© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
BATTLE UPON THE ICE (Circa 829 AD)
“He traversed the (frozen?) waters on a bone.”
Book 5 of The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus.
Dawn broke and brought wispy clouds that smelled of snow and blustery winds that whipped them about till they spun and they rolled into a heavy mist, threatening ominously. The day was a dull hoary grey that reminded Hraerik of Hraegunar’s beard. The news had come to Hraerik in a dream: his father was dead. The premonition he had had on the Island of Laeso had come to fruition. But the news was yet more feeling than fact, so he spared his brother the tidings. He wondered, too, if he and Hraelauger were soon to follow: if so, the news wouldn’t matter much; if not, Hraelauger would learn soon enough. Hraerik looked up from the porch of Gunwar’s hall and watched the scud blowing in from the east, and he wondered what this third day, this day of battle would bring. He was working on the last pair of boots that his men would be wearing into combat out upon the ice. Once more they had banqueted in his hostess’s hall and once more they had collected the bones that Hraerik needed to build his boots. It was from the Finns that the Norwegians had first learned about the boots, but it was the dwarf Dvalin that had taught Hraerik how to make them properly, how to select the right materials: the shin bone of a steer, the hide of an ox and the steel pins that only a smith could make to tie the two together. He thought of Dvalin and he stroked the hilt of Tyrfingr at his waist, as though to refresh his memory. Life always seemed to work out like the poems and stories with which he was so familiar. The hero falling just short of his goal; circumstance thwarting honest effort; had he been writing the story, Dvalin would have made it home, and Hraegunar would be alive today, but he wasn’t writing it. “I’m living it as I go,” he thought.
“How will it end?” Gunwar asked, walking out onto the porch. “How will end this bleak day? The clouds are heavy. I prayed to Freya for good weather and we got this,” she said, disappointed.
“If the snow holds off, it’s as fine a day as we’ll need to get our day’s work done.”
Gunwar sat down on the bench beside Hraerik. She placed both hands and she leaned her head upon Hraerik’s shoulder and she looked up to the sky. “If you die today,” she whispered, “I’m going to shut myself up in my bedchamber and have the valkyries set fire to my hall.” Hraerik smiled and turned to her, but then realized she was deathly serious and the blood drained from his face. “I’ve waited a long time for you,” she continued, “and I’ll not take losing you now,” and she buried her face in his shoulder and Hraerik could feel her silent weeping. He cradled her head in his hand and he hushed her like a baby.
It had never occurred to Hraerik that he should forgo his due retribution in order to spare a woman the grief of his actions, but he looked down on Gunwar and for an instant he wanted to flee away with her, he wanted to spare the men that had cost Hraegunar his life. He hushed her a few moments until she stopped sobbing. “I must do this for my father,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to do that,” she said, stepping back. She dried her tears and she stood away from him. Hraerik gathered up the boots he had been working on and he went inside. She prayed to her gods that what she had said to Hraerik would not weaken his resolve and possibly cost him his life. She would follow him to the nine worlds of hell if he died.
At noon, the Norwegians gathered up their gear and they headed out to the ice. They strode down the steps of the porch in single file, Hraerik in the lead and Hraelauger at his back, and they walked across the log dressed road to the quadrant with the dugout. The berserks were already there, on the road down the right side of the quadrant, working themselves into their berserker furies. And King Frodi’s army surrounded the ice and watched over all the preparations. They were very respectful of Hraerik and his men, those about to die. Townsfolk from Liere and from the harbour village, and Alfgeir and Einar Cuff and the rest of Hraerik’s men were there, gathering on the road to watch the modified holmgangr, or island combat, where water was the isle and the land the waiting deep. The berserks were invincible in their fury: no steel could bite them and each had the strength of six men, and their swords were massive and some carried great pole axes that were impossible to handle until they were in that manic state. If Hraerik had had any qualms about the berserkers dying, they were gone now. Gunwar was beside her brother, who was presiding over the combat from the apex of the quadrant. Hraerik and his men put on their special boots and fastened their bucklers and gathered up their spears and axes. “Only the victors shall leave the ice alive!” King Frodi commanded, and he took a scarf from Gunwar and he dropped it out on the frozen waters. It rippled in the wind as it fell and it blew out onto the ice and it stuck and it fluttered like a wounded bird, as Hraerik stepped out onto the frozen waters. He was unsteady at first, but his skill soon came back to him, and he poled himself out onto the ice with his spear, gliding with one foot, then striding with the other. Then he planted his pole and he made a turn and his men followed in a line behind him and did just as he had done. The townsfolk of Liere were awed, for they had never seen anyone skate before. Hraerik and his men stood in a row at the far end of the ice, as the sons of Westmar stepped out onto the sheet in boots they had covered in tar and sand in a vain attempt at traction. A murmur ran through the townsfolk. While most had only hoped that the Norwegians would win, many now sensed that they just might.
