© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
LANDING AT LIERE (Circa 829 AD)
“Also, as they passed the sand hills, and bade
Him (Amleth) look at the meal, meaning the sand, he
replied that it had been ground small by the hoary
tempests of the ocean.”
Amleth; Saxo Grammaticus.
The harbour of Liere was a looping exposed crescent of a bay that suffered the wrath of the storms of the sea as direly as any rocky promontory. Its beach was long and deep and scoured of sand, a cobblestone surface etched by wind and wave. But occasionally a storm would blow in from the north that was different from the rest, a slow, dull thudding storm that the Danes called Amlodi, and it would churn up the sea deep down to its bed and drive sand far up onto the beach, and the Danes called this sand Amlodi’s meal. And then smaller storms would come again and glean the shore of sand and return it to the sea–Amlodi’s meal bin.
A small harbour village lined the shore of the bay serving the town of Liere, the house of Danish Royalty, some fifteen miles inland. Longhalls of the merchant companies, large rans of the chieftains and the homes of individuals all crowded along the bay as close to the beach as Amlodi’s salty spray would allow. Their yards and gardens a wattled tapestry of greenery and colour amongst the grey weathered collection of buildings. Beyond the village scruffy little dunes ranged far inland. The scene was sparse, the village spare.
The sun was well past its peak when Fair Faxi slipped into the wide harbour. Hraerik stood at the forestem of his ship and studied the arrangement of vessels on the shore. He surveyed King Frodi’s naval vessels, dozens and dozens of longships, beached all in a row, ducks out of water, as Fair Faxi glided past them toward the commercial area of the bay. Hraerik had Hraelauger steer for a spot that was clear and turned and gave the signal to cease rowing. Behind Fair Faxi was the strait between Denmark and Gotland, called The Sound, with rough wind whipped waves surging across her cold expanse. Winter had blown in from the northern sea and there was a chill in the air above the waters and light wisps of snow on the land. The crisp cold took one’s breath away if allowed.
The shore closed and Fair Faxi nudged gently over the beach sand. Hraerik grasped the forestem, jumped up onto the topstrake and leapt down to the beach, but, miscalculating momentum, pitched forward heavily on landing. He got up off his hands and knees and brushed sand off his pants. Hraelauger jumped down from the ship and landed beside him. “Don’t abase yourself before the Danes,” Hraelauger jested.
“Denmark has a peculiar taste that I find hard not to like,” Hraerik replied, spitting sand from his lips.
“Here comes the harbour pilot,” said Hraelauger, raising a hand in salute.
“Hoi! Captains!” the rather plump harbour pilot called as he approached. “If you could land yourself as gently as you land your ship, your knees would outlast your keel and your luck would outlast your knees, for as luck would have it, Amlodi has been so kind as to deposit his meal to soften your landing.” And the jolly little harbour master greatly amused himself with his words, for he was an admirer of fine and clever speech.
Hraerik responded with a clever verse of his own:
“Striking land, the strakeman stumbles, goes a tumbling,
landing on his limbs and liking what he’s striking.
Tripping after trapping treading Frodi’s dreadnought.
Sounds like luck is sending sandy for-get-me-nots.”
“Spoken like a king’s skald,” the harbour master shouted with glee. “I hope your business will keep you about the harbour and not send you off to Liere. King Frodi has all the skalds he’s likely to want, but none, I think, as good as thee. My name is Alfgeir and I’m the harbour master, here to collect your particulars and the beaching fee.”
The brothers explained that they were Norwegian merchants tired of dealing in the rich Nor’Way trade and exploring opportunities in King Frodi’s growing southern route. The harbour master accepted their story and their fee, along with a handsome gratuity of silver Kufas that got them an invitation to stay as his guests in the harbourmaster’s longhall. Hraerik’s men made a camp of their own on the beach in front of Fair Faxi and there they set up a large merchant tent in which to conduct trade.
It so happened that the naval officer who had led the vigilantes in their search for cattle thieves was stationed in the harbour of Liere under the command of the harbour master and he too lived in the harbourmaster’s longhall. As time went on Einar Cuff became a good friend of both Hraerik and Hraelauger. Soon great drinking bouts and entertainments were commonplace in the longhall, financed mostly with the silver of the Norwegians. Hraerik would impress the locals not only with his wealth and goods, but with his poetry and his ancient lore and his tales from the Eastern Realm, so it did not take long for Einar to put two and two together and deduce that this Hraerik was the Hraerik Bragi of tales seeping out of Norway about a young poet winning a ship by his eloquent tongue. Einar also figured that if Hraerik was the Hraerik who was King Gotar’s man, then he would most certainly be in Liere for reasons other than trading. He broached his concerns with Alfgeir, who had also grown to like the two Norwegians, and they decided to set themselves straight on this issue. One night, when there had been no entertainments planned, Einar and Alfgeir got into a bout of drinking with Hraerik and Hraelauger, just the four of them. When they were well into their drinking, Einar made a request of Hraerik. “Could you recite me a poem, dear friend Hraerik,” he started, “that I’ve heard of, but not heard, and that is popular in the north these days.”
