Circa 866 AD
Over the summer, news filtered into Gardar, the Land of Forts, the Land of the Hraes’, that the grandsons of King Frodi the Peaceful, Ruler of Kiev, the twelve berserker sons of Jarl Arngrim and Princess Eyfura were dead and buried on Samsoe Island in Denmark. And it was Arrow Odd who had killed them. The raider who had killed five berserker champions of Frodi in Zealand had now killed twelve berserker grandsons on Samsey. King Frodi sent out envoys to Hraerik Bragi in Gardariki, to King Olmar in Tmutorokan and to Jarl Arngrim in Novgorod. An army was to be assembled to venture north and avenge the deaths of the berserker brothers.
“King Frodi has raised a host to attack us,” King Hraelauger told Oddi. “He wants your head.”
“The berserker sons of Arngrim were after my head when I fought them on Samsey. And it cost Hjalmar the Brave his life,” Oddi complained. “I should flee.”
“He will pursue you to the ends of the earth,” the king warned him. “You must go to King Hlodver and get whatever force he can muster. I shall raise a force to support you, but no king can help you openly. We are all under the rule of King Frodi. You must take your fleet and your forces to Britain and to your King Skolli there. We shall face Frodi in Angleland. His host is vast and we have no way of beating him, so we must wear him down, we must retreat up through the Jute Lands, the Danelaw, Northumbria and on up through Scotland, where our fleet will be waiting, then we’ll go to Ireland and, if need be, New Ireland. There was a reason I sent you on that mission to find the western lands.”
Oddi thought at that moment that King Hraelauger must be the most fortuitous king he had ever met. So, he left immediately for Sweden to garner King Hlodver’s support.
“Do you know that at that moment he thought you were the wisest king in the world,” Gunwar said as she joined Hraelauger in bed. He hadn’t seen her spirit for months. Then after Samsey, when Frodi sent envoys out proclaiming Arrow Odd an outlaw, she came to him again, pleading for the life of her son. But she needn’t have, for Hraelauger knew, after he’d learned of Heid’s prophesy, that Oddi was his nephew, the son of his brother, Hraerik Bragi, Kagan-Bek of Tmutorokan. He would have a lot of explaining to do when he met his brother in Valhall he thought, as he pulled Hraerik’s naked wife closer.
For the second time in his life, Hraerik received the war arrow, this time in Tmutorokan. He was going to the hall of the Alchemists’ Guild when King Frodi’s envoy passed him the blackened arrow. After he had received his first war arrow as a youth, it became he who sent out the war arrows during his tenure as leader of the Hraes’ and now, decades later, he was receiving his second. “Tell your king I shall meet him with my fleet at the Thames Estuary, for it is said that Oddi and his raiders have conquered that land, so that is where we must start our search. I shall take the Nor’Way in case they try to escape.”
When Hraerik entered the hall of the Alchemists Guild he took a small red Coptic style book out of his shirt and he joined eleven other Prophets and Alchemists that knelt in a circle and he opened his book and began to chant with them. There were Mages from Baghdad and Jerusalem, China and India, Sheba and West Africa and one from the Nor’Way. They squatted on their knees in their wide circle of twelve and they chanted for hours, reading from their ancient texts, all different, yet so much the same, and soon Hraerik felt a presence in the room, an ancient being in the room behind him and a future being ahead of him, just beyond the ring of Mages. There was a problem. Something that had worked before no longer worked as it once had – the science was flawed or changing. Hraerik realized he was only a messenger. Zarathustra, the original prophet of the book, the first prophet of the one true god had a problem and the answer could only be found in the future, so far in the future that an intermediary had to be found to communicate through and Hraerik had shown promise of being just such a Mage. The problem was in the primary Arc itself, and its ability to generate power. The secondary or receptor Arc worked fine, but the primary would not provide enough power for the receptor Arc to do its job quickly and a new application had arisen for which it was not suitable at all. Hraerik had no idea what was being discussed, or even the language it was being discussed in. It was images and ideas, nothing verbal. A great oaken chest filled with plumbium plates and fruity acids and copper and silver rods both rigid and flexible. The science had worked for centuries, but now it would not. Physics was changing as the three dimensional world was changing and Hraerik could understand this part…he had seen it before; when he was in Kraka’s coma for nine days, he had seen the universe form from a singularity to a linear existence then to a planar form and into a three dimensional world that was evolving still and what had worked before no longer did. And concepts and terms such as batteries and capacitors were being bandied about, through and sometimes around Hraerik, and some things he could follow and others he could not fathom, but the future being that stood in front of him fully understood it all, like Hraerik understood steel, and the ancient being behind him was an apprentice who knew much of it and could guess at the rest. Silver plates and posts replaced lead, and acids were replaced with oils, and static generators of fur and cloth charged up the Arc and it became a power storage device rather than a generator and its output increased exponentially. Zarathustra was satisfied. History would be kept on track. Hraerik wasn’t sure what was meant by that, but he knew the messaging was over.
