© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
VISIT AT HRAEGUNARSTEAD (Circa 829 AD)
“The snake will strike, venom filled, flashing from
the time worn skull of Faxi.”
The ironic thing about home is that it is never really home until you leave. It is a place for nurturing, a place for growing, a place of primary explorations and discoveries, but, most of all, it is a place to escape from. Only beyond the confines of home, out in the unforgiving world, does the place become home. A refuge to retreat to. A sanctuary to return to. Home.
Entering the bay, watching the crowd gather upon the bitter green, seeing the longhall and the boat sheds and the smithy shop, then the homes of the freemen and the shanties of the slaves, and, in the distance, the familiar meadows and forests and grey sequestering mountains, Hraerik felt, for the first time in his life, that sense of home.
Hraerik stood at the forestem of Fair Faxi as they swept by the mottled crowd on the greensward. The people of Hraegunarstead shouted and waved and ran alongside and Hraerik saw Hraegunar and Kraka fall behind. They both now walked upon the bitter green.
Home. It was not just a place. It was a time, and, although that time had passed, the place bore its shadow. And time, when gauged by the life of a man, was seldom linear and often cruel. In the course of a few months it had surged forth years. Suddenly Hraegunar was old.
Fair Faxi thudded softly into the sand of the bay and the throng took up ropes that were thrown out to them and they hauled the ship up on the beach.
Hraegunar was in much better spirits now than when his sons had last seen him, having successfully concluded another season’s trade in the east while his sons had bided their time in the Vik. But his body was now stooped and his hands were swollen and inflamed. He welcomed the boys home and led them up to the longhall, where ale and food awaited them.
The two youths sat once more upon the high seats of their father and announced their upcoming embassy to Denmark.
Hraegunar seemed to ponder the news for some time. He got up from his high seat, stepped down to the dais and turned to face his sons, arms akimbo. “And I understand the two of you volunteered for this. Hraelauger stepping forward first and then you, Hraerik.”
Hraerik realized then that Hraegunar had his own ears in Gotar’s high seat hall.
“It’s bad enough,” he continued, “ that you’ve both fallen in with a luckless king, a king I instructed you not to support, but now you’ve placed your lives at risk, and the lives of your men as well. Am I to believe that a luckless king such as Gotar is capable of soliciting such loyalty from my sons?” Hraegunar paced a little on the dais, stroking his greying beard. He waited for an answer, and when none came he said, “I think not. Why then this foolishness?” Hraegunar asked, and he clenched the fingers of his right hand into his whiskers. “I ruined my reputation running from Oddi, throwing to the winds the chance for that one last great battle,” Hraegunar said, his voice rising passionately, his right hand scattering its swollen fingers out into the air then collecting them back up into a fist, which he held below his nose; and he inhaled, as though death in battle was some sweet poesy within grasp. He exhaled softly. “I did that so my eldest son might have his chance at life; and now both my sons volunteer for a fate that I have suffered so to prevent happening. I would stop you if I could, but you are both now men and you do what you must. I know what intent lurks in your hearts and whose loyalties you hold dear so I will give you my support in this and more, but I fear the cruel norns are busy weaving your fate, for I feel that this is the last time we shall be together in this world.” That said, Hraegunar returned to his high seat, sat down, closed his eyes and concentrated deeply as if he himself was doing battle with the norns, the small demi-gods who cast the fates and fortunes of men.
“You will need several ships,” the old man declared, “and much silver if you are to escape your fate. Kraka converses with the norns and we shall make sacrifices as they require, but it will be very hard.”
As if responding to a cue, Kraka entered the room from the chamberway. “The norns have voiced their opinions and they say Hraerik is no match for Oddi. Odin is the god of war and he favours the Danish sea-king, but he does have an equal in Tyr and Hraerik has gained some favour. But it will be very hard,” she echoed.
Kraka had led a group of cookhouse slaves in with the evening meal and soon all the folk of Hraegunarstead were at supper in the hall.
