© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE SLAUGHTER OF ODDI (Circa 829 AD)
“And his shield was called Hrae’s Ship’s Round,
and his followers were called the Hraes.”
Eyvinder Skald-Despoiler; Skaldskaparmal.
Hraerik called out the cadence of the rowing by stout young men from the district of Lither as Fair Faxi slipped away from Hraegunarstead with the morning tide, followed by Hraelauger in Hraegunar’s old longship and the skald, Eyvind Ingvarson leading a third crew of warriors in Brak’s old longship. Hraerik and Eyvind had matched each other poem for poem the night before and held each other in the highest of regard and the rising son of Hraegunar sensed he would have need of a skald to record the revenge he now planned for his father. And an impartial Swede at that. An anxious mother waved from the shore, her tears watering the bitter green, and an old man’s cheeks glistened in the waxing morning rays. The sons sailed off into the light of dawn and their father walked into the shadows of dusk.
The three ships rowed east from Norway, cutting dark waves with their fore stems. The sails were folded and the masts were unfooted as a warm breeze blew steady from the southeast. The oars thrummed in unison to a beat set by Hraerik. The young man stood proud at the head of his newfound ship and barked out the rhythm for a speed he gauged would soon bring them into Oddi’s sea realm. Hraegunar’s longship followed in his wake and Brak’s ship trailed. Hraelauger steadied himself against the forestem of his ship and listened as Hraerik shouted from the afterstem of Fair Faxi.
“Oddi will know when we come,” Hraerik shouted across the waves.
“You think he travels the waves without a boat?” Hraelauger replied, laughing.
Hraerik sensed that Oddi would know of their arrival. The captured Danes he had questioned back at Oslo Fjord had alluded to some kind of signal system that Oddi had set up to forewarn the Danes of attack. Hraerik did not know the method of transmitting information, but he surmised from the perusal of Brak’s old charts that a likely signal point in a warning system would be on a small unnamed island off the coast of Gotland, so that is where he had set their course. He would gamble on this hunch and had decided to play it to the hilt. “We’ll approach the isle I told you of from the east and I’ll show you how he does it,” Hraerik shouted.
The Norwegian ships were anchored off Smaland and their crews waited for sunset, then rowed them toward the isle out of the dusk, beaching the ships on the eastern shore. Hraerik, Hraelauger and a squad of ten men headed inland, leaving Eyvind in command of the rest. They passed through a forest of oak and beach and they discovered a wooden tower set upon a wooded hill. The tower was a crude four column affair made of timbers from the surrounding woods lashed together to a total height of sixty feet. Several scaling ladders, tied together against the east side of it, led up to a round platform, with a hand rail around it and a conical thatch above. Hraerik saw a lone lookout perched upon a stool in the centre of the platform. He dispersed his men into the surrounding woods in search of further Danes while he and Hraelauger stepped boldly into the tower clearing and addressed the lookout on the platform.
“Hrae!” Hraerik shouted. “Have you seen three Norwegian ships hereabout?” The lookout stared down at the two Norsemen in shock.
“If not,” Hraelauger added, “you’d better signal Oddi and tell him they’re here, because, believe me, we are.”
“Now, come down from your perch,” Hraerik continued, his arms akimbo, “and tell us how you signal Oddi, cause we’re just spoiling to meet him three on three.”
“I’ll not come down,” the sentinel shouted in reply and, no matter how many times the brothers guaranteed his safety and assured him that they only wanted him to do his job and signal Oddi, he would not come down. By this time, Hraerik’s men were returning from their search of the surrounding area, so Hraerik had them gather up wood and pile it round the two wooden columns furthest from the scaling ladders.
“Come down,” Hraerik shouted, “or we’ll set the tower ablaze.” There came no response from the platform. Hraerik had his men set the wood piles alight and soon flames were lapping their way up the columns. When the flames were licking at the platform edge and the handrail caught fire on the far side, the sentinel decided perhaps he should try his luck with the vikings, as they could be no more merciless than the conflagration below him. With a nimbleness born of dire circumstance the watchman swung himself over the platform edge and onto the ladder. He scampered down it with practiced ease and landed in the midst of the Norwegians. Some of the men held him while Hraelauger bound him up.
