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HUNDING'S SAGA - 18: RIVERWAYS TO MIKLAGARD, The Over-king's Stronghold On The Golden Horn
Portage on the riverways
The Way to the Black Sea
"We will have to unhitch the oxen and take them to the stern",
Hunding heard Tofig tell him. 'The hill is steep here, and we will all have to help hold back the ship before she rumbles away over the logs'.
Hunding warned Aesc, and asked him to pass the word to the others. Sverri nodded gravely from where he stood, waiting for Yuri and his friends to bring the oxen around Braendings Slange. From elsewhere amongst the trees more men came with another pair of oxen and hitched them onto the first pair as they came level with Sverri. Yuri flashed a toothy grin at Hunding as he passed, and gave Tofig a salute, mouthing words that none of the others understood, not even Sverri.
'What was that about?' Hunding asked Tofig.
'That - oh, just a standing joke about not having to sniff the oxen's backsides on the way down', Tofig laughed, waving the crew uphill to be ready with their staffs lest any mishap should befall them, Tofig had told them to take stout staffs from Yuri's oxen handler to guide the ship over the logs should it slide sideways. Those Danes closest to him guffawed knowingly. He finished, '...And not to get too close to the ship as she slides along! I have seen men lose arms and legs that way. The mess... Ugh!'
As Tofig told Hunding of men losing arms and legs along the way Aesc whitened and drew away from the ship's side. Listening put the fear of God into Aesc. He and his Northanhymbran crew-mates stayed at arm's length away from the rollers. Aesc did not think coming all this way from Jorvik to end up a cripple in some far-off land was any kind of gain. He would sooner stay close to home if it came to that.
'Watch out there!' Hunding yelled when the ship slid sideways toward Sverri where the hill dipped. Sverri looked up, sensed the bulk of Braendings Slange loom at him and leapt out of its way even as a score of Yuri's friends and half the crew pulled at the ropes on the far side. He slid on scree, landing on his back with arms raised but the threat was over. Laughter followed as the oxen were halted to see nothing untoward had happened to the keel. Aside from a deep rut in the hillside nothing could be seen.
Aside from that, even as the ship slid sideways the other way towards the crewmen, there were no real mishaps. Their luck held and Braendings Slange was eased into the Dvina. After another fifty miles or so of downriver rowing, poling clear of half-hidden skerries, the next overland ordeal began at Vitebsk.
This time they had new teams of oxen - and horses - new men, new to Hunding at least, and further, much further overland to cross between the flows before they gained the open sea. Hard work lay ahead.
'We shall be sleeping under the stars for three or four nights this time', Tofig warned. 'These creatures may be strong but they are slow! We can buy food and drink downriver from Smolensk near Moghilev'.
'You have been this way before?' Hunding watched as the oxen were hitched again to a long yoke slung under the bow of the ship, kept there by taut ropes that had been wound around her from her stern.
'Two or three times at least', came the answer. 'That is how I came to know Yuri back there. This one's name is Ivar, his father was a Bornholm man whose own grandfather had sailed to Northanhymbra with Ivar 'the Boneless' to take his revenge with his brothers on King Aella for throwing their father into a snakepit. Sverri knows Yuri from coming with someone else, but he knows Ivar from sailing with me last year'.
The nights shortened as Hunding's ship was borne overland between the tall trees from the Dvina to the Dnieper. At Vitebsk they took aboard supplies for the next week, but they could afford to be openhanded if Ivar's men ran short. Although Hunding was careful with his silver, he had been given a king's ransom by Prince Valdemar for Wulfstan's swords and woollen pelts.
Ivar knew how to keep his men working, but the overland crossing still took five days. One more night had to be spent under lowering skies that threatened to spill their load of rain, because of wandering tribesmen who - Ivar warned - might demand payment to stop them killing the crew. Whether or not Ivar made up this story to earn himself more silver was a moot point, Tofig agreed, but they could not risk falling into the hands of wandering tribesmen if they were as bloodthirsty as Ivar said. They needed every hand to row and sail the ship.
Moghilev was a disappointment if they were thinking of a bustling trading town like Vitebsk. Little happened here.
'Mind you, this is not a market day', Sverri was quick to point out. 'Then you have everything from far away. Sorcerers come from as far off as the Steppes to the east, and fleece the unaware of their hard-earned silver in performing tricks. Many folk come here from the Volga lands. You can buy soured milk that tastes as fresh as they day the goats were milked!'
The Dnieper widened into a lake to the north of Koenungagard - or Kiyiv as the nearby folk called the city - and again to the south. Koenungagard was busy. Some of Prince Vladimir's men were here, and rumour went about that the Jomsviking leader Palnatoki was here. Was he on his way north to Holmgard, or had he already been there and dealt with Lifing? Hunding would not have the time to ask about the matter. He was to sail on to Miklagard with due haste. With the river widening again to the north of Dnepropetrovsk, the sail could be opened out and the oars shipped. Ever wider, even past the lakes, they could keep the sail up well past Donetsk until the river narrowed before Kherson.
When the Dnieper opened out to the sea and stiff breezes brought the smell of the sea air to their nostrils, they knew all the hard work was behind them until they began their way back to Holmgard once more. They were not into the open sea for another half day, however. Cliffs could be seen to the east.
'The Krim', Tofig nodded toward cliffs that seemed to sit on top of a choppy sea and vanished from time to time. 'This is all part of the over-king's realm they call Byzantium'.
'Who is this over-king - ?' Hunding needed reminding. He had heard Vladimir tell him, but it slipped his memory with all the hard work rolling his ship overland.
'He is Basil', Tofig reminded him. 'The second by that name. One of his forefathers, I heard last year, was the man who long ago built Miklagard after much fighting with his neighbours. He was made over-king in Jorvik before he came east through Roma.
'Perhaps we should have sold the swords to this Basil?' Hunding was openly impressed.
'That would have meant a month or so of sailing, and some of the folk the other way do not like our kind sailing through their waters. We did the right thing by selling to Vladimir, and will be richly rewarded when we have Basil's trinket to take to Valdemar', Tofig nodded toward the cliffs that now looked smaller across the stern. 'No, Prince Valdemar told me that Basil is hard-pressed by his eastern neighbours, the Turks. How long his kingdom will last is anyone's guess. However, our task will be to make ourselves useful to Basil - we must be so useful to him that he will let us close enough to his treasure house for us to take his crown' .
'I bow to your knowledge', Hunding rested a hand on Tofig's shoulder, and tapped it lightly. 'We shall be in and out before they know what happened.
'Let us hope it is that easy!' Sverri was more wary.
'You worry too much', Tofig laughed lightly.
'Being tied to a stake in the freezing cold Volkhov teaches you things', Sverri answered drily.
Nothing more was said as Braendings Slange was buffeted by a strengthening wind from the north-west. Hunding put both hands to the steering arm and steadily pulled the ship onto a south-westerly course, for Miklagard.
Next - 19: Over King
I've had a copy of this for some time now - even the cover's changed - as research material for background. Takes you from early days - Christian Roman Empire under Constantine - to the invasion in 1453 by the Turks. Introduces the politics, the in-fighting amongst the heirs presumptive and hereditary.
History of the Byzantine State
Byzantium and the Norsemen
The emperor Basil 'the Bulgar Slayer' concluded a treaty near the close of the 10th Century with Jaroslav 'the Wise', One part of the outcome being recruitment of the Rus or Rhos into a new regiment of the emperor's army, a personal bodyguard, the Varangian Guard - see the Hub-page in the VIKING series for details and history. Another was the Christianisation of the Rus and their pagan Slav neighbours.