HUNDING'S SAGA - 25: SALT IN THE AIR, Regaining the Eastern Sea

Sand and rock on this eastern shore - remains of wooden jetty supports bear testimony to man's past bid to make a mark
Sand and rock on this eastern shore - remains of wooden jetty supports bear testimony to man's past bid to make a mark | Source

Leaving the Dvina for the Gulf of Riga and the Eastern Sea

The sandy coast of Latvia eastward opposite Gotland
The sandy coast of Latvia eastward opposite Gotland
Gulf of Riga where the Dvina flows out toward the Eastern Sea (Baltic)
Gulf of Riga where the Dvina flows out toward the Eastern Sea (Baltic)
The Gulf of Riga, level-lying coastland around the mouth of the Dvina. Almost unbroken horizons to north, east and south... And the welcoming sea (or was it?)
The Gulf of Riga, level-lying coastland around the mouth of the Dvina. Almost unbroken horizons to north, east and south... And the welcoming sea (or was it?)
Once out onto open Sea they would be assured of a full sail and a short crossing to Gotland off the Svear shoreline
Once out onto open Sea they would be assured of a full sail and a short crossing to Gotland off the Svear shoreline

A biting question - and Yuri's answer

They were unlucky in that the wind still blew from the west the following morning. There would be some hard rowing up the Dnieper! Luckily the two lakes ahead of them would ease the rowing a little, but the river current through them would still be strong enough to make rowing hard work. What they would do upward of the second, bigger lake, before turning the wide double bend, would defy belief. They would be almost out of fine flour, the long hours of rowing making their hands sweat off earlier handfuls before they had a chance to use it for making their evening meal!

Was Herjolf up to such hard rowing? For short bursts he was fair - heroic even, in his willingness to match the others - but he had been standing guard on Basil's treasure, gone soft. He needed hardening!

Braendings Slange glided onward, along the first lakes to the stiffer current ahead between that and the next. Their trial lay before them, however, and an even harsher trial would be on the swamp-bounded lake fed by two other rivers to either side of the Dnieper. There were flies that fed on men's flesh, Tofig knew, they were horseflies that bit and drank deeply on the blood of fair-haired men. They needed something to spread on their arms, necks and brows that the flies could not abide. This was the end of summer now, the short eastern after-year would follow, but that would be no comfort to the crew. Could Hunding keep his hand on the steerboard when the flies bit? How would Aesc and the other Aenglishmen fare? These stinging flies would madden them whilst they rowed past the shady trees until they were in mid-lake. He would have to speak to Hunding, soon... Very soon. There was another night yet, nevertheless. There might be another way of looking at their troubles. Was there something in the barrels, something that had gone off. The crew would moan at the smell, but it would save them.

Camp was made on the western bank of the Dnieper on the second night. The crew had earned their rest, striving as one to beat the flow, making light of the might of the river. There were horses on the eastern bank, of the kind that bore the slight-built tribesmen from the open flatlands to the east.

'They might be slight-built', Tofig assured Hunding and Aesc, 'but they can ride fast and their riders' arrows strike like bolts of lightning! Even the Bulgars and the Khazaks are afraid of them, as well they might be because they fall on their prey like wolves - or like the flies on the lake to come!'

'Flies?' Hunding asked. 'What sort of flies?'

'Are they biting flies', Aesc asked next, 'that suck your blood and drive you wild?'

'Aye', Tofig answered, wide-eyed that an Aenglishman should know about them.

'Horse-flies', Aesc smiled thinly, 'and can be beaten. If we smear candle-grease on our hands and cheeks, they will not attack'.

'You have done this before?' Tofig raised an eyebrow.

'I have not done it, but my brother Ansgar undertook a crossing over a lake in eastern Mierca where these flies were known to attack, and kill men. Those few who paid his counsel no heed were almost eaten out of their skins, but he and the greater part of his crew fared much better. Do we have candle-grease?'

'We do', Hunding recalled, and strode to the first mast tree. Pulling out a box from below the one that held Basil's crown he lifted its lid and showed the contents to the others.

'A score of them should be enough', Tofig rolled the topmost candles in his fingers.

'Aye, they ought to be - just', Aesc sucked in air and looked over Tofig's right shoulder at the crew. 'Just'

'Almost a candle to each man', Hunding knew Aesc's thoughts. 'What do we do now?'

'We melt them - in a pot', Aesc answered flatly.

'In a pot', Tofig repeated. 'What pot?'

'The pot we use for porridge', Hunding answered. 'Is that right, Aesc?'.

'It is what I thought', Aesc nodded almost fit to shake his head off.

'Will we not need to use the pot in the morning, and thereafter?' Tofig grimaced at the thought of his porridge tasting of grease.

'Make the porridge first, wash it out and then melt the candles', Hunding laughed.

Tofig walked away, raising his arms in despair, and laughed hollowly,

'Why did I not think of that?' Tofig laughed with Hunding and Aesc at his own short-sightedness.

They fed themselves the following morning, and Herjolf was given the task of cleaning out the pot to melt the candles in. He scooped up ten in one hand and dropped the candles into the pot.

'Not like that!' Tofig snapped. 'Heat the pot first!'

Herjolf hung his head and Tofig slapped him on his back,

'Do not take on so!'

