoe and began paddling back upriver.  The stern had become bow and the bow stern as the dwarves took their leader back to Giantland.  Durin never looked back.

Soon after, Brother Gregory and the nursemaid took Gunwar’s baby aboard Fair Faxi, now crewed by Varangians accustomed to the rigours of the Nor’Way crossing.  The skeleton crew rowed up the Northern Dvina without incident.  The aggressive Biarmians were busy with their hunting, not expecting any merchant river traffic until the Varangian expedition in Bulgar was to return home a month later.  The lone Nor’Way ship was travelling early, but its Varangian captain anchored the boat in the White Sea for two weeks waiting, what seemed an eternity, for just the right weather for a crossing.  With Brother Gregory growing more impatient by the day, the handsome, blond haired young Varangian took the trouble to explain to the monk the fickleness of the Nor’Way winds.

“While the weather may seem right for a crossing,” he began, “as soon as you head out, sure as Loki is a devil, it will turn on you.  A storm will come up from the other direction and blow you back right where you started, if you are lucky.  If not, a calm will set in and strand you out on the cold Northern Sea where you will perish.  We wait for a storm going our way.  A storm to take us all the way.”  And the captain waited and watched the weather until, well into the second week, heavy dark clouds began forming on the eastern horizon.  He then ordered the crew to fasten in place the heavy ox-hide awnings that soon covered Fair Faxi from stem to stern, and they rowed the ship north, out and into the gale.

Brother Gregory had never experienced anything like the fury of that storm.  Huge waves crashed against and carried along Fair Faxi, and it took all the strength the old double braced hull had to hold the ship together.  Three days they rode upon the storm and when it ceased they were past the North Cape of Norway and Brother Gregory was a Varangian.  After rowing a week in the late summer’s calm that followed, the men of Hawknista were near Halogaland and, with the circling of an island, they pulled into the tranquil blue harbour of Hrafnista.

During the feast that soon followed their arrival, Brother Gregory inquired as to the whereabouts of King Roller.  A powerful young chieftain of Halogaland, Grim Hairy-Cheek, overheard the monk’s question and asked him why he was seeking audience with his cousin, the king.

Brother Gregory had given his word to Durin to entrust no one with the secret of Gunwar’s baby, so he told Chieftain Hairy-Cheek that he had an urgent message for Prince Erik ‘Bragi’, if he was still alive, or his brother King Roller of Norway.

“You’ll be glad to know that Erik is alive, if you are a friend,” Grim told the monk.  “King Roller fetched him out of Frankland back to Vik Fjord more than a month ago.”

“Are they yet in Vik Fjord?”

“Erik ‘Bragi’ battles with the Goths against King Alrek of Sweden and King Roller is passing the war-arrow around all of Thule.  They are raising a host to save Gardariki from the Huns.”

“Gardariki has already fallen to the Huns, I’m afraid,” Brother Gregory said sadly.  “That is part of the news I have for Erik and his brother.”

Grim Hairy-Cheek could see the grief welling within the priest after his telling of the fall.  “Bring your woman and child,” he said.  “You will share the high seat spread with us,” and he introduced his wife, Lofthaena, to the eastern couple.  Though Brother Gregory was very tired from his travels, his deep dark eyes yet compelled people to listen to his words, and, after supper, he told all of the tragic death of Erik’s wife, Princess Gunwar, before the walls of Gardariki.  All present at the feast knew Erik ‘Bragi’ and many were related to him in some manner or another, so Brother Gregory’s story of battle in a far-off land affected them all very personally.

The day after the feast Grim Hairy-Cheek offered to take Brother Gregory to find King Roller.  It was an offer the captain of the Nor’Way ship recommended the monk refuse.

“It grows late in the season,” the Varangian captain stated.  “If we are to make it back to Hawknista this year, we must leave soon.”

But Brother Gregory wanted to follow Grim, and the young chieftain persisted in his offer, so a party set out from Hrafnista for Trondheim and an inland journey through the Uplands, in the hope of meeting up with King Roller on his way back to The Vik.  Grim Hairy-Cheek, with his young wife, led the party, accompanied by Brother Gregory, his woman and child and the Nor’Way captain, along with many others, but, at every place they stopped, they learned that King Roller had just passed through with the war-arrow and had left with most of the able-bodied men of that village.  After two weeks of fruitless pursuit, the Varangian captain called for a halt to the enterprise.

“If we head back for Hrafnista now,” he claimed, “we will have a chance to make the crossing back.  If not, we shall remain in Norway for the winter.”  Now the Varangian captain had a wife and child of his own in Hawknista, and he did not relish the thought of leaving them to spend the winter alone in the east.  So, after one more village and one more close encounter at Brother Gregory’s insistence, the party headed back for Hrafnista.

“It is my own fault,” Brother Gregory told Grim, “that now the crossing has become too dangerous.  You must take my child to Erik’s family farm in Stavanger Vik and keep him safely there for me.  Protect him at all costs.  You know not the travails of his birth.”  Brother Gregory then took his heavy iron cross from about his neck and he placed the chain around the baby’s neck and he tucked the cross into its swaddling clothes.  “Keep this with him always.  Erik will recognize it as being mine.  We must return to the east, to the Glassy Plains, but we shall come back to claim him.  His welfare you must guarantee me.  You must pass him off as your own.”

In the short time Grim Hairy-Cheek had known Brother Gregory, he had grown to love him.  “I shall follow your wishes,” he answered, “though it surprises me you can bear to leave such a fine child behind.  He shall be raised in Stavanger and he shall await your return.”

“I feared coming to the west with my sad tale,” Brother Gregory told his new friend, “but you have made me welcome and you’ve assured me that there can be harmony between our realms.”  The two men hugged each other warmly, as the impatient Nor’Way captain watched, and Brother Gregory placed the child into the arms of Lofthaena.

Grim Hairy-Cheek hesitated a moment, then offered, “Your ship is old and not fit for this late a crossing.  I’ve just had a new Nor’Way ship built.  Leave yours and take it instead.  Erik will be pleased to get Fair Faxi back, I’ll bet.”  Brother Gregory thanked his new friend warmly and the easterners took Grim’s new ship and they left with the tide and rowed out and around the island.

At the North Cape, the Varangian captain waited patiently, once more, for the storm that would take them back to the east.  But it was too late in the season and the storm never came.  The impatience of the Varangian captain, worried about his wife and child in the east, overcame him and the staunch men of the Nor’Way ship sailed out into the Barents Sea and were stranded in a calm and perished.

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

34.0  THE BATTLE OF THE GOTHS AND THE HUNS  (Circa 841 AD)

“On the Danube-heath          below the Hills of Ash

  I call you to fight,         your foes meeting;  Hraese…,

  may Odin let the dart fly         as I prescribe it!”

            Gizur Grytingalidi;  The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.

Over winter King Frodi heard rumours that Erik Bragi had been killed in Sweden.  Although their friendship had been strained the last few years, Frodi was grief-stricken; following rumours, he set forth for the Swedish lands in the early spring, leading a small warfleet from Kiev, up the Dnieper and down the Dvina to the Baltic Sea.  Off the shore of Sodermanland, the Hraes’ fleet met up with a huge fleet of the Goths;  it was King Gestiblind and the army he had raised to fight the Huns.  King Frodi learned from them that Erik ‘Bragi’ was alive and well and raising a host to destroy the Huns.  When it became apparent that both fleets were bound for Birka, the foremost men of their respective kings got into a dispute over which ships should enter the harbour first.  Since the smaller fleet of the Hraes’ was faster, Skalk the Skanian addressed the captain of the Hraes’ vanguard ship.

“Since we are both bound for the harbour of Birka,” Skalk yelled over the waves, “I think it only respectful that the smaller fleet follow the larger.”

Captain Arngrim, King Frodi’s foremost man of late, shouted back his reply, “You may be the larger fleet now, for we have left the bulk of our forces in Gardar, but when it comes time to fight the Huns, we shall have, by far, the largest force.  Therefore, if one is to judge rights by size, it should be our fleet that leads all into the harbour of Birka.”

“Prospective size means little in the here and now,” Skalk said, “where we outnumber you four to one.  But a battle would be against the wishes of the prince we both make haste to serve.”  Skalk stood steady upon the deck of his ship, arms akimbo, a veritable giant of a man.  “Perhaps you have a champion who will present your case in arms?”

Captain Arngrim left the bow of his ship to confer with his king, who sat brooding amidships with his children, Prince Alf and Princess Eyfura.  All could see that King Frodi was not impressed with the overbearing conduct of the Goths, yet he wished to preserve the peace.  But Arngrim saw the offer as a chance to prove himself to his monarch and, more importantly, the princess at his elbow.  Eyfura stood beside her father, a reflection of the beauty that was once Queen Alfhild, and she was moved by the brave chivalry of the young captain.  She had all the accoutrements of a princess, save a champion, and when she put her hand upon her father’s shoulder, leaned forward and passed the young captain her handkerchief, Frodi fell silent before the pleas of Arngrim and waved him forward into the fray.

