HUNDING'S SAGA - 20: FOES WITHOUT, Foe Within

Varangian guardsmen - originally these were recruited from the Rus or Rhos mercenaries of Swedish ancestry who had migrated through the eastern river system to Miklagard (St Michael's stronghold = Constantinople)
Varangian guardsmen - originally these were recruited from the Rus or Rhos mercenaries of Swedish ancestry who had migrated through the eastern river system to Miklagard (St Michael's stronghold = Constantinople) | Source
Remains of an earlier empire, the Eastern Roman empire  became the empire of Byzantium, to be overrun in  the mid-15th Century by the main enemy, the Ottoman Turks
Remains of an earlier empire, the Eastern Roman empire became the empire of Byzantium, to be overrun in the mid-15th Century by the main enemy, the Ottoman Turks | Source

Ringed by warring neighbours

What the Varangian Guard had in common with other Viking warriors was the knack for fighting at close quarters. Here a Viking shieldwall readies for immediate attack
What the Varangian Guard had in common with other Viking warriors was the knack for fighting at close quarters. Here a Viking shieldwall readies for immediate attack

Fighting their corner - no quarter asked, nor given...

In the first month Hunding and his friends spent in Thord's company, they were asked to go out into the wilderness inland near Antioch to hold a pass against the Turks.

'There was no word about sweating our lives away in some forgotten corner of nowhere', Sverri grumbled to Hunding as they crunched stale bread under the shelter of a tent. 'We are seamen, not Bedouin'.

'Thord and his men are not Bedouin either', Hunding answered. 'We will not be here much longer. Basil has an army coming behind us, but they have baggage. We travel light, and could get here quicker. The Turks are below us in the shadow of this mountain, and can wait as long as they like but they will not attack with the sun in their eyes'.

'Fear not Sverri', Tofig laughed, tossing a water gourd to him. 'We will not let you sweat away to nothingness. Here. have some water'.

'I would sooner have ale', Sverri groaned.

'You would, I am sure', Hunding assured him, 'and so would I, but in this heat you would fall asleep before long. Remember what happened to Eirik?'

'Aye, I remember. We found him with his throat cut after he had drunk his flask dry. The fool had filled it with hard drink he found in the Imperator's kitchen. But that was never ale - '

'It may as well have been!' Thord thundered. 'Stop your moaning and drink the water. Soon we will be at sea again, to the west, and you can drink as much ale as you want - if you can find any. We will be drinking wine, sweet wine from Kypros, with our meat. You had best not say anything else about swilling ale. Do you think I would not want to? I have been here for five years now, and when I am back home I - like you - will almost bathe in ale. For now, put up with what we have or ship home!'

'You are here for now, Sverri', Hunding agreed. 'Do the best you can with what you have'.

Sverri mumbled something to himself and the others laughed.

Aesc came into the tent, dropped onto his bedding and swore,

'Someone else is guarding the pass now. My eyes! I seem to see double in this heat! Where is that water gourd?'

'Here', Tofig tossed the water to Aesc. 'See, Sverri, none of these Aenglishmen has moaned about not having ale to drink!'

'He is not a drinking man, perhaps?' Sverri grinned slyly at Aesc.

'I am a drinking man, perhaps', Aesc laughed, 'when I can get to it! No, I do not want to go the same way as Eirik. He asked for what happened to him. What was it he drank?'

'Some sort of plum brandy he found in the kitchens', Hunding smirked, 'that should have been left for the kitchen porter. He gave Eirik some very black looks when he saw him leave with the flask under his arm'.

A lookout yelled through the tent flap,

'The Turks are scrambling up the slope!'

Flasks and gourds flew into the corners as the men grabbed their weapons and shields and hastened out into the burning light of the hot sun. Hunding shielded his eyes as he pulled on his helmet, and from the corner of his left eye saw Aesc pull on his helmet backwards,

'The other way round!' he shouted, rapping the side of his own helmet with his knuckles. 'What was that someone said about them not attacking into the sun?!'

Aesc laughed and took off the helmet as an arrow flew past his right ear into the chest of one of Thord's commanders. The fellow screamed with pain and fell back. More arrows flew into the encampment as shields were held upward to ward them off. Panic gripped Thord as the Turks threatened to over-run them, but Hunding's crewmen held them back. Tofig roared,

'Thor aie!' With Sverri and Aesc beside him he bundled back those few of their foes out of the camp and off the hilltop.

Thord pulled himself together and hoped no-one had seen him cower behind Hunding's shieldwall. A hundred men of Basil's Varangian Guard saw - they knew not how many - Turks back down the slope in disarray, dismayed at losing their grip on the hilltop against so few unbelievers. They had taken Thord's men off their guard, but the newcomers beat them back. How many of Thord's friends would have seen this Hunding did not know, but for now he was happier that the Turks were beaten... for now!

That evening Basil's Greek field commanders gave Thord and his men leave to go back to Miklagard, marching back to the sea in the morning. The main army would drive the Turks back out of the district, back beyond Aleppo, allowing the Imperator time to breathe until the Sultan tried again to dislodge them from south of Anatolia, or even off his throne.

