© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE WINNING OF ALFHILD (Circa 830 AD)
“By sun and moon I journeyed west,
my sea-borne tune from Odin’s breast,
my song-ship packed with poet’s art:
Its word-keel cracked the frozen heart.”
Hraerik Bragi Boddason Hraegunarson and Princess Gunwar Fridleifsdottir were wed soon after returning to Liere. As a dowry, the king presented Hraerik with a district and the personal allegiance of a hundred men that became known as Hraerik’s Centuriata. Hraelauger and some of the Norwegians stayed with the young couple in Gunwar’s hall, while the rest stayed with Alfgeir in his harbour longhall. The Danes in Hraerik’s Centuriata continued to live in their district and Hraerik saw to their training in both arts and arms.
The coming of spring had stirred within young King Frodi a desire to take a new wife, having long since shipped Queen Hanund back to her father in Khazaria. Hraerik had mentioned King Gotar’s daughter, Princess Alfhild, several times in passing and the stripling king began to inquire about her. Hraerik told his brother-in-law of his youthful affection for her and he described her poise and beauty. He also warned King Frodi that she was born and raised a princess and could be cold and aloof, but the Danish ring-giver asked Hraerik to sue for Alfhild’s hand on his behalf.
“Your eloquent tongue shall surely not fail in its task,” he had said.
“Are you sure you do not still love Alfhild?” Gunwar had jested, but behind her words was a real fear, and she would not let Hraerik go on the mission without her.
Hraerik stood at the forestem of Fair Faxi with Gunwar by his side and Hraelauger manned the rudder. “I see why you love the sea,” Gunwar said. The Skagerrak was rough. Huge crested waves wattled its surface, and the small ship cut through the billows, flexing with the amplitude. “The sea is so huge, so powerful, it makes one’s life seem insignificant, yet its bare beauty brings out one’s existence.”
“And she treats all men equally,” Hraerik added, putting his arm around Gunwar’s shoulder. “Jaederen Province is a few more hours west.”
“May Freya ever bless Jaederen Province for this, my greatest boon,” Gunwar whispered and she put her arm around Hraerik’s waist. Hraerik worried about Gunwar. He did not want her to lose the ability to stand on her own, as she had been doing for so many years in the court of her brother. Gunwar, however, had not faltered. She had been drowning in her king’s evil court and life had thrown her a line. She had clutched it and she had clung onto it and love had blossomed, and she was not about to let go of it.
When Fair Faxi had beached at Hraegunarstead, Hraerik learned that, indeed, his father was dead…sort of. Brak stood on the stony shore to meet them and he confirmed Hraerik’s portent, but there was a problem with it. Hraegunar had sacrificed himself to Odin by marking himself with a spear, manning his longship with aged warriors and sailing west to attack King Aella in Northumbria. Brak had returned from the East with the newly acquired knowledge of making Indian steel only to find his lord gone.
He showed Hraerik the stone furnace he was having built in front of the smithy shed. It was made of mortared stone about four ells in diameter and had reached eight ells in height at the time. “It shall stand two ells higher when it is done,” Brak stated as they walked by it. “We shall be able to fire it with bog iron and the basest of coals and still be able to produce the finest of steels.” Hraerik marvelled at its simplicity as they passed. Kraka was in mourning, depending on Brak to handle Hraegunar’s estate for her, and she met them on the porch of their high seat hall.
At a feast in thanks of their safe return, Kraka explained the circumstances of Hraegunar’s sacrifice to the boys. “We divined to learn the outcome of your struggle against Oddi and the sons of Westmar,” she started. They were all up on the high seats, Hraerik and Gunwar sharing the third highest, Hraelauger the second, and Kraka, with Brak at her side, on the highest. “Tyr and Thor had sided with you, and Odin’s support of Oddi was faltering. Thorbjorg told us you would be successful against the sea-king Oddi, but she warned us that Odin yet supported the sons of Westmar and the hanging-god could only be swayed with a great sacrifice.” The old woman was near tears and her silver hair danced as she shook her head. “Hraegunar told me that he could no longer bear to live, having fled Oddi, and that perhaps he should talk to the old witch Thorbjorg about a sacrifice. This he did, and, after his talk with her, he said that he must stop the snows and he went out to the boatshed, marked himself with a spear and made preparations to attack Angleland. He said the Angles and the Franks still owed him the return of several trading posts.”