The candle grease bubbled in the pot, popping and sucking as more were fed in by the now grinning Herjolf. He felt needed now, the world shone again and he was doing work that would keep them all from being bitten to death by horseflies.

'We can put the fire out now, and put a lid on the pot, or some cloth so it does not spill', Hunding set Herjolf to kicking out the fire whilst Aesc and Tofig carried the pot onto the ship between them, lifting it from the ground with a log through the handle. They were helped aboard by others of the crew and set the pot between the mast trees where it would be steadiest.

'When we are near the lake we will see the flies. They will look like a cloud', Tofig warned.

'Then we shall smear the grease on ourselves', Hunding smiled grimly. He was not looking forward to this.

The crew rowed steadily upriver. Tofig searched the sky for the flies, and all the while they neared the lake... Closer, closer yet... Still no sign of the flies. They were on the lake now, and still no flies. Hunding looked all around, as did every man aboard Braendings Slange, and they looked at Tofig. He tried not to look back at them, feeling a fool. They were well onto the lake now, heading for its furthest corner, where the Dnieper flowed in. They kept well out of arrow-shot of the eastern bank.

When on the upper Dnieper Hunding called Tofig astern and asked him, out of earshot of the rowing crew, what he thought about the flies not being where he thought they ought to be.

'I cannot think...' was all Tofig could say.

Hunding did not press him and Tofig strode forward again. Herjolf looked up at him as he passed, but said nothing. There was no need, he grinned toothily at Tofig. No-one said anything. They would have to ask Yuri why there were no horseflies on the lake when they saw him.

'There has been a forest fire. The smoke sent them upriver on the Pripyat, where they bit their way through half the poor folk around there', Yuri told them as his men yoked up the oxen for the long uphill slog.

'Can you tell us also, what is happening in Holmgard?' Tofig asked before Yuri could ask about the blackened pot. The ox-master had been eyeing the pot with its cloth lid, and was about to pen his mouth when Tofig hot his question in first.

'What should happen in Holmgard?' Yuri smirked. Non-plussed by Tofig's question, his eyes went back to the pot.

'Well, now that Prince Valdemar is dead -', Tofig began.

'There is strife there. Too many wish to sit on his throne. I would not go there, if I were you. They say the freebooter Lifing has been given command of Vladimir's guard', Yuri seemed to know about them and Lifing.

'I thought he had been punished by Vladimir or Palnatoki', Hunding nudged Tofig.

'Vladimir was too soft on him', Tofig answered.

'You are still going toward the Dvina?' Yuri asked Hunding and Tofig.

'We are, aye. Instead of heading northward to the Volkhov we will take the Dvina downriver', Tofig smiled.

They had been blessed doubly by meeting Palnatoki. Although lied to by the Jomsviking leader, he had tried to steer them clear of his underling. For that they were thankful, as were they also by the lack of horseflies on the lake. When making camp that evening before crossing the hills between the two riverheads, Tofig waved Hunding to him.

'We were lucky... Twice over, Tofig', Hunding echoed his friend' thoughts.

'Blessed indeed are those who heed', Aesc put his own thoughts to words.

The Danes looked at him, holding in their laughter. They did not wish to offend him, as he had given them a way - even though they had not needed it - of getting through the horseflies. Hunding almost wished they had been attacked by the flies, if only to learn whether Aesc's brother had told him a tall story. Nevertheless the Aenglishman was a worthy crewman, so they patted him on the back and said nothing. One day the two of the them might know what he meant... One day, perhaps...

Crossing to the Dvina brought no fresh trials, Yuri said no more about the horseflies and Aesc did not enlighten Hunding about the meaning of what he had told him and Tofig. The ship was shoved out into midstream, Yuri and his men waved, Hunding and the others waved back, a few ounces of silver each poorer. They might yet find a buyer for Basil's crown, but they might have to sail as far as Sjaelland to find that buyer!

After two days of easy rowing downriver they came to the great bay at the mouth of the Dvina. Squat, dark-haired peasants stared after them as Braendings Slange was rowed out from between riverbanks onto the bay. No harm would come to them here, as these folk were not warlike. But they would have to be wary of Wendish freebooters once they pulled out of the bay, past the great holm they had sheltered behind months earlier on their way to Holmgard.

Gotland lay across the sea, less than a day's sail byTofig's reckoning.


Next: Gauti foresees Hunding with a Princess

Varangian sea and river routes, followed back to the Eastern Sea by Ivar and his crew
Varangian sea and river routes, followed back to the Eastern Sea by Ivar and his crew

Small nations spread wide. The Norsemen, the Danes, the Svear (Swedes) and associated peoples cast their net wide, migrated to, raided or traded in the four corners of the known world. The raiders we call Vikings, - warriors, craftsmen, farmers and traders settled far and wide between Greenland and Byzantium adopting different lifestyles or continuiing those they led at home. Look through these pages and you might see clues to your own past...

Test of endurance

Between the Black Sea and Baltic, aside from wider stretches of the Dniepr where they might put up their sail - assuming the wind was right - ship crews had to put up with hard rowing upriver. At cataracts ships would have to be pulled out and pushed overland over rollers, even uphill. The rowers needed strength and endurance, sometimes unable to get food between rising early in the morning and resting again when the sun went down. It was a summertime business, raiding and trading, taking their spoils or wares back to the north, long days and short nights..

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