© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
RETURN TO GOTAR’S HALL (Circa 829 AD)
“In all her life no ill knew she,
and in her fate no flaw, either;
of blemish none in her body knew she;
yet cruel norns came between them.”
The Short Lay of Sigurth (Hollander).
“How does one, through prescience, foresee and feel the death of an enemy half a continent away, yet fail to fathom a woman’s heart nigh half a pace back?” Such thoughts troubled Hraerik of late, so, just as King Gorm of Denmark had done a generation ago, Hraerik quit the east early. Sensing Hrafn Ketil’s sorry fate and having fulfilled his pledge to Dvalin, Hraerik and his men handed their furs and goods in trust to Brak, who had planned to carry on and meet up with Hraegunar in Baghdad and continue with his training in Damascus. The Varangians then sailed down the Northern Dvina, through the White Sea and across the Barents Sea in much the same rough manner as their first crossing. At Hrafnista they caught wind of Hrafn Ketil’s death; at home in Jaederen Province they heard confirming news of the completeness of Oddi’s victory and by late summer they were back in the Vik learning first-hand the extent of the carnage. The sons of Hraegunar were well received by King Gotar. He made Hraerik his foremost man.
Survivors of the disastrous raid against King Oddi and the Danes–only six of sixty ships returned–related once more their accounts of the battle for Hraerik’s benefit. Their dirges described a panoply of powers that the Danish sea-king had used against them. They claimed Oddi was skilled in magics, possessing knowledge of his enemies’ whereabouts while resting at home and the ability to raise storms against them even from afar. He could blind his enemies and blunt their weapons and was noted for being as merciless toward merchants as he was kind to farmers and cattlemen. Several Danes who had been captured in the fighting confirmed that his powers were such, but, even further, they verified Gotar’s information that King Frodi’s was an unpopular rule. From the captives, Hraerik gleaned details that further fleshed out the tale of Hrafn Ketil’s disastrous attack.
The Norwegian fleet had set out in fine weather heading south along the Gotland coast, but Oddi quickly raised up a tempest that drove the ships out to sea and stranded them upon a string of uncharted sandbar islets. All night the storm had raged, preventing the Norwegians from freeing their vessels. In the morning, hard on the heels of the storm, the Danes attacked. Out of the east they came, with the rising sun glistening off a thousand bared swords. They were a storm in themselves, rolling like a thundercloud over Hrafn Ketil’s strung out fleet. The vanguard swept by the first few ships, pelting them with arrows that fell like rain, the first smacking droplets presaging the fury of the tempest to follow. Then came a hail of heavy stones that smashed bones and timbers with equal ease. It was followed by ships full of howling berserks who dropped like dancing ball lightning onto the decks of the shattered ships, the sound of their weapons biting armour was like a staccato of thunderclaps wafting out over the water. Lightning bolts that struck down many fine young Norwegian oaks. And the twelve sons of Westmar were the champions of the slaughter, clearing decks as though a raging fire sweeping through deadfall. The storm rolled west down the long line of Norwegian ships and behind it followed an eerie calm, the whispered moans of the dying. Here and there a ship burned, while others broke up among the rocks they were lodged upon, disgorging their gore into the surf and the sea of the Kattegat. Only the last dozen ships had time to free themselves and, in a running battle with the Danish vanguard, only half of these escaped. The survivors told of how Hrafn Ketil had fallen early in the fray, killed in one mighty blow by Oddi, and was spared witnessing the tragedy. Hraerik mused inwardly at the fate of the man who had coveted the Nor’Way for himself.
When the hearings had concluded, Hraerik invited Princess Alfhild to go out for a ride. They had horses saddled up and they set off, heading west, in the late afternoon, following the setting sun as though wishing to draw out the day. Hraerik followed the princess for a time and studied the sunlight as it played in her golden hair. She was fresh and lovely to watch. Reigning up her horse on the crest of a very green sloping hill, she slipped out of her saddle and to the ground with a graceful strength that Hraerik would have not expected from a princess. She began to walk her horse and Hraerik rode up, dismounted and walked beside her.
“How is that troublesome dwarf of yours,” she asked. “Is he still up to his terrible antics?” She stopped and beamed Hraerik her widest smile.