“How do you signal Oddi,” Hraerik asked, but the sentinel was as tight lipped in custody as he had been atop the tower. “Lash him to his tower column,” Hraerik ordered his men, and they pulled him up against the nearest pillar. The Dane could feel the heat of the flames off the burning columns behind him and he could feel the tower quaking as it prepared to collapse in upon itself. Hot cinders drifted down onto his head and shoulders from the blazing platform up above. When his hair began to smoulder, he relented.
“You shall fight Oddi three on three?” he asked excitedly and, when Hraerik nodded, he went on. “We signal by bonfire at night, one fire for each ship under ten and larger fires for each ten above. Oddi faces his enemies with an equal number of ships, never more, never less. That, he claims, is why he always wins and that is why he needs to know the strength of his foe. Cut me loose and I shall signal him for you.”
“You are the only lookout?” Hraelauger asked.
“Yes,” the Dane stammered. “Now cut me loose and I’ll signal Oddi for you.”
Hraerik had his men cut the lookout loose, leaving the tower a flaming conflagration, and the Dane led them to a nearby clearing at the top of a hillock that faced out to sea toward the coast of Smaland. The Dane could see the three Viking ships on the beach far below. Along the clearing were stacks of cord wood ready for the making of signal fires. The Dane began directing the men where to build the fires while explaining the signal code to Hraerik. “For three ships I’d build three smaller fires, while for, say, thirteen I would build one large bonfire and then three smaller ones after it. King Oddi says its Roman numbering. And if I put the smaller fires on the other side of the large fire, this number is subtracted from the total. This system King Oddi taught me himself,” the watchman added proudly. So Hraerik’s men built three woodpiles where the Dane told them to and, when darkness came, they lit the fires.
Hraerik stared into the nearest bonfire and watched the flames dance in the night, tongues of red and yellow and white splaying crazily between logs that crackled and popped and hissed steam and liquor from their severed butts, grizzled old wounds dripping with sapling gore. “Soon the stalwart oaks of Oddi will be dripping their gore,” Hraerik mused and he wondered about this path he was on.
The bonfires did their night’s work and set off a chain of signals down the coast of Smaland and Halland all the way to the island of Zealand. When King Oddi learned of the intrusion he assembled a contingent to meet the Norwegians. Hraerik’s ships searched for signs of Oddi, but they made no contact with him until, while beached on a shoreline in Skane, a landing party led by Hraelauger discovered seven ships of Oddi’s anchored in a sheltered cove just on the other side of a peninsula. Hraelauger discussed what he had found with Hraerik and Eyvind, adding that Oddi must have seen their ships approach from his hidden position and he was in a quandary as to why the Danes had not attacked them at once.
“He awaits four more ships,” Hraerik answered. “Oddi always attacks with an equal number of ships. He is expecting seven and he awaits four more.” Hraerik had the Danish captive brought to their campfire. “Oddi expects seven ships,” he lectured the lookout. The Dane flashed Hraerik a genuine look of surprise. “You had expected us to find thirteen ships,” Hraerik went on, “but Oddi has brought only seven.”
“I must have misjudged the watchtower’s location. You had it burning real good,” the Dane admitted. “I didn’t think you were really going to meet Oddi three on three, but were setting a trap for him, so I tried to give my sea-king as much of an edge as possible.”
“But I have set a trap for Oddi and we close it tonight. Seven ships will do. I had hoped for the thirteen but seven will do. We shall attack at dawn.”
Hraerik had his men lead away the treacherous Dane and then Hraerik spelled out his plan. “We must now unleash the element that Oddi is professed to control.” Hraerik, Hraelauger and five picked men set out in the dark of night in a four oared boat. With short silent strokes, they reached the cove where the Danish ships were anchored, instead of beached, due to the quantity of catapult ton-stones that Oddi had them loaded up with. It was ton-stones from Sweden that Oddi had caused to hail down on Hrafn Ketil’s stranded fleet. Normally, longships could endure the blows of the smaller catapults that could be deck mounted, but the triple density of ton-stones gave their impacts greater timber shattering capabilities. Hraerik sensed that it would be a thousand years before ton-stones would be used as projectiles in battle again.