King Frodi assembled his fleet on the Dnieper at Kiev and he led it north up the Danepar. He took his troops from the homeland of the Poljane to the land of the Drevjane and through the forests of the Radimichi and they portaged across to a tributary of the Dvina River and entered the land of the Sclavs. They rowed and sailed north up the Dvina until they entered the Baltic Sea. They sailed west across the Baltic until they reached Zealand and entered Liere to replenish supplies and bolster their forces. The Danes then sailed north around Jutland and entered the Anglish Sea and headed for the Thames Estuary and waited for Prince Hraerik and his forces.
King Hraelauger and Oddi had led their force of Swedes, Goths and Norwegians north to London, where they joined up with the army of King Skolli. Their fleet they had sent north via the Irish Sea to Scotland to await their retreat. King Frodi, Great Kagan of the Hraes’, was growing tired of waiting for Kagan-Bek Hraerik and his forces at the Thames Estuary and was about to lead his vast array west when half of Prince Hraerik’s forces finally arrived and Hraes’ army fought the rebels on a plain in Cantia. King Hraelauger fought beside Arrow Odd and King Skolli, wearing his ancient Vanir armour all painted black. It had a heavy fully enclosed iron helmet that covered his head, with but a T-slit to provide for sight and breath, a massive black iron breast plate that protruded from under his dark cloak, studded and banded black leather leggings and sleeves that covered his limbs and heavy boots and iron banded gloves that completed the armour.
The rebels fought a retreating skirmish all day and were joined in the late afternoon by the King of Wessex and his Saxon forces. Under cover of darkness, they retreated through London and awaited the vast army on the plains of Mercia. It took several days for the supply trains to set up transport lines and fortifications, so Oddi’s men had time to rest and recover. King Hraelauger was gauging the difference in mobility of the two forces, so, when they engaged again on the Peterborough plains, it was another retreating skirmish designed to maximize Hraes’ and Danish loses while minimizing rebel casualties. King Hraelauger was planning to retreat to York and a bit of revenge, but he had to make sure they would have time, so he sent out cavalry forces to harass King Frodi’s supply lines. The Danes had learned much from the Huns about setting up supply lines and handling hosts, but the Norwegians had learned much about destroying them. King Frodi hunkered down in London while forts were established to protect supply routes.
King Hraelauger set up fortifications on a plain north of London and made it seem they were awaiting the Danes, but one night the rebels slipped away from their Saxon allies and began a forced march to York. There, Hraelauger met up with his brother, Hraerik and said, “Gudmund Grimson showed up a day ago and Oddi took off to the Nor’Way with him. He said the Danes were destroying the countryside.”
“I just passed through there and I saw no Danes,” Hraerik said, “but they’d be coming from the south.”
Prince Hraerik had with him half of his Tmutorokan cavalry forces, two thousand Roman knights or cataphracts, half a legion of death on hooves. They were placed on either side of five thousand Swedish, Norwegian and Anglish foot soldiers in a rushed attack upon King AElla and they crushed his Northumbrian foot soldiers on a plain north of York. The Anglish King was captured, and his two sons died on that plain. The Hraes’ army marched into York unopposed and captured the king’s daughter, Blaeja. Hraelauger and Prince Hraerik inflicted the death of the blood eagle upon the Anglish king. But the king’s daughter was another matter. She had to at least be plundered, but by whom? “I may have to convert to Christianity soon,” King Hraelauger explained, “and I don’t need plundering added to my long list of sins to confess to.”
