HUNDING'S SAGA - 24: HOLMGARD BOUND, And A Twist Of Fate For Hunding
A chance meeting on the Dnieper with Jomsviking leader Palnatoki gives Hunding leave to keep Basil's crown for sale... at the right price
On the open sea again, 'Braendings Slange' was buffeted by a north-westerly....
The wind threw sea spray across Hunding as he held the steerboard arm steady. Basil's galleys were no nearer than the last time he looked past the sternpost. They were, he reasoned, manned by driven thralls, whipped often by their masters, beaten for failing to draw abreast of a small Viking ship half their size. His, Hunding's crew on the other hand, were all free men, fit and well-fed after months under Basil's roof.
True Sverri had been lost - set on vengeance, his mettle had been tested and failed - but they now had Herjolf. No others had fallen, and Hunding counted himself lucky he had such a true crew that they were ready to risk capture by the Turks to save him. Hunding now set course for the the mouth of the Dnieper. As far as that they were still likely to be followed by Basil's Varangian longships or galleys, so they needed to be beyond the Krim fairly soon.
They had been under sail for some time now. A stiff westerly filled the great striped sail, set as it was at a sharp angle to her hull, pushing Braendings Slange across waves that sometimes threatened to swamp her on the Sorte Hav, the Black Sea. The crew were ready with leather buckets whenever the wind off the Bulgar coast slopped salt water onto the deck, and were often well beset bailing.
Astern of Hunding the white sails of galleys - four of them, he counted - could be seen atop the swell. Then they would vanish, showing not long afterward against the low clouds, just as far away as before and wallowing just as hopelessly as Hunding's ship.
The galleys were heavy in the water, the thralls struggling, fearful of the beating they knew was in store for them. Thord would have been berated by the Imperator for taking in Hunding, Tofig and the rest of their crew. Herjolf's very life would be forfeit if Thord caught up with him, and his death would be witnessed by the other Varangians, to teach them a lesson in honesty - if nothing else. Thord would be in fer of his own life. A high-born servant of the Imperator would sail with him, with orders for the arrest of the thieves.
Now they would bring the ship and its dearly-won cargo back to Holmgard, to Valdemar. As free men they could sail away again, back around the Kingdom of the Danes into the great western sea to Jorvik. Hopeful of a good gain at the end of their sailing, they would hold true to Hunding. As far as Tofig went, he too had gain in sight but his friendship with Hunding went deeper. As was Aesc's. He and his Aenglish crew-mates were hopeful of reaching home again. That and the likelihood of being well rewarded by Wulfstan for their part in taking his weapons to a new market would spur them on. Whether they would ever go east again was them to think about when they saw the welcoming Hymbra again.
For now, reaching the Dnieper was foremost in everyone's thoughts, as was gaining on their pursuers. If Basil's shipmasters did not see them enter the Dnieper, they would be left guessing as to which way Hunding went. Meanwhile Braendings Slange would be upriver, sailing northward through the first two lakes. Thord would not chase them beyond the bounds of Basil's widespread lands, surely?
Day turned to night, and the sails were left behind.
The Dnieper was still far ahead to the north; they were not yet beyond Basil's reach, but it would cost Thord dear to catch up with them. His rowers would be dead on their benches if he wanted to overhaul Hunding, but how far was the Varangian leader willing to push his men. How many of those men had anything to gain from dying in harness? How many was Basil willing to lose before his captain was himself punished? Would be be ready to forsake reason? Hunding would only know he had won when he was out of reach, so far up the Dnieper it would be senseless to chase further for fear of being attacked by tribesmen grateful for the chance to get back at their faraway master. Tidings of Thord's torture and death would not reach Basil for some time after his ships came to grief.
In the morning the wind had abated and they were drifting slightly... southward with the current around the Krim. They could see the land to their right, and they could also see the white sails far off astern. But they were closer than they had been the day before!
'Everyone - back on the oars!' Hunding pointed out the sails to the south to Tofig and Aesc.
'Good Lord!' was all Aesc said before thumping his backside down on one of the benches to start rowing. Tofig followed, and Herjolf grabbed two oars by himself.
'Heave!' Hunding called out. 'Their ships are rowed by whipped thralls; see if we cannot leave them far behind once more!'
His crew settled down to some solid rowing, happy in the knowledge that their lighter ship could outstrip the Imperator's galleys. They rowed for almost half a day, resting now and then, eating and taking water every so often. Hunding watched the galleys' sails as they shrank and vanished below the waves again.
