Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Vengeance of Queen Olga

The death of Oleg brought Igor his ward, then nearly forty years of age, to the throne of Rurik his father. And the same old story of bloodshed and barbarity went on. In those days a king was king in name only. He was really but the chief of a band of plunderers, who dug wealth from the world with the sword instead of the spade, threw it away in wild orgies, and then hounded him into leading them to new wars.

The story of the Northmen is everywhere the same. While in the West they were harrying England, France, and the Mediterranean countries with fire and sword, in the East their Varangian kinsmen were spreading devastation through Russia and the empire of the Greeks.

Like his predecessor, Igor invaded this empire with a great army, landing in Asia Minor and treating the people with such brutal ferocity that no earthquake or volcano could have shown itself more merciless. His prisoners were slaughtered in the most barbarous manner, fire swept away all that havoc had left, and then the Russian prince sailed in triumph against Constantinople, with his ten thousand barks manned by murderers and laden with plunder.

But the Greeks were now ready for their foes. Pouring on them the terrible Greek fire, they drove them back in dismay to Asia Minor, where they were met and routed by the land forces of the empire. In the end Igor hurried home with hardly a third of his great army.

Three years afterward he again led an army in boats against Constantinople, but this time he was bought off by a tribute of gold, silver, and precious stuffs, as Oleg had been before him.

Igor was now more than seventy years old, and naturally desired to spend the remainder of his days in peace, but his followers would not let him rest. The spoils and tribute of the Greeks had quickly disappeared from their open hands, and the warlike profligates demanded new plunder.

"We are naked," they bitterly complained, "while the companions of Sveneld have beautiful arms and fine clothing. Come with us and levy contributions, that we and you may dwell in plenty together."

Igor obeyed—he could not well help himself—and led them against the Drevlians, a neighboring nation already under tribute. Marching into their country, he forced them to pay still heavier tribute, and allowed his soldiers to plunder to their hearts' content.

Then the warriors of Kief marched back, laden with spoils. But the wolfish instincts of Igor were aroused. More, he thought, might be squeezed out of the Drevlians, but he wanted this extra plunder for himself. So he sent his army on to Kief, and went back with a small force to the country of the Drevlians, where he held out his band—with the sword in it—for more.

He got more than he bargained for. The Drevlians, driven to extremity, came with arms instead of gold, attacked the king and his few followers, and killed the whole of them upon the spot. And thus in blood ended the career of this white-haired tribute-seeker.

The fallen prince left behind him a widow named Olga and a son named Sviatoslaf, who was still a child, as Igor had been at the death of his father. So Olga became regent of the kingdom, and Sveneld was made leader of the army.

How deeply Olga loved Igor we are not prepared to say, but we are told some strange tales of what she did to avenge him. These tales we may believe or not, as we please. They are legends only, like those of early Rome, but they are all the history we have, and so we repeat the story much as old Nestor has told it.

The death of Igor filled the hearts of the Drevlians with hope. Their great enemy was gone; the new prince was a child: might they not gain power as well as liberty? Their prince Male should marry Olga the widow, and all would be well with them.

So twenty of their leading men were sent to Kief, where they presented themselves to the queenly regent. Their offer of an alliance was made in terms suited to the manners of the times.

"We have killed your husband," they said, "because he plundered and devoured like a wolf. But we would be at peace with you and yours. We have good princes, under whom our country thrives. Come and marry our prince Male and be our queen."

Olga listened like one who weighed the offer deeply.

"After all," she said, "my husband is dead, and I cannot bring him to life again. Your proposal seems good to me. Leave me now, and come again to-morrow, when I will entertain you before my people as you deserve. Return to your barks, and when my people come to you to-morrow, say to them. 'We will not go on horseback or on foot; you must carry us in our barks.' Thus you will be honored as I desire you to be."

Back went the Drevlians, glad at heart, for the queen had seemed to them very gracious indeed. But Olga had a deep and wide pit dug before a house outside the city, and next day she went to that house and sent for the ambassadors.

"We will not go on foot or on horseback," they said to the messengers; "carry us in our barks."

"We are your slaves," answered the men of Kief. "Our ruler is slain, and our princess is willing to marry your prince."

