Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE BURNING OF THE HALL (Circa 933 AD)
When King Ivar went to the Hraes’ Trading Company treasury and checked the tithes for all the merchant ships and he matched payments collected against the value of goods shipped and he tallied up the sales of the young slaves in Baghdad, he soon came to the same conclusion that Princess Helga had reached. It was the most profitable year ever for the Hraes’ Trading Company. He collected up many chests of gold Byzants and many more silver Kufas, kissed his wife goodbye and set off north with his fleet of thousands of merchant ships. At Chernigov Ivar collected a share of supply profits then paid out a share of tithes and bonus profits to the Swedish station owners there, Princess Helga’s parents. He did the same at Smolensk and Surazh and sent men to handle Polotsk. Most of the merchant fleet carried on west along the Dvina River to the Baltic but, once again, Ivar took the northern leg on his way to Sweden and portaged his ships from Surazh to the Lovat River and collected gifts from Vadim the Brave of Staraja Russa and collected profits and paid out tithe shares and bonuses at Hraes’ stations in Novgorod and Staraja Ladoga before sailing along the Gulf of Finland and across the Baltic to the Hraes’ station in Birka and then to Uppsala in Sweden to visit with King Halfdan.
“I am getting back together with Helga,” he told Halfdan.
“I was expecting as much,” he replied.
“My father and I are planning to attack Constantinople again. I may your help.”
“I have many young warriors that would love nothing better than to prove themselves worthy in the south,” he said.
King Ivar then visited the Hraes’ stations in Gotland and Skane before heading to Liere to visit his wife, Queen Blaeja and his son Gorm. He then went on his Danish rounds to Hedeby and to Jutland before heading off to Norway to visit his wife, Lagertha, and his many children in Southmore. He took his son Frodi with him to visit Jarl Ane in Northmore and then Jarl Sigurd in Lade and he squared up business and bonuses with the Hraes’ stations from Northmore to Hrafnista.
King Ivar then sailed to Ireland and squared up with Princess Hrafnhild in Dublin and carried on to Waterford and shared out profits on the young Irish slaves with the Ui Imair there. He checked on the young slaves that they were continuing to buy up there as the famine wore on and he told them that their brother Sihtric would soon be ruling over York in Northumbria. He then sailed off to Rouen to share profits, tithes and bonuses with his cousin, William Rolloson before heading to York to finish up business with Princess Blaeja Senior and her Hraes’ station in York Castle. His first night there he raped Blaeja yet again, then headed off to Bamburg to see how Biorn was making out with the Angles there. He returned to York and he raped Princess Blaeja once more.
“I still enjoy plundering you from my room down the hall. And that reminds me…I have a new type of Khazar Vayar I’d like you to sample. It’s from a new species of Sturgeon we’ve found in the Don River. And I’ll be wintering in York again.”
Ivar had his men seat him at the table next to her bed and he sent them out to guard the room. Blaeja opened a bottle of Frankish wine while Ivar opened several jars of Kha Vayar and spread the roe out on wafers. “These have slightly different tastes, but I have brought ample stock of all of them, so you may select the types your station wishes to offer to its nobility.”
“You bruised my lip when you had your way with me,” Blaeja complained as she sampled the first of the roe.
“I’m sure you don’t mind putting up with it. You’ve had great reports coming back to you from your handmaidens in Denmark. How does it taste?”
“It tastes great. There is a certain tang to this that the other Kha Vayar just does not have. You know about my handmaidens?”
“Try this one,” Ivar said, passing her another wafer of roe. “It has a slightly stronger tang. You’ll be able to pick up the distinct flavour better. I know your handmaidens have been telling you how much better I treated young Queen Blaeja when I was abusing Princess Blaeja.”
“I can definitely taste the tang better,” she said. “I would take any abuse to protect my grand-daughter.”
“Try this last one,” Ivar said. “See if you can pick out the flavour of the tang. I knew you would sacrifice yourself for her. That is why I married her.”