“Well, I’m an Alchemist,” Prince Hraerik expounded, “and such things are frowned upon in Majestic circles.”
“Oddi!” they both said in unison, and they decided to wait for the return of Arrow Odd.
Oddi had been intercepted on the plains of Umbria by his foster-brother Gudmund and had been asked to join in on the defence of the Nor’Way. The two Hraegunarsons thought it wiser to lead King Frodi’s main army away from Norway on a wild goose chase while the Norwegians fended for themselves, but when Gudmund told Oddi that it was Ogmund Eythjofsbane Tussock that was leading a Kievan Hraes’ army up the coast of the Nor’Way, Oddi pleaded with them to be allowed to help. Grim Hairy-Cheek and the men of Hrafnista were already on a plain north of Trondheim. The shield-maiden Stikla brought her forces from Stiklestad there too, as did many other northern chieftains.
King Frodi’s foremost man, Ogmund Eythjofsbane, approached from the south with his Kievan Hraes’ army, which he had bolstered with many Norwegian chieftains that were covetous of King Hraelauger’s wealth and title, the youngest of whom was Harald Finehair from Vestfold, just outside of the Vik Fjord. While King Frodi had been occupied raising troops in Denmark, Ogmund had sallied forth with an army and had plundered the Vik, enlisting the aid of Chieftain Harald with promises of his becoming the first Norse king to rule all of Norway. Once they had completely pillaged the Vik, Ogmund and Harald worked their way west and then north up the coast of the Nor’Way. While they were occupied plundering Trondheim, Grim and Stikla were marking out their field of battle with hazel poles. Grim placed his men on high ground on the north side of a valley so his men would find it more exerting to retreat back uphill than to sally forth downhill and when Ogmund’s larger army confidently came against the smaller but more determined Norse army, they could gain no ground, and as the battle drew on, their greater exertions began to wear on them as though they were swimmers stroking upriver against others swimming down. It became a battle of attrition, with casualties piling up behind the shield walls of both sides. By midday, both armies had lost half their men and that is when Arrow Odd arrived with his force of Norse, Anglish and Irish troops. Ogmund paled as he watched his nemesis charging down the northern slope at the head of a small fresh army. When the Norse shield wall parted to let Oddi and his men charge through, the impact of the fresh northern shields crashing into the southern battered bucklers could be heard across the entire battlefield and it was as if the ground quaked as that section of wall was driven back a staggering number of paces. Ogmund knew he could not afford a battle of attrition against Arrow Odd. He had seen whole ships full of his men fight to their deaths against Odd’s warriors only to come up with a draw. He could not spend the rest of the day watching his remaining army slowly melt away. He had to have some sort of a force to bring to King Frodi in Britain, so they could fight their real enemy, King Hraelauger of Vik. So, he began the slow process of pulling back his troops in an orderly fashion and minimizing casualties, so it looked as if Arrow Odd and his men had completely turned the tide of battle. When night came and each side withdrew from the field, Ogmund and his forces retreated to their ships in Trondheim and the Hraes’ army sailed away for London, leaving Harald Fairhair and his Norse army to hold Trondelag. King Harald would later claim to be king of all Norway, but he would never lord over the Hrafnista men or Halogaland, the Nor’Way lands north of Trondheim.
Oddi knew he would have to get his men back to Northumbria, but they had a victory to celebrate that night, and the people of northern Norway voted to name their lands Halogaland after Arrow Odd’s true name, Helgi, meaning Holy. The next day, Oddi and his men sailed off for York.