The sea was calm, the day was bright, both fleets sat bobbing upon the waters as the two gaily painted flagships approached each other.  Once they were manoeuvred portside to portside, oars were laid between them and lashed to the rowlocks, binding the two longships together, then boarding planks were laid across the topstrakes to form a combat platform, and the two champions armed themselves for battle.  Arngrim was the first up on the platform and he looked back down into the Hraes’ ship at Princess Eyfura, who stood upon a rowing bench, steadying herself with a hand upon the mast.  King Frodi remained seated, sullenly, and Prince Alf looked off in the stearingboard direction.  Arngrim calmly tied Eyfura’s kerchief around his neck, gave her one last look, then bit into the linden shield he carried and took up the fit of the berserker.  He was well into his rage when the giant, Skalk, stepped up onto the planks, and he attacked the Goth suddenly and ferociously.  The older man fended off the young captain’s blows with some difficulty and his oak shield was soon battered beyond use.  Skalk threw off the leaf and began an attack of his own.  Taking his sword in both hands, he rained massive blows upon the shield of the Hraes’ captain, but the linden wood withstood the shock of the beating until the blows abated.  Arngrim gave the giant no respite in which to rearm himself, and, as he countered with his second attack, the giant backed across to the outermost plank.

Years earlier a tiny wood ant had gnawed its way right through a huge timber that had been left in the forest to season, and from that timber was made a plank upon which Skalk the Skanian now stood, and the drift made by the ant ran through the width of the plank below the giant’s foot, so that, when Skalk stepped back to better absorb the shock of a blow, the plank snapped in half and the giant toppled backwards into the water.  Captain Arngrim, still in his rage, leaped in after him, just entering the water as Skalk resurfaced, and he dealt him a mortal blow.  The sea turned red with the giant’s blood and Skalk the Skanian slipped beneath the waves, never to be seen again.  The cold waters sapped Arngrim’s berserk fury and a great weakness overcame him.  His armour would have drowned him, had he not climbed atop his faithful linden shield.  It took four strong men to haul him out of the water and into the Hraes’ longship.  As Princess Eyfura was tending to Captain Arngrim, she noticed her handkerchief was gone, but she told no one.  Instead, she dried his long blonde locks with another and then tied it tightly around his right bicep.

King Frodi’s flagship led the two fleets into the harbour of Birka and both King Bjorn ‘of the Barrows’ and Prince Erik ‘Bragi’ were waiting on shore to greet him.  Erik and Frodi had not seen each other in years and, as they stood across from each other, tears welled up in both men’s’ eyes and they took the last few steps between them, as though completing a long, long journey; then they embraced.

“I’d heard you had died,” King Frodi cried.  “That my foremost man was no more.”

“My thirst to avenge your sister has kept me alive,” Erik answered, truthfully.

Hard years had taken a toll on both men and it showed as they climbed aboard a carriage and waited for King Gestiblind to land.  Erik now had a limp and King Frodi’s face was ravaged, not by age, but, as he claimed, by his own hands, a punishment he had executed upon himself for the murder of Alfhild.  Erik knew otherwise.

When King Gestiblind landed, Erik went forth to meet him and learned of the slaying of Skalk the Skanian.  Erik asked who had killed Skalk and was told it had been Arngrim, a captain in the fleet of King Frodi.  He took note of the fact but said nothing.

A great feast had been prepared by King Bjorn on the arrival of the armies and, during the festivities, Captain Arngrim approached the guests’ high seat, where Prince Erik and King Frodi shared the most honoured bench, and he asked his king for the hand of his daughter, Princess Eyfura.

“What think you of this bold request, Erik?” King Frodi asked of his partner.

“I think that the slaying of Skalk was a foolish, though brave risk that has damaged our plans for a successful campaign.  Rather than reward such destruction with the hand of your daughter, I think you should set young Jarl Arngrim forth on a constructive errand that shall help our cause, rather than hinder it.”

“What kind of an errand do you have in mind?” King Frodi asked.  “Bear in mind, young captain, that you are in the presence of one of the clearest wits I have ever met.”

Jarl Arngrim stood silent while Erik passed his judgement.

“You must lead a force against King Egther of Permland and King Thengil of Finmark, for, of all the lands over which King Frodi holds sway, only those two have withheld their aid in our upcoming war with the Huns.”

“But I shall miss all the fighting in Khazaria,” Captain Arngrim countered angrily.

“Erik ‘Bragi’ speaks wise thoughts,” King Frodi answered.  “If you are quick about it, you can subject the Finns to our rule and levy troops from their ranks to bolster our forces.  You are to meet us on the Don Heath with your forces at your earliest opportunity.”  Captain Arngrim’s attempts to object met with only one cold order from Angantyr Frodi.  “You are to leave in the morning.”

Secretly that night, Princess Eyfura tied another handkerchief to the left bicep of her champion, so that his left arm would not be ashamed in the presence of his right.

The next day, just after Captain Arngrim had set out with a flotilla of ships, King Roller entered the harbour of Birka at the head of a huge Norwegian fleet.  Roller hugged his brother, Erik, warmly, then grasped Frodi in his arms and near crushed him in greeting.  It had been many years since Roller had seen the king who had granted him all of Norway.  Erik then introduced his brother to Kings Bjorn and Gestiblind.  That evening, they convened a huge war-thing.  All the great chieftains and mighty warriors of Denmark, Gotland, Sweden, Norway and Gardar were in attendance.  It took Erik’s thoughts back to his youth and his first war-thing in the court of King Gotar.  The thrill and excitement, the huge throngs of warriors and troops, his first sight of Alfhild, his murdered queen.  Erik felt, then, that she bore her husband no malice in dying.  He only hoped he could show his brother-in-law the same forgiveness he had shown Queen Alfhild for her one slip.  He looked over at King Frodi and he spotted Princess Eyfura at his elbow and he saw the fine-boned beauty of Alfhild once more and he remembered the warmth of his queen in a campaign tent on the Don Heath, the ghost of his queen, he reminded himself and he looked away.

In the week that passed, while the huge army made preparations, ships filled with warriors continued flocking to Sweden.  Prince Erik’s half-brothers, Princes Ivar, Siward and Agnar arrived with a warfleet from Angleland and Prince Imair arrived with an Irish force in tow.  A torch had been lit in the dark pagan night, a tale of two drapas, one written to lament the death of a princess, Gunwar’s Song, and another, written overnight, to save the life of the Bragning Prince, The Head Ransom Drapa, to avenge the death of his Skjoldung wife.  Followers of Odin gathered from all over the Boreal lands.  Troops were assembled and they sailed east, into the orient dawn, where Christians and Moslems and Jews converged on the south Scythian plain.  On the Dvina River, the pagan Lithuanians, stalwarts of Satem, watched the great fleet go past and harried them not.  On the Dnieper River, pagan warriors of the Radimichi joined the host, and in Kiev, where King Olmar had assembled the Drevjane and Poljane followers of Perun, the Slav god of war, the mighty fleet made repairs to their ships, then carried on, their ranks swelled by brave Slav soldiers.  Up the Orel River they sailed, and a lengthy portage placed them upon the Donets, and soon the mighty host stood before the great stone walls of Sarkel, that strategic Khazar fortress built by the Greeks.

At the approach of the vast northern host, the small Hun garrison fled, leaving their Greek mercenary allies to fend for themselves.  Erik watched the Roman troops as they rowed their great trireme ships out on the Don River in an attempted escape to Cherson.  Sarkel stood, undefended, before the great army.

“Burn it to the ground!” Erik Bragi ordered.  “Let no two stones stand atop one another,” he shouted, sealing the fate of that most hated fortress.  Great stocks of firewood were gathered from miles around Sarkel and placed both within and without the walls of the deserted fortress.  Erik, himself, struck the Fa Chu that sparked a blaze that would rage for three days within the mighty stone walls.  The heat of the conflagration was so intense that huge monolithic blocks cracked in pieces and heavy Doric columns crumbled under their loads.  Shortly after the fire had been set, scouts spotted great billows of smoke to the south, almost as if the plain about the Don was afire.  A day later, when that blaze seemed to have died out, a mighty fleet appeared, sailing up the river.  It was General Ygg and the ships of the Hraes’ Trading Company, manned by Hraes’ survivors and their Gothic allies.

