© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
FATE OF GOTAR (Circa 831 AD)
“Hearken my song, sinker- of-sailhorses, for greatly
skilled at the skein am I- a skald you must have–of verses;
and even if thou, king of all Norway, hast ever
scorned and scoffed at other skalds, yet shall I praise thee.”
Sigvat Thordarson; Skaldskaparmal.
Hraerik was amazed. How incredibly one could change in a matter of months. Alfhild’s bright green eyes still sparkled, her hair still danced in the morning’s light, her lips yet quivered pinkly, but her face was paler than the white marble it had been, and her belly was swollen with the fruit of her king’s love, for she was now well into her pregnancy. Hraerik watched as his wife led his queen across the long beach of the little harbour town toward the ships’ landing. They’d just returned from the Sclavish war, and he watched King Frodi run out across the sand, and when his king fell to his knees and placed his war-hardened hands ever so gently upon that belly, big with child, Hraerik looked away and began shouting orders to his men.
“Angantyr Frodi,” Alfhild started. “They are calling you Angantyr Frodi,” she said proudly to her husband.
“Yes!” King Frodi said, looking down into the sand. “The hanging king,” and he looked up to his wife. “It is not something in which I take pride,” he lied. “I only hope that it has appeased Odin.”
Hraerik joined his king and they helped their women up the beach and into the longhall of the king’s harbourmaster. It was a sombre homecoming. Alfgeir explained that, once again, there were reports of a planned assault against Denmark by King Gotar and the Norwegians, and that preparations were in progress. “The attack is imminent,” he continued. “We have news that King Gotar has raised a fleet and that his army is ready to sail on a moment’s notice.”
Hraerik sat glumly upon the second high seat and pondered the news. Frodi, too, was deep in thought, but offered this: “It is good that our war against the Sclavs went well, or, at least, that my father-in-law has waited until our return to attack us.”
“We have been working hard on preparations of our own in your absence, my liege,” Alfgeir continued. “Princess Gunwar has even begun training the women of Denmark in our defence.”
“It’s good,” King Frodi said. “My sister is a capable warrior.” He then turned to Hraerik and said, “I guess we have humbled King Gotar overmuch. He feels his treachery has been returned too manyfold. It may well have been better for him had he battled it out with his men upon the sea. He would have gained fame; now he shall gain only notoriety.”
“I am sorry it has come to this, but we must carry the contest to King Gotar,” Hraerik started. “Our fleet lies fresh beached in the harbour, and our soldiers have not yet packed away their gear. We must sally forth while the advantage is yet ours to gain.”
Hraelauger echoed Hraerik’s sentiments, yet King Frodi seemed hesitant to lead a host against his own father-in-law. “Our warriors are weary from campaigning. We should let them rest and relax with their families before we subject them to further peril.”
Hraerik could see the weight in the words of his king. Their own wives had gotten news and were at the little harbour town to meet them, but the wives of their champions and the wives of the common soldiery had no such advantage.
“I understand your concern, my king, but I think I have a plan whereby the wounded and the weary need only come along for the ride.” Hraerik whispered momentarily with Alfgeir regarding the capabilities of the home guard he had mustered, then continued, “And I have our harbourmaster’s assurances that the home guard shall see to the needs of their fellow soldiers.”
King Frodi’s army had set up camp all along the beach of the harbour town, and his soldiers spent the rest of the day relaxing in the warm fall sunshine while the home guard, consisting mainly of men too young and too old for military service, fetched wives and families forth from Liere to visit with their husbands and their sons. It soon seemed that the resources of the little harbour town would be stretched to bursting, but the portly Alfgeir was everywhere, arranging for provisions from one quarter, while obtaining needed transportation from another. In the evening, King Frodi sponsored a huge feast for his men and their families, and, though this went on late into the night, the army had all its gear packed up and was ready to ship out early the next morning.