After King AElla had been killed, word reached Prince Hraerik and King Hraelauger that the vast Danish army had come up against the lone Saxon army and the king of Wessex had immediately sought terms and sent gifts to King Frodi and offered the Danes banquets and feasts. The king of that island, perceiving that he was unequal in force , went to Frode, affecting to surrender, and not only began to flatter his greatness, but also promised to the Danes, the conquerors of nations, the submission of himself and of his country; proffering taxes, assessment, tribute, what they would. Finally, he gave them a hospitable invitation. Frode was pleased with the courtesy of the Briton, though his suspicions of treachery were kept by so ready and unconstrained a promise of everything, so speedy a surrender of the enemy before fighting; such offers being seldom made in good faith.
When Oddi reached Northumbria, he learned that York had been taken and King AElla and his sons were dead. Then he learned that the daughter of King AElla was to be plundered and that he had been drawn the short straw.
“I promised Hjalmar the Brave that I would never take a woman on my ship against her will,” Oddi said. “I yet honour the wishes of my fallen comrade.”
“It must be done,” the Prince explained.
“I will only do it if she willing joins me on Fair Faxi,” Oddi said.
Oddi then made a proposal to Princess Blaeja and she only had one question.
“Will it end the curse Hraegunar put on my family?”
Oddi got Prince Hraerik and King Hraelauger, the two sons of Hraegunar Lothbrok, to accept his proposal and also their assurances that the curse would be ended.
“I have been told by the sons of Hraegunar Lothbrok that the curse will be ended after you are plundered,” Oddi assured the princess.
“Good. Let’s get this over with then,” Princess Blaeja replied.
“I promised you and your family forever, all the land in Northumbrian that you can encompass with a hide, and this has been agreed to by the brothers,” Oddi explained. “So, we will cut this cowhide into fine strips and wrap it around the walls of York.” And Oddi and Blaeja and all her handmaidens got to work slicing the hide into silk-like threads until they wrapped it around the city walls. By evening, the city was hers again. Northumbria was still held by the brothers, but York would always be hers and her daughters, patriarchal inheritance being excepted. No sons of AElla would ever rule York, the sons of Hraegunar had stipulated.
That evening Arrow Odd invited Princess Blaeja aboard Fair Faxi and they dined under the awnings and then prepared to sleep together. Some would say that Oddi was too much of a gentleman to take advantage of the princess, but for a young Christian woman, she seemed very afraid of Hraegunar’s pagan curse, and she was ready to work very hard that night to ensure it was erased. She took Oddi over to the bed that had been placed by the mast and began undressing him.
“We don’t have to do this,” Oddi started, as Blaeja then began undressing herself.
“I would say from the look of you, that we do,” she responded, “or does your ship now sport two masts,” and she laughed gently, “ like the two masted Knarrs that King Hraegunar brought from Frankia?”
“Tell me more about Hraegunar. Do you know how he died?”, Oddi asked, pulling Blaeja onto the bed with him.
“I see we’re down to one mast again,” Blaeja said disappointedly. “My father made me watch it all. I’m a healer and he made me watch it all.”
“King Hraegunar told me that he wanted a most famous death, a warrior’s death,” and then Oddi asked, “did he get it?”
And Blaeja told him everything. She told him about the battle on the northern plain and about the capture and torture of Hraegunar. “I told my father not to torture him, but he tortured him and then made me heal him so he could torture him some more.”
She told him about Hraegunar’s final feast and about the death by poisoned blood-snakes.
“My father made me made me brew the poison that was slaked onto the swords and he made me attend the banquet even though I told him I was against everything he was planning to do. So, I mixed some pain medicine in with the poison, so the later cuts wouldn’t cause as much distress. When the feasting started, King Hraegunar was brought into the hall and chained to a tall post that had been set into the floor. I was surprised when my father had only the choicest cuts of the highseat spread served to Hraegunar, and only the finest wines. Everybody else was served mead, but he got wine. The servants all treated Hraegunar with the utmost respect and, although he remained chained, they brought him an armchair to sit upon and his trencher platter went from arm to arm, serving as a table.”
“It is fitting he got wine,” Oddi said. “King Hraegunar had marked himself with a spear and sacrificed himself to Odin and only Odin can drink wine in Valhall.”
