HUNDING'S SAGA - 19: MIKLAGARD'S OVER-KING, Basil 'the Bulgar-slayer' takes Hunding and crew into his elite guard
First steps taken to gain Basil's trust, to gain his crown for Valdemar
Basil II, the Over-King or Emperor
Eye to eye with Basil
The wind was brisk that brought Braendings Slange to Miklagard, that is would have. As they came within sight of the over-king's great stronghold a chain slung between buoys to the east side stopped them from nearing their goal.
'How do we come to this Miklagard, then, Tofig?' Hunding grinned helplessly as they watched the Black Sea waves wash over the great iron links. The links must have been at least a half foot long each, and the buoys they rested on almost half the width of their ship at the first rowing bench aft of the bows.
Tofig stared, arms crossed on his chest, a finger tapping on his ribs. Sverri scratched his head and Aesc wondered aloud if there was a way in at all.
'Oh, there is a way in', one of Tofig's Danish crewmates laughed and nodded his head sideways to the south. 'We only need to row southward for a while towards the southern shore to find it'.
'If you are so clever, Hrolf, show us the way', Tofig glared down at the fellow.
'Glad to, Tofig. I thought you would see sense soon enough. See that tower along the coast?' Hrolf pointed a bony finger and they all peered into the haze.
'Aye, what of it?' Hunding held a hand over his eyes, looking for the tower. On seeing it he breathed out. 'Is it a watch tower?'
'It is, aye', Hrolf agreed. 'It is also where they hang freebooters for all Varangians to see'.
'Varangians?' Aesc asked.
'Us', Sverri chortled. He stared into Aesc's unflinching eyes and went on, 'All of us in the northlands, whether West or East Norse, are Varangians. But what they would call you Aenglish, I cannot think although they may take you for a Varangian too, with your pale skin, grey-blue eyes and reddish hair'.
'At the risk of being thought a fool, what is East or West Norse?' Aesc asked Hunding, the only man here he knew well enough.
'The folk of King Olaf's land and those in the seaward islands to his west are West Norse. We Danes and our eastern neighbours the Svear are East Norse. The Svear are those who sought out the eastern riverways to Holmgard or further this way, because we and our other neighbours to the north took the lands around Britain and northward as far as Graenland. You could say the West Norse carved out the westward sea-lanes'.
'Now you know, Aenglishman -' Sverri began.
'I have a name', Aesc almost spat.
'So you do. Remind me', Sverri grinned, Hrolf behind him clapped.
'About time someone told this Mollboer where to get off!' Hrolf laughed.
'Before you ask, Aengl - er, Aesc, a Mollboer is what these haughty Sjaellanders mean about someone like Hunding and me, men of Jylland - the greatest part of the kingdom, and where Svein Haraldsson and his father Harald Gormsson have built strongholds to keep out the greedy Frankishmen!'
'Before things go downhill with name-calling, let us get back to these oars and get past that tower', Hunding snapped, 'before the night catches us out in the open!'
They rowed on along the chain and stared at a cadaver hanging from a short gallows on the seaward side of the tower, before turning westward into the strait. Ahead of them, over the ships moored in a wide bay, they saw the great sea-gates. This was the way into the over-king's own haven. A high garth lay ahead of them. Tall, fine stone buildings atop a high wall, topped by shining copper roofs. That had to be Basil's garth, Hunding thought.
A rowing craft the length of a karve put out from the quayside toward Braendings Slange, a broad, gold-spun banner fluttering from a post on its bow.
'Who are you?' someone demand to know, a tall, thin fellow who sounded as if he gargled when he spoke.
Hunding's first thought was to answer ', What is it to you?' but he bethought himself and said instead,
'I am Hunding Hrothulfsson', stopping short of telling the herald what he should do with himself.
'Where are you from?' another fellow demanded next. This one was taller, older perhaps, with trimmed ginger beard and beetling eyebrows.
'I am a Dane, as are a number of my crew -' Hunding did not finish before the fellow demanded to know where the rest hailed from. He finished what he was about to tell the Varangian, 'The others are from Jorvik'.
'Jorvik?' The Varangian bellowed with laughter, 'Since when did they come here? We have never seen Aenglishmen here before. Show me'.
Hunding asked Aesc and his friends to stand at their benches and the Varangian looked them up and down as if they were hogs at market.
'Very well then', he finally called out to Hunding, having made up his mind about the Aenglishmen in his crew. 'What are you doing here?'
'We are here on behalf of Prince Valdemar of Holmgard -' Hunding was stopped again. This was tiring.
'I thought he had his own heralds', the Varangian stopped and stared at Hunding. He looked along the length of Braendings Slange. 'Not the sort of ship Vladimir has in his fleet. Is she yours?'
'Aye, she is mine - ' More foolish questions?
'Does she have a name?' came the demand again. Were they not outlanders here, Hunding would have drubbed the fellow on the deck. But he had to be forbearing.
'Her name is Braendings Slange?'
The Varangian thought for some time, arms resting on barrel chest, and then asked again,
'Who built her and where was she built?'
This fellow was playing with Hunding. He had the upper hand for now, but wait... Hunding answered as if he were talking to a child,
'She was built at the yard of Haesten Asgeirsson at Grim's by near the mouth of the Hymbra'. Hunding hoped the questioning was at an end and was heartened at the answer.
'Be that as it may, by all means come with me if you have word for the Imperator. His highness may be amused by you - come'.