Hraerik flashed a look at Gunwar.
“He said something else that puzzled me,” the old woman started again. “He said he must stop the snows, that it mustn’t snow out on the ice. All this he said and then he marked himself. What meant he of the ice?”
A great lump caught up in Hraerik’s throat as he tried to talk to his step-mother. He stood up at his seat and he stared out into the dark recesses of Hraegunar’s high seat hall. Prescience was one thing, he thought, but making sacrifices to gods was quite another. He did not believe in the gods and he had never prayed for their help, and now Kraka was saying that his victory had cost them his father’s life?
Hraerik turned toward them, his face drawn and cold. “I believe none of this witchcraft,” he began, “but I shall tell you the significance of the snows,” and Hraerik went on to tell them about the fall of the house of Westmar.
“Grep came to the harbour town,
where I tarried overlong, and he
feathered his word-bow with a shaft
of flygting not worth drawing upon.
He faltered at my nith-song, being
taxed by crimes against his king
and with truth I shook his scorn-pole
till his priests had fled or died.
In the hall of great King Frodi,
I let his crimes be known,
were it not for the brother at my back
he would have paid me off in gore.
Hraelauger slew the heinous beast, Grep,
the first crumbling of the house of Westmar,
beginning the battle of the brothers
out upon the ice.
We strapped our foot-blades on our feet
and strode out on the icy sheet,
and we thanked the gods and Hraegunar now
for holding back the snow.
With tarry oxhide sandals,
the sons of Westmar met us and they
found they were no match against
our foot-blades of the dwarves.
The berserkers blunted all our swords,
but Tyrfingr, still true,
bit through the berserkers’ fury.
None could blunt the edge
Dvalin put upon her.
With anvil, Hraelauger smote the ice and
the bare-shirts soon were dolphins.
With pikes we shattered Westmar’s house,
its broken timbers bobbing in the waters.
We freed the folk of Denmark and they
blessed me with their daughter.
When I won the hand of Gunwar, I was
pleased the rest did follow.
And when my brother-in-law, the king,
sent back his queen in dark disgrace,
I offered to make his suit
for the ‘lusive love of Alfhild.”
His word-song complete, Hraerik sat down, and it was Brak’s turn to tell a tale. “Things are not the same in the Nor’Way as when you left, young Hraerik. King Gotar’s wife died over the winter and it is said that he seeks a queen of note and Gotar gets what Gotar wants.”
Hraerik did not understand his meaning.
“I visited with King Gotar,” Brak went on, “at winter’s close. He fears an attack from the Danes, but having heard of your great victory over Oddi, he grew hopeful your embassy would patch up his differences with King Frodi, and he had made it known he wishes that the fair hand of Princess Gunwar should bind their new-found peace.”
Now, Hraerik followed Brak’s discourse and he did not like what he heard. Worried, he looked at Gunwar, and she returned an equally anxious stare. “If I fail to press King Frodi’s suit, it will be poor thanks for this gift I do so love,” Hraerik said, taking Gunwar’s hand in his own.
“I can press his suit for you,” Hraelauger offered.
“I am still King Gotar’s foremost man,” Hraerik stated. “And Gunwar is my lawfully wedded wife. A man, even though he be king, must respect the laws of the land. Gotar will respect my rights. I have given him choice council and have repaired his relations with King Frodi to the point where Frodi would be his son-in-law. He shall respect my rights and I shall not avoid him.” Hraerik had made his decision and all there knew Hraerik and none attempted to dissuade him. Brak did give him a warning though:
“Keep your guard up against any treachery from your king. There is reason Hraegunar didn’t trust Gotar and even though Hraegunar is gone, his ear in the king’s court remains.”
It was decided that Hraerik should proceed to the Vik as planned, but that Brak would follow later with a chosen band of warriors in the event King Gotar attempted to have his way.