Blaeja ate the last Kha Vayar wafer and smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth to better pick up the flavour. “It tastes of Henna,” she said, then began slowly spitting the flavour out off the end of her tongue.
Yes. Henna. The same poison you slathered onto the swords that killed my grandfather, Hraegunar Lothbrok. I knew you would never take the abuse unless you thought you were protecting someone you loved and I knew your family would never condone your beatings unless you told them you desired that kind of treatment.”
Princess Blaeja felt suddenly weak as the poison began to take hold of her. Ivar held her steady in her chair and called for his men and had them carry her to her bed. He then had them carry him on his buckler to the bed and told them to leave the room. Blaeja couldn’t move her limbs and could only watch as Ivar began to undress her. “You are the last of them,” Ivar started. “The last of the people who murdered Hraegunar Lothbrok. There were two swordsmen who had survived into old age, but I had them accidentally killed several years ago. I have actually grown to love your grand-daughter. I just needed you to buy into saving her. You are the last, and my revenge upon the AElla clan has been far more artistic than even the death of the red eagle that my father and his brothers had carved out for themselves.”
“Please tell me it is over,” Blaeja whispered. “Tell me the curse is over.”
“It is over,” Ivar whispered back as he began to undress himself. “Now this is rape,” Ivar said as he entered her. He began his rhythmic thrust as her life slipped away and he felt her spirit enter him as it did and he came in great waves within her and collapsed onto her body with his full weight, driving the last of the air from her corpse in a hoarse whoosh. Then he whispered in her right ear, “It’s not over yet.”
The next day King Ivar was explaining to Princess Blaeja’s son and daughter how their rough sex had given their mother a heart attack.
“Mother condoned your rough sex even though we warned her against it,” her son, Prince Hraegunar started.
“And we didn’t approve of your having rough sex with your wife’s grandmother,” her daughter, Princess Hraegunhild, continued on. “But we should all agree to spare young Queen Blaeja from hearing of this.”
“I certainly won’t tell her of my infidelity and I’m hoping to take your words on it that you won’t as well. And I’m hoping that you both will accept half shares each in Princess Blaeja’s Hraes’ Trading Company holdings in our York station. We did quite well last trading season and I was at least allowed to share that great news with your mother before her untimely passing. I shall be putting my cousin Sihtric in charge of York, as I can’t bear to spend as much time here as I have been wont to.”
While King Ivar wintered in the west, Prince Mal sent fifty of his wisest men to Kiev to try to convince Queen Helga to marry him. They travelled from Iskorosten on the frozen Dnieper in a caravan of horse drawn sleighs. Sagacious though they were, the group soon brought up the fact that King Ivar had married a Christian princess in Denmark and had immediately made her his queen, thus Princess Helga could no longer call herself a queen and a wife and should accept the offer of marriage that they were making on behalf of their Prince Mal of Dereva. Because fifty wise men are more likely to spend their time observing each other rather than their surroundings, they did not notice that Queen Helga had received them in the Palace of King Frodi, King Ivar’s grandfather, and not in her own longhall off a side-street that seemed to perpetually emanate a foul odour of death. But she welcomed them into her grandfather-in-law’s palace and offered them a fine feast suitable to men of their great stations. When they accepted, she further offered them access to a huge bath house that they might clean and refresh themselves from their long journey while the feast was being prepared.
The wise men all accepted the bath house offer and Queen Helga had her bevy of beautiful handmaidens lead them to the bath house with a full complement of bath salts and soaps and towels. They were escorted by her legionary officers, the ones who had been barracked in the longhall across the side-street from Helga’s longhall, the one’s who had buried the Chernigov twenty. The handmaidens stoked up the bath house fires and saunas and made their guests feel at home in the bath house while the officers remained outside the building sealing off the exits. More handmaidens carried meads and ales from the palace to the bath house and began passing the refreshments to their patrons. Soon a small stringed musical ensemble began playing songs just within the main entrance of the bath house. The fifty Drevjane wisemen were either soaking in hot tubs, warm tubs, cooling tanks or cooking in hot saunas while drinking their wines, meads and ales as sweet strings sang out songs of great victories and even greater heroes.
