Þrír Vegir í Miklagarð (part one)

Halfdan: A Swedish Varangian via Kievan Rus, c. 990

Halfdan was not the first Halfdan to come to Miklagard. This he discovered shortly after his arrival from Kiev with Prince Vladimir’s other Rus. On especially important days, the life-guard accompanied the Grikkjakonungr varying distances along the route to whichever church he had determined to visit. On regular days, designated members stood by the Greek King for the entire service. On this particular day, Halfdan was not in such immediate attendance and had ventured into one of the upper galleries of the Great Church, which the Greeks called Hagia Sophia. When he had first seen the inside of the building he had thought it afire, but somehow its air was cooler than in the courtyards outside and he reflected that there could not be that much fuel in the whole world to burn so long and so brightly anyway. The roof blocked out the heavens, yet seemed to trap the sun inside. Within, the captive rays blinded and bounced oddly off the walls so that even after many visits, Halfdan could not describe quite what the building looked like nor trace its floor-plan.

If not for a trick of the light he might have missed his name, but glancing up, near the top of the sloping ceiling he read: HALFDAN scratched in unhurried, if rather crooked, runes. It was hard to tell how long they had been there, since they were not open to the weather as most rune stones he knew from home were. Perhaps this Halfdan had lived and died in the days of his great-grandfather. Perhaps he was still at large, wandering the city’s many side streets and back alleys, which confused Halfdan with their labyrinthine twists and turns. Miklagard was far grander than any settlement he had visited before, but he had no love for its crowded, covered backstreets and throngs of hurried people. Give him a good straightforward battle any day—the city was already too much to look at and focus on without watching for street brawls behind every crumbling tenement.

Standing somewhat idle, though alert to any possible threat to the Grikkjakonungr or his family, Halfdan gazed at the rough runes somewhat above his head. Through the clouds of dust motes, billowing in the midmorning shafts of light, they seemed to take on a life of their own. He speculated that their carver could even have been the Halfdan, the very first Halfdanr gamli, from whom nearly every great hero of the past and king of the present was descended. Halfdan wondered if such a legendary man would have felt dwarfed by the size and excess of Miklagard as well. He doubted the runes actually belonged to the Halfdan of myth, but felt an inexplicable swell of pride every time he entered the Great Church thereafter.

A compatriot from Holmgard, who had traded in Miklagard before, rendered the name of the Great Church as Heilagr fróðleikr: “Holy Knowledge,” though Halfdan was not persuaded this captured either the words themselves, or the weight they conveyed for the city’s residents. Halfdan was rapidly learning words and phrases in Greek, but the abstract terms largely escaped him, along with most of the faith. He had heard of the Greek King’s religion in Kiev, and recognized holy pendants and cross-shaped containers from his travels through Rus. He was now familiar with the immense domed buildings that dotted the landscape, yet were themselves dwarfed individually by the sheer number of structures stretching away to all sides. Or, as familiar as one could be, for he was still convinced some team of Jotnar was responsible for their construction. He suspected the same of some of the statues and columns scattered around the city, as, he was told, did a good many Greeks, who even had guidebooks for the subject, though none he could read. Halfdan was curious, to a point, about the god such buildings belonged to (or possibly three gods, or possibly more if saints were considered). However, it was not his faith, and he was far from certain it would ever be.

On the nights after suitably important holy days and their corresponding feasts, the entire guard ate from the Grikkjakonungr’s table itself. Halfdan could still taste the oily flavors on the back of his tongue. Olive oil was a novel development; it permeated everything consumed in Miklagard and left his fingers greasy. Halfdan had seen the amphorae both oil and wine (which he liked quite a bit better) were stored and transported in throughout the Rus, but by that point they tended to be broken, or at least empty. Fish was decidedly less novel. Halfdan ate plenty at home, of course, and all along the waterways from Sweden to Kiev. He had eaten it in various states of preservation or fermentation, but never completely liquid. He was not entirely sure what to make of the so-called fish sauce. Or leeks, for that matter. However, Halfdan appreciated the festival spirit, whichever god or gods it honored, and learned to enjoy the leeks.

Brigid Ehrmantraut


The Halfdan inscription, Hagia Sophia. Wikimedia Commons

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