“After the feasting, the servants took the chair away and stripped off King Hraegunar’s white silk shirt. Twelve nobles, selected by my father for their loyalty, were given the twelve swords and they circled around Hraegunar, who fiercely faced off against whoever he thought most likely to attack him, but the slash would invariably come from the rear or the side. After six cuts, it was easier for Hraegunar to face his opponents because he knew the six with bloodied swords would no longer be lashing out at him, but the poison was at work and I could see him starting to slow and by the ninth cut he was really slowing down. But then suddenly he looked refreshed and he would look off into the dark corners of the hall as though watching something and when a lash came from the rear he would sidestep it, even though there is no way he could see it.”
“He sees Valhall,” Oddi explained. “Valhall has a hundred doors and all would be closed to him while alive, but he is peering over the doors to see his relatives drinking mead and fighting in combats. In his heightened state, he can sense the blades coming for him.”
“Then King Hraegunar began reciting his verses:
If the porkers knew the pain of the old boar pig,
They would raze the snake-pit and free him of these adders.
And all the while that he was reciting them, the nobles would lash out at him from behind and he would effortlessly sidestep the strike. This effortlessness angered the nobles, so one would lash from behind and, when Hraegunar sidestepped it, another lord would slash him from the side. Now it wasn’t the poison affecting Hraegunar anymore, but rather, loss of blood. He didn’t even try to avoid the twelfth strike, although it would be the easiest to evade, coming from only one man. He just stood there with one hand over the other as though he was leaning all relaxed on the pommel of a sword, and the stroke came straight in and stabbed him in the abdomen and he fell forward and he died.”
“And those were Hraegunar’s exact words of this curse?” Oddi asked.
“Yes. My father wanted me to revive him, but it was too late,” Blaeja said, near tears, “he was already dead.”
“King Hraegunar’s curse is pitting swine against snakes,” Oddi warned, “and we all know how that ends.”
“I know,” Blaeja said. “I told my father we were focked. I’m so angry with him.”
“Don’t be angry with him,” Oddi said, stroking her long auburn hair. “When I was a boy, I sailed the Mediterranean with King Hraegunar, and he told me that he had sacrificed himself to Odin, and that he wanted a most famous death, but that Odin didn’t seem inclined to give him one. I told him that Odin would give him a death that people would talk about for a thousand years. Your father just may have answered his prayers.”
“Do pagans pray?” she asked coyly.
“I’m praying to Odin right now,” Oddi said. “Dear Odin…pray teach me how to sail this two masted ship of mine.”
“Once again, Fair Faxi sports two masts,” she agreed. “Let’s see what I can do about that,” and she pushed Oddi back onto the bed.
Later, Princess Blaeja asked Oddi if the curse was now ended.
“I think it is,” he started, “but Hraegunar had a bit of Loki in him, so he might have a trick or two coming your way. I’ll check with his wife, Kraka. She’s a healer and knows a bit of witchcraft. She would know for sure.”
“Do you know a lot of healers?”
“In my line of work,” Oddi admitted, “you make it a point to know a lot of healers. I know a Princess Olvor in Ireland that is a healer, and her mother was a great healer and a seer.”
“My mother knew her mother,” Blaeja said, excitedly. “Do you know her well? I’d like to meet her.”
“We have a daughter, Hraegunhild, together in Ireland,” Oddi said. “Why would you want to meet her?”
“My mother was in the Alchemists’ medical guild. She knew Olvor’s mother and was always inviting her to join the guild. I thought perhaps to extend the offer to her daughter?”
“The Prince is an alchemist, Prince Hraerik is a member of the guild,” Oddi started.
“I know,” Princess Blaeja started. “He was telling King Hraelauger that he didn’t want to plunder me because he is quite high up in the Alchemists’ guild in Baghdad. And King Hraelauger told the Prince that he would soon be converting to Christianity, so he couldn’t plunder me.”
“They told me they drew lots while I was fighting in the Nor’Way and that I was drawn the short straw. Those sneaky royals, present company excepted, of course. I swore an oath to Hjalmar the Brave that I would not take women aboard my ship against their wishes and we fought slavers together and though he is dead, I still respect his oath.”
