The Errolaniad: Long Ships and Long Years

Clarifying note on names: My original character, Ogier, was named for the paladin who appears in the Matter of France, Ogier le Danois – a close friend of his father Roland. When I moved to Russia I Russified the name, as opposed to Frenchifying it, and he became Oleg. The original, in both cases, is the Danish Holger, as in Holger Danske, who sleeps beneath Kronborg Castle awaiting the hour of Denmark’s greatest need. Since this installment deals with events in Norse-speaking regions, I use this original. Thus Holger here, Ogier from last week’s narrative, and Oleg from last week’s screenie are all one person.

My steppe game went rather badly. True, the session started well when I defeated the Khan’s bid to take over my province of Ural, in the process capturing enough chieftains to make myself wealthy. Shortly after the peace, the Khan died, and I was poised to begin my war for the crown against his successor. First, however, I wanted to deal with the attack by the tribe of Sibir, of roughly equal strength in levies; “I’ll just crush this AI Duke”, I said to myself, “then it’ll be the Khan’s turn”. Then Kodalem invaded me with 5000 men, and a holy war for Volga Bulgaria, roughly half my lands.

With my tribal army, a mercenary band, and some judicious maneuvering I was able to turn back this invasion, and send my doomstack back west to deal with Sibir. At this point my oldest son (with the high Martial skill) came back from the Varangian Guard with a slight case of the deads; Oleg was assassinated; and shortly thereafter his son Oliver was also assassinated. (In hindsight, I should probably have replaced the spymaster after the first one.) This left a 3-year-old boy in charge of my domains, and my doomstack. Which was when Kodalem brought the second wave of his invasion, this time with no more Mr Gentle Savage: 15000 men and a 30% attrition rate. Aaand I ran out of money, leaving me with no army. Naturally, both wars concluded in my disfavour in short order.

This is not necessarily irrecoverable; it is the nature of tribal domains to be easy come, easy go. (And, hey, I managed to convert Ural to Norse/Germanic!) However, with Vaniver retiring and offering me his emperor-level republic slot, not surrounded by three more powerful domains, with Reformed Germanic and the British Isles location that was my first choice – yeah, sod this for a game of Cossacks. That does mean giving up on the Rolandoviches and de Errolans, although they are not extinct and for all I know may end up ruling Khazaria; if someone wants to take them over, they’ll have a friend in the Isles. So, this is probably our last narrative glimpse of the ex-Spanish dynasty, explaining how they came to go east to the Volga.


May 20th, 817
Þinghæð (Meeting Hill), near Bristol (OTL Brandon Hill)

“We sent you gold, ships, men. All gone, spent on mercenaries that deserted, scattered by storms, dead in foreign fields leaving their women to grieve. And that was when you held the mountain passes. Now you come a beggar to England, and ask for more?”

It was all true, and Holger had no answer; he would not win here by reasoned argument, any more than he had been able to convince his sisters. Instead, he drew his sword – slowly, so as not to startle any of the heavily-armed, experienced fighting men around him – and thrust it into the turf.

“This,” he said softly, forcing men to lean forward to hear, “is my father’s sword, and his father’s before him: Roland’s sword, who served that Charles whom men call the Great. It is called Durendal, the Sword That Endures. It was forged by Wayland Smith to be a terror to the enemies of God; an angel brought it to Charlemagne, and within its hilt lies a tooth of Saint Peter, so that any who falls while wielding it will infallibly enter Heaven. With this sword I have fought the Saracen on a hundred fields. I will fight on a hundred more, if that is what it takes to drive the infidel from my homeland; for like my father’s sword, I endure. Wasted gold, lost ships, fallen comrades; these are all ill things. I ask you to endure them, for the sake of your Saviour that endured the Cross. Who’ll come with me, to raise that cross in foreign lands, and win a place in Heaven?”