“I am more kenned in ancient verse than popular poems,” Hraerik confessed, “but I’ll try my best.”
“Could you recite `Dream of the Drums of War’?”
Hraerik and Hraelauger looked at each other; Hraerik shrugged and began reciting the drapa. He paced both voice and step as he narrated his poem and he walked back and forth along the hearth between the fire and the men. The bright flames were an aura about Hraerik and his side facing the audience was cloaked in shadows, adding depth to his elocution. When he had finished he said, “And now that you know exactly who we are, let me add that at no time have we lied to you about ourselves, nor have we tried to conceal our identities. We don’t expect you to keep our secret, but we would like to know what your intentions are toward us.”
Einar stood up and replied, “Before we can decide what it is we must do, we must know the true intent of your business here.”
“Officially, we are here as King Gotar’s envoys to your King Frodi to express his sincerest regrets for any Norwegian incursion into Danish territory. Unofficially, we are here to kill the berserker sons of Westmar for the humiliation they suffered upon our father. We do not expect to survive either task.”
“The sons of Westmar were with King Oddi when they chased…” Einar Cuff started, then started again…”You are the sons of Hraegunar Sigurdson.” The full weight of Hraerik’s burden flooded over him. “King Oddi is dead then,” he continued in amazement. “Odin’s man is no more. And the sons of Westmar are to follow him.” He sat down heavily and his jaw dropped open with the impact.
Einar and Alfgeir mulled over their situation for some time and then came to the decision to do nothing. Einar did, however, decide to give Hraerik and Hraelauger a warning of what they were up against by telling them all about King Frodi and the sons of Westmar. If they were going to Liere, there were things they must know.
The high seats of the harbour longhall were empty that night. Hraerik, Hraelauger, Einar and Alfgeir sat on benches about the roaring fire at the back of the hall near the scullery and the flickering flames of the hearth brought their sober faces to life with highlights and dancing shadows. Einar began his tale in hushed tones, between long draughts of ale, and the deep lines in his cheeks rose and fell like the tide as he struggled with his words. “King Frodi was seven years old,” he started, “when his father, King Fridleif the Swift, died. Huyrwils bane; he who had burned Dublin; he who had ravaged Britain was no more. It is difficult to chart the decay of our Denmark, but his death marks the decline. Prince Frodi was elected king, but a struggle over who would be his guardian took place. Westmar was a berserker, and Fridleif’s foremost man, but others, the blood of the royal Danish house, wanted a hand in his upbringing. Whoever controlled Frodi, controlled Denmark, so finally, to keep the peace, it was agreed that a group would raise the young king. Westmar, his brother Koll, Isulf, Agg and eight others were chosen with the idea that Frodi’s mind as well as his body would benefit. But, as Frodi grew, his supervision diminished. Some fell out of power, others died, until only Westmar and his brother Koll remained.
“Westmar raised Frodi among his twelve sons, the sons of Gotwar, Koll’s wife. Now it had happened many years before that Koll had married Gotwar and, when she had born him no fruit, it is said that, in a wild drinking session, Koll had challenged Westmar to pry sons from the barren woman. That night Westmar broke into the bedchamber of Gotwar and, with Koll’s help, raped her. In the morning, both men were ashamed of what they had done, but that night of sin had left Gotwar pregnant, so Westmar then assumed responsibilities for her, and the barren Koll dropped his berserker training and became quite the drunk. Gotwar gave birth to triplets at the same time that Fridleif’s wife gave birth to Frodi’s older sister, Gunwar. Westmar named all three Grep in respect of their common birth. And Koll, though displeased with himself, took great pleasure in helping care for the three sons. No one could truly say that they were not his own. Westmar and Gotwar had nine more sons, while Fridlief and his queen had only one more child, Frodi, before she died. After her death, Gotwar raised her queen’s children as her own, so, when Westmar became King Frodi’s guardian, not much had changed.” Einar drank heavily from his cup then continued his tale.
“Now Gotwar is a woman over-proud,” he said, “conceiving herself as a champion of argument, degradation and flygting. It was Gotwar who first instilled in Frodi a deep respect for eloquent speech. She taught him what she knew of poetry and flygting, but King Frodi has never been overly adept at them, preferring to observe rather than participate in flygting competitions.
