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HUNDING'S SAGA - 21: SVERRI'S GRUDGE, A Narrow Scrape For Hunding
March past - Varangian guards show their strength in numbers
Ringed by rivals... Threat from all around
'Where is Hunding?' Thord asked Sverri when he came under the canvas again.
''Oh, last I saw of him he was aft, gazing out over the sea with a cup of wine in his hand.
Sverri went back to the feasting, laughing and joking with everyone. He helped himself to the Turks' food, drank heavily and passed out beside one of the makeshift benches where Aesc was trying to make himself understood by one of Thord's men. They both looked down at Sverri when his head hit a barrel that held up their end of the makeshift bench.
'Who is he?' the Varangian asked, his speech slurred, thumbing over one shoulder at Sverri.
'Oh, this is one of Hunding's friends, Sverri', Aesc laughed, and ruffled Sverri's hair playfully. 'Speaking of which, I wonder where Hunding is?'
'Like as not he is on deck somewhere ridding himself of all he has drunk before he empties a few more cups', Tofig grinned and belched. He passed on to speak to Thord.
'Did you see Hunding?' Thord asked Tofig, having forgotten already what Sverri told him.
'I told Aesc he is likely to be aft somewhere, pulling his breeks back up. He should be back with us before long. Drink up, Thord. There is more to be had', Tofig smiled and walked along under the sail they draped over the mast arm to hold off the heat. He looked out to starboard and saw the coastline sliding past slowly. Of no-one in particular he asked, 'Are we going somewhere?'
'Going somewhere?' Thord laughed, and asked again, this time alarmed that they might be adrift and heading for rocks off the shoreline, 'Going somewhere?!'
They both pulled the flap back and rushed out on deck. Tofig was the first to look aft at the strand, now at least ten ship-lengths away from where they rode at anchor.
'Everyone Oars! who is still sober, out here now!' Thord yelled hoarsely. He had trouble standing, half-drunk as he was. But he was sobering up rapidly as he saw a troop of Turkish horsemen gather near the foreshore. They were looking down at something.
'Hunding!' Tofig almost screamed. 'Get this ship back to shore!'
'God in his heaven!' Aesc stood, mouth agape as two of the Turks dismounted and began dragging at whatever - whoever they had found lying down.
'To the oars, all of you!' Thord yelled, 'Row as hard as you can back for the strand. We may be in time to save him yet!'
Every man who could stand ran out the oars and as one heaved when Thord barked out his order to row, Tofig strode aft to the steerboard arm and pulled so hard Braendings Slange turned sharply, almost tipping Thord over the oarsmen where he stood amidships by the first mast tree.
'Pull! Pull harder' Thord roared again at the crew, and at his Varangians to pull their weight on the oars to bring the ship back to the foreshore. The Turks seemed to play with Hunding, now on his feet. They shoved him backward and forward between them. One of them slowly drew his long, curved sword from his waistband. Thord almost screamed, 'Come on, we have no time to lose!'
As Braendings Slange drew near the strand Thord's men leapt into the shallows and ran to the shore. The Turks left Hunding on his knees, bound in chains, to turn on the first of the Varangians, slashing at their great, dished shields. More of Thord's men joined in the fighting as well as Tofig's friends, having pushed away the oars. More of the Turks entered into the skirmish, riding around Thord's Varangians with the long, curved swords the Varangians told Tofig were scimitars.
'Shieldwall!' Tofig roared, 'Svinfylkja*, now!'
Both the crew and the Varangians formed into a 'vee', their shields held in front of them. 'Bondig, Ulf, Karl! Bows!' Tofig called out and the three stood in the middle of the formation, brought out their bows and trained them on the nearest Turks. They let fly their arrows high into the air and each brought down a rider. Tofig shouted, 'Forward!'
In the 'vee' as one, Thord's Varangians and Hunding's crew rushed on towards Hunding, still on his knees, still the worse for wear. A Turkish noble, as Tofig took him to be from the way he was attired, stirred his pony towards Hunding with his sword held high, ready to bring it down on his head.
'Bondig, arrow!' Tofig pointed at the rider and Bondig took another arrow from his belt, set it over his bow and aimed.
He waited until almost the last before sending his arrow straight at the Turk's head. With the arrow in the roof of his mouth the man could not even scream, the blood ran from his wound and bubbles of blood foamed across his trimmed black beard from the corners of his mouth. With his arm still high over his head, sword in hand his knees buckled almost as he was on top of Hunding. Pulling away and falling onto his side, the sword dropped buried itself in the deep shingle where he had been. Another rider fell back across his saddle and was dragged along the strand by the left stirrup behind a fear-crazed war pony.