The next day Hraerik and Hraelauger rode out across the stead and down onto the beach where Hraegunar’s treasure lay hidden. Never trained in the berserker’s art, the two of them could not budge the stone that Hraegunar alone had moved. Hraerik got out a rope and they used their horses to tow the boulder free, then they went into the cave and they carried out only Hraegunar’s treasure and they divided it between themselves. Kraka had been left Hraegunarstead, but their father had promised them his gold. They then pulled away the stop once more and the rock rolled back into place, sealing up Sigurd’s cursed treasure once more.
The next day, Hraerik set off in Fair Faxi with Gunwar, Hraelauger and Kraka, leaving Brak to follow later. They left Jaederen Province, sailing east then turning north for the Vik. As they approached, Hraerik saw three of King Gotar’s longships coming out to meet him and he had a bad feeling about this impatient greeting, as if he had something his king badly wanted. He ordered his men to turn Fair Faxi about and, suddenly, he knew how Hraegunar had felt when he had fled the sons of Westmar. He and Hraelauger exchanged knowing glances as the elder brother worked the rudder and the crew trimmed the sail and then set to hard rowing, but the ships of Gotar had their speed up already and one soon pulled up alongside Fair Faxi.
“Hail! Is that you, Hraerik Bragi?” King Gotar shouted from his forestem. “I would recognize Fair Faxi anywhere!”
“Then why do you greet me with an attack?” Hraerik shouted back to him.
“My men have orders to be vigilante until we learn the results of your embassy to King Frodi. We were almost upon you by the time we made you out.”
It was apparent that Gotar was nervous, fearing imminent attack from the Danes. “Come aboard and ride with me into our Vik, Bragi. I have been awaiting your return,” King Gotar shouted. Hraerik decided he no longer liked to take orders from this king, but he had his men turn the ship about once more and, as the ships pulled alongside each other, one of Gotar’s sailors threw Hraerik a line that ran down from the top of his longship’s mast. Hraerik caught it up and stood on the top-strake of Fair Faxi, then leaped overboard. Hand over hand he climbed the rope as he arced toward his king’s longship and he was at top-strake height when he met her, his strong legs absorbing the shock. He then yarded himself up onto the strake and he leaped onto the ship’s deck. King Gotar was there to meet him.
“Well done, Hraerik!” Gotar exclaimed. “You’re obviously alive and well, so your mission must have been successful.” He looked like a man who had been over-wary for a very long time. He had lost more hair since Hraerik had last seen him, and it was flecked with more grey. “We have been expecting a Danish attack ever since we learned of your slaughter of their sea-king Oddi. It was not a wise thing to do,” he added, fidgeting inordinately. “But I don’t think I’m mistaken if I guess that that is Princess Gunwar, King Frodi’s sister, aboard your ship, so is it safe to assume you have made our peace with the Danes?”
“Our former enemy is now my brother-in-law, for he gave me Princess Gunwar’s hand in marriage,” Hraerik explained.
“Ah,” Gotar whispered. Hraerik could sense that his king was a very changed man. His trait that would be judged craft had now become cunning. The Norse king had been doing some running of his own, only he hadn’t realized it because he had remained at home. Gotar walked to the forestem of his longship, abstractly dragging Hraerik by the shoulder beside him. “Bragi,” he started. “A year ago, you had some affection for my daughter, Princess Alfhild. Do you still hold her dear?”
“Yes, my liege.” Hraerik knew what Gotar was driving at. “But it is affection as a friend. I come to offer you a proposal from King Frodi for the hand of Princess Alfhild.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Gotar mumbled, and he waved his hand, throwing the offer to the wind. “That would very handily bind young King Frodi and I together, but what of you, young Bragi? You are still my foremost man. What binds you to me? Loyalty? I think not,” and he snickered to himself. “No,” Gotar exclaimed, grabbing the top-strake and leaning back. “I’ll not be bested by this young King Frodi,” and he leaned forward and stared Hraerik in the eyes. “Alfhild shall bind you to me. You shall quietly divorce Princess Gunwar, marry my daughter, Alfhild, and there shall then be a royal wedding between Princess Gunwar and myself. And young King Frodi can come if he so pleases.”