Then the officers entered the bath house and began escorting the handmaidens out, often having to pry the young women out of the hands of the sages, and the string section stopped playing and followed the officers out of the hall. The main entrance was then barred shut and Queen Helga strode up with more troops and asked, “Are the fifty wise men all inside and accounted for?”
A captain of the guard stepped forward and said, “Yes. All accounted for.”
“And are all my handmaidens clear of the building?”
“Yes, my queen,” was the reply.
“Then let us fire the hall!” Queen Helga cried, and her troops passed out torches to the officers and their queen and they surrounded the building and set it alight from all directions. It seemed to take the sages some time to even realise that they had been locked in the hall and the banging on the main entrance doors was both casual and commanding, but as smoke began to seep into the hall between the chinks in the logs, the banging became suddenly frantic. The fire lapped up the logs of the bath house walls and soon set the thatch roof ablaze. There was a bit of snow on the peak, but that was soon gone and the blazing thatch filled the building with smoke. The pounding at the doors reached a new frenzy then slowly dropped off as more and more sages lost consciousness and died. Soon the pounding stopped completely and the roof collapsed into the log structure and the pyre burned all night.
The next morning all the Drevjane sleighs were pushed into the still smouldering bath house and disappeared in flames, the horses were slaughtered and fed to the dogs of Kiev and the Drevjane slaves who had brought their sagacious masters to the city were locked up in the slave pens and would be sold to the Romans in the spring. Queen Helga told her trusted legion officers, “If the Romans want Pagan slaves instead of Christian ones, then the Drevjane slaves will be a good start.”
King Ivar spent the rest of the winter in York and began gathering his matching set of twelve blonde young girls for the Caliph of Baghdad. This time, however, the Caliph had requested that four of the young girls be boys. This made it easier for Ivar, for he only had to find eight girls that looked identical in their beauty and then four boys who looked alike. He made it known that he was purchasing young blonde slaves for resale in the east and soon he had dozens of young fair haired children occupying the third floor of York Castle. He purchased two young blonde particularly talented slave women as the matrons that would accompany the twelve into the harem of the caliph and they helped him work on his matched set of girls. He had the twelve cots that had been butted along the far wall of his old bed chamber moved into Princess Blaeja’s larger chamber and the twelve girls slept in them while Ivar slept with the matrons in Blaeja’s bed and gave training demonstrations late into the nights. When a newly purchased girl seemed to fit into the set better than a piece already placed, the new girl got a cot and the old girl joined Ivar and the matrons in Blaeja’s huge bed and became part of the demonstrations for an evening.
Young blonde children that were purchased from the poor of the Danelaw were kept on the second floor of the castle because they tended to be Pagan and Ivar wanted them reserved for sale in Constantinople. Ivar was paying good silver for the child slaves of Angleland, but the famine had become even more widespread in Ireland and the Ui Imair there were buying starving children for next to nothing. It would be another good season for the Hraes’ Trading Company once spring came around, but Ivar was enjoying a particularly warm winter and he would train his troops during the day and train his child slaves at night. And while he was training his troops, King Ivar tasked the matrons with training the girls in singing and dancing and the playing of harps and lyres. He wanted the caliph to be even more impressed with this matched set of girls than he had been with the last.
In the spring, once again, a Danish fleet left Dublin carrying shipload after shipload of young Irish slaves, children saved from starvation by the Ui Imair. King Ivar set out from York with yet another fleet of Danish knarrs carrying the Anglish slave children purchased locally and a matched set of twelve. They met up with the Dan’Way merchant fleet at the harbour-town serving Liere. There was no Princess Blaeja this time to send one of her trusted handmaidens along, so King Ivar’s treatment of her grand-daughter, Queen Blaeja, got a little rougher and young Blaeja was missing her grandmother more than ever by the time the fleet left Denmark for the Baltic.
“Did you have any trouble from the Drevjane?” King Ivar asked his wife, Princess Helga, in Kiev.
“Prince Mal sent fifty wise men to ask for my hand,” Helga replied.