'The Dnieper lies ahead!' Hunding cheered them on. The still far-off, low-lying coast could soon be seen clearly.
Towers either side of the river were manned by Basil's men, but they did not know Braendings Slange was in flight from their Imperator. They could not yet see Thord's ships, could they? There was no way Thord could reach these men to tell them to hold Hunding. He was waved on by a grinning warrior who wore the attire of a captain of Basil's guard.
Everything was going well for them. And the wind was picking up again, this time from the south-west. With their sail full again, they could leave Thord well behind and the galley sails might not fill enough not to have to keep the oarsmen working as well.
He wondered how far behind the galleys were now, whether the men in the towers could see them well enough to see if anyone was signalling.
As it was the wind stiffened, pushing them along again, on across the first lake they glided, spray from the prow soaking the crew on the foremost benches. The shore on either side of them was far enough away, that should anyone loose off arrows at them they could not be reached. This was almost too good to be believed! They would soon have Basil's crown in Valdemar's hands, and freedom to roam the rivers in his realm.
Some way ahead there were ships. Hunding counted the prows, as the sails were down, their crews rowing against a stiff south-westerly wind. There were five ships in all, coming straight toward Braendings Slange.
'Slacken sail', Hunding told Tofig. They did not want to hurtle into trouble, after all. If the worst came to the worst, they might bypass these new ships.
Braending's Slange slowed, Hunding at the ready to swing the steering board around.
'Who are they?' Aesc asked Hunding, who shook his head.
'They are not Jomsvikings, at least', Tofig told them, 'I think - well we will soon learn who they are'.
Hunding saw a tall fellow by the prow of the nearest ship, the oars behind him dipping to time, glistening in the strong afternoon light. As the ship came nearer the fellow cupped his hands over his mouth and called out into the freshening wind. Not being able to hear rightly what was being shouted, Hunding cupped a hand around one ear.
When the fellow called out again he was much nearer, his men pulling strongly on the oars,
'Who are you?'
'You might as well answer', Tofig counselled. 'We could soon outstrip them with our sail filled, and they would have to come about - time enough for us to flee'.
'I am Hunding Hrothulfsson', Hunding answered. By this time their bow pointed outward, almost toward the eastern bank of the lake, and the ships drew in line abreast to his left.
'Are you the Hunding Prince Valdemar sent to Miklagard on an errand?'
'I am', Hunding allowed a lopsided grin. 'And who, might I ask, are you?'
'I am Palnatoki', came the answer that wrenched Tofig's head around.
These were the Jomsvikings!
'Fear not, Hunding. I have nothing against you. I would like to come aboard, if you will make me welcome', Palnatoki smiled broadly, holding up his open palms as if to yield in a fight. 'I owe you something, I believe - for ridding us all of Lifing', the warrior leader told him, ignoring the outburst.
'How is that?' If Hunding was already stunned, he was rendered almost speechless by this news.
'Lifing gave us a bad name. We do not rob common folk, nor do we take them as thralls from fishing hamlets along the Jylland coast, as you may believe us to do. Lifing had crews of his own he paid from the sale of those taken, as in your hamlet. His only aim was in self-enrichment. The Jomsvikings have a code. But it was down to Lifing that your king raided Jomsborg and scattered us to the four winds! Our men were hired out to the crowned heads and princes around the Eastern Sea. We are now on our way south to see what Basil the 'Bulgar-slayer' wishes of us, as he has summoned me in the wake of the Prince Valdemar's death. If he can use us and our ships, so much the better! By the way, Prince Valdemar died not long ago. He spoke of the errand, but said nothing about what it was he sent you to do for him. If you wish to enlighten me about what goes in Miklagard, then do so by all means. Otherwise we shall all be on our ways, you to the north and we south'.
'It was nothing, really', Hunding smiled, lying through his teeth. He did not want to be taken back in chains. 'I was asked to hand something to the Imperator from the prince. As it was well-wrapped and bound we were unaware of what it was. And as Basil did not take it amiss, I guessed it to be a welcome gift. That is all I know. I wish you well on your way'.
Whether he believed Hunding or not, he said nothing and Palnatoki stepped back over the ships' sides onto his own vessel. His oarsmen pushed away. With a cheery wave and loud laughter from both crews, they took their farewells.
'That was close', Tofig wiped his brow. 'Where did you learn to lie like that?'