The sons of Westmar worked their way out into the middle of the ice, a crazed howling knot of men. The Norwegians skated along the arc of the quadrant, closing in on the berserks at an angle. As they approached, several of the berserks broke away from the group to attack, and the last few men in the Norwegian line skirmished with them. The Norwegians thrusted with their spears and struck with their swords, but their blows had no effect on the berserks, who didn’t even bother with armour. The bare shoulder of one of the berserks deflected away a particularly devastating blow, and he shrugged it off without showing signs of pain. The ice, where an arm should lay severed, was merely sprinkled with sweat. The Norwegians broke off the encounter and continued to circle the Danes. Hraerik could sense that his men were shaken, so he had Hraelauger take the lead and he dropped to the tail of the column and he drew Tyrfingr solemnly. The berserks were cheering as Hraelauger veered in toward them and, when several came out again to do battle, Hraerik met with one of them and they traded blows as he passed. Hraerik’s sword stroke appeared to have little effect, as Tyrfingr passed right through the neck of one berserk as if it wasn’t even there. “Magic,” Hraerik’s thoughts flashed, but, as the white ice was sprinkled with sweat it was also reddened, a few droplets at first, misting up the blank sheet, then huge drops that splashed across the pane, followed, finally, by a head that came tumbling after Hraerik as he skated along. The berserk’s great body came crashing to the ice in a crumpled heap and it was the Norwegians’ turn to cheer. Tyrfingr was glowing now, not visibly in the light of day, but Hraerik could feel her.
The sons of Westmar began moving across the ice in an attempt to corner Hraerik and his men. They gauged an intercept course and charged wildly in their tarred boots, slipping and sliding and falling as they went, leaving a trail of berserks as they progressed. And, although they had correctly judged their direction to engage the middle of the Norwegian formation, Hraerik called for the rear half of his men to halt and the berserks that were still in pursuit, slid harmlessly in between them, leaving Hraelauger’s group free to attack the stragglers where they had fallen. This they did, and, though their blunted weapons would not bite, they managed to wrest a great poleaxe free from one of the berserks and they bludgeoned him to death under its sheer mass. The axe seemed more like an anvil mounted on the end of a small tree, and it took Hraelauger and several others to wield it. When they attacked a second berserk with it, they caught him with a glancing blow that sent him flying across the sheet, but the axe crashed through the ice and disappeared into the waters, leaving a great jagged hole in their island of ice.
Hraerik’s group had stopped and drawn the main body of the enemy after them. The berserks gave them chase and, in fact, could run as fast as the others could skate, but the Norwegians just planted their spears and turned sharply away from them, and the berserkers could do naught but skitter and fall in their attempts to stop, while Hraerik and his men skated to aid Hraelauger’s group in dispatching the fallen. The berserk that Hraelauger had clubbed senseless came sliding across the ice and one of Hraerik’s men dispatched him with a sword, for he was no longer in a berserk state and therefore susceptible to steel. Hraerik squared off against a huge berserk and warded off a savage blow with shield, before driving Tyrfingr deep into his ribs. Tyrfingr’s bloodletting grooves ran red with gore and the lifeblood left the warrior and spilled out across the bright white ice. The sun was out now, its rays dancing in the blood and the ice, deep crimson rubies settling into a bed of crushed diamonds. Hraerik had never seen colours so alive. He was breathing heavily as he strained to pull Tyrfingr out of the dying berserk’s chest. He could taste the blood in the air, he thought and, as Tyrfingr came free, he realized he was biting his lip.