“And what did you say?”
“I welcomed them into our palace and had a feast prepared for them while my handmaidens took them to the bath house to bathe. The wise men took the term handmaidens a little too literally and soon had their hands all over my maidens so, I called my maidens out, barred all the doors and set fire to the hall.”
“Let me kill him for you,” Ivar pleaded.
“You agreed to let me handle this,” Helga reminded him. “So, let me handle it.”
“Well, what do you think of them?” King Ivar asked his father in Gardariki, as the twelve fair haired girls were paraded in front of them by their Anglish matrons in Prince Hraerik’s palace.
“I think the Caliph will be pleased,” Hraerik answered. Four boys this time?”
“A request of the Caliph,” Ivar answered. “Again, I’ll have them all checked by a healer in Baghdad before I gift them to the Caliph.”
“Good,” Hraerik replied. “I’m glad to see you take such an interest in pleasing our customers. You have a talent for trade. You’ve turned the Hraes’ Trading Company into a business that Hraegunar would be proud of.”
“I couldn’t have done it without your legions,” Ivar told his father. “I thought you were crazy spending all that gold on standing armies, but it has bought us peace. Without peace, I could never have turned the company around.”
“Thanks,” Hraerik said. “I’m afraid your mother is not doing very well. Winter has been hard on her.”
“Where’s your world warming when we need it?” Ivar asked, and they both laughed. “I’ll spend some time with her before I leave for Baghdad.”
Once more the father and son team led their separate merchant fleets their separate ways. King Ivar led his fleet up the Kuban River and across a land portage to the Kama River and then south down the Caspian coast to the skerry of the Araks River followed by a long portage to the Tigris and an easy downstream row to Baghdad. Prince Hraerik led his fleet down the Kuban River to the Sea of Azov past the Kerch Peninsula into the Black Sea and west to Pereslavets at the mouth of the Danube where he met up with the Kievan fleet on its way to Constantinople.
Again, King Ivar and his fleet had great success in Baghdad. The young Irish slaves were still in very high demand and the Caliph was just as enamoured with his gift of fair haired girls as he had been with the redheads. Things went well enough to initiate trade treaty talks with the Caliph. Ivar wanted to formalize their tithe free trade and wanted permission to trade through Araby into India directly on a tithe free basis. This free an agreement was unheard of in the near east, but Ivar had so pleased the Caliph the last few years that the agreement was drawn up and signed before the Hraes’ merchants left Baghdad.
Prince Hraerik and his fleet again experienced moderate success in Constantinople. But at least their Slav and Danelaw slaves were more acceptable than the Christian captives they had brought the previous year and the prices obtained were much better. Again, the Prince’s talks with the Emperor did not progress to either party’s satisfaction, so they were put off to next season.
King Ivar was concerned about his mother, so he returned to Gardariki with his father then sent a message for Princess Helga to join him there once the trade season had ended. Princess Eyfura had not stirred from her bed the whole time her men had been gone and both Prince Hraerik and King Ivar could see she was at the last of her days. She was still beautiful, but her complexion was quite grey and ashen. She smiled weakly as her husband and son joined her in the master chamber. Her men sat and talked to her for hours as she listened and smiled and in the evening she passed away quietly. Her eyes were closed and she just stopped breathing and never bothered to start again. Her mascara was black and her face was grey, framed by her bright silver hair and red silken sheets. Queen Silkisif was there through it all and she was always at Eyfura’s side while the men were off trading.
Princess Eyfura was cremated on a pyre in the central square of Gardariki and an urn with her ashes was buried in a grove of oaks in front of Freya’s Temple within the city walls. Princess Helga had arrived from Kiev just in time for the ceremony and she sailed back to Kiev with her husband and his fleet.
“The ceremony was beautiful,” Helga said, as they sailed off. “Queen Mother Eyfura was beautiful to the end.”
“Life is art!” King Ivar exclaimed.
“And art is life!” Princess Helga echoed.
Although the weather was bitter cold, King Ivar wintered with his wife in Kiev.