There was silence on the Meeting Hill; men looked at each other, shuffling their feet. The Christian faith was new in these lands; the elders had become men by sacrificing a dog or a horse – in a few cases, a man – to the Allfather. They had publicly taken the faith of the White Christ for the sake of peace with their neighbours; but they did not feel His sacrifice for them, as they had felt the crawling awe of the Thunderer passing overhead. But the younger men – that was where Holger placed his hopes; the ones who had been baptised as children, who had been taught all their lives of the love of God. They were the ones who might decide to return that love, the ones who believed as a child believes what his father tells him. He searched through the crowd, looking for the one trembling on the edge of decision, the one the Holy Spirit was trying to enter and, literally, inspire. There – the man with the corn-silk hair; the one whose beard was so neatly cared for that it had to have been wisps and scrags very recently. Holger picked up his sword and went down on his knees before the youth, holding out Durendal, hilt first.

“The White Christ died that you might live,” he entreated. “Will you not do the same for Him?”

The young man’s breath huffed out in a gasp – an evil spirit being expelled, perhaps? He gritted his teeth in a last momentary agony of indecision, then finally straightened, eyes glowing with inspiration.

“I’ll fight for Him!” he exclaimed, and took Durendal, raising it into the air. For a long moment the Meeting Hill hung in balance; then shouts erupted, deep male voices crying “Fight! Fight!” Holger’s heart leapt for joy.

A few minutes of chaos ensued, as men clamored to join Holger’s cause. When it was over, he looked at his new followers – and was disappointed. They were fighting men, certainly; brawny, tawny-haired northerners, their beards elaborately braided – but they were all young. The fervour that had caught their imaginations had not spread to their elders. The landowners, the men with ships and gold and fighting tails, were remaining silent; and it was them he needed, to turn his enlarged warband into the nucleus of a real army. There would be no invasion of Iberia with a few score Norsemen, no matter how charged with enthusiasm for the White Christ; he needed ships, horses, supplies. He still needed his miracle.

“A good start,” Valdemar observed beside him. “I did not think you would get so many to join you.”

Holger’s mouth twisted bitterly; Valdemar had been his sponsor, which was why a foreigner had been allowed to speak at Bristol Ting – and why not? The words, “I stand sponsor for this man,” were cheap enough. Holger noticed he had not risen to pledge ships or other material support; and yet Holger was in Valdemar’s debt, for if he had not been allowed to speak, he could hardly have gotten even this much. It was a clever move, parting with what cost the giver little but aided the recipient much. Clearly, Valdemar’s reputation was not without cause.

“A start only,” he said. “The infidel Sultan can field a thousand men without making his messengers ride more than half a day; five dozen men are not like to make him leave off buggering his harem.”

“True.” Valdemar looked thoughtful, which Holger distrusted deeply; when Valdemar looked as though he were coming up with an off-the-cuff idea on the spur of the moment, that was when you could be sure he was laying out the next step of a plan he’d thought out the year before. “The way to gather men, of course, is to show them victory and plunder. Have you thought of becoming a sea king?”

“Yes, I have.” Holger pressed his lips together, reluctant. “I have only one ship, and it is not suited for longshore work.” And, he carefully did not say, it would take years to build his reputation that way; years, and an immense amount of work that oppressed him just to think about. Hundreds of longshore raids, the high-pitched screaming of women, smoke and burning and men bellowing in insupportable, life-ending pain… he was willing enough to fight, he’d proved that for a decade in the wars in Iberia, but there was a difference between an open battlefield, and the work of a pirate and raider. He had been a lord of Asturias; his grandfather had been a paladin of an empire that had covered most of Europe. To become a sea king, a man who ruled a fleet and whatever piece of land his followers happened to be standing on, and who ruled the latter only for as long as it took to plunder it… and yet, what choice did he have? No doubt he could take service with some wealthy duke or king somewhere, settle down, remarry, perhaps have another son or two to follow him as captains of guards. There would be an estate in it, for a man who could bring a hundred soldiers to settle a close rivalry; he would be a landowner again, an important man in his own right… but not a lord. And not in sun-drenched Iberia, where carpets of bluebells ran over the hills like snow and mirrored the summer sky. No; an estate in France was not for Holger. He would not long outlive his driving purpose. He sighed deeply, squaring his shoulders.

“Yes, well. No doubt you have something in mind?”

Valdemar smiled. “As it happens, I have a need for a good solid oak-built trading ship with a deep keel, to trade between Bristol and Hamburg. And I have some longships, very suitable for viking work.”