Hraerik started to protest, but Gotar interrupted him. “There is another solution to this dilemma, Bragi, but I wouldn’t want to lose your services. Your defeat of Oddi has made you famous throughout Norway. How you survived King Frodi’s court, let alone come out of there with a prize such as Princess Gunwar, I’m aching to know. Remember when I said that too long you’ve lived in the shadow of your brother?” Gotar asked. “You are a famous skald now, Bragi, and you are becoming too powerful to leave unbound.”
The ships pulled into The Vik, and, up on that high headland where Hraerik had first seen Alfhild, there stood a young woman whose flowing blond hair caught up the sun and played with it awhile, and Hraerik knew it was she. King Gotar waved at the woman and she waved back. “You’ll learn to love her just as before, Bragi,” Gotar said. “And if anyone can warm her heart it will be you, my young skald!” He slapped Hraerik across the shoulders, and he was genuinely glad Hraerik had survived his trials and was soon to be his son-in-law.
That evening, King Gotar held a feast in Hraerik’s honour and the young poet was asked to speak about his victory over Oddi and his stay in the court of King Frodi of Denmark. This he did, but his heart was not in it and his faltering voice led many to wonder at his byname, Bragi. After the feasting, Hraerik and Gunwar retired to the chamber that had been assigned them.
“He means to take you away from me, Gunwar,” Hraerik started. She sat on the bed and looked up at him. “He wants you, and he’ll kill me to get you if he has to. In recompense he has offered me the hand of Alfhild.”
“In recompense?” Gunwar exclaimed. “He offers his own daughter in recompense? And people criticize the excesses of my brother’s court!”
“He is a true blooded king,” Hraerik probed. “You could do worse.”
“When I tried to talk you into fleeing Denmark rather than fight the sons of Westmar and you refused, I knew then I had fallen in love with a man of courage, but I would have loved you no less had we fled together. Now, when I hear you talk to me of Gotar being a true king and of your life being in danger, I know it is not cowardice speaking. I can only assume that your feelings for Alfhild are stronger than your love for me. How fickle is the heart caught between two loves!”
“There shall never be any doubt in my heart as to my love for you, Gunwar,” Hraerik started, “but I have a plan and, before I place your life in danger, I had to offer you the alternative.” Hraerik lifted his wife up off the bed and hugged her warmly. “Your response gives me great joy.”
The next day, Hraerik took Princess Alfhild out for a ride in order to discern her feelings toward young King Frodi. They rode to the spot they had picnicked at a year before and Hraerik spread a woollen blanket out upon the green grass between two great oak trees and Alfhild sat down, her legs together and off to one side. She leaned on one arm and she looked up at Hraerik and smiled.
“I remember our last picnic here,” she started. “You were setting out searching for fame and fortune and I was waiting for my prince to find me.”
“I remember,” Hraerik confessed and he returned her smile.
“You’ve found your fame, and now my Bragning prince has found me,” and she reached out and touched Hraerik’s hand.
Hraerik held her hand and it was soft and warm. `How easy it would be to fall in love with her again,’ he thought, then he said, “I remember, though, last time we were here it was a king you were waiting for, and when I asked you if you could ever love me you said that you must look up.”
“I’m looking up now,” Alfhild whispered, and her bright green eyes sparkled like gems and her full lips pouted softly.
“Alfhild,” Hraerik started slowly. “I’m in love with my wife, Gunwar.”
“And yet you’re divorcing her?”
“I have no choice in the matter. I came back to press a suit for my brother-in-law, King Frodi. He wishes to have you for his queen. Your father has other plans, as I’m sure you’re aware.” Alfhild acknowledged nothing. “Remember when you sat upon a rowing bench of Fair Faxi with a dwarf named Dvalin and he read your palm and he saw in it an illustrious young king?”
“He promised me a great king,” Alfhild reflected. “A very young king, handsome and brave and showing great promise.”