The Varangian stepped back to let Hunding aboard the smaller craft. Tofig and Sverri watched as Hunding was rowed toward the mighty iron gates below the garth. When Hunding looked back Tofig saluted. The karve was soon lost to sight amongst the other vessels in the haven until it pulled clear of the mass in front of the gates.
The gates opened slowly, painfully slowly it seemed to Tofig, but before long the karve vanished into the gaping jaws of the gates and they closed behind Hunding and the Varangian.
'Wait there, Hunding Hrothulfsson', the Varangian told him quietly, standing beside Hunding on the short stone jetty. They had alighted at the jetty after the mighty gates had closed behind them, and Hunding did as he was bidden. Underlings sped away to take word to the Imperator, as the Varangian called Basil, that an outlander wished to bring word to him from the Rus prince. 'You say a Haesten Asgeirsson built your ship?'
'I did', Hunding answered. The questions again. 'Oh well', he thought to himself, 'if it has to be'.
'Was his father a Dane?'
'He was indeed. Why do you ask?' Hunding was happier to see the runner back with word from Basil for the Varangian to take Hunding on into the great, shining white building with its polished floors and a small army of underlings and guards.
'Oh, nothing. I was just asking', the Varangian shrugged and walked on. They were halted whilst another underling brought them to the Imperator himself. Here he was, then. Basil 'the Bulgar Slayer', on his high throne.
'Wait here', the Varangian told Hunding once more, and strode toward the throne. He spoke quietly with the Imperator, the sounds of their whispers carrying across the high room. Finally the Varangian turned and beckoned Hunding forward.
Before he made more than four long strides toward the throne Basil stood and stepped down from the throne.
'The Imperator bids you welcome, Hunding Hrothulfsson', the Varangian began.
'The Imperator can speak for himself, Thord, thank you', Basil waved the Varangian back and neared Hunding, reaching out a hand.
Hunding reached a hand to greet Basil but it was slapped down by Thord, who came to the fore and snapped,
'You are meant to kiss the Imperator's hand, not hold it!'
Basil calmly turned to Thord and told him plainly,
'Hunding does not know what is done here, Thord. Did you not tell him?' The Imperator turned back to Hunding and asked, 'How did you greet Prince Valdemar, Hunding?'
'The Prince took my hand in friendly greeting, Lord Imperator', Hunding answered bluntly.
'Then you take my hand in friendly greeting. My Varangians should greet me as they would their own kings'.
Hunding did not know how Danish kings greeted their underlings. Still, he shook hands with Basil and the Imperator next asked Hunding's intent, what the Rus prince wanted from him,
'What is it the prince wishes from me?'
'Prince Vladimir wishes nothing from you, Lord. He asked only that we should offer our oaths to you as warriors in your Varangian Guard', Hunding told Basil.
Thord's jaw dropped when he heard the Imperator's answer,
'You, Hunding, should have the same standing in my court as Thord. If you are as true to me as you are forthright in speaking to me here, then you should be treated well. Welcome Hunding, to my palace. How many men do you have with you?'
'We are but a score, my Lord, Danes and Aenglishmen. Most of my crew have fighting skills, but all are good seamen. I would trust my life to their skills'.
'Then I would trust to their skills as seamen to take my Varangians to fight my foes', Basil told Hunding cheerily. 'Thord, be sure to send for Hunding's crew and have them eat with the other Varangians'.
Hunding felt a little guilt about his mission. He was being made welcome, and he was about to betray Basil's trust... Well not for now, at least. They had time, Valdemar told him through Kynrig.
*Over-king amongst the Scandinavians would be the nearest expression for an emperor, the term deriving from the Latin 'Imperator'. In Britain and 'over-king' would be better known as 'Bretwalda', a term known to Angles and Saxons and acknowledged by the Celtic kings and princes of the Gaels, Picts, Welsh and Scots. Aethelstan was acknowledged 'Bretwalda' after the Battle of Brunanburh, AD937.
Next: Foes Without - and Within
Basil II made his reputation as 'Bulgar-Slayer' in his many Balkan campaigns against a new incoming threat. Drawn by the prospect of Byzantium's riches various tribes migrated west and south along the northern shore of the Black Sea. Besides taking on the Bulgars, however, Basil had already taken on the Rus (or Rhos) and the Croats. Both peoples had headed south, although the Rus had forged a route along the rivers between their adopted lands around the eastern Baltic. Their origins were Svear - Swedish - another Scandinavian tribe bursting from their bounds. whose western neighbours the Danes and West Norse (Norwegians) had begun to carve out their 'empires' in the western seaways around Britain and the northern isles, and saw new profits in muscling in on Rus gains in the east, some earning reputations as warrior leaders such as Harald Sigurdsson in the mid-11th Century
The Varangian Guard
In AD 958 the Emperor Basil II struck an agreement with Vladimir I of Kiev to recruit the Rus into an elite guard. The Varangian Guard reflected the Rus' oath of allegiance to one another and to a lord. They were to live in barracks separate from the other imperial troops and travel with the emperor wherever he went. When in 1453 the Turks took over Constantinople the emperor went into exile the last of them went with him. Initially Norsemen from Sweden, the composition of the guard changed over the centuries. By the end of the 11th Century they were largely English, having left England after the Norman takeover, some as late as 1071 after the siege of Ely. They would fight the Normans in the Mediterranean under Robert Guiscard de Hauteville and his nephew Bohemond. Oddly there were also Normans in the Varangian Guard.