The rest of the troop fell away with the killing of their leader, one of them looking back at Hunding, still on his side on the shingle. He turned his pony and urged it, whipping the creature hard into a headlong gallop over the hundred paces to where Hunding was waiting to be freed from the chains.
Bondig loosed off another arrow into the front of the pony's saddle. The crazed creature catapulted its shocked rider, still holding onto the reins, over its head at the feet of Thord. With a crooked smile at the un-horsed rider now on his knees - mouth wide open, eyes pleading - Thord swung his axe downward onto the terrified Turk's shoulder and cleaved him to his waist.
'Where is Sverri now?' Tofig demanded when they brought the grazed Hunding back to his ship.
'I think he is still on deck, asleep under the awning', Aesc answered. He looked over one shoulder and laughed, adding, 'Oh no, he seems to have roused himself from his slumbers!'
Tofig looked over Aesc's right shoulder and saw Sverri standing awkwardly on the deck by the prow, watching as Thord set to freeing Hunding from the bindings and chains.
'Sverri, stay there. I want a word with you!' Tofig beckoned Hunding to him, and asked, 'How is it you were lying on the shingle?'
'I was hit by a wooden shovel. Aye, Sverri said we should bury the dead Turks. He said he would gather shovels and I waited for him by the deck wall. When I looked around all I saw was the shovel at the side of my head. I still feel groggy!'
This was said as much for Sverri as for the others, so he would know he was in deep trouble. As Hunding, Tofig, Thord and the others came close to the ship Sverri dashed to the far side of the deck and leapt into the shallows. He waded out into the sea and three of Thord's Varangians chased after him, thrashing the water into a turmoil. They almost caught up with him, but Thord called them back,
'Leave him! If he wants to drown, why waste our time trying to save him?'
They watched as Sverri vanished beneath the waves and then Tofig called to the crew to make their way back onto Braendings Slange.
'Back to the ship!' Thord waved his men onto Braendings Slange. Those furthest away sought to take keepsakes from the dead Turks. He yelled, 'Leave them!'
Although soured, the Varangians did as they were told. For all Thord knew, the survivors were watching them from safety. If his men began looting the dead, who knew where it would end?
'Back to the ship!' Thord yelled again as they wavered. 'We take our dead, no more!''
Only two of the Varangians lay dead on their stomachs, torn open by the Turks' swords, shingle stained by their blood. None of Hunding's crew had fallen, as they had followed Thord's men onto the strand and Tofig had ordered the shieldwall before any more of their men were killed.
'What was it with Sverri?' Thord asked as the ship pulled away again.
'Who knows what enters a man's thoughts when the drink is on him?' Tofig watched the waves break on the shingle as Turkish riders came back to claim their leader, and sullenly watched their foe's crew pull into the Black Sea before the sail was hoisted.
Braending's Slange would soon look to them like some sort of floating beetle.
Next - 22: The Prize
Another of the Osprey 'Men at Arms' series expertly illustrated and complete with photographs, maps and diagrams describes the origins and history of the Varangian Guard. From their Norse beginnings in Eastern Scandinavia, this body of fighting men changed in composition over the years from when Basil II, the 'Bulgar Slayer' founded the emperor's loyal guard. In the middle years their numbers included ever greater numbers of Englishmen, who left their own land at the time of the Conquest.
An engaging read,
Osprey Men At Arms, The Varangian Guard
The emperor's foes were the Varangians' foes...
Although companies might be sent out into the field to stiffen the ranks of the Greek levies, much of the time they were with the emperor himself. They were his personal guard, the most trusted of his followers - even over his own Greeks.
In this episode I have sent Thord's company along the Black Sea coast, maybe in a bid to outflank the Turks who pushed west across the land they would later take over for their Ottoman rulers. It's a sort of 'Foreign Legion' scenario, of being sent to do a task their Greek counterparts were considered unsuitable for. Because of a grudge Ivar almost loses his life to the Turks who would naturally take him and his kind to be responsible for slaying their fellows. Being the first they found, Hunding would be made an example of in front of his fellows, out of range of their spears or arrows.
Note: In the main story the reference to 'Svinfylkja' (pron. 'Swinfilkya') means 'Swine Array', a wedge defence formation, another version of a shield wall that can be used in defence or attack. The formation was based on the wedge wild boar formed to defend their herd, with the tusked males facing outward in a long triangle.