General Ygg and the Hraes’ fleet had spent the winter on the Black Sea harrying Khazar shipping and attacking Greek coastal settlements.  Their successes had so terrified the local populace that news of them had reached Constantinople, and their path of destruction was recorded in Roman annals.  Within Erik’s bright pavilion the Goth General described the Hraes’ campaign.  “I knew you would return, Erik,” the general explained, “so it seemed important to keep the Hraes’ Trading Company fleet intact and to make our presence felt.  We received word from Kiev that you had come back at the head of an army, so we sailed up the Don knowing there would only be one direction in which you would head.  We knew also that the Khazars would be sallying forth to meet you, so we were very wary as we sailed upriver.  It’s too bad for the Greeks that they were not equally vigilant, for we caught them by complete surprise as they rounded a bend in the river.  They had no time to prepare their Greek fire and, rather than have their secret fall into enemy hands, they torched their own ships and dove into the water.  I have never seen flames so violent as those that literally tore apart the triremes.  Fire floated and burned upon the water bringing most of the Greeks to a fiery end.  Those that escaped the flames surrendered.  That is what caused the billowing smoke you saw from even this great distance.”

The Khazar Empire was astir with the news of an impending attack by the Goths.  King Humli, the great kagan of the federation, ordered a huge army assembled in Atil.  The kagan bek, King Hunn, ordered all his men twelve years of age and up to arm themselves, and all ponies two years old and greater to be levied from the tribes.  This mighty Hunnish host set forth from the heart of Khazaria to meet their enemy.  Over a hundred thousand troops had been raised, under the command of one hundred and seventy kings and princes, and they marched, in a formation that stretched from horizon to horizon, towards the Fortress of Sarkel.

General Ygg stood before Prince Erik and King Frodi and the assembled host of the Varangians.  “I claim the honour of riding forth to challenge the Huns.  The Gothic people and the Hunnish horde have long been enemies.  We Goths have won our greatest victories over these barbarians and suffered our greatest defeats.  Let me sally forth with our challenge to arms.”  King Frodi looked at Prince Erik then nodded to General Ygg.  “Where shall I call the Huns to war?” the Gothic general asked his king.

“On the Don Heath, below the Khazar mountains, shall you challenge the Huns to battle.  There your Goths have often waged war and gained many victories.”

So, as Erik had done a generation before, General Ygg set out to challenge the Huns to war.  A ship took him across the Don River and he rode off on the dusty plain to find the Khazar army.  After a hard day’s ride, he came upon the Hunnish host and he shouted out his challenge in a surprisingly loud voice:

“Hapless your host, fey is your kagan,

 Our standards shall flutter over you,

 Odin is angered!

“On the Don Heath, ‘neath the Khazar mountains,

 we challenge you to fight–meet us, your foes;

 the Hraes’ await you!”

“And may Odin,” Ygg prayed, “let loose the war-arrow as I have foretold.”

A large troop of Hun horsemen were at the forefront of the Khazar army and Prince Hlod and his father rode foremost of all.

“It is the Goth general, Yggerus, Angantyr’s man,” the prince said to his father.  “Seize him!” Hlod shouted, but King Hunn waved his men back.

“Heralds who ride alone should not be harmed,” he said.

General Ygg paused a few moments before the Huns, showing no sign of fear, then rode for the Don Heath and marked the battlefield with four hazel poles.  He then rode off towards the sunset and the Goth camp.

The yet burning fires of Sarkel showed the old man the way back to the Don River, and he lit a fire and made camp on the riverbank.  Exhausted, he wrapped himself in a blanket and slept with his head on his saddle.  An hour later, in dawn’s early light, a ship came to fetch him.  Both King Frodi and Erik leapt onto the bank and strode into his camp.

“You found the Huns?” King Frodi asked the Goth.

“A hard day’s ride from here,” General Ygg answered, sitting up.  “I challenged them to battle on the Don Heath.  There they shall await us.”

“How strong are they?” Erik asked.

“Huge is their host,” General Ygg answered, and he could use only Greek terms to describe its vast size:

“Of soldiers they have six phalanxes,

 every phalanx has five thousands,

 every thousand thirteen hundreds,

 and every hundred is four times counted.”

General Ygg had counted over a hundred and fifty thousand men.  Erik and Frodi stepped back from Ygg as he rose to his feet.  “We’ve perhaps half that number,” Erik said, “if we count the Valkyries.”

“A Valkyrie’s worth two Huns,” King Frodi commented.  “Still, we’d better send out the call for more men.”

That day messengers were sent to Gothland, Kiev and further parts to levy more troops.  The Varangian army was ferried across the Don River by ships of the Hraes’ fleet and it assembled and began its march across the Don Heath to meet the Khazars, marching until late afternoon before cavalry scouts spotted the Hunnish host.  The Khazar army was encamped on the far side of the open flat plain that General Ygg had marked out.  It patiently awaited an adversary.

Erik ordered his troops to make camp on their side of the plain, the two armies being in clear sight of one another.  An ominous mood ran through the encampments of both armies that evening.  Scouts could be seen leaving both camps to run patrols, to watch for enemy movements and to search out deserters.  Many of the soldiers and warriors, both Varangian and Hun, were brave enough to fight any man in combat, yet, when hosts of this size sat before one another, the thought of fighting against so many at once overwhelmed many of them.  The pagans had a term for this:  ‘the Fetters of Odin’, whereby Odin, the god of hosts could strike fear into the bravest of men, often at the most critical of times.  So, cavalry scouts sallied about both camps and brought back as many deserters as could be caught.  King Frodi had ordered his deserters hanged, while King Hunn had ordered his beheaded, so, in a line between the camps stood a row of slowly filling hanging ladders on one side and a gradually increasing line of countenanced pikes on the other.  One of King Roller’s Norwegian cavalry scouts brought a deserter before Roller, who he, in turn, brought before Erik.  The delinquent was none other than Ask, Erik’s long time lieutenant and friend.

“What would you have us do with him?” Roller asked his brother.  “Frodi has ordered all deserters hanged.”

“Let me have a word with Ask,” Erik answered, then turned towards the bedraggled captive.  “You have always been a brave man, Ask.  Why have you run?”

“I’ve been having dreams ever since we left Sweden,” Lieutenant Ask answered, “and in these nightmares I am standing alone before a host of men and an arrow flies forth from that group and kills me.  Then, tonight, in a dream, Odin told me the Huns with their hornbows have an arrow with my name upon it.  I woke up in a fever, left my tent and started to run.”

“It is the Fetters of Odin,” Erik told his friend, patting him upon the shoulder.  “Tonight, you shall sleep in my pavilion.”

“And the orders of King Frodi?” Roller asked.

“I shall vouch for Ask,” Erik answered.

The camps of the Varangians and the Huns began stirring before dawn, and, as the orient light broke over the Scythian plain, hundreds of corpses bristled in two rows upon the horizon, the hanged bodies swinging and the lanced heads swaying in the morning breeze.  It was a warning to all who might be tempted to run in the course of the day.  Ask took his usual place at the head of Erik’s new Centuriata, which formed the vanguard of the Varangian army, but, as they marched past the row of dead, he could not bring himself to look upon them, for he was at one with them.  The Khazar army, too, was advancing and the two hosts approached each other in the centre of the plain.  The Varangian force thinned its ranks to meet the greater expanse of the opposing army and when the Hunnish host came within range, Erik had his troop of Swedish footbowmen loose volley after volley of heavy arrows into their midst to hurry them along.  Then the Norse army weathered the storm of darts from the Huns’ long range hornbows until their archers, too, could join in the maelstrom with their lighter arrows.  Next, it was the Khazar host’s turn to weather the heavy spears and throwing axes of the Norsemen until they could answer with spears of their own.  The two armies closed, their kettle drums pounding, their armour rattling in a continuous metallic murmur.  On either wing were the cavalry units, holding off their attacks until the main hosts were engaged.  Soon sword met shield and the battle began.  The clash of weapons and the screams of men rent continuously through the general roar of the massive armies:  the pounding of hooves and the scuffle of feet, the shouting of orders and the choked grunts of exertion, the kettledrums and the trumpets and the fluttering of a thousand banners.

All day the sound roared, but neither side budged an inch.  At dusk the din died down.  Both sides retired to their tents and pavilions with their dead and wounded.  The Valkyries had moved the hanging ladders and their burdens behind the Varangian camp.  There, too, they stacked their dead and they dispatched the mortally wounded amongst the cordwood for the campfires.  Soldiers were not allowed behind the camp.  Only cavalry patrolled the perimeter, and the Valkyries, hardened old hags and beautiful young maidens, hanged the ever-present deserters.  The warriors stayed in their tents and by their campfires, tending to their weapons and their wounds.  Erik’s pavilion was in the centre of the camp with those of the kings, but the tents of his Centuriata were spread out before his in the Vanguard’s choice position, so he visited with his men after campaign meetings and told them short tales and recited them poems, always of bravery and actions resulting in victory.  Erik took note of the fact that Ask was alive and well and had distinguished himself in battle.  The following day the battle resumed in much the same manner as it had before.  All day the Goth and Hun troops were engaged in mortal combat and, though the Huns outnumbered the Norsemen, Goth and Slav warriors had rallied to King Frodi’s call for help and were pouring into the Hraes’ camp at such a rate that, despite severe casualties on both sides, the number of Gothic troops actually increased while the Hun numbers dwindled.  Still, the superior numbers of the Khazar host began to prevail and the Hraes’ were forced to give ground, but they held their formations intact and at days end both sides again retired to their respective encampments.