The seven catapult equipped ships were arrayed in three columns with three ships anchored and lashed end to end down the centre and columns of two on either side, so the seven Norwegians each picked a ship, Hraerik reserving Oddi’s mighty dragon ship for himself, and they swam silently to the side of each. The men then augured holes in the ships’ strakes just below the waterline. The gentle lapping of the waves kept the sentries aboard the ships from picking up any noises and soon a near frozen contingent had completed their sabotage and returned to the warmth of their cloaks and their boat. Hraerik figured a dozen holes per ship should see the fleet up to its decks in water by dawn.
And with the heavy stones the ships were holding, first light found the Danes up to their knees in water bailing for their lives. Oddi’s warriors were all aboard fighting off the waves with buckets and pitchers. So great was the rush to save the ships, when, in the early hours of dawn, the sentries had discovered their plight, that most of the Danes had taken only enough time to buckle sword about waist before swimming out to their foundering vessels. Their spears and their bows, their war axes and their shields, all were left in camp, save for the shields of a few poor swimmers who had employed them as paddleboards in the crossing. The Danes were already cold, wet and exhausted when Fair Faxi cleared the head of the cove with Hraerik at her forestem, Tyrfingr in his hand, a burnished blade flashing the Danes a warning of their fate in the fast rising autumn light.
“We need not conjure up a storm to beach the ships of the Danes,” Hraerik shouted to Hraelauger as the other two ships hove into view and ploughed their way into the cove. Many of the Danes leapt into the waves and swam for their weapons while others remained on board, bailing for all they were worth. Fair Faxi circled the Danish fleet and blocked the path of the swimmers, her crew firing arrows at the distressed Danish warriors. Hraerik stood at the forestem beside a large basket of arrows and fired the darts off his powerful bow so fast and furious he wore through his bowstring before he was done. Hraelauger and Eyvind’s longships flanked the sinking fleet and fired volley after volley of arrows, the deadly shafts piercing the bailing Danes in the midst of their struggles. The constant thrush of bowstrings and the continual hiss of arrows in flight, followed by their solid thuds and the sickening crush of softer penetrations, soon had the fierce Danish warriors unnerved. Oddi was at the head of his dragon-ship, leading a group of men in an attempt to set up a catapult, but their attackers were too close and the deck too exposed. When the Norwegians had exhausted their arrows, they pulled their ships alongside the two outer rows of the fleet. They leapt down onto the flooded and bloodied decks of the Danes and slew the survivors of the airborne onslaught. Fair Faxi had by then turned upon the centre column and had swept the deck of the nearest ship, then Hraerik had his men row upon the centremost vessel, Oddi’s dragon ship, which, due to its size, still sat with its deck above the waves, and lashing hooks were thrown over the bulwarks. Boarding planks were dropped across the top strakes and Hraerik led a well-armed crew onto the gore spattered deck of Oddi’s ship. A fierce battle raged up and down the deck planks, for the Danes, though poorly armoured, wielded their weapons with a ferocity as if they followed Odin himself, and Oddi, a true berserk, was at the forestem of his ship, in the midst of a fury and no steel could harm him. Hraerik fought his way to the fore-deck, Tyrfingr wailing out his progress, and Oddi did him the favour of working his way back until the two fell into personal combat.
“Your other ships,” Oddi growled in a voice that sounded more bear-like than human. “Where are they?”
Tyrfingr swept down in a powerful arc as the two traded blows and Oddi’s great two fisted battle sword shattered under the impact. “There’s always been…just three of us,” Hraerik shouted and he drove Tyrfingr deep into the bared chest of Oddi. The great Danish sea-king gripped the blade of Tyrfingr in his hands so tightly Hraerik could not withdraw it and, as Oddi’s life blood spurted out the gore-letting grooves, and he sank to his knees with his efforts, he struggled to speak through the berserker’s rage and his voice cleared as the fury left him.
“You have found favour with Tyr,” Oddi gasped, “but Odin shall possess you in the end.” Oddi grew deathly pale as the rage left him and he grasped Hraerik’s hand over the hilt of Tyrfingr. “Your first-born shall be named after me and I shall watch over him from Valhall.” Then Oddi let loose of Tyrfingr and Hraerik pulled his blade free and the sea king toppled forward and he died face down at Hraerik’s feet, and the first of the water to wash the ship’s deck ran over to him in a long straying rivulet and it washed away the gore that was pooling about his countenance.