Gunwar and Alfhild insisted on accompanying the Danish forces in their sally, Gunwar by reason of leading her own warriors, for Hraerik’s plan involved a show of Danish force, and Alfhild, though pregnant, for the fact that the attack was upon her father. No amount of reasoning could dissuade the women from their purpose, so rather than delay the departure of the force, King Frodi agreed to their accompanying it. Once out at sea, the young king felt more at ease with their mission; with a good salty wind at their backs and a bright blue sky all about them, he began to question Hraerik about his plan.
Hraerik stared back at the long formation of ships trailing behind Fair Faxi and began: “King Gotar may forgive you his injuries, but he shall never forgive me mine. Therefore, it is I who should handle this problem.”
Frodi stepped back as if Hraerik had cut him with a knife, and his hand swept out behind them as if to say, `What is mine is yours…can I do more?’
But Hraerik shushed him and went on: “I shall use all that you have so generously offered to bait Gotar into a fight that shall settle our differences. Remember that, when we faced King Strunick with a superior force, he soon sued for peace? It is my hope that King Gotar shall react in a like vein. We shall endeavour to keep your participation in this sortie to a minimum; after all, we do attack your father-in-law.” This said, Hraerik turned his back on the Danish flotilla and looked off towards Norway.
It was off Rennes Isle that the Danish flotilla met the ships of King Gotar’s army, and the Norwegian king, on spotting the Danes, immediately halted his fleet and began lining the ships across in battle formation. King Frodi had his own fleet begin falling in width-wise, and when they had matched Gotar’s force ship for ship they began lining up two deep and still the flotilla trailed off to the south as far as the eye could see. Soon King Gotar sent a ship forth suing for peace.
“Must father strike son and brother strike brother?” was their message. “Our king seeks reparations for the wrongs inflicted upon him, no more.”
And Hraerik had this message ready for the Norwegian emissaries: “Pick one hundred of your finest men and meet your Bragning prince in combat mortal. Keep father from son, escape the bad odds you now face and meet me in one final sea battle. Odin knows your time is overdue.”
King Gotar decided to improve his odds with Hraerik’s offer and was soon in the forefront of his fleet with one hundred men in his dragon-ship. Hraerik followed suit, choosing a dragon-ship of King Frodi’s fleet, leaving his brother, Hraelauger in charge of Fair Faxi, which was much too small to hold Hraerik’s full Centuriata.
As the two ships closed to within shouting distance, King Gotar cried, “A man shows his valour first by requiting kindness. I have given you your byname with a ship as a toothing gift, and you repay me thus?”
Yet the two ships closed.
“I gave you portentous advice,” Hraerik replied, “words by which you have kept your life and realm, and you repaid me with a tainted gift. When the keel of Fair Faxi was laid, you peeked at the first fallen chip and it had landed keel-side up.” Gotar showed no little surprise at Hraerik’s knowledge of this, and his own men wondered at such a thing, for it was against custom to watch the first hewings of a keel. “A witch called Thorbjorg told me of this and warned me that the ship was thereby cursed. I have repaid her sorely for her advice, for by your face you confirm the truth of her words.”
“You’ve done well by that ship!” Gotar replied. “And you’ve repaid me for it by stealing my daughter!”
The ships were almost across from each other and the crews had their boarding planks at the ready.
“I offered your daughter the kingdom of Denmark and the chance to wed its king, Frodi. You repaid my efforts by plotting against my king and my life and, had I let you, by stealing my wife. I repaid you measure for measure in the stealing away of Princess Alfhild!” and again grumbles ran through the Norwegian ranks.
King Gotar looked about himself savagely and his men quieted. He was surrounded by his own picked berserks and, as yet, he could make out no warriors of renown among Hraerik’s band. Feeling a surge of confidence, he shouted, “Let us have at it then, my Bragning prince!” and the boarding planks fell, and the battle commenced.