One of the better skaters in Hraelauger’s group had kept a berserk down by tripping him and knocking him off balance and causing him to slip, until Hraerik got over there and dispatched him as he lay upon the ice. Six berserks remained alive, and they were charging up the ice after the Norwegians. Hraerik led his men away from them and toward the hole where Hraelauger had broken up the ice, and, as the berserks closed in, the Norwegians split up once more, skating off on either side of it. The sons of Westmar could not turn and could not stop, and they could only clench their teeth as they all slid into the ice cold water of the pond. Their berserker furies dissipated in the frigid abyss, and Hraerik’s men planted their spears in the ice and turned, and pierced the sons of Westmar into oblivion.
“There seem to be many dolphins about,” Hraerik said to Hraelauger as they approached King Frodi at the apex of the quadrant.
“For this cold weather,” Hraelauger agreed.
Now, after the destruction of the berserks out on the ice, King Frodi fully understood the meaning of Hraerik’s riddle, whereby he had claimed to have shaken free the lance-head of the king, meaning Oddi. There, too, it must have been the waters that had overcome his cousin, more so than the Norwegians. Hraerik was a dangerous man, King Frodi decided.
“I come seeking the hand of your sister, Gunwar,” Hraerik said, and Gunwar stepped out onto the ice unsteadily and Hraerik took her arm and gave her support. She left no question as to her stand in the matter. They stood out there on the ice, and Westmar came over to young King Frodi and talked to him, and then King Frodi said, “There shall be a banquet tonight in my high seat hall and there you shall receive the hand of my sister, Princess Gunwar, should she choose to accept your request.”
“Westmar has something planned,” Gunwar said later, in her hall, while they were preparing for her brother’s banquet. “It’s a trap,” she said, when Hraerik made no reply. “We should saddle up our horses,” she continued, “and escape while they are preparing for the banquet.”
Hraerik could see that Gunwar was faltering and he took her in his arms. She had the strength to survive in King Frodi’s crazed court, but the effort had worn on her and she was now fragile as a flower. “I’m not going to steal you away from your brother,” Hraerik told her. “Wherever we’d go he would follow us with an army. Such is the way of kings. He has promised me your hand and his blessing and, Westmar or not, I shall remain to collect them.” There was no doubt in Hraerik’s mind. His heart had met its match and he knew that Gunwar felt the same way. Gone were the self-doubts he had had while pursuing Princess Alfhild. He had accomplished much since then. He had done Hraegunar proud.
That night, in King Frodi’s high seat hall, after the feasting was over and they were well into the bouts of drinking, Westmar leaned over from his third high seat and challenged Hraerik, who was sharing Gunwar’s second high seat, to row the withy with him on pain of death. Although Westmar was a huge man, he was getting on in years and Hraerik’s time at blacksmithing had given him a back and shoulders that were a match for anyone, so he took up the challenge. There was no spontaneity on Westmar’s part; he happened to have a withy ring tucked in his belt.
Hraerik and Westmar sat down on the plank floor of the audience area between the high seats, and they put their feet together sole to sole, and they each grabbed hold of the withy ring and they pulled against each other. First one would rise up off his buttocks and look as though he were about to nose-dive over the other’s shoulder, then the other would rise up off the floor and look as if he were going to go over. After several minutes of this back and forth rowing, beads of sweat pearled on the forehead of Westmar and his face grew crimson with his efforts, so that the tiny pearls became rubies and it appeared as though he was sweating blood. Several more minutes of this effort brought sweat to the countenance of Hraerik, but it was apparent that Westmar was overmatched. His strength was ebbing. A quarter of an hour into the bout, Westmar gathered up all his remaining strength and pulled Hraerik up off the floor one last time, and, when it looked as if Hraerik might go over, the young Norwegian straightened up his powerful back, lowered his centre of gravity and settled back down. Hraerik then summoned all the strength he had and gave an enormous pull that sent Westmar flying over his shoulders and sprawling into a pillar. Everyone could hear Westmar’s neck snap, as he was driven head first into the heavy fir support column, and the hall shook with the impact and all knew that Westmar was dead.