“For two hundred men I will need seven longships,” Holger noted. “And ten would be better. That is no fair trade for just the one deep-bottomed trader.” Or, in other words, Valdemar was going to chisel something else out of him; the question was what.

“Quite so,” Valdemar agreed. “A one-third share of the plunder of your first voyage is a very suitable recompense, however.”

“One-third?!” Holger near-shouted, then shut his mouth as it occurred to him that his first voyage didn’t, actually, have to go very far. Say, just across the sea to Ireland, hit one godforsaken stockaded village just for practice, and give Valdemar one of the three scrawny cows such a thing would net them; the other two could be eaten.

“Of course, I’d have to have some say in where the voyage went,” Valdemar added. “And I have a man or two in mind to send with you, who would – hmm – be better off for some distance from Bristol, this next little while.”

And who would also ensure that Valdemar wasn’t cheated, or at least not too egregiously. Holger sighed. “One-tenth,” he said, more or less at random, to have a starting point; to his surprise, Valdemar nodded.

“One-tenth, if you voyage as I wish you to.”

Holger flinched; if Valdemar was giving up the one-third so easily, that meant he had something else in mind for his real price, and who knew where he might want his ships to go? But, again, what choice was there? He’d made his decision; all that remained was to follow it, if necessary to the ends of the Earth. Perhaps literally so, Valdemar was not a man to lightly abandon the difference between a third and a tenth; but that was as it would be. Holger tossed his head, throwing away the part of him that objected to the mere work involved; no doubt it would come back, but he didn’t have to let that part make the present moment unpleasant with its laziness.

“Where do you want us to go, then?” he inquired, and now there was no bitterness or reluctance in his voice. Valdemar smiled.

“The circle of the Earth,” he quoted, “on which men live, is rent by great bights, so that great seas run into the land from the out-ocean. Thus it is known that a great sea goes in at Narvesund [1] and up to the land of Jerusalem. From this same sea a long bight stretches up north-east, and is called the Black Sea, and divides Asia from Europe.” He paused, and when he went on he was no longer quoting [2], but speaking as he usually did. “Conversely, on the northern side, the Baltic Sea runs in to Great Novgorod; and from Novgorod one may follow the Volga down south after an easy portage, and reach Great Svithjod. This is all known. What I do not know, what I would give much gold to know, is whether the Volga runs into the Black Sea. For if it does, then it is possible to circumnavigate Europe; and that is what I would have you do. For if it can be done, then there is enormous wealth to be made by the first few to know the route; enough wealth, even, to finance a great war.”

Holger blinked. That was, actually… interesting. A project worthy of a lord of Asturias; no mere raid – although there would be raids along the way, of course – but a voyage of exploration, of discovery. For a moment, he felt as the young man he’d spoken to earlier must have done, when he finally cast aside doubt and agreed to join Holger; here was a cause to which he could give his talents, which he could serve with pride. He felt his back straighten; for the first time since he’d left Viscaya, he felt like more than a landless wanderer, uprooted from his home soil and slowly withering.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll go. East, to Great Novgorod; and south, on the Volga.” His head filled with visions of the distant East; of great Constantinople, and presenting his cause to the Emperor; of sailing home on the wine-dark water, and raiding the south coast of Iberia on the way to teach the Saracen to respect Christian exiles… or perhaps, by then, he would already have built his fleet of ten ships into a great army, and Valdemar could whistle for his tenth. No, better still, he would offer Valdemar a lordship in Iberia for his one-tenth of the spoils; after all he was a lord, not some chiseling merchant who would betray his sworn word for profit.

“It’ll take a year,” he said, “if it can be done. We’ll likely have to winter somewhere in the east.”

“I’ll look for you with the spring,” Valdemar said. He held out his hand, and Holger took it, sealing their bargain; the long years of his search were over. All that remained was the proper use of the long ships.

[1] That is, the strait of Gibraltar.
[2] Nitpickers: Valdemar is not quoting Snorre, which would be anachronistic to the tune of about 700 years. Rather, Snorre wrote down an ancient oral tradition, which is what Valdemar is quoting. So there.


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Filed under Errolaniad, God of Our Fathers, Recessional

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