The next day, Hraegunar took his sons out on an early morning ride to inspect the cattle herds and the vast hay and grain fields. His thralls were busy with the harvest, the cattle were fat with a warm lazy summer and a cooling breeze swept down from the mountains. Soon they rode down shore a way to a deserted stretch of beach and Hraegunar led them to a small cliff with boulders strewn at its base. They dismounted and Hraegunar pulled his linden shield off his small pony, took a bite out of it and got himself between a huge boulder and a jag in the cliff face and began to prize away on the rock. Six men would have been taxed to jar it, but he would not allow his sons to assist him. The berserk fury soon took hold of the old man and, with a great heave, he pushed the boulder upslope and kicked in place a wooden stop that had been stored behind the stone for that purpose. Hraegunar exposed a narrow cave that had been sealed for many years.
When they entered the cavern, the boys looked about and saw six small chests on either side of the chamber. On their father’s advice they opened the chests along one wall and found silver Kufas from Baghdad, Shekels from Judea and gold Byzants from the Eastern Roman Empire. They found chains and bracelets of gold from the Orient and silver goblets and plates from the Rhine. “We mustn’t ever touch Sigurd’s treasure,” Hraegunar said, pointing to the other side of the cave, “for it is cursed, but this treasure I have accumulated and you are welcome to take of it what you need.”
Hraerik and Hraelauger were surprised to learn exactly how wealthy their father was. There was enough treasure to pay for a small war against King Frodi. They decided to take only the chest of silver Kufas, even though their father pressed them to take the chest of Roman coin as well. But the silver, being more common than the gold, was less likely to draw attention.
“All this will be yours when I am gone,” Hraegunar declared. “Sigurd’s treasure must remain here where it may bless our land, but its curse may rest.” Hraegunar searched through one of the chests until he found a gold bodkin, a cloak pin, of unusual construction. “You see, I haven’t given up on my boys entirely,” he stated, sitting upon the chest. He waved for the boys to do likewise. “I’m afraid I haven’t been much of a father to you, Hraerik,” he started. “This bodkin was your mother’s,” he said, passing it to his youngest son. “It’s from the east. I want you to have it.” Hraerik took the pin and studied it in the dim light. It had a gold chain as if to be worn around the neck and it had three tines in the form of a trident. “Your mother was from the east and I suspect she was a person of some importance. I got her from Arthor, who claimed he had rescued her from brigands. I fell in love with the woman. She was beautiful,” and Hraegunar stared off into the far wall of the cave and the boys knew that he saw her once again in the mist of a memory, and Hraerik wished that he could see what his father saw then. “She died giving birth and I have always blamed you for this, Hraerik. I hold it against you and I have no right to do so. It’s wrong, I know, but I can only apologize for my feeling. I cannot change it.”
Hraerik clutched the cloak pin in one hand and touched his father’s hand with the other. He had learned early in life what had happened to his mother and he had his own feelings of guilt. He would try to forgive his father. He accepted the bodkin and he chained it around his neck and tucked it away under his shirt.
“Kraka has always been envious of the love I felt for your mother, Boddi, and she has fanned the anger I felt towards you, always playing it off against my love for Hraelauger in order to deprive you of any inheritance. You must try to forgive her as well. Hraelauger has always countered her ill will with a brother’s love and has always come to your defence in times of need. She knows nothing of this treasure and I want my sons to share it equally.” There was a finality in Hraegunar’s voice and the brothers sensed his feeling of doom.
“Can you tell me more about her?” Hraerik asked.
“She had a beautiful face,” Hraegunar started, “soft eyes and long flowing hair…dark as a raven. She never learned our language, but she treasured that cloak pin more than anything. She must have carried it from her homeland. I never found out who she was, but she seemed well educated and her bearing was that of a lady.”