Hraerik threw a huge iron grappling hook over the top strake of Gotar’s ship and felt a tug on the line as a tine caught up in the rowing benches. He threw the line to one of his men for fastening to their own benches and, when a boarding plank went down beside him, he drew forth Tyrfingr and was the first to leap up onto the plank. He rushed down it, sword in hand, as fast as he could go, but he felt so exposed up there between the two ships that his own feet seemed motionless. They pounded upon the plank, beating a slow rhythm, drowning out the shouts that began erupting all about him. A spear was hurled at him, but he deflected it with his shield, and, when a berserk clambered up onto the plank to face him, Hraerik lashed out with Tyrfingr and the crazed Norseman was the first to die. Before the massive corpse could fall, Hraerik gave it a great kick and it tumbled back onto the warriors who were waiting at the end of the plank. Hraerik felt, more than heard, a Dane coming behind him in support as he leapt down onto the deck of King Gotar’s ship. All warriors fell before the fury of Hraerik and Tyrfingr, so fierce was their attack. Berserkers, proof against steel weapons, felt the poisoned bite of Hraerik’s star stone blade and died in their own blood on the deck of Gotar’s dragon ship. The Norwegian king saw Hraerik hacking a path through his picked men towards him, and he began to fight his way in the opposite direction, but the cramped quarters of the ship’s deck, or perhaps a sense of fate’s preconception at the hands of the norns, made him turn back and face his young acolyte.
When Hraerik and King Gotar stood but a sword apart, all fighting around them ceased. Both the Norwegians and the Danes around them sensed that time was about to shift, forward, backward, only steel would decide that now, but this time would never be the same. “Ever since I first met you, my liege,” Hraerik started, “you have kept your axe poised above my neck, whether I be a thousand miles away or standing before you as I am now. Let us have done with this!”
King Gotar lifted his heavy battle axe, patted its haft and began to say, “And a fine axe it has–” then he swung the axe full force at Hraerik’s face, and the Bragning prince had barely time to raise the fine painted shield his father had given him to deflect the blow, but raise it he did and, with it, up came Tyrfingr, like a bolt of lightning arcing and striking a huge old oak, splitting its great trunk open, and King Gotar collapsed in his own gore, stone dead.
As King Frodi had predicted, Gotar died with some notoriety.
Leaderless, the Norwegians surrendered to Hraerik.
Once back aboard Fair Faxi, King Frodi awarded Hraerik all of Norway. Being the sole remaining descendant of King Gotar, Queen Alfhild objected. “Hold, Angantyr Frodi,” she checked her husband. “King Gotar was my father. I do not think it fitting to award Norway to his bane. Give my kingdom to,” and she looked about herself imperiously, “to Hraelauger.”
King Frodi looked at Hraerik, and his foremost man nodded approval. Hraelauger became ruler of seven provinces of Norway that day, and Hraerik gave him also the District of Lither, which King Gotar had once bestowed upon his Bragning prince. King Hraelauger left with his Norwegian forces, for most of King Gotar’s army knew the son of Hraegunar Sigurdson and followed him willingly, leaving the Danes to return to their own land.
On the way back to Zealand, Hraerik asked Princess Alfhild why she had denied him the kingship. “Have you fulfilled your debt to your father?” he asked. “Was this the one slip you’ll have me forgive?”
Princess Alfhild’s hands clutched the top strake of Fair Faxi, the ship that her father had once built, and tears welled up in her eyes, though she said with a steady voice, “I denied you your kingdom not out of malice, but out of love for my husband, who needs your eloquent tongue and sharp wit more now than ever. I am afraid of what will become of you when I do withhold my favour, and what will become of those around you!” and she looked at Gunwar, standing proudly by Hraerik, and she began to cry.
Soon after their return to Denmark, King Frodi and Queen Alfhild had a daughter, and they named her Eyfura. The Peace of Frodi held sway over Denmark for three years, during which its king and queen had another child, a son they named Alf. Much to everyone’s consternation, Gunwar remained barren. Hraerik, though disappointed, never showed it. It was a time of peace and a time for young love, but there was a brooding cloud rising in the East. King Hunn, Kagan Bek of the Khazars, had been much put off by King Frodi’s rejection of his daughter, Hanund. When she had returned to Khazaria shamed and, unknown to the Danes, pregnant, her father allied himself with Olmar, King of the Eastern Slavs, and began raising an army with which to attack the Danes.