© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE HAND OF GUNWAR (Circa 829 AD)
“Brightly beamed the lights of both her cheeks upon me.
E’re will I recall it o’re the heaped up wood-pile.”
The Skald, Kormak Ogmundarson.
“In King Gotar’s high seat hall,” Hraerik started, “when an embassy visits, each member is appointed a separate place and seat where he is to lie.”
“That is, no doubt, a custom you Norwegians learned from the Danes,” King Frodi replied, and he gave Hraerik’s men the choice benches his champions had occupied, for he had sent them away lest they attack Hraerik before his three days’ grace expired.
“And in Gotar’s high seat hall,” Hraerik started once again, “when an embassy visits, a feast is prepared and a steer is roasted and meats are served in plenty.” Twilight was approaching and Hraerik and his men had not eaten since morn.
“Again that is a custom started by the Danes,” King Frodi answered. “There is a steer a roasting in the scullery as your senses may observe,” and Frodi took a big whiff out of the air and smiled patronizingly. But when the feast was served up, Hraerik’s party ate great quantities of beef and wasted even more, dropping roasts upon the floor and throwing cuts into the hearths. Frodi was galled by all this and shouted from his high seat, “Does King Gotar allow such wanton squandering of meats?”
Hraerik took a small bite from a joint of beef, then tossed it upon the floor. “In King Gotar’s high seat hall the men are left to eat as they please, unless there is a famine about.”
The king shrugged and left the men to eat as they pleased. After watching them eat for some time, Frodi said, “Tell me, my Bragning prince, does this eloquent tongue of yours have a lesson for me?”
Hraerik finished scouring a bone bare and set it aside carefully, for there were certain joints that the Norwegians seemed to be picking clean, while others they but tasted and threw away. He looked up at the king and peered deep into his future and said, “One must look about oneself and select the loyal few from the pretentious many. A staunch group is stronger than a wavering host.”
“You shall soon learn just how staunch a group my champions are.”
No sooner had King Frodi mentioned his champions then Westmar entered the hall demanding to know Hraerik’s choice in the location of combat. “There is an island nearby,” he recommended, “where holmgangrs are commonly fought.”
“As we are yet inexperienced in land battles,” Hraerik replied, “I think we shall prefer to fight upon the sea. My ship was won on advice against fighting the Danes and I intend to break it of this habit.”
Westmar protested. “Let out upon the sea, the Norwegians shall flee, just as they’ve done before.”
“I’m afraid I must agree,” King Frodi added.
“Since we do not want to fight on land,” Hraerik began, “and you do not want to fight us on the sea, I suggest we compromise. There is a frozen dugout within the fortress grounds. On its ice we shall do combat, your sons gaining the firmness of the land while we Norwegians yet fight upon the waters.”
“What manner of battle can be fought upon ice?” Westmar protested once again.
“That is my choice,” Hraerik insisted. “Should your king have no objections, the matter is closed.”
“You gave the Norwegians choice,” King Frodi said to Westmar. “My soldiers shall surround the pond so that none may leave the ice alive unless victorious.”
“The ice it is,” Westmar growled angrily and stormed out of the hall.
King Frodi turned upon Hraerik. “You shall yet find my champions staunch and steady.”
“In the high seat hall of King Gotar,” Hraerik started, changing the subject, “drinking always follows feasting, with strong liquors to soak up the meats.”
“A more shameless beggar I have never met,” King Frodi shouted, more put off by Hraerik’s apparent disregard of his champions capabilities than by his requests. They were the finest berserks of their time. That fact none had ever been successful in disputing.
Princess Gunwar rose at her brother’s anger. She was tall and strong and well-proportioned with flowing gold-brown hair, and her eyes–marked by Odin–one hazel, one blue, were by now misted over with the veil of alcohol. She was alone in her own land and had turned to drink to dull her sensations. “I shall fetch our guests their ale,” she said, much to Frodi’s chagrin, and she went back to the scullery and brought out slaves carrying cups and horns of brew. She had a huge silver goblet which she carried over to Hraerik. She felt aligned with Hraerik. They both bore the burden of common foes. And she was impressed with how he handled himself and how he had handled her brother. No ambassador had ever entered into Frodi’s court and gotten such generous treatment.
When she offered Hraerik the goblet of ale, he took up both her hand and the cup it held and toasted his host. “Most generous of kings, do you award me, as a gift, this that I hold in my hand for the advice I’ve given you, words you shall hold dear for the remainder of your long and illustrious life?”
