HUNDING'S SAGA - 23: THE DEED DONE, Hunding's Crew Must Flee To Holmgard With Basil's Crown!
Basil's court is about to erupt into chaos...
'Herjolf, my good man. How are you this fine evening?'
Hunding spoke in friendly manner to the tall, earnest young guard who watched as he strode up to him in the dimly-lit corridor. Tofig stood some way behind Hunding near the heavy, iron-studded door, hanging back to make sure no-one else came and took them unawares. They needed to speak to Herjolf on his own, to badger him into helping them help themselves to Basil's crown.
With his long handled axe held in both hands across his chest, Herjolf stared at Hunding, sizing him up. One of many who still mistrusted the newcomers, the Svear youth answered,
'I am well, Dane. What is it you wish here in the vault - have you been sent here?' Herjolf's eyes narrowed. He was a Hallander after all, and were Hallanders not wise folk who could be trusted with such worthy goods as a great king's treasures? Although he did not wholly trust Hunding and Tofig, he felt a liking for them. Yet Hunding was after something, Herholf could tell.
'My friend', Hunding began, and straight away Herjolf was on his guard. Hunding smiled, 'My friend your doughtiness in guarding the Imperator's treasure is well known. Many a man would be racked with doubt about keeping safe this eastern lord's treasures. I say again, your doughtiness is well known! I hope you are well rewarded for your steadfastness, truly I do!'
'I am paid the same as all the others of my rank', Herjolf sniffed, as if Hunding had hinted at him being any better or worse off than his older Varangian comrades.
'How can that be, Herjolf?' Tofig came in now. Feigning shock, he made as if to grip Herjolf's right elbow in sympathy. The Hallander pulled away as if stricken, attacked. He did not know what to think.
'A man should be rewarded well for such devoted duty to his master -'
'The Imperator is not my master as such', Herjolf told them, his patience with the Danes almost snapping, 'because my oath is foremost to Thord and then to Basil'.
'Your oath is to Thord?' Hunding asked, as if stricken by what Herjolf told him. 'Surely the Imperator is higher? No matter. If Thord is foremost to you, it is just as well because it is Thord who told us - Tofig and me - to check that all is well with you down here on your own. Do you have a key to the treasure room, by the way?'
'I do not. I am merely here to watch over the door, not to enter the room', Herjolf sniffed again.
'You watch the treasure, yet they do not trust you with a key? Is it not as well I have a key?' From the folds of his tunic Hunding drew a ring with a single key hanging from it. 'Thord does not trust you, yet you are made to stand here without knowing if the treasure is in fact in there?'
'What would I do in there?' Herjolf almost whined.
'There is no need for you to be in there, but do you not wish to know the treasure is there?' Hunding smiled understandingly. 'They could punish you for the theft of Basil's treasures, after all, without you even knowing the treasure was no longer there before you even came to stand here, Thord could have taken it himself and let you take the blame. Who shares this duty with you?'
'He would not do that... Would he?' Herjolf was confused now. He stood awkwardly, axe lowered in his right hand, scratching his beard with his left.
'You tell me', Hunding shrugged. 'Shall we see, make sure it is there?'
'I suppose so', Herjolf drifted into despair. Could he trust these two Danes?
Tofig unlocked the heavy door and pushed it slowly open. Taking a burning torch from the wall nearest the door Hunding went in after him and Herjolf stayed in the doorway, unable to see inside for the part-closed thick iron-studded door.
'Come in', Hunding held the door open for Herjolf, 'or else you cannot see for yourself the treasure is here, can you? You have to be sure, after all'.
Herjolf shuffled into the treasure room and Tofig asked what Hunding had asked already without getting an answer,
'So, Herjolf, who shares this duty with you?'
'Eystein the West Norseman and Ulf-Thor of the Uppsala Holm are on duty when i am not here. Thord chose them himself. Why can I not trust them?' Herjolf, confused, leant his axe against the door and buried his face in his hands. 'Why should I not trust them?'
'Why indeed?' Tofig rested a hand on Herjolf's left shoulder 'I would trust them with my life!'
'So why are we in here at all?' Herjolf almost cried in fear. He reached for the axe, about to grasp it and usher out the Danes when Hunding thought out aloud,
'How do we know the crown is real?' Hunding strode across the white stone floor. 'Someone could easily have taken it and put a sham one in its place'.
'You think so?' Tofig stood, arms crossed over his chest, one finger stroking his lips - trying to hide the grin that threatened to give him away - as if he were thinking, hard. 'Better we take it out of here and look at it where there are more torches'.
'No-o!' Herjolf wailed. He picked up the axe and held, it threatening.
'Herjolf, what is the matter with you?' Hunding patted Herjolf's right arm and took the axe from him, leaning it against the door. 'We are here to help you! Believe me, we have your welfare at heart!'
'I think Herjolf does not trust us!' Tofig said to Hunding, looking hurt.
'Better safe than sorry!' Hunding answered, looking over one shoulder at Herjolf. 'Come, let us see if this gold is real'.
'Gold?' Herjolf looked almost as if he were in a dream.
'What do you think, Herjolf? They would not have you guarding sham goods, would they?' Tofig was enjoying himself. Not long now and Herjolf would be so addled he would not know which way to turn.
'The torches down here seem to burn too dully', Hunding held the crown, trying to look as if inspecting it for blemishes.
'Then take it upstairs. There are more torches up in the corridors at ground level. We would soon see', Tofig took the crown from Hunding's hand and strode quickly with Hunding close behind, taking a torch from its bracket on the wall as he went.