That said, Hraegunar got up and left the cave and Hraerik and Hraelauger followed, carrying the small chest of silver between them. Once outside, Hraegunar used the butt of a spear to drive the wooden stop back from under the boulder and it rolled back in place sealing up the cave once more. They tied the chest across the haunches of Hraerik’s horse and they walked their mounts down the stony beach toward home.
While the men were out inspecting the herds, Kraka was in the scullery preparing a magic meal with which to give her son, Hraelauger, the strength and wisdom to make it through his upcoming trial. Three snakes she suspended over a pot of boiling gruel: two were of a dark hue and these she had hung by the belly and the third had whitish scales and was hanging by its tail, somewhat higher than the rest, and all were spitting their poisons into the potion. Since Hraelauger did not believe in her magic and Hraerik, in particular, detested it, she had decided to ply her craft in a deceptive manner by issuing her alchemy as the evening’s meal. When the men got back and sat down to their supper, Kraka apportioned the strongest parts of the potion to Hraelauger and the rest she set in front of Hraerik. When Hraelauger complained of the taste of his portion Hraerik offered to try it, exchanging their trenchers one for the other.
“This is how forestem comes stern in the great gale of the Nor’Way,” Hraerik said, laughing. He then started into his meal and, likewise, was none too pleased with the taste, but he quickly finished it. When Kraka returned from the kitchen with the ale, she saw the portion that Hraelauger had acquired and she realised that a switch had occurred. She inwardly cursed the ill fortune that had deprived her son of the strengthening meal and she confessed to the men what she had been up to.
“I have, over a number of years, built up Hraelauger’s resistance to the poisons of the snakes,” she claimed, “but Hraerik, I fear, has no such protection and the meal he has eaten is as likely to kill him as not.”
Hraerik began feeling the effects of the poison as a dizziness set upon him and a numbness crept into his limbs. He stood up and would have toppled over had not Hraelauger caught hold of him. Hraelauger helped him to their bedchamber and Kraka administered potions and salves to counteract the meal. Still, Hraerik fell into a deep coma that was filled with a dream, a vision.
His dream took him to a perfect place where nothing, not even time, existed. A perfect place where all was at peace and he knew this place to be the great abyss, the vast ginungagap. A nothingness that was perfection in balance; perfection in symmetry. But nothing escapes the ravages of time, whether it exists or not, and perfection suffers, perhaps, most of all. A great sadness had overcame Hraerik and for a very long time the pain smouldered within his soul, but then he saw a minute point form within the enormous void. It was both something and something else together, and Hraerik could see that there were many minute points pulsing within the enormous void, pulsing without existing, but with the potential to exist and each was pulsing at its own rate, some fast, some slow. But the minute point that Hraerik had seen first suddenly burst forth in two opposing directions, forming a linear anomaly of pulsing waves of positive and negative energy that quickly cancelled each other out as they advanced outwards, linearly, in both directions for an eternity, or at least as long as it took the cadence of the peculiar pulsing to count off an infinite number, then the point panned out in a wave all around itself and the linear universe turned into a planar universe consisting of waves, both negative and positive, bursting forth in all four directions of a two dimensional universe and this too went on for an eternity, or, again, as long as it took the pulsing to count off a second infinite number and then it happened again. A brilliant flash burst forth in six directions, further sweeping away the abyss, propagating itself in a three dimensional world, its positive and negative energy waves in perfect balance, existing, then not existing, then existing in an opposite form, always maintaining perfect balance and harmony within the perfection of the abyss all around it. Hraerik saw all this happening from afar, but as the three dimensional universe expanded, it moved towards him and the energy waves rolled over him, first positive, then a vast ginungagap, then a negative wave, over and over again, more than a hundred times and in the wake of the vanguard of each wave, particles began forming and tainting the purity of the energy waves and their newfound mass slowed them and the energy waves passed over them, with the negative energy field compressing positive particles into dark masses and expanding negative particles into an expanding existence within the negative wave and when the following positive wave overcame the negative, the negative particles were compressed into black masses and the positive dark masses expanded explosively into clusters of matter congealed, gravitationally, into hot gases and stars and clusters until the following negative wave compressed them back into black masses, releasing larger negative matter into explosive clusters of their own. Hraerik watched all this until the cadence of the universal pulsing had counted off a third infinite number that coincided with his own time of 3.1416…. and the positive matter that had been compressed into a black mass was overcome by a positive wave and the positive matter exploded into particles and congealed into atoms and the stars and the planets were formed.