Hraerik soaked up her radiance then looked to the ground. “I’m afraid he died in the east.”
“I’m sorry, Hraerik. I liked him very much. He should never have travelled so far.”
“You’re right, my princess. He should never have left home.”
“And you were right about Hrafn Ketil and our attacking the Danes. It was too dangerous and now it has all turned out so tragically. What do you suppose the Danes will do about the attack? Will they follow up their victory?”
“They very well could. Your father wants to send envoys to Frodi declaring that Hrafn Ketil was raiding on his own and that he would be seeking no compensation for the slaughter. I intend to volunteer for this duty.”
“But it’s dangerous, Hraerik. Can’t you leave it for someone else to do? We’ve heard nothing but terrible things about King Frodi’s treatment of diplomats.”
“You fret for me? Your eloquent prince, whose dexterous tongue has won him a ship and gained him a place on the high seat of his king. But,” Hraerik confessed, “I would be pleased if you continue to do so.” Hraerik stepped toward Alfhild and stroked her cheek as though to check if her blush was real or painted. He kissed her gently. “I’ll be leaving soon,” and he kissed her again, but harder.
Alfhild stepped away from him and leaped up onto her horse. “I hope your glib tongue hasn’t gotten you into more trouble than you can handle,” she chided playfully, then rode off back for the royal stead. Hraerik gave chase, but always kept a little behind her. He told himself it was so he could watch her, but he knew there was more to it. He was falling in love with an elusive creature, a fairy princess, who would always be just beyond his grasp. And a sinking feeling overcame him as he rode.
King Gotar’s hall was similar in construction to Hraegunar’s longhall, but an ell longer in every direction. On either side of the two triple high seats, benches ran to the distant corners of the hall. There were no bed chambers or kitchens, the hall having been built for audiences and accommodation of warriors only. Rich tapestries were hung the full girth of the walls. The finest of these framed the high seat dais’ which rested upon a planked floor. Beams, posts and pillars were painted and the high seats themselves were profusely carved and enamelled in a gripping-beast motif.
All Gotar’s hired men assembled in the hall the next day and it was proposed that one envoy should lead a ship bearing a white painted shield, a sign of truce, upon its mast into Denmark and proclaim to King Frodi that Hrafn Ketil’s attack was of his own volition. Hraelauger stepped forward at this proposal and said, “I wish to volunteer for this duty.” To this Gotar acquiesced, claiming that a more promising representative of the people of Norway could not be found. Hraerik had objections though.
“I am against your setting off on so dangerous a peace mission. It is common knowledge that King Frodi slaughters foreign emissaries with alarming regularity. Surely there are others who would go in your stead. Are there no others who would like to go visit the fair King Frodi of Denmark?” No one volunteered. Hraerik was off his high seat now haranguing the men. “I’m sure King Frodi bears us no malice for our recent attack.” Yet no one volunteered. “Are there none who would go in my brother’s stead?” Hraerik asked and again there was no reply.
“Good. It’s settled then,” Gotar said. “Hraelauger shall be our peace envoy if he still so wishes.”
“Yes, my liege,” Hraelauger answered.
Hraerik walked to face his brother, glowering at him angrily. He turned to face King Gotar. “I, too, must volunteer then. I cannot let my brother face this danger alone.”
“That is out of the question,” Gotar replied. “I need you to help make preparations should King Frodi decide to attack us.”
“If Frodi attacks us it will mean he has slain our envoy, my brother. I would be of little use in such circumstance. I insist you give me leave to aid him, to prevent this occurring. Give me leave that my eloquent tongue may smooth over any distrust between King Frodi and yourself.”
The other hired men cheered loudly in support of Hraerik. Princess Alfhild put in a word for him and soon King Gotar was swayed to give him the leave he so desired.
“That was quite a performance you put on,” Alfhild told Hraerik later. “Father would never have let you go, had you played it any other way.” They had packed a lunch and gone for an afternoon’s ride once again, stopping to eat on a blanket in the midst of a wooded glen. “Why is this peace mission so important to you, Hraerik? You were the one who warned father not to attack King Frodi. You should be the least concerned about how father placates the Danes, and now you risk your life as the Norwegian emissary?”