“Is that the Hjalmar the Brave that the skalds sing about dying on Samsey?”
“The very same,” Oddi said. “Do they sing about me as well?”
“Not a verse,” Blaeja chided. “But I see your mast is well above half now.”
Oddi took a quick peek out of the awnings. “The sun also rises,” he said and it was his turn to push her on the bed.
“Will you come again, come visit me?” the Princess asked. They could both hear York coming to life outside the ship’s awnings.
“I’ll come back when I find out more about the curse,” Oddi answered, getting dressed. “Today, I have to find some of your famous York boats, the bigger the better, twelve oared if possible. I’ll pay silver to anyone who has them. I need two or three for each of my ships. If I can stack ‘em and rack ‘em, that would be great.”
“My cousin sells York boats,” Princess Blaeja started, “but she’ll want the silver now.”
“That’s fine. I’ve got a silver kettle full of silver that I got from the giant, Hilder, right aboard Fair Faxi here,” and Oddi walked to the awninged rear of his ship, flipped open a covered half deck and scooped up a double handful of silver Kufas and let them pour back into the kettle from between his hands. “I guess it’s King Hilder now,” he added. “Or would this cousin of yours, would she prefer gold?” and he opened a chest and took up a handful of gold Byzants and let them slowly drop.
“Oh, I think she would prefer the gold,” Princess Blaeja said.
“Gold it is, but I need them today. Also, there will be a particularly nasty King Frodi coming this way in the next day or two, so if you have some place outside of York you can stay for a while…”
Princess Blaeja stroked her belly as she watched Oddi leave, then said, “Hraegunhild, I like that name.”
King Frodi was being feasted and entertained by the king of Wessex in Mercia, but it did not take long before the Saxon king was caught plotting to poison the banqueting King Frodi, and the Saxon army fled back to Wessex and locked themselves up in their fortress of Winchester. Soon the Danes were marching north through Umbria. King Hraelauger led his Norse cavalry forces into Scotland to join their fleet on the northern coast. Arrow Odd’s fleet sailed back down the Humber and set off to join King Hraelauger’s fleet in Scotland and Prince Hraerik’s fleet sailed south for London to meet up with Frodi’s fleet there.
“You must take your fleet west to Slabland,” Hraelauger told Oddi, “ and Prince Hraerik shall act out pursuing you. While you make good your escape, I shall try to draw King Frodi south past Ireland and all the way to Frankia. Prince Hraerik will convince King Frodi to go after me and he will go after you.”
King Skolli and Oddi prepared their Norse, Swedish and Anglish ships to make a run for the newfound lands, loading up their York boats, while King Hraelauger prepared his Norwegian fleet to lead the Kievan Hraes’ fleet south.
“You must take your fleet to Flanders,” Hraerik had told his brother. “Tell Bishop Prudentius, if he’s still alive, that Hraerik Bragi needs a favour in the protection of his brother. He still owes me a mark of silver for the protection of one of his flock. And take my Cataphracts with you and reclaim Rouen and all of father’s trading stations in northern Frankia. I’ll convince Frodi to go after you there while I go after Oddi in the west. Keep the Franks between you and King Frodi. I shall take my fleet west after Oddi’s fleet,” Prince Hraerik added, “and check out this newfound land he has discovered. Whatever you do, do not go back to the Vik. The Danes control it now. King Frodi has ordered the razing of Norway and shall give what is left of it to that upstart, Harald Fairhair. I learned of Frodi’s plans so I sent ships to take Kraka, Brak and all of our people to Frankia. They should already be at the Hraes’ Trading Company stations there.”
King Frodi had gone quite mad in the years following his killing of Queen Alfhild. The claw-marks she had ripped down his face often grew infected and inflamed and caused him to ofttimes wear a mask. He was an unforgiving task master ruling an empire that stretched from Angleland to Asia, that traded in fur and slaves, spices and silk, that counted its wealth not in tons of gold, but in tons of gold per trading season. King Frodi’s reign was a golden rule.