Hraerik’s own world was seething now in front of him, boiling with the heat of its own fiery birth and it struck Hraerik as being not unlike a spot of molten iron and it cooled as it revolved around its own mother star and a blister of star dust slag began to form on the side that faced away from its sun and, as this Pangaea formed, the planet began rotating, producing a more even cooling of the surface until the ocean floor solidified and began collecting up the world ocean and the environment was such that miniscule life was formed in this ocean and it grew larger and evolved up onto the land. Many times different forms of life evolved upon the land only to be wiped out by extermination level events and their carbon was deposited in the silts of choked estuaries for use by future life forms.
The earliest successful beasts were reptilian in nature and evolved into a dominant species of dragon-like giants, but the break-up of the Pangaean crust into wandering continents that drifted and collided, and the ensuing volcanism heralded the demise of the dragon reign. But it was a star stone that came crashing down, a much larger stone, that brought an end to the giants and their carbon, too, was deposited into the silts of choked river estuaries as the annihilated animals and shattered plants were swept away by the rains from the valleys down to the seas. And soon the timid mammals came down from the mountains and began their evolution to world dominance, culminating in the birth of man. Hraerik watched as the first hominids were forced from their forest nests and the terrors of the plains birthed their sentience. Hraerik felt great sorrow for this man just learning of existence, feeling only the sensation of loss, not of being. As man mastered his world, the terror that the beasts had inflicted upon him was gradually replaced by the horror he inflicted upon himself, as though this new-found sentience required blood fuel to keep it alive and wave after wave of new men replaced the old. Hraerik was very much at home in this period of man and he sensed his own existence come into being and pass as time swept on. The sentience of man eventually became self-sustaining and peace and harmony came to the world, but Hraerik was out of his time and this man of the future was no more a part of him than the first hominids that had walked the grass filled southern plains. He had a great sense of remorse that the time of his man had passed and he took no comfort in this peace that seemed to pervade the earth. It was an age when machines could talk and think and it frightened Hraerik, but it was this technology, this god of the new western world and the trapped carbon of the old world that allowed man to escape out into the stars and the starborn helped man avoid the world’s next extermination level event. But more frightening still was the return of the vast ginungagap. Hard on the heels of exploding existence, perfection awaited its return. And man, ever fearful of perfection, strode out into the wave of the exploding universe. And they followed the cries, the cries of worlds rising and falling, the cries of billions of sentient beings dying suddenly by mass extinction only to be saved by time travel, which man discovered to not only be possible, but be required for a universe to come into complete existence. Hraerik began to scream with the beings and suddenly a great calm overcame him and he awoke from his dream to find Hraelauger shaking him awake. “You were screaming, Hraerik,” Hraelauger cried. “I thought you were dying! Thank the gods your fever has broken. Nine days you have been in this fit.”
“And I have seen things in this fit that no man should bear witness to,” Hraerik replied, falling back on his bed in a sweat. But he could not go back to sleep so he got up and Hraelauger helped him and they went into the hall and they sat by the fire of a hearth and they talked until morning came, but Hraerik didn’t tell his brother about his dream. It was but a fading memory, leaving not much more than a bittersweet after-taste. But the dream left a deep mark within Hraerik, strengthening and reinforcing his already powerful sense of prescience.