“Let us say I’m trying to impress your father,” Hraerik said, lightly.
Alfhild would have none of this levity. “I’ve been leading you on, Hraerik,” she confessed. “I enjoy your company, your stories, your poetry. I have affection for you, Hraerik. Affection, but no passion. And now you’ve put yourself and your brother in grave danger because of me.”
“Your concern for my welfare may not be passion yet, but it is the stirrings of greater emotion.”
“You must call off this mission, Hraerik. I won’t be responsible for your death. For both your deaths.”
“I have no intention of dying,” Hraerik replied. “That would hardly impress your father.”
Alfhild studied Hraerik’s deep coarse face. “You’re not on a peace mission, are you Hraerik?” she asked. Hraerik did not reply. She had succeeded in fathoming his intent and her concern turned to fear as she second guessed the madness, the wildness of Hraerik’s plan. She rose and staggered blindly to a small oak sapling and leaned on it for support. “What dark and dangerous course have you set for yourself, my eloquent prince? What extreme have I driven you to?”
Hraerik got up and embraced her from behind. “This isn’t your fault. It has nothing to do with you. You must not tell a soul.” He held her close and could feel her heavy breathing, the pounding of her heart. He felt the flush of her cheek, then the moisture of her sweet breath.
“I’ve been raised in a royal court,” she started. “Father has encouraged me to observe the functions of a king since my early youth and he has never kept any of it from me: the granting of marriages, the planning of alliances, the making of war. All this I have seen–participated in. My father has done all this in order that I may be a powerful queen when my times comes. He has no sons, so I must be strong for him. Strong and emotionless. When the time comes that he chooses me a king, I shall be that powerful queen he wants me to be. I love my father, Hraerik. He has given me everything he has to offer. And when he gives me my king, well…I shall try to love him too.”
Hraerik turned Alfhild to face him. “And if your father should choose me for you…would you try to love me?”
Tears crested upon Alfhild’s lower eyelids, but they would not flow. “I was born into royalty. I was raised on the high seat, constantly looking down. I must look up. Do you understand, Hraerik? I must look up!”
Hraerik looked into her eyes, not sure of their meaning. The tears brimmed, but would not flow. Soon they dissipated.
“Mother said this prescience of yours is very rare.” Alfhild’s eyes grew stone cold. “She says it comes from your mother’s side, from the east.”
Hraerik knew her meaning and his body became lead. In his mind his arm rose and swung down and cuffed Alfhild hard across the mouth, but his body would not respond to this thought. Alfhild still stood in front of him, her face flushed and questioning. She could not have read this thought, he told himself, or she would be reeling away in pain. Blood would be flowing from her mouth and the cut upon her cheek. She must never guess. Hraerik turned himself away from her and braced himself against a huge oak. She must never guess. Hraerik had never struck a woman, not even a slave, and this terrible thought of his shamed him. “Leave me be,” he stammered. “Go away!” He looked out into the shadows, into the darkness.
“Kraka, teach me the runes,” he had cried as a child. “Teach me to read the runes.”
“The runes are not for the base-born,” she had answered. He had run off into the deepest woods then, and finally Brak had taken him in.
“Go back to your father,” Hraerik told Alfhild. “I need time to myself.”
Alfhild went to her horse and mounted. It pranced as it stood behind him. “Don’t cross lances with King Frodi, Hraerik,” she warned. “He has too much luck.” She gathered up her reins. “I shall always be your friend,” she cried and she rode off.
Hraerik could not be angry with her, yet he knew he could never feel the same way for her again. She knew that he was stubborn and unforgiving and that had undoubtedly been her intent, but it was he, himself, who had destroyed his frail blossoming of emotion, struck it down with the mental blow that had sent his vision of Alfhild reeling. It would never be the same between them.
Hraerik left the picnic basket on the blanket and mounted his steed. He followed Alfhild, back some distance. He still worried about her. That was something.
The ship, Fair Faxi, sailed out of the Vik, a white shield hanging from her mast. The morning was an autumn one, cool and bright. Hraerik stood upon the foredeck, Hraelauger manned the rudder and Alfhild watched them slip out onto the sea from the heights of that headland that tumbled down to meet it.