That evening Roller visited the pavilion of his brother, Erik.  “There is a rumour spreading amongst my men that a deserter was spared,” he explained.  “If King Frodi were to hear of it, he shall ask questions.  I’m here to let you know that I have no intentions of covering for Ask’s actions.”

“Nor would I expect you to,” Erik responded.  “I shall answer to Frodi should the time come.”

“You are jeopardizing your reputation for your man,” Roller complained.  “It would be best for all involved if Ask were to die in tomorrow’s battle.”

“I’ve lost almost half my Centuriata in battle.  Ask has been at the head of the vanguard and has distinguished himself in combat for two days.  He has atoned himself of his crime and I shall play no part in further jeopardizing his life.  I supported him two nights ago and, should he survive our conflict, I shall continue to do so.”

“You’re a hard man to deal with, Erik Bragi,” Roller exclaimed.

“I got it from my father,” Erik explained, and the two brothers supped together.

The next four days of combat were pretty much the same as the second, with the Goth army continuing to lose ground before the Hun host, until finally, by the evening of the sixth day the Hraes’ were backed up to their own camp.  The Khazars, sensing victory, were fighting ever fiercely.  While their numbers were falling due to casualties and desertions, the numbers of their enemies had not dropped at all.  King Hunn had soon realized that, if they were to prevail, the Khazar forces would have to win while their forces remained superior.  He instilled his men with this sense of urgency and it was with this added incentive that the Huns had managed to almost drive the Goths from the field.

At the campaign meeting on the evening of the sixth day, Erik recommended that the Hraes’ army withdraw to the other side of the Don River, to the plain before Sarkel.

“This will lead to mass desertions,” King Frodi countered.  “With the river at our backs our men are forced to fight on.”

“Each day our army swells with new recruits.  The longer we stave off defeat the better our position becomes.  The Huns know this.  That is why they are pressing so hard.”

“We shall stay and fight,” King Frodi countered.

“Where is Jarl Arngrim, your foremost man?” Erik goaded his king.  “He was to bring a host to our aid and he has yet to appear.”

Roller stepped between Erik and King Frodi, as they eyed each other heatedly.  “You play a dangerous game,” he whispered to his brother.

“Arngrim shall come through for us,” King Frodi exclaimed.  “He has never failed me!”

“And I’m sure he has no intention of starting,” Erik shouted back.  “Let us buy him some time to arrive.  Let us retreat across the Don.  I’m sure he shall meet us on the other side with a fresh army.  As we draw nearer him, it shall speed up his arrival.”

“So be it,” King Frodi spat, then sat and smiled wryly.  “Once again my foremost of foremost men has played me like a lyre and gotten his way.  Time and again you earn your byname, Bragi.”

After the campaign meeting, King Frodi took Erik aside and said, “There is a rumour going around that a deserter has been spared.  Those involved could share the deserter’s fate if the situation is not rectified.  See if you can correct it for me.”

Erik wondered how much of the story King Frodi knew as he wandered back to his own camp.  He gathered his men about him and asked for volunteers to remain in camp and tend to patrols and campfires while the army withdrew under cover of darkness.  His eye caught Ask’s, and his lieutenant immediately volunteered.  Most of the Centuriata followed Ask’s example, so Erik placed his lieutenant in charge of all forces participating in the dangerous rear-guard action.  They would all be equipped with fast steeds for the final evacuation, but it was a day’s march to the Don and the Huns had the finest horsemen in the world.

The next day, when the Khazar army assembled in formation there was no Hraes’ army there to face them.  Mounted pickets still rode the camp’s perimeter, campfires still blazed, but no troops roused to make a formation.  King Hunn sent Prince Hlod and a troop of cavalry to investigate; the Hraes’ rear-guard immediately torched their own camp, mounted their steeds and fled.  Ask rode out to the lead horseman, Prince Hlod, and shouted the name “Sarkel”, then rode off.  The Hun cavalry set off in pursuit, sending back a messenger to their kagan.

“The Goths have fled!” the messenger shouted.  “They await us at Sarkel!”

Morning found the Hraes’ army on the east bank of the Don River, and the Hraes’ navy came out from the port of Sarkel to assist them in the crossing.  By noon they were all on the west bank of the Don and had re-occupied their encampment outside the walls of Sarkel.  The fires within the fortress still flared up and a dark pallor of smoke hung over the countryside.  The heat from the burning cord wood that had been stacked up against the stone walls both inside and out had cracked the stones and destroyed the mortar holding them together. The walls of Sarkel were near collapse.  It would never house another garrison of Greek troops.  A command pavilion was set up in front of the doomed fortress and, while the troops were resting from their exhausting forced march, the officers and chieftains held a council of war.

It was suggested that the Hraes’ navy be employed to prevent the Huns from crossing over, but King Frodi dismissed the idea.  “There are but forty ships to stop a hundred thousand from crossing.  We would lose the struggle and our honour as well.  Let the Huns cross.  This is where we’ll stand.  This is where we’ll fight!”  No one dared dispute with their king further on the matter.

Erik was not about to argue.  He had looked for Ask when he had called for volunteers for the rear-guard, and he was racked with guilt over his actions.  He might as well have ordered Ask to volunteer for the suicide action.  “We must place the fleet up and down the river to assist any of the rear-guard that might make it to the Don,” Erik said.  “We shall have need of the fleet later.”

All present, King Frodi included, shouted, “Aye!”

Back upon the Don Heath, Hun cavalry units were running down the scattered Hraes’ rear-guard, cutting them to pieces as they caught them, but in the centre of that long broad plain a knot of Hraes’ cavalry charged for the Don River seemingly unimpeded.  The Hraes’ commander, Lieutenant Ask, had rallied Erik’s Centuriata and others about him, forming a unit too large for the undisciplined Hun horsemen to chance attacking.  Hard they rode, in the heat of noon, for the quenching safety the river promised them.  Prince Hlod rallied a troop of Huns behind him and was in chase, but the lead the Hraes’ had, and the good horse Erik had provided Ask, was too much, even for the excellent Turk riders.  Crashing down the steep riverbank of the Don, the Hraes’ cavalry unit plunged into the waters of the river, and the flanks of the horses were flecked with foam and their riders covered in sweat and dust when the waters rushed up and swept it all away.  Prince Hlod slowed his force as they neared the riverbank and they drew their hornbows and began to fire arrows at the fleeing rear-guard.  Two ships of the Hraes’ navy rowed to the aid of their countrymen and placed themselves between the shore and the fording horsemen and returned the fire with footbows firing huge arrows that would knock down a horse when hit and took men right off the back of their mounts.  Erik was aboard one of the ships and he strung his Turk hornbow and fired arrows that, not only matched the Huns in range, but surpassed them in firing rate and accuracy.  When the Hun horsemen withdrew from the riverbank, a great cheer of victory resounded from the Hraes’ army on the west bank of the river.

That evening, the Khazar army reached the bank of the Don River and camped on its shore.  Withdrawing from the river, the Hraes’ army offered the Huns an opportunity for an unchallenged crossing.  Before the dawn of the next morning, Kagan Humli took advantage of this gift and Kagan Bek Hunn ordered his army to assemble their round skin boats and make the crossing.  Soon, a hundred thousand Turks were in formation on the west bank of the Don.  Seventy thousand of the seventy-five thousand remaining Hraes’ warriors awaited them.

“Where are the other five thousand?” King Frodi asked Erik as they rode their mounts before their battle-worn troops.  “And where is Jarl Arngrim?”

“He will come,” was Erik’s evasive reply.

The kettledrums sounded and the Hraes’ warriors pounded their swords upon their shields and the berserkers bit into their linden wood and howled in fury as the Goth army advanced upon the Huns.

The battle started with the heavy thud of Swedish footbows followed by the thrum of hornbows then the longbows, followed by the heavy thumps of spears, and then the shocked crash of shields announced that the true battle had begun.  Half the day the shield walls wavered back and forth until it seemed that either side might fold at any time.  Erik pulled men from the left flank and placed them on the right in an attempt to drive the Huns back toward the river, but the Khazar host held firm.  A thick billow of smoke rose out of the fortress and worked its way up and then down upon the battlefield and sometimes the wind would shift and blow it in the faces of the Varangians and then would shift and blow it in the faces of the Khazars, but finally it settled down upon the Hunnish host and soon had their warriors doubling up in fits of coughing and the Khazar line was pushed back toward the river.  King Hunn and Prince Hlod were busy rallying their troops when, from out of a western coulee and behind a copse of trees, came a fresh army led by Jarl Arngrim, Varangians and Finns, to lend their brave stout arms to the driving task at hand.