The old woman, Gotwar, did not even rise up off her high seat to aid her dead husband. As the guards hauled Westmar, feet first, out of the hall, Gotwar sat and brooded. They would take the old man to the ice house, where he would rest with his sons for nine days before burial. Hraerik knew that it would be Gotwar’s intention to avenge her kin, so he was not too surprised when the old hag, too, rose up with a challenge.
“Oh great leader of our northern guests,” Gotwar began her harangue, “Hraerik Bragi Hraegunarson, well known for words and wisdom, well-travelled, and well accounted for here this day, I challenge you to a duel of words, to a contest of flygting, on pain of death.”
Hraerik rose up and responded, “One sided this wager seems, for your journey through life is all but spent while mine has just begun.”
They stood across the dais from each other, and they eyed each other as they played a most dangerous game. Gotwar tore a heavy gold necklace from her throat, and she said, “Well travelled you are, having visited the Eastern Realm, but I received this necklace, from young King Frodi, as a reward for travelling east to the land of the Khazars and bringing him back a young wife worthy of his station.” She threw it down on the floor between them. “This shall make up the wager’s difference, but also at stake here is your name, Bragi. Your King Gotar must have wished you much trouble, to hand you so handsome a title.”
Hraerik’s relationship with his king was tenuous at best, but he had won the byname, Bragi, and Gotwar was the first to challenge its validity. Gunwar’s whispered pleas could not stop the contest now. “Begin, old woman!”
Gotwar turned and faced the audience and said:
“When you’re grinding your war-axe on the whetstone,
does your wagging penis flail the quivering rump.”
All the Danes and the Norwegians at the feast looked amongst each other, searching for someone who could understand her meaning, but there was no one. Flygting was a contest of insults, but she had insulted Hraerik more just getting him to compete than she now did when her very life was at stake. The folk shook their heads in wonderment. Any one of them could best those words.
Hraerik was not about to insult the old woman with words, after a nonsensical verse such as that, deciding to best her with this humorous retort:
“When boy becomes man he grows whiskers to be sheared,
but his private parts he keeps in a beard.”
The Norwegians immediately began to cheer his words and the Danes were chuckling at first, but soon began laughing uproariously. The verse had been terse and humorous, its simplicity, itself, an insult to Gotwar.
The old woman went over to the necklace, got down on her knees and picked it up. She held it up to Hraerik like a fawning dog, and Princess Gunwar began crying and pleading for the old woman’s life. Hraelauger came up to Hraerik and warned him not to spare her, because she was duty bound to avenge herself against him. But Gunwar was begging for the old hag’s life, and Gotwar, herself, was swearing that she would only be her foster-daughter’s hand maiden for her remaining days. Hraerik took the necklace from the old hag and placed it about Gunwar’s smooth neck, and he said, “Her life is yours to do with as you please.” And the old woman was at Gunwar’s feet, smoothing her silk dress and adjusting her shoes. Gunwar rose and led the old woman off to the chambers before Hraelauger could convince Hraerik to change his mind. And Hraelauger would have killed the old hag himself, then and there, had he gotten half the chance. He felt the evil of the old woman, and he wondered at how his brother, with all his prescience, could not sense this.
Princess Gunwar was on her way back from the chambers, when she saw her brother reaching for the knife at his belt. Hraerik was standing by Hraelauger’s bench and they were still arguing about his decision to spare Gotwar. King Frodi pulled the knife from his sheath and flipped it handle for blade. Gunwar shouted out a warning to Hraerik, and he turned to face Frodi, just as the young king threw the knife. Hraerik side-stepped the blade and it lodged, quivering, in a column beside him. The young Varangian pulled the knife free of the post and walked toward the young king. “It would make a much finer gift if you would present me with the sheath that goes with it,” he said, and Frodi slipped the sheath off his belt and gave it to Hraerik.
Gunwar joined Hraerik on the steps of the dais and said, “You may give Hraerik my hand now, since you’re in such a generous mood.” King Frodi gave Hraerik his sister in marriage and the Norwegian’s victory feast became a wedding banquet as well.