“Steeply do you scale your words,” Frodi complained, but he nodded that Hraerik might keep the cup.
Hraerik, however, grabbed King Frodi’s sister and sat her upon his lap and began to share his ale with her. “I thank you for your gift, my lord,” he said, and then he kissed her as though she was the dearest gift he had ever received.
“Fool!” Frodi shouted. “My sister is no slave that I can give away without her own free consent!”
Hraerik gave the princess a sly wink, took her hand in his, and pulled his knife from his belt. “Well, if I can’t have all of her, I’ll have to settle for the part you gave me,” and he made as if to cut off her hand.
By this time, Princess Gunwar had begun to laugh and Frodi realized all was in jest. He was made even angrier by this and taunted, “Should you survive your combat with my champions, you’ll have proved yourself worthy of my sister.”
Hraerik released her hand, but she stayed upon his lap and they continued to drink from Hraerik’s cup late into the evening. When the revelry was such that the women were wont to leave, Gunwar stayed and supped with Hraerik. Never had Hraerik met a woman who could hold her ale as Gunwar did. Quite drunk, they decided to take a walk and Gunwar offered to show Hraerik the fortress. There was a waxing moon shedding a keen frugal light and the frigid night air made clouds of one’s breath and brought clarity to one’s head. Gunwar led Hraerik east along the corduroy road and turned left before the harbour town gate. As she started down the inner road that followed the embankment, Hraerik watched her strong sure movements, and he followed her up a wooden stairway to the top of the rampart. They walked around the inside of the palisade until they came to a second staircase and they climbed it to the walkway of the parapet. Gunwar stopped at an embrasure and stared up at the moon. She sighed and the air rolled away from her lips in a dissipating cloud. She turned to Hraerik and she said, “Why did Grep say what he did about me? Hate is all he’s ever gotten from me.”
“That is why he said what he said, and to protect the one who did return his advances. Now, in the cuckold’s eyes, you and Hanund will always share some guilt. It is Grep’s revenge on you and may very well have saved Hanund’s life.”
“Maybe it’s just as well then,” Gunwar started. “Hanund came here an innocent young girl. It was life in my brother’s court that corrupted her. There is so much that is so bad here.” And she sighed and another little cloud rolled off her lips. Hraerik watched her as she shuddered in her thoughts. She began walking then she realized he had been watching; whipping her head proudly, she turned. “Why have you come to my brother’s high seat hall? You are as bold as your Norwegian mountains and yet you remain here, still alive. My brother has treated ambassadors with nothing but contempt, yet you have gained his respect through your courage and your words. What makes you so different from all the rest?”
Hraerik walked up ahead of her and stopped, leaning easily against the parapet. “Other ambassadors came here hoping they’d survive the effort. I’ve come here to destroy the sons of Westmar or die trying.”
“You wanted the combat with them?” Gunwar asked, incredulously. “No wonder you fit in so easily here. You’re as mad as the rest of us! Westmar’s sons cannot be beaten in combat. Grep is dead through his own foolishness, not through anything you or Hraelauger did. If you hadn’t saved my brother the difficulties in dealing with Grep, he would have set his champions upon you then and there and the boars would be sating themselves on your flesh right now,” she said haughtily, defending her brother’s strength at the expense of his virtue. Hraerik’s smile grew solemn, and he watched her eyes, sadly. Relenting, she stroked his cheek gently. Princess Gunwar looked out to the long suffering stars. “You must leave tonight,” she sighed, and the night air tumbled, catching up the moonlight in the silver mist that was her breath. “I shall help you escape.”
“Will you come with me?” Hraerik asked. “I’ve been promised your hand, and I wouldn’t mind at all if the rest of you came with it.”
“I must stay with my brother,” Gunwar replied, sadly. “He is sending Hanund away on the morrow and he shall need me. He has always been vulnerable, more so now than ever. You have cost him much: his wife and his best friend. Hanund’s father will not take this slight easily. You may very well have destroyed the Southern Way, his Danepar, before it really got started. My brother shall be hard on you when his champions have you at their mercy. You must leave tonight.”
“If I stay and defeat the sons of Westmar, then will you give me your hand?”
“So little time and so much to learn about you,” Gunwar said and she kissed him gently. “I’ll help you in any way I can against the berserks, for they are destroying our land, but I don’t think you’ll be winning my hand.”
“I’ll take your help then, since you’ve offered it, but I must warn you that I have a plan. I may yet survive to claim your hand.”