So they took up on their shoulders the barks, in which the Drevlians proudly sat like kings on their thrones, and carried them to the front of the house in which Olga awaited them with smiling lips but ruthless heart.

There, at a sign from her hand, the ambassadors and the barks in which they sat were flung headlong into the yawning pit.

"How do you like your entertainment?" asked the cruel queen.

"Oh!" they cried, in terror, "pity us! Forgive us the death of Igor!"

But they begged in vain, for at her command the pit was filled up and the Drevlians were buried alive.

Then Olga sent messengers to the land of the Drevlians, with this message to their prince:

"If you really wish for me, send me men of the highest consideration in your country, that my people may be induced to let me go, and that I may come to you with honor and dignity."

This message had its effect. The chief men of the country were now sent as ambassadors. They entered Kief over the grave of their murdered countrymen without knowing where they trod, and came to the palace expecting to be hospitably entertained.

Olga had a bath made ready for them, and sent them word,—

"First take a bath, that you may refresh yourselves after the fatigue of your journey, then come into my presence."

The bath was heated, and the Drevlians entered it. But, to their dismay, smoke soon began to circle round them, and flames flashed on their frightened eyes. They ran to the doors, but they were immovable. Olga had ordered them to be made fast and the house to be set on fire, and the miserable bathers were all burned alive.

But even this terrible revenge was not enough for the implacable widow. Those were days when news crept slowly, and the Drevlians did not dream of Olga's treachery. Once more she sent them a deceitful message: "I am about to repair to you, and beg you to get ready a large quantity of hydromel in the place where my husband was killed, that I may weep over his tomb and honor him with the trizna [funeral banquet]."

The Drevlians, full of joy at this message, gathered honey in quantities and brewed it into hydromel. Then Olga sought the tomb, followed by a small guard who were only lightly armed. For a while she wept over the tomb. Then she ordered a great mound of honor to be heaped over it. When this was done she directed the trizna to be set out.

The Drevlians drank freely, while the men of Kief served them with the intoxicating beverage.

"Where are the friends whom we sent to you?" they asked.

"They are coming with the friends of my husband," she replied.

And so the feast went on until the unsuspecting Drevlians were stupid with drink. Then Olga bade her guards draw their weapons and slay her foes, and a great slaughter began. When it ended, five thousand Drevlians lay dead at her feet.

Olga's revenge was far from being complete: her thirst for blood grew as it was fed. She returned to Kief, collected her army, took her young son with her that he might early learn the art of war, and returned inspired by the rage of vengeance to the land of the Drevlians.

Here she laid waste the country and destroyed the towns. In the end she came to the capital, Korosten, and laid siege to it. Its name meant "wall of bark," so that it was, no doubt, a town of wood, as probably all the Russian towns at that time were.

The siege went on, but the inhabitants defended themselves obstinately, for they knew now the spirit of the woman with whom they had to contend. So a long time passed and Korosten still held out.

Finding that force would not serve, Olga tried stratagem, in which she was such an adept.

"Why do you hold out so foolishly?" she said. "You know that all your other towns are in my power, and your country people are peacefully tilling their fields while you are uselessly dying of hunger. You would be wise to yield; you have no more to fear from me; I have taken full revenge for my slain husband."

The Drevlians, to conciliate her, offered a tribute of honey and furs. This she refused, with a show of generosity, and said that she would ask no more from them than a tribute of a pigeon and three sparrows from each house.

Gladdened by the lightness of this request, the Drevlians quickly gathered the birds asked for, and sent them out to the invading army. They did not dream what treachery lay in Olga's cruel heart. That evening she let all the birds loose with lighteca matches tied to their tails. Back to their nests in the town they flew, and soon Korosten was in flames in a thousand places.

In terror the inhabitants fled through their gates, but the soldiers of the bloodthirsty queen awaited them outside, sword in hand, with orders to cut them down without mercy as they appeared. The prince and all the leading men of the state perished, and only the lowest of the populace were left alive, while the whole land thereafter was laid under a load of tribute so heavy that it devastated the country like an invading army and caused the people to groan bitterly beneath the burden.

And thus it was that Olga the widow took revenge upon the murderers of her fallen lord.