When the great sea-king Oddi had fallen, all fighting stopped as both sides witnessed his death. It would be a most famous death and poems and songs would be composed about it and all who had witnessed it would share in this fame, so the remaining Danish warriors did not bother to take up their weapons after that and allowed themselves to be taken into captivity. Of the seven ships under Oddi only his great dragon-ship remained above the waves and carried any survivors. The rest had been boarded and their crews slaughtered, for so bravely had the Danes struggled that the crews of the smaller ships had fought to the last man. Hraerik ordered the captured Danes taken aboard his father’s longship and they all left the deck of the great dragon ship. When the waves reached the oar-ports the ship quickly slid beneath the surface, taking King Oddi to a watery grave. A great calm swept across the cove as seven awkward fingers, ship’s masts, clawed up at the firmament and announced to the gods ‘this is where King Oddi has fallen’.
Following the destruction of Oddi’s fleet, the Norwegian ships set sail south for the island of Laeso in search of much needed supplies. There, they found a people groaning under the burden of Frodi’s taxation and facing winter with hardly more rations than they themselves possessed. It was while at Laeso that Hraerik experienced a forewarning of his father’s death, and he expressed his fears to Hraelauger and Eyvind. “Last night, in a dream, I saw Hraegunar’s fylgja and by this I know that father is soon to die,” he explained. “He will be in need of his longship, and Eyvind should be there to recite him a drapa of our victory and Hraelauger…you should be there with your mother.”
“While I agree,” Hraelauger started, “that Eyvind should return home, I must insist on going on with you, Hraerik. Someone must cover your back and who else but a brother can do this?”
“Aye,” Eyvind agreed. “Hraegunar will be needing a drapa of this great slaughter and his longship for his burial howe, but those are things that I can provide.”
“I had hoped,” Hraerik said, “to find Frodi’s twelve berserks with Oddi and to have destroyed the whole lot in one fell swoop, but my trap fell short half a dozen ships and now I find I must face them on their own ground, in Frodi’s royal house at Liere. My plans become too dangerous to share. The news of Oddi’s destruction is by now up and down the coast, for such is the way news travels hereabouts and I might be better off to go it alone. The Danes could hardly suspect one ship of destroying Oddi’s fleet.”
“As usual, dear brother, your argument is good. Eyvind should take both ships back to Norway, sailing father’s ship back home and sending Brak’s with the captives on to the Vik and King Gotar.”
Everyone agreed to this plan, so Eyvind took the supplies and the two longships north, while Hraerik and Hraelauger resumed their southward journey in Fair Faxi. Off the north-east coast of Zealand the now famished Norwegian crew sighted a herd of cattle grazing by the shore. Hraerik surveyed the coastline, then sent some men ashore in a four-oared boat with orders to slaughter a cow. They returned with three carcases. Hraerik had the beef hauled aboard and they set off on their way once again while Hraerik upbraided his men for their greed. “One cow might not be missed,” he explained, “but three head shall be noticed very quickly,” then Hraerik wondered if his men could have known it was exactly three cows that he needed. Hraerik’s anger was soon to be justified, but for now they were content to row a safe distance from the site of their crime and set to boiling the meat of one cow in the ship’s huge kettle. When they were dressing down the carcases, Hraerik had the men strip and clean the small intestine of one. Into this he inserted a length of horse-hair rope and, as the sheath shrank, they became as one. Hraerik coiled the length of intestine and always kept it nearby and, every once in a while, he would study its condition until his men thought this quite curious indeed. Once again they resumed their journey southward and soon Hraerik sighted a half dozen fast twelve-oared boats closing in on his ship as they followed the Zealand coastline. The local cattlemen, on learning of the theft, assembled a small fleet of vigilantes and set out in search of the pirates. Hraerik instructed his men to lash meat hooks to three ropes, then he gaffed the two remaining carcases and cast all three lines into the sea. With the submerged beef trailing, Hraerik allowed the vigilante boats to overtake Fair Faxi.