“Frodi is this promising young king Dvalin saw in your hand. I would not have come back if I didn’t believe this to be true, and I have not come back without a plan.”
Alfhild looked down at the blanket for a long time. “What is he like?” she asked shyly, and Hraerik told her all about the young king.
“My father was right when he said you are dangerous, Hraerik Bragi,” Alfhild said. “There is a reason father wanted you to divorce Gunwar and marry me before he marries Gunwar. If you desert Gunwar and take for yourself the prize that you promised King Frodi, then my father can hardly be blamed for saving Gunwar’s honour by marrying her. You would no longer be in our young king’s favour, and he would be indebted to my father. Now, apprise me of your plan and I will keep your trust, but, as you would have me desert my father this one time: in your hour of greatest need, so too shall I desert you. I shall always be your friend, Hraerik, and you must forgive me this one slip. Are we agreed?”
“I’ll forgive you your slip,” Hraerik agreed. “I had already surmised your father’s reasons for his selection of the order of events, but we, too, can work this order to our advantage. Today I shall divorce my wife and on the morrow your father shall give me your hand in marriage. In the intervening week before Gunwar’s trothal, we shall make good our escape to Denmark, where I shall divorce you and give your hand to King Frodi. Thus, shall your father’s plan, of my marrying first, rebound upon the conceiver, for Gunwar shall be a free woman, to go where she pleases, and you shall be my wife, duty bound to follow me.”
“Your grasp of the political is even greater than I remember,” Alfhild conceded, and they started into their picnic lunch.
That evening, Hraerik and Princess Gunwar were divorced by King Gotar. It was a simple matter, with the young couple both saying, “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee,” three times in a public assembly, and, the next day, Hraerik and Princess Alfhild were quietly married. The night of the nuptials, Hraerik watched as Alfhild slipped out of her pure white wedding dress, standing in front of him in a translucent slip of Byzantine silk. He felt a wave of desire come crashing over him, and he found himself longing, once more, for her love. Hraerik thought he had gotten over Alfhild, but, being with her the past few days, and now having her waiting in front of him, he realized he had only been fooling himself. No one survives their first love unscathed. Fragments of it lie about the soul, jangling in seeming disarray, only to have a moment’s temptation draw all the pieces together again, as if by some amorous alchemy. Alfhild slipped under the covers of their nuptial bed and played the part of the seducer. “It’s not too late to change your mind, Hraerik,” she whispered.
“You’re not making this easy, Alfhild.”
“I’m testing this power Gunwar has placed over you. She is a follower of Freya, you know, and has probably enchanted you.”
Hraerik sat down on the bed beside her. “If I didn’t care for you, I would join you, but I know your future lies with King Frodi,” and he stroked her soft pink cheek.
“Is this that prescience of yours speaking?”
“No. It is my heart,” Hraerik said and he drew close to Alfhild and he kissed her tenderly. He then stood up and stepped away from her, as if to break some spell she had been working upon him. “According to my poetic craft, I should be drawing my sword and placing it on the bed between us, but, since Tyrfingr cannot be drawn without taking a life, and I certainly cannot trust myself without a sword between us, I shall take my leave instead.” Hraerik kissed Alfhild once more, then gathered up his weapons and went to the chamber door.
“This power Gunwar holds over you, Hraerik…shall I be able to weave its like upon King Frodi?”
“Only with an open heart,” Hraerik answered.
“Hraerik. Be careful,” Alfhild warned. “Father has spies about.” And Hraerik crept out of the chamber into the dark hallway.
Not so much distrust of Hraerik, but due, more so, to lack of trust in general, King Gotar had Princess Gunwar’s room monitored. He placed the captain of his guard and a household slave in the chamber next to Gunwar’s and they had removed a section of wall between the rooms and had covered up their work with tapestries and they sat behind their handiwork and watched their future queen. Should Hraerik attempt to garner embraces from his former lover they had orders to kill him. Into this trap Hraerik crept. He opened Gunwar’s chamber door and slipped through it.
“Who’s there?” Gunwar whispered, and Hraerik could see by the window light that she was sitting up in bed with a spear in her hands.