'I have had good teachers'.,
'What now, that we need no longer pass through Holmgard?' Aesc thought, out aloud.
'He said nothing about what they did with Lifing', Hunding was still wary. If the fellow could so easily draw men around him on the offer of rich rewards, he might yet seek vengeance on Hunding. 'We are not yet wholly safe from Lifing until we pass Skagen'.
'That far?' Aesc was now worried.
'He could never buy another crew so quickly', Tofig shrugged off any threat Lifing might pose.
'You think not?' Hunding was not that easily won over.
'I think not. Besides, he would not know which way we will sail west. There are many rivers that empty into the Eastern Sea We can take the Dvina and come out across from Gotland. We will be safe on Gotland for a day, make for Oeland and then Bornolm...' Tofig was not allowed to go on.
'Bornholm?' Hunding laughed at the thought of crossing swords with King Svein's men. 'I think we will give Bornholm a miss, Tofig. You recall we had a narrow call by his tax men last time we landed there?'
'Very well, then. We miss Bornholm, but we still have to put in near Trelleborg on Skaane', Tofig wanted no strife with Hunding after all this way.
'Why Trelleborg?' Aesc was first to ask.
'To see my woman. I have not seen her for nearly half a year, Hunding. I miss her, believe it or not. Do you not miss your Wulfwila, or are you over her. You cannot seek out the Erse woman if you do not make landall on Bornholm'
'I am not over Wulfwila', Hunding snorted, 'but I am not sure she is not over me. I shall see if she missed me - or if she was married off' - when I reach Jorvik'.
'There is that, too. Perhaps you should have told Osferth', Tofig nodded.
'Her mother would never have allowed it. She had her eyes on marrying Wulfwila off to a thegn, at least', Hunding sniffed at the thought of not being thought good enough for Wulfwila. Still, he would show them, and bring Basil's crown to the ealdorman. Perhaps the king would see it as an offer worth giving land for. 'Meanwhile we must make haste before Thord has Palnatoki turn after us. He would gain much from pleasing his new master'.
'Would Basil be as eager to meet the Jomsviking leader if he knew he had let us slip through his fingers, I wonder?' Aesc asked, to cheering from the crew.
'Thord might blow like an Icelandic geyser if he knew!' Herjolf quipped, to even louder cheering.
'The sooner we make landfall on Gotland the better, then', Hunding called out to everyone, 'and as the wind has dropped, there is some earnest rowing to be done!'
The crew trooped back to the rowing benches, leaving Hunding astern with Tofig.
'I had best be back rowing with the rest of them', so saying, Tofig clapped a hand on Hunding's back and strode forward. The knife he had carried in his hand since Palnatoki boarded was dropped onto the bag he had stowed by the mast. The sail could be left unfurled until they were clear of the tall trees to the west that held back the wind.
They would need to camp before the river bent again to the north-west, hoping for a following wind in the morning. The crew would sleep lightly that night, and Hunding needed to post guards to watch the riverway to the south lest the Jomsvikings be sent back by Thord to look for them.
Next - 25: Gaining the Eastern Sea
A crown, and a memorial to intrepid warrior-traders
Hunding's crew had their prize...
Now all they had to do was outstrip the emperor's galleys up the Dniepr. After learning of Valdemar's death Hunding and Tofig knew they could not go back to Holmgard There would be long hours of rowing ahead, upriver against the flow before crossing overland between riverheads to the Dvina and on into the Eastern Sea (Baltic).
One famed leader of the Varangians would later be imprisoned in Miklagard charged with defrauding the emperor [in fact for turning aside the marital advances of the empress Zoe (she claimed) when he resigned his post to go home]. The giant Harald Sigurdsson served with the guard before returning to Holmgard to take his bride Ellisif to Norway, with treasures taken in keeping with tradition after the death of a previous emperor to Constantine Monomakhos, Zoe's second husband. In episode 52 of this series Hunding's ship is overtaken by Harald's on his way south to Koenungagard (Kiev).
Hunding's son Ivar will meet Harald under different circumstances at Staenfordes Brycg (Stamford Bridge near York). See hubpages.com/literature/THE-RAVENFEAST-SERIES.
Everyman's Scandinavia. Only a few were active in going a-viking - raiding around the coasts of Britain, the Baltic and Northwestern Europe. Most were craftsmen, traders or farmers, who followed their businesses diligently, providing the means for some to go raiding.