'You are commended', Basil told Hunding when they reached his garth after a tiring three day ride in searing heat. 'I am told by Breki that but for you Thord nearly lost the hilltop'.

'We did what we thought best, Lord', Hunding answered humbly.

'In Breki's eyes, you did more - he saw the Turks were afraid of you! Fear drove them back, the way your men slashed and hewed. How do you fight like that? You must help train my men, I think Thord has softened with the good living here in the sun'.

Thord was plainly not happy with the praise Basil heaped on Hunding, Tofig and the rest of the crew of Braendings Slange. He would make sure Hunding did not stay long enough to make life awkward for him.

'If your Lordship wishes', Hunding bowed his head the way he saw the Greeks did to Basil.

The Imperator smiled and left them to ready themselves for the feasting. Wine would flow, and Sverri would find out soon enough he would get a taste for the sweet wine of Kypros, but he still had a score to settle with Hunding. Fighting the Turks had given him an idea... But he would bide his time.

At the steering oar of Braendings Slange once again, Hunding had been asked to take others of Basil's Varangians into the Black Sea to ouflank Turks who had bcome detached from the Sultan's main horde.

They were bathing in the sea, unarmed, unguarded, when Thord and his men fell on them. Hunding was asked to stay on the ship with his crew, lest other Turks saw them and did to them what they were about to enact on these poor fools on the strand. The sea foamed red as the Varangians butchered them in the shallows. Not a man was left standing, their corpses left to float away with the current.

'You should have buried them!' Hunding was angry with Thord.

'If your feelings have been hurt, by all means bury them!' Thord snorted, wondering if Hunding had been enfeebled by the hot sun beating down on him on the afterdeck of Braendings Slange.

'It is not about my feelings, Thord!' Hunding was beside himself now. 'Their corpses will be found, and the next time the Imperator's men fight the Turks they will not be spared - none of them! Had they been buried, the Turks would not have known what happened to them and would have been left wondering'.

'The wild creatures might have dragged them out of the graves and they would still have been found', Thord was angered that Hunding should try to teach him how to fight the Turk. What was this upstart thinking of? 'As it is, they will be bloated, their skins turned blue and even their own mothers would not know who they were! Speak when you are spoken to, do as you are told. I could get tired of you, you know, Hunding. There are many fates that could befall a man in these parts, understand?'

Sverri had his answer. Something could befall Hunding and no-one would know - only perhaps the Turks. Whilst everyone was drinking and feasting on the Turks' food hoard, Sverri went up to Hunding.

'You were saying about burying the corpses, Hunding', he began. 'There are still many on the strand, we could take shovels and bury them'.

'What, just you and I?' Hunding grinned, thinking Sverri was already drunk.

'No, I will get Tofig, Aesc and some of the others to help. You go on ahead and we will follow', Sverri almost pushed Hunding to the ship side.

'Where are the shovels?' Hunding asked, turning round to find Sverri standing there with a shovel in his hands, ready to strike. No-one else was looking, being under canvas, laughing, drinking and telling tall stories.

'What?' Too late Hunding saw what was happening, ducked, tripped and fell against a bench, knocking himself out. Sverri heaved him over the side and he fell heavily on the damp sand. Now Sverri had to get back to the others, to look as though he was as drunk as the others. The ship was made fast, so he loosened the hawsers, pulled in the steerboard and joined his crewmates as they drank to the easy win with Thord's Varangians, unaware they would soon be afloat, helpless in the Black Sea.

Hunding would be even worse off if the Turks found him alive amidst their dead, bloated comrades. A fate worse than death would befall him until they became bored tormenting him.


Next - 21: Saving Hunding

Hunding's ship, Braendings Slange crosses the Sorte Hav (pron. sorte how), the Black Sea from the mouth of the Dniestr - west of the Krim (Crimea)
Hunding's ship, Braendings Slange crosses the Sorte Hav (pron. sorte how), the Black Sea from the mouth of the Dniestr - west of the Krim (Crimea)

Another excellent book in the Osprey Warrior series, the Varangian Guard traces the changes in the emperor's loyal guard between the reign of Basil II 'the Bulgar Slayer', who instigated the idea of employing the Rus warriors, to when the Turks overran Constantinople in 1453 and the emperors went into exile

The 'foes without' were legion...

During the 11th and subsequent centuries to the 15th the Turks advanced west across the Byzantine Empire, almost cutting Constantinople from its granaries and tributary nations. To the north the Bulgars and Croats posed another threat to stability, the empire reaching across the Black Sea to the Crimea.

After the Conquest in England many Englishmen flocked to join the Varangian Guard, carrying the fight to the Normans in the Mediterranean. The nature of the guard changed from Scandinavian to Anglo-Scandinavian, many men being of mixed descent or of purely Danish descent but born in England's eastern shires. One man, Siward 'Barn' (meaning 'Youngster'), captured at Ely after fighting alongside Hereward of Bourne in 1071, was freed in the 1080's and left after his fellow countrymen to join the guard. He and his followers from East Yorkshire were given land east of the Crimea, the land named 'Little England'. In later years the territory was absorbed into the Ukraine under the auspices of the Princes of Kiev

More by this Author


Comments

No comments yet.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working