“It’s me,” was his soft reply.
“Hraerik? Thank the gods,” Gunwar answered. “I was worried it might be old Gotar wanting prenuptial favours.”
“Has he tried anything?”
“No, but I made sure I would be ready if he did,” she replied, and she set the spear against the wall at the head of her bed. Hraerik set his own weapons on the other side of the bed, hanging Tyrfingr from the bedpost and leaning the shield Hraegunar had given him up on the headboard. He then undressed and crawled into bed with Gunwar.
The two spies waited until the coupling was over and the soft snoring of Hraerik told them he was sleeping, and then they, too, crept into the room. As they padded softly across the wooden floor, both Hraerik and Gunwar woke, but when Hraerik opened his eyes he could see that it was too late to even move. The captain of the guard had already started his sword’s down stroke, and Hraerik could only think of one word, as though it had been drilled into him from birth, and, as the blade severed a thin shaft of moonlight in its downward arc, he cried, “Kraka!”, and a terrible blackness came down over him. Hraerik felt a dull blow to his face and chest and then a sharp blow between, then the smell and sound of linden wood splitting. Twisting quickly, Hraerik pulled Tyrfingr free of her sheath and slashed out at his assailant. Hraerik’s shield had fallen, no, been propelled off the headboard, and it had protected him from the death stroke. No sorcery shielded the captain of the guard, though, and he fell to the floor screaming, one leg severed at the thigh and the other still biting upon Hraerik’s jammed sword. Hraerik sat up and tried to pry his blade free and his hair was on end as he awaited a blow from the second man, but it didn’t come for the longest time and he wondered if Kraka’s promised protection had stayed the other man’s stroke as well. Then Gunwar caught up her spear and she thrust it at the second assailant, piercing him through the chest. Hraerik recognized the servant, as he clutched at the shaft of the spear and sank quietly to the floor.
Hraelauger had been sleeping at a bench in the hall, but at the commotion he began blowing upon a horn, a signal that would bring Brak and his selected men out of hiding from a secret cove. Slaves were rushing everywhere, fleeing what seemed an attack. Torches could be seen coming up from the beach, for Hraerik’s crew had also been on standby, and King Gotar was soon rushing down the hallway banging on everyone’s doors. “Frodi is upon us!” he warned. “The Danes attack!” he cried, and disarray reigned as the king fled among his slaves to the garrison in the Vik.
Hraerik and the women got their things together and followed Hraelauger down to the beach. Hraerik saw his men as they were coming up from the beach carrying torches and he waved them back to Fair Faxi, and they dragged the ship out into the water and prepared to sail off. Hraelauger had some of the men go over to King Gotar’s three dragon ships and slash up the sails. Brak, meanwhile, led his chosen troop, all men who bore King Gotar a grudge, up to the king’s longhalls and they pillaged them, then fired them. Hraerik set his men to rowing Fair Faxi out to sea and then let out the sail and a gentle wind carried them down the Vik as the longhalls of King Gotar blazed.
It was dawn and Fair Faxi was well out to sea, when Hraelauger spotted a sail approaching them from behind. “There’s Brak,” Hraelauger shouted up to Hraerik from his familiar position at the rudder. Hraerik was glad of the sighting, for a gale was blowing in with the dawn, and he knew that the Danes in Liere would be calling this one Amlodi. He did not want to be caught out on the open sea when this storm came to be.
In the morning, King Gotar returned to his stead with an army only to find his halls laid waste and Fair Faxi long gone. There was no Danish soldiery to face him and no Danish king to challenge him. Gotar bellowed out orders angrily and the flower of his own guard wilted under his raging breath. “The Bragning prince has my daughter and my future queen. To the ships,” he roared. “We’ll pursue them at once! We shall follow them to the gates of hell if need be!” They launched the ships and, when they found the sails destroyed, Gotar doubled up the crews and they set after the Bragning prince using oars alone. “We shall row them down,” King Gotar shouted, taking his place at the forestem of his favourite ship.