King Frodi, himself, rode back to meet and urge them on and he greeted his lieutenant as a starving man welcomes bread.  Erik directed the new forces into the fray, then he handed control over to his king and joined his Centuriata in the vanguard.

“Where is Ask?” was Erik’s first question, as he joined his men.

“He’s been slain,” one officer offered, grabbing the reins as Erik joined the formation behind the three deep shield wall.  The Hraes’ battle line had been spread thin, no thanks to the five thousand men Erik had plucked from the force the night previous.

“He’s yet alive,” another officer blurted out as he rushed to join the line.  “The Valkyries are attending to him,” and the soldier pointed to their rest area behind the lines, then ran to rejoin his squad.  Erik trotted back to the Centuriata’s aid station to find two young Valkyrie warriors breaking off an arrow that had penetrated Ask’s nose and pierced his tongue.  Erik squatted beside his comrade and supported his back as the Valkyries snapped the flight protruding from his face, then cut the arrowhead away from his mouth, leaving the blood smeared shaft where it had shattered his face.  Ask could barely talk but he said, “Erik, it is Odin’s arrow, missed its mark!”

“Good,” replied Erik.  “Now you may sit out the rest of this fray.”

“You don’t understand,” Ask lisped back.  “I can rejoin the battle.  Odin’s arrow has missed its mark.”

“You rest,” Erik said, patting Ask’s shoulder, “and that is an order!”  Though Erik had never followed the path of the berserk, his father had been a famed manic warrior, and Erik soon found himself doffing his shirt, gnawing on linden wood and howling at the Huns facing him.  The limp he had acquired duelling King Alrek was gone, and he joined the forefront in a rage unmatched by any.  He cut down all Huns before him and, in the ecstasy of his fit, the Khazar line melted away.  The fresh troops of Prince Arngrim’s army were following hard behind him and soon they had cut a deep swath into the ranks of the Huns.  Erik was working his way towards the mounted Prince Hlod, but the sway of combat took Hlod away from the Centuriata and placed him before the mounted King Frodi, instead.

At first, it seemed as though Prince Hlod would flee, but he quickly raised the sword, Tyrfingr, over his head and charged his father.  King Frodi deflected the vicious down stroke, which ended deep in the earth, and answered with a down stroke from his own battered blade that ended the life of the stripling prince.  Tyrfingr lay planted in the Don soil as King Hunn, seeking to avenge his son, charged King Frodi.  Erik fought his way to the blade he had forged as his own king charged the Hun kagan bek.  Erik pulled the famed blade free from the earth just as a blow from Kagan Hunn shattered the damaged sword of King Frodi.  An area had cleared around the battling kings and Erik took advantage of the pause to throw Tyrfingr to his king.  Frodi caught the middle-piece in his two hands and, as King Hunn raised his sword for the death blow, the Dane thrust the blade of Tyrfingr between the Hun’s spread ribs.  King Hunn fell to the earth, dead, without a sound.

With the demise of their leaders, the Hunnish host began falling back and their right flank was being driven into the Don River.  Their centre collapsed before the onslaught of Prince Arngrim’s fresh forces and their left flank followed in panicked abandon.  Soon, the whole Khazar army was in flight, fighting over their skin boats on the shore of the Don.  Half the Hun host was in the water when the Hraes’ navy, bolstered by the five thousand troops Erik had spirited away, struck.  A slaughter on the river ensued and, even with their comrades experiencing annihilation, the Huns still fought among themselves for places on the remaining craft, rather than face the fury of the Hraes’ army on land.

So great was the slaughter upon the waters of the Don River, quencher of Khazars, that the snagged and piling corpses of the Hun army turned the course of that primary river system.  The Hraes’ navy, having defeated the living, were soon battling the dead, as they fought their way through the floating corpses back to the harbour of Sarkel.

“That is where my five thousand were disbursed!” King Frodi exclaimed, as the foot soldiers watched the remainder of the battle from the shoreline.

But Erik heard not what his commander had said;  he was searching the battlefield for his lieutenant, Ask, and he found him, slain, a bright arrow through his breast.  “It would seem Odin’s arrow has not missed its mark after all,” Erik said bitterly, as he viewed the corpse of his comrade.

King Frodi, too, rode his horse among the slain till he found the corpse of Prince Hlod and exclaimed:

“Treasures uncounted, kinsman, I offered you,

 wealth and cattle well to content you;

 but for war’s reward you have won neither

 realm more spacious nor rings glittering.”

Angantyr Frodi got off his horse, knelt beside the corpse and took up the breast of Prince Hlod onto his lap.

“We are cursed, kinsman, your killer am I!

It will never be forgotten;  the Norns’ doom is evil.”

The great kagan, Humli, heard King Frodi’s laments, as King Roller accepted his formal surrender.  Erik joined his brother and they celebrated each other’s survival.  The supreme Khazar leader looked down from his huge wheeled pavilion and his eyes met Erik’s.  Even in defeat, the captured Huns bowed before the gaze of their leader, so powerful was the spell he held over them.  Erik could see that the kagan, though old, sat proudly in his high seat; the blood of Caesars yet flowed through his veins.  Smoke still drifted over the battlefield from the Fortress of Sarkel, and a wisp of black smoke ended the eye contact between the man who was a leader because of his blood and the man who lead despite his.

Small fires burned all over the battlefield and smoke hung over it like a fog, muffling the cries of the wounded as the Valkyries darted among the piled bodies like phantoms of death.  Erik and Roller joined their king by the bodies of Prince Hlod and King Hunn.  Angantyr Frodi stood up, his eyes red and swollen, and offered Erik the sword, Tyrfingr.  “Keep it if you wish, for it has saved your life” Erik said.  “You know full well its curse and its blessings.”

King Frodi thanked Erik for the famed blade, then summoned all his kings to an assembly to be held that evening.  There, he awarded Erik the realm of Tmutorokan and the wealth and the lands of Prince Hlod, as war guild for the loss of Princess Gunwar; to General Ygg he gave command of Gothland; to King Olmar he gave the Principality of Novgorod; and to Jarl Arngrim he awarded all the Northern lands he had conquered and the hand of his daughter, Princess Eyfura, in marriage.

Although, once more Roller demanded the death of the great kagan and an immediate attack upon Khazaria, Erik managed to calm him down and reminded both he and King Frodi of his visions of the steppe hordes that were being held back by the Khazars.  King Frodi decided to impose a ransom on Kagan Humli to be paid out to the Hraes’ troops.

Later that evening, a messenger called Erik away from the Hraes’ victory feast and to the tent of King Olmar.

“Come in, Erik,” the Slav monarch said.  “Sit down and share wine with an old man.”

Erik sat on a camp stool before his grandfather.

“Do you still carry the gold trident I returned to you in Kiev?” King Olmar asked.

“I carry it at my breast, as always,” Erik answered, and he pulled it out from his shirt by the gold chain around his neck.

King Olmar leaned forward, took the trident bodkin from Erik’s hand and drew him close.  He studied it very carefully then said, “Tell me again about your mother.  The last time we talked of her, you were my enemy and prisoner.  It seems so long ago.”

Erik told Olmar everything that Ragnar had told him of her: she was dark haired and beautiful; she spoke the Slav tongue and others, but no Norse; she had risked stabbing a Varangian’s hand rather than part with her bodkin; Ragnar had fallen in love with her and she had grown to return that love; and she had died giving birth to her only child, Erik.  All these things he told King Olmar, who listened in quiet suffering.  “She was your daughter,” Erik concluded.

“She was my foster-daughter,” King Olmar began.  “Jarl Heimer of Volsunga arrived at my court with the young daughter of the slain King Sigurd Fafnirsbane, the first slayer of fire breathing dragonships, and his dead lover, Princess Brynhild, the young Princess Aslaug.  They were heading north to Oster-Gotland to find another dragon-slayer.”

Erik knew the story.  It was his stepmother Kraka, Princess Aslaug, whom his father, King Ragnar, had saved from enslavers in Skane.

“Jarl Heimer had been travelling with a nursemaid who had a baby girl with her and the Jarl asked me to care for them and then he and little Princess Aslaug carried on northward with his huge harp upon his back.  I took the nursemaid in as a concubine and I raised the baby girl as my foster daughter, treating her as I did my own.  I sent spies to Volsunga and I learned from a witch that the baby girl was the daughter of Princess Brynhild with another warrior, a prince of the Thervings, the West Goths.  The young girl grew up strong and beautiful and we called her Bryn in honour of her mother.  When she was of marriageable age, King Hunn, who died today, wanted her to wife, so I sent her off to Khazaria.  She never made it.  She disappeared along the way at the same time a second fire breathing dragonship of the Romans was slain near the Don Heath, the Gnita Heath, and now I know it to have been King Ragnar who had taken her and had married her in King Hunn’s stead.