In the morning, Hraegunar and Kraka were overjoyed to learn that Hraerik had made a complete recovery. Nine days he had been in a coma-like state, visiting Ygdrasil, Odin’s great tree of knowledge and Kraka apologized to Hraerik for her misuse of magic, but she also took him aside and explained that the potion had imparted into Hraerik the knowledge of all things that were and are yet to be and that this would help him through his upcoming ordeal. She also begged that Hraerik at all times aid his brother, Hraelauger, that they might both come through their test alive, and for this boon she would grant that, should ever Hraerik fall into dire straits, he need only call out her name and aid would come.
The night before the sons of Hraegunar were to leave, a feast was arranged to celebrate Hraerik’s full recovery and neighbours began arriving from all over the district. The women of Hraegunarstead had been busy all day preparing food and decorating the hall. Many of the local youths had joined up with Hraerik’s company of men and their parents were all invited to attend. Kraka had also asked a powerful prophetess to come and bless the expedition. She arrived late into the feasting and was shown her place on the opposite high seat, such being the respect due her lot.
The witch’s name was Heid and she was attired in a rich indigo tunic and a long blue cloak adorned with beads of amber all the way down the front and around the hem. This she wore throughout the evening, with a black lambskin hood lined with white cat’s fur pulled up over her head so that her features were almost indistinguishable. She was middle aged and carried a wooden staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones. Girded about her middle was a touchwood belt from which hung a pouch containing all her charms, and on her feet were hairy calfskin shoes with thick laces that had tin capped ends. She was overdressed for the season and wore cat skin gloves, with the white fur turned inside, even when she ate.
The prophetess sat on a hen’s feather cushion on the highest guest high seat and did not eat the same meal as everyone else, but had a thin gruel of goat’s milk and an entree of the boiled hearts of various animals culled from the herds of Hraegunarstead. She ate with brass implements which she brought herself in a pouch about her waist.
After the meal, Hraegunar walked to the back of the hall, disappeared into the hallway and came back out bearing a gift for Hraerik. He stood in front of the high seats and said, “King Gotar has said that perhaps too long Hraerik has been in the shadow of his brother’s brilliance. This is the first sense our fine king has made in many a year and the one point that I will agree with him on, but when Hraerik asked for a shield of a stature to match his new and famous sword, all he got was a ship.” Hraegunar began, stroking his grey beard in his characteristic manner, then went on, “Now a ship is fine if it never takes you into trouble, but when it does, as they often do, then a fine shield is required. Sigurd Hrae learned this when we sought shelter, under this one, called Hrae’s Ship’s Round, from the flames of the dragon ship, Fafnir, until we got in close enough to destroy the fire breathing monstrosity.
“Soon both my sons shall be off testing the strength of the Danes and, while Gotar has given my son a ship to take him into trouble, I shall give him this fine shield that sheltered me in my time of need, and may he ever find safety behind it.” All the people of the district applauded heartily as Hraegunar presented Hraerik with Sigurd’s finely crafted war shield of red stained linden wood, capped by carved and painted motifs of ancient and religious tales.
Later in the evening Kraka gathered up the free women of the stead and they stood in a semi-circle around the witch’s high seat and they began to chant spells called Warlock-songs. Soon the witch addressed the audience from her seat. “Spirits are now present, as are the Norns and Fylgjas, attracted by the sweet singing of charms. I ask their blessings of this dangerous undertaking of Hraelauger Hraegunarson and his half-brother, Hraerik Boddison,” she said. “May the gods be gracious and may our sacrifices be bearable.” Once the blessing was finished, the people filed up to the prophetess to have their fortunes told. Hraerik would have no part of this and remained at his high seat and drank heavily. When everyone’s fortunes had been foretold the priestess asked why the eloquent one had not addressed her. Hraerik said he preferred to place his faith in his arm, and that Tyrfingr would carve his fortune for him. Muffled protests ran up and down the crowd in the hall and finally Hraegunar leaned over to Hraerik and told him to have his fortune told if for no other reason than to reassure his companions. This Hraerik did.