“Hoi! Longship!” the leader of the vigilantes shouted. “Prepare to have us pull alongside.”
“One boat only,” Hraerik shouted in reply and he had his men raise their left bank of oars.
As the leader’s boat pulled up alongside he shouted, “Who are you and what is your business in King Frodi’s waters?”
Hraerik looked down upon a handsome young officer of the royal Danish navy and said, “I am Hraerik Bragi Boddison of Norway. Liere is our destination and merchanting is our business.” He paused a moment then added, “And you sir. You look like you’re out to correct some mischief.”
“Quite true, I fear. We are investigating a cattle theft which occurred up the coast. Have you seen anyone who might be responsible?”
“Not hereabouts, but we did see three Viking ships north of here three days ago. At first we thought they might attack, but they looked as though they were off to some mighty battle. That is of course conjecture, and I’m sure you have speculations of your own that I think a short inspection of our ship might clear up. A boat has few corners in which to hide a beef, sir.” Hraerik thrust down his hand and the two captains locked arms and Hraerik yarded the Dane up into his ship as though he were a child.
“That it does, sir,” the Danish officer said, straightening out his gear. “And fewer yet in which to hide three, for that is how many were slaughtered.” The vigilante walked partway down the ship’s deck then stopped and returned to the foredeck. “You seem to be totally lacking in supplies altogether, sir, and you’ve three lines slung off the far side of your ship,” the Danish officer said, squinting his eyes suspiciously. “And that coil you have by your feet,” he added, “looks to be fresh calf’s gut.”
“As for supplies,” Hraerik explained, “we find that good silver buys us fresher meals than makes salty stores. Your sea king, Oddi, assured us that supplies could be purchased from the local farmers, but, alas, it seems that no one has enough to spare with winter coming on.”
“You’ve met up with Oddi?” the Dane asked excitedly.
“Why again, three days ago plying up the coast of Skane with six more ships in tow. He spoke highly of your farmers and cattlemen. He had little good to say for sailors and merchants, I’m afraid.”
“That sounds like Oddi all right. There is a rumour up and down the coast that Oddi’s fleet was destroyed by three Viking ships. I was sent out from Liere to investigate this tale and I thought the three missing head might lead me to three pirate ships.”
“Oddi dead?” Hraerik exclaimed in astonishment. “These waters turn out to be more dangerous than your sea-king, Oddi, had forecast.”
The Danish captain put his hand to his chin in heavy contemplation. “You’ve yet to explain that fresh calf gut at your feet or those three lines over your bulwark,” he said sternly.
“Why, the calf gut is said to be the very rope that hanged King Vikar,” Hraerik said, matter of factly. “I have found it in my merchant travels and now wish to present it as a gift to your King Frodi, if he will see me.”
“If you’ve seen Oddi, I’m sure King Frodi shall be very anxious to speak with you. Now the lines?”
“Why, we fish for the Midgard Serpent, sir,” Hraerik explained. “I don’t believe that Thor has slain the earth girding worm, so I always have lines let out that I might catch the beast.”
“You seem quite steeped in the ancient lore, but, if there is only one serpent, why have you let out three lines?”
Hraerik took up a great battle axe, walked over to the bulwark and hacked away two lines. “We can catch the worm with just one line, if you wish,” Hraerik replied. The Dane had followed him over and quickly began yarding up on the last line when Hraerik added, “We may very well have caught the great serpent already,” and Hraerik raised the axe up high as though ready to strike the worm a mortal blow. “You draw up the line and I shall smite the beast.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a beast on it,” the Dane replied. “Perhaps you’d best proceed to Liere and leave the serpent for Thor to deal with. Meantime, I seem to have three serpents of my own to deal with…the Vikings who may have slaughtered Oddi. They must be true berserks to have caused King Frodi so much grief.” He backed away from Hraerik, always keeping his eyes upon the uplifted axe, and he climbed back over the top strake and jumped into his boat. “You shall no doubt be in Liere before me so let the authorities know what you’ve told me of King Oddi. Tell them you’ve spoken with Lieutenant Einar Cuff of King Frodi’s navy.”
The Danish boats began rowing north up the coast and Fair Faxi continued her southward journey.