“I’d always hoped that I would find my daughter alive and in hiding somewhere, perhaps as a handmaiden to some Khazar princess, but it is a hard thing to accept the proof that she died alone in some far-off land.”  Erik attempted to reassure the old king, but Olmar held up a hand and continued.  “This unwillingness of mine to admit the truth has cost us both overmuch, not only in years we might have shared as grandfather and grandson, but, I fear, great-grandson as well.”

Erik could not guess where Olmar’s conversation was leading, but he continued listening patiently.

“General Ygg was going to tell you this, but I begged him to let me break the news to you only when the time was right.”  King Olmar poured Erik some more wine but took none for himself.  “Before Gunwar’s last battle with the Huns on the plains before Gardariki, she gave birth to a baby boy…your son.  We all swore ourselves to secrecy, and the next day Prince Hlod slew your wife, fratricidally.  When we were forced to evacuate your city, I tried to convince Brother Gregory and General Ygg that the baby was my great-grandson and that I should protect him for you, but understandably, they did not believe this, seeing me as an opportunist seeking influence over your child.  Had I publicly acknowledged you as my grandson when I first believed you to be such, my motives wouldn’t have been suspect.”

“But where is my son now?” Erik stammered.

“Let me finish,” King Olmar said, looking away from Erik in great anguish.  “I was going to take your son, but the dwarf, Durin, and Brother Gregory took off with him, with intentions of returning him to you via the Nor’Way.  Brother Gregory has not been seen since, and General Ygg has learned that he was lost at sea making the Nor’Way crossing.  I fear your son has perished,” King Olmar cried, “and it is as much my fault as anyone’s.”  The old man broke down, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Grandfather,” Erik said.  “You cannot blame yourself.  I shall find my son.  He may yet be alive.”

King Olmar pulled Erik to his breast.  “Do not make the mistake I made,” he whispered hoarsely, “and hope beyond hope that your child still lives.”

“I must learn the truth,” Erik cried, pushing himself away from the old man.  “And I cannot do so from Gardariki.  You must rule over Tmutorokan for me!”

“If you wish, take Novgorod.  The land is too cold and harsh for an old king like me.  From there you may search but promise me you shall accept whatever truths you find.”

“I accept your offer and your terms,” Erik said, and the two men hugged each other warmly as grandfather and grandson.

Erik became the ruler of Novgorod, and he sent out ships and search parties into Biarmia and the Nor’Way.  He learned that, indeed, Brother Gregory had taken a baby with him and attempted a Nor’Way crossing, but all hands had been lost at sea.  King Roller, in turn, checked with relatives in Norway, but none reported receiving the infant son of Gunwar, so Erik kept the terms of his agreement with King Olmar and devoted himself to re-establishing the Southern Way.

While Prince Erik was searching the north for his son, he returned to Hraegunarstead in Stavanger Fjord and he visited with Jarl Brak and Princess Aslaug, his stepmother Kraka, and he told them what King Olmar had learned of Erik’s mother Boddi, and Kraka realized that Erik was the son of her younger half-sister, Princess Bryn.

Prince Erik made many trading expeditions with his Hraes’ Trading Company and visited King Frodi in Kiev, and King Olmar in Tmutorokan.  Prince Arngrim and Princess Eyfura came to live with Prince Erik in Novgorod, from where Arngrim ruled his northern lands, and Eyfura bore Arngrim many sons, with whom Erik consoled himself.

POSTSCRIPT

POSTSCRIPT:  AMLETH — THE ORIGINS OF HAMLET

“Such great good fortune stung Feng with jealousy,

so that he resolved treacherously to waylay his brother,

thus, showing that goodness is not safe even from those

of a man’s own house.  And behold, when a chance came to

murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of

his soul.  Then he took the wife of the brother he had

butchered, capping unnatural murder with incest.”

“Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd

a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him.  So he chose

to feign dullness and pretend an utter lack of wits.”

Amleth; Saxo Grammaticus.

When Erik ‘Bragi’ Boddason Ragnarson returned to Novgorod, for he had been there once before, the town, situated on a marshy island at the mouth of the Volkov River, was no more than a trading station.  He had known the place as Holmgard when the Danish army had taken refuge there during the First Khazar War, and the population of the place seemed very sparse now in comparison.  Gardariki had once been just an open meadow surrounded by hills and Erik had built a fortress around the crests of those hills and a town had grown inside it.  Novgorod would need no such walls, being nestled within the secure expanse of the Volkov, so Erik set about having erected longhalls and warehouses and places of worship for both Odin and Perun.  No Christian church graced the grounds of Novgorod and the fact saddened Erik.  The building of the town spun him back through the years and he had never missed Gunwar more.  Sometimes he could feel her presence as though she walked through the constructions with him and he would change a building here or locate a bath house there because he knew it would have been her suggestion.  And always he would think about his missing son, but reports would come back from his emissaries and traders that no sign of the boy could be found.  So Erik put his efforts into the building of his town and was consoled in the sons of Princess Eyfura and Prince Arngrim, who had agreed to rule his northern lands from there.

“Tell us a story,” Angantyr asked Erik one night before the hearth of the high seat hall.  He was the eldest of the twelve sons of Eyfura.

“I shall recite you a poem of the ancients,” Erik replied.

“But, we’ve heard all the poems of the ancients,” he complained, and the agreement of eleven brothers could be heard in the background.

Erik looked towards Eyfura as she sat on the floor before the hearth with her youngest in her lap and he saw shades of both Gunwar and Alfhild in her.  “But, I’m a poet,” Erik responded.  “Stories are for the tellers of tall tales.”

“We want something new!” another Angantyr demanded, for the first three sons of Eyfura were named after their grandfather, King Frodi, denoting their common birth.

“A new story!” chimed in the third.

Erik looked over at Eyfura once more and her eyes pleaded, just as Gunwar’s would have done.  The Bragning Prince stared into the fire and the flames took him back into the past and he could have sworn he saw Gardariki burning.  “There was once a Danish Prince,” he began, “whose name was Amleth…”

THE END

OF

BOOK TWO

THE SAGA OF ERIK ’BRAGI’ RAGNARSON

SEE ATTACHED APPENDIXES FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

To be Continued in

Coming Soon:  BOOK THREE  –  THE SAGA OF HELGI ‘ARROW ODD’ ERIKSON

APPENDIX A:  THE SAGA OF ERIK ‘BRAGI’; GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Abbasid Caliphate–Arab dynasty that overthrew Ommayad dynasty in 750 A.D.

Aesir–group of northern gods of the Scandinavian pagan religion, including Odin, Tyr and Thor, in constant conflict with the Vanir, southern gods.

aett–the extended family, including those predeceased and those members yet to be.

althing–annual meeting, during pagan times, in which law was practiced and elections held.

Aurvandil–Thor carried him out of Giantland in a basket, but Aurvandil’s exposed toe froze, so Thor broke it off and threw it up into the sky, where it became a star.

arvel–funeral feast;  also, possibly arval.

atheling–warrior or noble.

At-Khazars–White Khazars, a tribe of the Khazar Empire of possible Roman origins, their leaders said to be Porphyrogeniti, born of the purple, a bloodline of the Roman Caesars. They were Jewish in religion and may have finally settled in Poland.

Balder–Aesir god; son of Odin.

bane–death.

banesman–slayer; ie: Hundingsbane = Hunding’s slayer.

barrow–burial mound; also, howe.

berserk–warrior capable of attaining a manic fury in battle in which he is impervious to weapons but is overcome with weakness once the fit is through;  also, berserker, shape-changer.

Biarmians–Finno-Ugric tribe of Northern Asia.

bireme–ship having two banks of oars each side.

bragarful–celebration filled with lively speech and brave boasts.

Bragi–Aesir god of poetry; also name of first Scandinavian poet; may also signify one eloquent in speech.

brand–sword; also, blood snake.

Branliv–Slavic byname meaning quarrelsome; possibly eloquent in speech.

buckler–shield; also, targe, leaf of leafy-land(sea).

Bulgars–Turkic tribe that migrated from western China to the Volga River with a second group moving on to Bulgaria; also, Volga Bulgars.

bulwarks–the side strakes of a ship; also, gunwales.

Burtas–Turkic tribe of the middle Volga River.

byrnie–coat of mail armour.

Byzant–gold coin of the Roman Empire.

Byzantine Empire–formed of the Eastern Roman Empire, following the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., by mostly Greek citizens.  Fell to the Turks in 1453 A.D.

carl–freeman.

Disertus–byname of Erik in Saxo’s Fifth Book of Danish History, Latin for eloquent in speech.

disir–female guardian spirits.

drapa–Norse poem of twenty stanzas.

Dregovichi–Slav people of the upper Dnieper River.