“Hraerik will head for Denmark, my liege,” one of his officers complained. “We need a stronger force, supplies, time to organize and prepare.”
“We shall leave now!” Gotar roared. “They have only a few hours start. We shall catch them out on the Kattegat. Now double-team the oars!”
King Gotar’s officer approached him at the forestem of the ship. “We must head into shore for water and provisions,” he started. “We’ll soon be away from the coast and there’s a storm coming in from the east.” A hot morning sun was beating down upon the backs of the men at their oars and they were pulling up a sweat.
Gotar eyed the black clouds moving in low along the horizon. “A few more hours at this pace and our men won’t be able to fight them if we do catch them,” the officer stated. “They need water and food.”
“You just keep up this pace,” Gotar ordered. “I’ll tend to the battle when it comes.”
The Norse king’s men maintained the pace for several hours more, but still there was no sign of Hraerik and soon the sun beat down no longer upon the backs of the parched warriors. The clouds had moved in with surprising speed, and with them came a blustery wind that seemed to blow from all directions. A cold rain began to fall, and it soon became sleet. The whipping ice lashed out at the shoulders of the rowers, as their relief crew huddled under the slashed sails between the rowing benches. The sky went from grey to black and the open sea blended in with it until the two were indistinguishable.
The longships bobbed upon the storm-tossed sea like small twigs in a torrent swollen stream. The sleet reduced visibility to virtually nothing. There were times when the ships were separated, their only contact being the beat of their kettle drums, and their crews would row toward the sound until they had regrouped. And when they got close they had to row to keep their ships from being dashed against each other, so that the sailors had to row to keep together and they had to row to keep apart, and the teams of men not rowing were bailing for their lives to keep the ships afloat. Thus, they struggled most of the afternoon, on through the evening and well into the night. Exhaustion and cold took a toll. Arms were swollen with the blood of inhuman effort as the rowers struggled against the waves. And the waves fought back, and the kick they’d transmit up the oars would have torn the arms off weaker men. The sleet lashed out at their bodies, turning flesh red then purple then blue and finally white with the cold. Oarsmen, soaked with frozen rain that beat down on them from the heavens, were drenched by cold salt spray that leapt up at them from the sea. The cold was unrelenting, and the sea impartial in its punishment.
Throughout the storm King Gotar never left the forestem of the ship. He stood there, soaked and blue in the face, staring out at the sea. He had forced Hraerik’s hand and his foremost man had deserted him. Worse, his enemy had eluded him and now he, himself, had to dodge death. Gotar had no illusions about the danger he faced, yet he knew somehow, he would survive. He had a score to settle with the Bragning prince, and his anger kept his life fire smouldering through the night of the storm.
A cool frosty dawn greeted King Gotar and his men; the storm had abated and most of them slept the deep deep sleep of total exhaustion; more than one slept the deeper sleep of death.
It took a warm noon sun to rouse most of the crew and the remainder King Gotar commended to the deep. The Norse king knew that they had been blown out of the Skagerrak and into the North Sea, just south east of the Orkneys was his guess. He read the sun and planned his course and then rallied his weary crew. Weakly they rowed, but only for short periods at a time and to add insult to injury a wind picked up, blowing mildly from the west. Had they their sails, they could rest, but the Bragning prince had relieved them of that luxury. As evening approached, they still had not sighted land and most felt they were doomed if they spent another night out upon the open sea.
“The men wish to do battle, my liege,” King Gotar’s officer informed him. “They would rather die bravely by the sword than die like babes from the cold. Valhall doesn’t seem that far away anymore.”
“Quite close, it would seem,” King Gotar replied. “I would join them were it not that I have one more battle to fight here on earth before I partake pleasures in Odin’s hallowed hall. Tell the men who wish to take their chances with the sea to rally round me in this ship. The rest may use the other ships to carry themselves into their sea battle.” Thirty men took up King Gotar’s calling, and the rest divided up evenly into the two remaining ships. As Gotar’s followers rowed east, the final battle began. Steel rang on steel as the contest started and the sounds of battle faded as Gotar’s ship disappeared into the eastern dusk.