“Great deeds and far travels lay in store for you, Hraerik Boddison,” the old witch began, “but the ship you have won with your eloquent tongue is flawed. King Gotar peeked when they laid out the keel of the ship called Fair Faxi. He watched as the first chip hewn landed keel-side up and that is why he has parted with his prize. You asked for a leaf from leafy land, but you got a blighted sea-tree. Death shall strike at you, venom filled, ‘neath the time worn skull of Fair Faxi. The ship must be burned and sacrifices made or it shall be the death of your son.”
Hraerik had risen while the sorceress was preaching and had crossed the hall to her high seat. He was furious with the witch for condemning his ship and he raised his hand as if to strike her, but he remembered the woods and his picnic with Alfhild and how the thought of that mental blow had staggered him. He had lashed out at Alfhild only in his mind, yet his love for her had soon withered, poisoned by the blow not struck. And Hraerik lowered his hand and he pointed at the witch and he said, “I’ve no love for this witchcraft of yours and your threats on my life shall not cost me my ship, but I shall not strike you for this wagging of your tongue. Just make sure King Gotar doesn’t hear about your lies or your head may wish it had gotten only a slap!” This said, Hraerik stormed out of his father’s hall and marched down the beach to his ship. Fair Faxi rested on the sand, tilted over to one side and Hraerik sat down on her upper strake, his feet dangling in the air, a star filled fall sky above him, clear and cool and threatening frost. He thought about Hraegunar and what he had given as a toothing gift, Hrae’s Ship’s Round. The most famous shield in the north. “Hrae,” he whispered to himself. “Hraerik!” he shouted to the Boreal sky. “Hraerik Bragi Boddi Hraegunarson!” he cried to the northern firmament, his hands clutched tightly on the top strake upon which he sat. He was about to set out on the most dangerous mission of his life and he had never felt so good, so free. He began to compose a poem for his father:
“Wilt thou, Hrafn Ketil, hear me,
how I chant the praise of
Thor’s daughter’s–and, thane, thee!–
thief’s his well-stained foot-blade?
So that the famous son of
Sigurd grudge not for the
ringing round of Hild’s wheel
to reap his mead of thank-word.”
Hraerik’s poem went on to describe the stories painted on the face of Sigurd’s shield, first of Gefion, who with four oxen ploughed out the island of Zealand from the coast of Sweden, second of Thor’s fishing for the world serpent, third of Hamdir’s and Sorli’s bloody attack upon Eormanrik, sleeping:
“Warriors’ fall on the fair shield’s
furbished bottom see I.
Hraegunar gave me Hrae’s-Ship’s-
Round with many a story.”
Hraerik’s poem continued on to describe the eternal battle of Hedin and Hogni:
“Here you may behold that
hail-of-darts on the shield’s face.
Hraegunar gave me Hrae’s-ship’s-
round with many a story.”
(Bragi Boddason the Old; Hollander)
When Hraerik was satisfied with his poem of thanks he returned to his father’s hall. By this time, the witch had retired for the evening and the folk were heavy into their drinking bouts. Eyvind Ingvarson, a visiting Swedish skald, was well into his ale and standing in the centre of the hall between the high seats reciting a poem of ancient tales. Hraerik got himself a horn of ale and managed to put back most of it by the time Eyvind had finished. They all applauded the skald’s poetry and then began a ring dance as they repeated the words and the cadence of his poem and they danced in a ring between the high seats that broke into a line winding its way through the hearths at both ends of the hall. When Eyvind returned to his bench, Hraerik stepped out onto the floor and praised the mead-words of the son of Ingvar and then he recited his own thank-words to Hraegunar. Again there was much applause and once more a ring dance was formed as Hraerik repeated the poem. Hraerik then took his place on the high seat and all the folk drank and toasted late into the evening. They carried on as if many would never see each other again and, indeed, many would not.