Drevjane–Slav people of the middle Dnieper river.

etin–giant.

Fafnir–dragon who guarded the Rhinegold treasure; slain by Sigurd the Volsung.

fane–temple.

fell–mountain.

fey–doomed to die.

fleer–to mock or make fun of.

flygting–argumentive or abusive poetry.

Freya–Vanir goddess of fertility.

Freyr–Vanir god of fertility.

Fridleif–early king of Denmark; King Frodi III’s father.

Frigg–Aesir goddess; wife of Odin.

Frodi III–legendary king of Denmark; conqueror of Russia, according to Saxo.

fylgja–female spirit that accompanies each person.

ginungagap–the great abyss into which everything was created.

Greek fire–an incendiary mixture of petroleum spirits and chemicals that bursts into flame, possibly on contact with air.  A secret weapon of the Byzantines.

Ghuzz Turks–Turkic tribe found between the Aral and Caspian Seas.

hamingja–fortune or luck.

Havamal–poem telling the words of the high one (Odin);  Possibly written by Bragi the Old.

holmgangr–island duel.

howe–burial mound.

Huns–Turkic tribe migrated from Western China into Europe(c.370 A.D.), attacking the Gothic Empire of Eormanrik and threatening the Roman Empire.  Their leader, Attila, was poisoned by the Roman Emperor and the Huns moved on to Gaul. They were defeated at Chalons(451 A.D.) and retired back into Asia, apparently joining the Khazar Empire and settling north of the Caucasus Mountains.

Hymir–sea giant with whom Thor fished for the Midgard serpent.

Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad–Arab geographer and diplomat of the tenth century who recorded a trip up the Volga in which he met Varangian settlers.

Iconoclast–anyone against the veneration of religious pictures or icons.

Kara-Khazars–Black Khazars of the Khazar Empire.

kenning–metaphor or metaphorical rhyme.

Krivichi–Slav people of the upper Moskva River.

Kufa–silver coin of the Arab Caliphate.

Kvasir–god who invented mead.

Loki–Aesir god of mischief.

Magyars–Turkic tribe migrated from Western China to present day Hungary circa 830 to 890 A.D.; also, Turkoi; members of the Khazar Empire.

mead–alcoholic drink made from fermented honey.

mead-words–poetry.

Midgard Serpent(Worm)–snake that encircles the world, deep within the sea.

monoxyla–dugout bottomed ship with built-up side strakes.

ness–headland or promontory.

nith-song–curse casting or derogatory poem.

norns–three female spirits representing the past, present and future, and controlling the fates of men.

Odin–chief god of the Aesir; god of hosts and battle.

Onogur–Turkic tribe of the Khazar Empire.

Permians–Finno-Ugric tribe of Northern Asia.

Poljane–Slav people of the middle Dnieper River.

pyre–bonfire used to cremate the dead.

Raes, Hraes–theoretical nickname of Erik Bragi, from which the names Rus and Rhos may have been derived.

Radimichi–Slav people between the Dnieper and Desna Rivers.

Ragnar Lothbrok–early king of the Danes who slew a dragon in the east; his sons attacked England.

Ragnarsdrapa–ninth century poem by Bragi Boddason dedicated to Ragnar Lothbrok (or possibly Ragnar Sigurdson?).

Regin–blacksmith who helped Sigurd attack Fafnir.

ran–large Scandinavian house.

Rhinegold hoard–treasure robbed from the dragon Fafnir by Sigurd, who slew the dragon on the advice of Regin.  It is an eastern tale with a possible Black Sea locale, but the name of the treasure is, oddly, Germanic.

Rhos–early Greek name for Norsemen and Slavs of Russia.

ring-giver–king or prince.

runes–alphabetic characters of early Germanic writing.

Rus or Rus’–early Slavic name of Norsemen, from which is derived the names Ruthenians and Russians.

sark–shirt or kirtle.

Saxo-Grammaticus–Danish historian of the twelfth century who wrote The First Nine Books of Danish History aka Gesta Danorum; Erik’s Saga Bragi is based primarily on the fifth book about King Frodi III and Erik Disertus.  Books three and four of his History also contain the tale of Amleth, the earliest form of Hamlet.

Scald or skald–poet; also, thul.

scorn pole–pole carved with runes and topped with the head or skull of a horse meant to cast a curse.

shaman–priest or mystic of Shamanism, the spiritual religion of Northeast Asia and native America.

Sigurd the Volsung–slayer of Fafnir the Dragon for which he won the Rhinegold treasure.

Skaldskaparmal–Snorri Sturluson’s `Words of the Skalds’, a collection of ancient poems demonstrating kennings; second half of the Prose Edda.

skerries–reefs or sandbars.

Snorri Sturluson–twelfth Century Icelandic author of the Prose Edda and possibly Egil’s Saga.

sound–marine passage connecting two bodies of water.

Sovar–Turkic tribe of the Khazar Empire.

strait–narrow passage between two bodies of water.

strake–a row of planks running the length and forming the sides of a ship.

strand–seashore or sandbar off a coast.

thing–assembly (see althing).

Thor–Aesir god of thunder; possible son of Odin.

thrall–slave.

trireme–ship having three banks of oars on each side.

troll–giant; also, etin.

Tyr–Aesir god of justice.

valkyries–handmaidens of Odin who selected those to die in battle. Also, may have been women who fought in early Germanic battles or worked behind the battle lines slaying the wounded enemy.

Valhall–dwelling place of Odin, where those slain in battle are rewarded.

Vanir–southern gods in constant conflict with the northern Aesir.

Varangians–early Greek and Slavic name for Norsemen in Russia.  May have been derived from varanger, possibly meaning way-ranger or way-wanderer.

Viatichi–Slav people of the upper Don River.

Vik–bay area of present-day Oslo.

Vikar–legendary Norwegian king who was sacrificed to Odin by the warrior giant Starkad.

wain–wagon.

Wends–a main branch of the Slavic peoples; also Poles.

withy–plaited willow twigs used as rope.

worm–dragon or snake.

Ygg–nickname of Odin.

APPENDIX B:  MAP OF EASTERN EUROPE OF THE NINTH CENTURY

SEE BOOK ONE FOR THE MAP. THIS WEBPAGE HAS EXCEEDED ITS LIMIT.

APPENDIX C:  THE ORIGINS OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF THE HRAES

The Origins of Hamlet

Prince of the Hraes’

Brian Howard Seibert

English 309

Dr. T. Bishop

1982

The Origins of Hamlet, Prince of the Hraes’

            Shakespeare’s audiences in the Globe Theatre may have had somewhat different understandings of Hamlet’s claim, “I know a hawk from a handsaw”.  

The nobles watching from box seats and balconies must have wondered at the disparity between comparative nouns.   Sanity would dictate “knowing a hawk from a sparrow” or “knowing a hammer from a handsaw” but knowing a “hawk from a handsaw” only perpetuated the Danish Prince’s madness from their perspective.  The truant workers in the commoners’ pit, on the other hand, heard the statement as “I know a brick hawk from a handsaw”, and the comparative nouns were quite similar. The mason and the dauber perhaps exchanged knowing winks as they gazed upward at the baffled nobility and they loved their dear William for his jest.

            When William Shakespeare wrote his play, “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”, little did he know the thing would send literary researchers on an odyssey across Europe and history to trace its origins.1  The root of the work has had its founding strokes traced to Ireland, to Sweden and amazingly, yet convincingly, to the early Roman Empire.  And in all cases Hamlet’s social stature has remained quite princely.  But who exactly was this person, this prince, this Hamlet?

            Evidence has unfortunately thinned under the heavy rolls of time, and we may never truly learn just who this princely protagonist really was, but in order to find the origins of our youthful hero we must first turn back the pages of time and expose the history and the theories behind the play, the thing that is “Hamlet”.

“Hamlet” was registered in London on July 26, 1602 and there are three substantially different versions of the play extant.  The First Quarto (Bad Quarto) of 1603 is the earliest known printing.  This crude, possibly pirated form of the play was apparently lost and not rediscovered until 1823.  The Second Quarto, (Good Quarto) of 1604 is a larger and more eloquent version of the play. In 1623 two associates of Shakespeare, John Heminge and Henry Condell compiled a collection of his plays and had them printed in what is now known as the First Folio.3  There were further quartos and folios printed, but the modern play “Hamlet” is extracted from these three works.

            The 1604 version of Hamlet begins with the haunting scene of the ghost of Hamlet’s father telling Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius.  We then learn that Claudius has married the Queen; Hamlet’s mother and usurped the throne and it becomes apparent that Hamlet has survived in the court of his uncle by pretending to be mad and by playing the fool. The young prince’s insanity is put to the test by beautiful Ophelia, but the young woman’s wiles do not uncover Hamlet’s deceit and lead to his famous harangue “To be, or not to be…”.