“You may have a plan, and I hope it’s a good one, but I’d rather lose you through flight, than not have you alive at all. I feel that our fates are intertwined somehow. Henceforth, my hand is yours and the rest of me comes with it.” Princess Gunwar put her hand in Hraerik’s and they walked along the parapet, doing the full circumference of her brother’s fortress. They descended the rampart and entered Gunwar’s longhall and there they spent the night.
In the early morning, Gunwar awoke from a nightmare that she had had very many times before. She was trembling so, that Hraerik woke up too. “What is it?” he asked and he comforted her in his arms.
“I dream every morn, in the half light of dawn, and I see the heads of the thirty that came to court me. The beast–that’s what I called Grep–comes into my room as I sleep and he lines the wainscoting with the heads of the princes who came to ask for my hand. Still dripping with gore they cry out for revenge, but, this time, they cried no more. And they bid me thank you and your brother. Thank you, Hraerik!” she cried, and she buried her head in Hraerik’s shoulder and she sobbed for a long long time.
When Hraerik returned to King Frodi’s high seat hall, he went to Hraelauger and said, “I’ve paid a guard to go into Liere to bring back a dressed steer. We shall be feasting in Princess Gunwar’s hall tonight, for she has offered us her aid.”
Hraelauger flashed his brother a broad grin. “What torments you must have suffered, last night, swaying her to our side.” But, when Hraerik could only flush at the statement, Hraelauger knew his brother had found more than a warm bed for the night.
“She wants to thank you for killing Grep,” Hraerik whispered, “and she figures the best way to do that is by saving your brother.” Hraerik gathered up the bones that he had set aside the evening before. “Now it’s time to prepare for our combat.”
One might have expected Hraerik and his men to prepare themselves for their upcoming fight by practicing at the weapons which Hraerik had claimed to be so inexperienced with, but instead they shut themselves up in Gunwar’s longhall and they made themselves four pairs of strange boots from a hide and the bones Hraerik had put aside, while Gunwar’s maidens and slaves prepared for a second night of revelry.
In the afternoon, Hraerik and Hraelauger took a walk about the compound and Hraerik stopped before the huge frozen dugout that covered the south-west quadrant of the fortress. The sun was shining and the ice glistened in its brilliance. “What if it snows?” Hraelauger asked his brother.
“Then we shall likely die,” Hraerik answered, and he studied the sky and he tasted the air. “It doesn’t feel like snow,” he lied. The dugout was a large one, pie shaped and about a hundred and a half feet on its straight sides. “There’ll be plenty of room to get about,” Hraerik thought, “if only it doesn’t snow.” They returned to Gunwar’s hall and they got themselves ready for the feast.
When the feast was underway, once again Hraerik’s men began devouring their food most wastefully. Slabs of meat they tossed upon the floor, and joints they threw out hardly touched. King Frodi was glad to see that the Norwegians were as wasteful with their own beef as they had been with his, but he noticed, once more, that they were particularly careful with some joints of meat, finishing them completely, then setting the bones off to one side. Again Princess Gunwar drank with Hraerik late into the evening, but her maidens played good hostesses and drank with his men even longer.
Hraerik sat upon the edge of Gunwar’s huge feather bed, taking off his boots. Gunwar closed the door to her bedchamber and it blocked out the noise of the party somewhat. “What is this plan of yours?” she asked. “These strange boots you are making out of ox-hide and bone?”
“Last night I was doomed and tonight you are full of questions? What has brought about this, dare I say, hope?” Hraerik had his boots unlaced and kicked them off, first one, then the other. He began pulling off his tunic.
Gunwar tucked her dress about her calves and kneeled down upon the wooden floor in front of him, resting her hands upon his thighs. “It’s your men. They are full of confidence. Their faith in you is infectious,” and she laid her head upon his lap as if that tenuous faith was all she had. “They would follow you into the underworld if you but asked them to.”
“In a sense they all have, crossing the great northern ocean into the White Sea and following me into the Eastern Realm. The Nor’Way crossing is a strange phenomenon that affects every man very differently yet the same. My plan is based upon things we Norwegians have learned in the east. Things that the Lapps and the Finns and the Dwarves and Giants have taught us. But of all the things we’ve experienced, the great crossing is the most enduring.”
“Tell me about the Eastern Realm” Gunwar pleaded. “Tell me about the great crossing.” And Hraerik began his tale of travel by describing a certain dwarf he had known, called Dvalin.