'No-o-o!' Herjolf almost howled.
'We shall not be long. does anyone come down to check on you in the night?' Hunding looked back at Herjolf, loping along behind him,
'Thord comes down - God, no!' Herjolf's jaw almost dropped to the floor in dismay as he realised Thord could be on his way. 'I could be buried up to my neck in a termite mound!'
'For doing your duty?' Hunding looked annoyed at Herjolf. 'Such a thing! You had best come with us then, Herjolf'.
Hunding took the Hallander by the elbow and steered him after Tofig, who by now had the crown under a cloth under his left arm and was striding out of the garth on his way east to the sea wall overlooking the Black Sea and the chain.
'God what have I done?' Herjolf whimpered behind Hunding. They were almost running after Tofig who was now atop the wall, waving with the torch still in his right hand.
A lantern was being waved below as Hunding caught up with Tofig, Herjolf close enough behind him he could feel the man panting down his neck. He was plainly unused to so much running. Tofig pointed the way along the wall in the half-darkness and made for a doorway that Hunding could barely make out.
'This way, quick! I hear voices nearby', Tofig waited for the other two to catch up, and the three of them made it to the door before the voices became louder.
With Tofig still leading, the three of them made their way down roughly carved-out steps in the dark. Tofig held the torch down for them to see their way, and so that their pursuers could not see them so well. Finally they were on the stony strand, and Aesc stood with a rowing boat to take them out to Braendings Slange. Their ship was the other side of the chain, taken out by Aesc and the crew without anyone watching them. They had taken care to hitch a rowing boat astern of Braendings Slange for Aesc to collect them in the evening. They were in good time, still, and there was no sign of anyone on the strand ...yet they could see torches above and behind the wall. Someone shouted behind them. A late challenge, too late to be of any use or do anything.
'Row on!' Hunding hissed, and Aesc doubled up. The ship was not far ahead in the dark, no torches had been lit aboard her so as not to be seen from the shore.
Arrows could be heard, hissing in the night sky, flying on over their heads. It would not be long before the bowmen had their range. Hunding leapt to Aesc's side, took one of the oars and drew mightily. They were almost fully turned around by Hunding's strength. Arrows plummeted into the rippling waves and still they pulled hard. Hunding and Aesc together.
Herjolf sat ahead of them, his helm now on the stone floor, head buried in hands. Russet hair seemed to cascade over heaving shoulders as he sobbed like a child, fearful. He could not go home to Halland, he was sure. Thord would find him there, or send men to snatch him, even from the bosom of his kindred. Who could know, his kindred might even hand him over, fearful of Thord's vengeance or disgusted with him for betraying the Imperator's trust. No-one else from their settlement would be trusted now, surely? That would spell the end of their enrolment into the varangian Guard, after all, steady income gone! They would have to rely more on taming the land for crops or grazing.
'Hurry aboard!' Hunding pushed Herjolf up against Braendings Slange and two of the crew hoisted him aboard.
'He weighs like a damned carthorse!' one of them quipped, pushing Herjolf in the back as Tofig tossed up the still wrapped crown to another of the crew.
'Never mind joking, get to the rowing benches, roll out the oars and get rowing!' Hunding laughed, looked back at the arrows falling short into the sea. 'Is Aesc on board yet?'
'Aye, Hunding. I am here', Aesc called back from his rowing bench.
'Then row like men!' Hunding roared with laughter and Tofig pushed Herjolf into Sverri's seat.
They had a full crew again, and the new man would learn to pull his weight. Gone were the days now when all he did was get fat standing guard on the Imperator's treasures. Thord would have to find someone else to guard them overnight. Who knows, either Eystein or Ulf-Thor would be given the night-shift and the new man would have to be 'broken in'. Meanwhile the crew of 'Braendings Slange' would have to row as if they had Fenrir the wolf, Jormungand the world serpent and Garm the hound on their tails!
'We will keep the oars out until we are away from this lee shore and then you can set sail for the Dnieper!' Hunding called out to Tofig.
'Aye, master!' Tofig laughed, and rowed as though his life hung on the oars, out into the Black Sea. Homeward!
Next - 24: Back to Holmgard
The Varangian Guard
Another of the expertly written and presented Osprey series that specialises in the weaponry and uniforms of warriors from Scandinavia who established themselves as the emperors' guards - history, politics, the age are outlined as well as the background of these Vikings-turned-gamekeepers (if you can see the emperors as 'game')
The way back will be long and hard gained...
If caught the punishment for Hunding and his friends would be death... Hunding's and Tofig's a slow, agonising, tortured end. The crew would be unmercifully cha
For the ship's crew it would be slow death at the hands of their own kind, put in chains on galleys that sailed through the Middle Sea between Byzantium's dominions, Hunding and Tofig would be put to death, or blinded with their right hands chopped off and thrown out onto Miklagard's streets (or further away) to beg - if they were lucky. Basil rewarded his men well enough, and for them to steal from him would reflect on him. They would have to die, to show the world around that he was not to be crossed.
Death might be the better option for a man used to freedom and the open sea, than to exist miserably in the heat and dust of the Levant or Palestine, at the mercy of strangers who could not understand them. There would be no sympathy from Thord or the other Varangians for bringing them into disrepute. Their oath was a binding contract and they did well by the emperor. To rob him was a show of greed, and the Varangians or Rhos were not known for greed.
Breaking trust with a Byzantine emperor was serious enough. His rule was absolute - until deposed by other Byzantine nobles. Then his fate could be the same as a traitor's.