            While Claudius tests Hamlet, the prince confirms the guilt of the king with a play he calls ‘The Mousetrap.  A further test of Hamlet’s wits is taken up by

Polonius, a courtier of Claudius, who hides behind an arras in Queen Gertrude’s chambers hoping to overhear Hamlet plotting with his mother.  Hamlet stabs him to death through the tapestry then chastises his mother for her involvement with the usurper.

            Following the death of Polonius, King Claudius sends Hamlet to England with the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They bear a note instructing the English king to execute Hamlet, however, through Hamlet’s cunning, the instructions are changed and, it is the courtiers that are buried in Britain.  Hamlet returns to Denmark to find burial preparations being made for Ophelia and it is in the graveyard during preparation that Hamlet clasps the skull of his former jester and cries “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…”  Soon after, a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, leads to the tragic death of all.  In themselves alone, the three plays, the First and Second Quartos and the First Folio form sufficiently controversial sources for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, however, they are far from being the original source of the thing.  Literary and critical references of the Elizabethan period indicate that an “Ur-Hamlet” play had been produced well before Shakespeare’s play was performed in 1596.

            The “Ur-Hamlet” is documented, by Phillip Henslowe as having played in 1594.  The play may have been performed as early as 1589, the year when Thomas Nashe criticized both Thomas Kyd and a play called “Hamlet”.  Thomas Kyd is a prime candidate as being the playwright of the “Ur-Hamlet” due to Nashe’s famous critique and a previous play of his, “The Spanish Tragedy”, which also had vengeance and madness themes.  It is also known that Kyd was well versed in the French language, a valuable asset indeed when the next link to the origin of “Hamlet” is Francois DeBelleforest’s “Histoires Tragiques”.4

            In the decade of 1560, Francois DeBelleforest, a minor French author, was commissioned to produce a French translation of Matteo Bandello’s “Latin Romances”.  He apparently deemed it advisable to include translations of other works, including those of Krantz, Johanne Magnus, and Saxo Grammaticus.

DeBelleforest’s work was printed in Paris in 1582 and Volume V contained Saxo

Grammaticus’ “Tale of Amleth”, a minor Prince of Denmark.5

Cleric Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-c. 1220) entered the service of Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, in 1180 and, upon the latter’s request, began compiling and writing his “Gesta Danorum” or “Historica Danica”, chronicling the early Danish heroic legends.  Originally, he had intended to write on Danish history from the time of Svend Estridson (d.1076), but later he added the histories of earlier times. His history is written in a polished Latin, similar in style to Valerius Maximus and Martianus Capella, upon whom he may have modeled his works, and consists of sixteen books, the first nine of which tell tales of the early kings and warriors of Denmark.  His story of Amleth is about the life and times of a legendary warrior-prince so named and falls at the end of Book Three and the beginning of Book Four of “Historica Danica”.  It is most certainly the direct source of the play “Hamlet”.6

            The story of Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth runs thus: Horwendil and Feng are brothers appointed by King Rorik of Denmark to govern Jutland.  Horwendil holds the monarchy for three years but decides to seek adventure in piracy. While out a viking, Horwendil acquires a fierce and profitable reputation culminating in his slaying of King Koll of Norway in personal combat.  In three successful years of roving Horwendil accumulates great wealth, much of which he turns over to King Rorik, who, in return, proffers the hand of his daughter, Gerutha.  Horwendil and Gerutha are married and blessed with a son, Amleth.

            Horwendil’s brother, Feng, is possessed with jealousy over Horwendil’s good fortune and plots a treacherous usurpation.  He has coerced and corrupted the king’s royal court while Horwendil was off roving and employs their assistance when he murders their king.  Feng then gains favour with King Rorik when he claims he slew Horwendil in defence of Gerutha’s life and Horwendil’s royal court bears false witness against their former king.  Feng then forces Queen Gerutha into an incestuous marriage that gives him both the kingship and control over the former wife of Horwendil and her son.

            Amleth, knowing the full scope of Feng’s treachery, feigns madness to conceal his intelligence, thereby ensuring his own safety while preparing for his revenge.  But Feng and his corrupt court are not convinced that Amleth is totally lacking of wits and they devise tests whereby to judge his sanity.  Amleth is forewarned of this plot by his foster brother and plays the part of the fool most perfectly.  A young woman was to tempt him into throwing off the cover of buffoonery in exchange for pleasures, but Amleth rides his horse backwards, pretending not to see her standing alone on the path, and uses various ruses to divest the girl of her pleasures while yet, himself, remaining unexposed.

            ‘Again, as he passed along the beach, his companions found the

            rudder of a ship which had been wrecked, and said they discovered

            a huge knife. “This”, said he, “was the right thing to carve such a

            huge ham” by which he really meant the sea, to whose infinitude,

            he thought, this enormous rudder matched. Also, as they passed

            the sandhiIls, and bade him look at the meal, meaning the sand, he

            replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempest of the

            ocean.’7a

Thus, the court’s plan was thwarted, and Feng became convinced of Amleth’s ineptitude.

            A courtier of Feng’s was not yet fully convinced and so devises and has approved a further check of Amleth’s wit.  While Feng is journeying, his courtier hides in Gerutha’s bedchamber hoping to uncover Amleth’s ruse if he should converse sensibly with his mother.  Amleth discovers the eavesdropper while searching his mother’s bedchamber, for he trusted no one, and dispatches the spy.  Then, sword in hand, he apportions the corpse to the swine.  Upon his return to Gerutha’s bedchamber, he begins to admonish his mother for disloyalty to his dead father.  He then learns that his mother, also, is a prisoner in her own kingdom.

            When Feng returns and learns that his man has died, he realizes that Amleth is dangerous and plots to have him slain without offending Gerutha or her father, the fearsome King Rorik.  Feng sends Amleth and two escorts to England with a sealed message for its king.  The message instructs the English king to slay Amleth, but our young prince, discovering the intent of the message, alters the contents, instructing the king to slay the escorts instead and to offer Amleth his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Thus, once more he attempts to thwart Feng.

            ‘But the king was suspicious of the message and, sparing the envoys,

            invites all to a banquet in their honour.  Amleth declines to attend the

            banquet and later, when the envoys question him as to why he had

            abstained, he answered that the bread was flecked with blood and tainted;

            that there was a tang of iron in the liquor; while the meats of the feast

            reeked of the stench of a human carcase, and were infected by a kind

            of smack of the odour of the charnel.  He further said that the king had

            the eyes of a slave, and that the queen had in three ways shown the

            behaviour of a bondmaid.’7b

            The king learned of this through a spy he had stationed outside the guests’ chamber and decides to investigate the weight of the words of Amleth before reacting to them.  He discovers that the bread was made from grain grown on an old battlefield and of lard from hogs that had eaten of the corpse of a robber, thereby gaining the hint of blood and taint; the liquor had been brewed with water from a spring in which sat several rusty swords, thereby gaining the tang of iron (although Saxo states that others relate that Amleth knew the liquor to be sweetened with honey from bees that had fed in the paunch of a dead man); and the king, himself, learns he was the son of a slave, for his mother, when pressed, admits to infidelity towards his father.

            The king was so impressed with Amleth’s intuitive powers that, suspicious or not, he gives Amleth his daughter’s hand and has the envoys executed.

            Amleth feigned grief at the death of his comrades, so the king gives him gold as a form of compensation.  This gold Amleth melts and pours into two sticks of wood hollowed out for this purpose.  He passes a year in England with his wife then expresses a desire to visit his home.

            He returns to Jutland alone, bearing only the gold filled sticks, and arrives just in time to interrupt his own funeral banquet.  Dishevelled and dirty and once more doltish, he stands amongst his enemies, the corrupt court and their usurping king, who are only temporarily shocked.  They ask him where his two comrades are, and he raises his hand and replies that the sticks are they.  The court was once more convinced of Amleth’s foolishness and resumes banqueting while our young prince makes busy plying them with liquor and, when they are drunk and sleeping, he binds them in netting fastened tight by crooks and sets the palace aflame with the courtiers in it.  He then slays his uncle, Feng, with the usurper’s own sword.  (End of Book Three, “Gesta Danorum”.)

            Following the slaughter of the nobles, Amleth aroused the support of the

Danes through a lengthy harangue, bringing some to compassion and yet others to tears and through general acclaim was pronounced their new king.  Amleth had three ships and choice warriors and a magnificent shield all prepared for a triumphant return to England, and the shield he had decorated with a mural telling the full story of his victory, through courage and cunning, over the usurper.

            The English king received them with much pomp and ceremony but was greatly perplexed when he learned that Amleth had slain Feng, for he had long ago made a mutual revenge pact with the old usurper, and now realized that his son-in-law must suffer the consequences of a contract which had now matured. The king, however, did not want Amleth’s blood upon his hands, so he concocted a scheme by which to fulfil his contractual obligation.  He knew of a fierce Scottish