“After King Fridleif died, Westmar raised Frodi with his twelve sons and attempted to train the young king in the ways of the berserker, as he was training his own boys. But Frodi was a thinker, much smarter than his peers, and he felt that champions should become berserkers while kings should be philosophers. He trained in warfare with his foster-brothers and developed into a splendid warrior and horseman, but he never did acquire the mental intensity necessary to transcend physical limits into the realm of the berserker. The eldest Grep and his brothers, however, were astute apprentices in the art of their father and were closely linked with young Frodi, Grep being his best friend. All had sworn at an early age to be their king’s lifelong champions.
“As Frodi’s elite warriors and champions, Westmar’s sons excelled, but as friends they failed him miserably. The twelve brothers had always been wild and reckless, but, as they grew older, they also became exceedingly cruel. They had no respect at all for the common people and, as their power and control over Frodi increased, so also did their contempt for the local populace. The brothers established an underground rule of terror, operating within Frodi’s superficially peaceful reign. They organized a youthful league of chieftains’ and officers’ sons and initially limited their escapades to wild bouts of drinking and exotic orgies in the confines of military barracks, but as they grew older they grew bolder and soon were conducting vile affairs in the town of Liere, in our harbour town and often in the king’s hall itself. To my knowledge, Frodi has not participated in the immoral activities of his foster-brothers, but he does condone them. Anyway, as the youths became young men, their activities became wilder and wilder. Now their orgies are common affairs compared with the secret ceremonies they hold involving the deflowering of virgins. Young daughters are seduced, bribed, often kidnapped, and forced to participate in the debaucheries. Young men, friends and even brothers of the victims would select the girls of their preference in accordance with their own unstable pecking order and would ply them with wine, forcing the girls to drink to excess. They would then bed two or three young girls at a time and fornicate into the early hours of morning. The next day, they would swap tales of the bloodletting, the vomiting and the general degradation of the women. And if it sounds as though I speak from personal experience,” Einar confessed, staring down deeply into his cup of ale and seeing who knows what wanton sights. “it is because I, too, was one of these moral-less youths until Alfgeir, here, brought me to my senses. But Frodi condones all this and more, for even married women are now kidnapped and subjected to gang rapes. The morality of a whole generation of Danes is being systematically destroyed by young warriors and berserkers with little else to amuse themselves with in this time of peace.”
And now it was Alfgeir’s turn to add to this sorry tale. “Our youth is destroying itself,” he started, “and, when the older generation protests about the sordid morals of our children, our king refuses to constrain his champions and young officers. Numerous old chieftains and warriors have died trying to avenge the outrages to their families. Personal combat is the only recourse left to the people and the sons of Westmar are truly invincible, whether they fight singly or as a group. They are true berserks, the whole lot, and no steel will mark them when they are in their rage. So the general populace continues to groan and suffer under the rule of young King Frodi.”
“And it is not only the common people that suffer,” Einar said, picking up the story once more. “The eldest Grep, Frodi’s closest friend, eventually tired of this immoderate promiscuity and began to covet the hand of Frodi’s sister, Gunwar the Fair, but, while our young king’s morals were in decay, his love for his older sister was ever strong and he would not allow her to be approached against her will. And Gunwar, a gentle blossom amongst the raging turmoil of Frodi’s fortress, had only revulsion for Grep and his berserker brothers. She judged them to be wild animals and she hated them. Many of her friends had been accosted and defiled by them and she swore that she would never forgive them. She also did not trust the power Frodi held over them, so she had her own longhall erected and has staffed it with thirty young warrior maidens. Gunwar’s hall is off limits to all Danish soldiery and her valkyries ensure that this rule is complied with.
“This was but the start of Grep’s excesses. Three years ago, he and Westmar and five of his brothers, along with Gotwar, travelled the southern route and brought Frodi back a wife, Queen Hanund, a princess of the Khazars. No sooner had their wedding been blessed by Freya, when Grep engaged upon the seduction of his queen. He plied her with gifts and personal favours and soon rumours of their liaisons were widespread, but King Frodi does not suspect his friend and no one dares to broach the subject with him. Grep remains his best friend, even after his handling of the suitors of fair Princess Gunwar.”
Hraerik had heard of the terrible murders of the suitors of Gunwar. The tale had swept across the northern lands at the same time it had torn through the Holy Roman Empire.
Einar could see that Hraerik and Hraelauger had heard of the black deed, but he followed his lead and carried on with his narration nonetheless. “King Frodi so much enjoyed his new married life that he became determined to find his sister, Gunwar, a husband. Grep volunteered to solicit meritable suitors and he travelled throughout Denmark and Germany gathering up thirty princes and chieftain’s sons, young men of, for the most part, lesser nobility. He staged a great banquet in King Frodi’s hall, where Princess Gunwar met all her potential husbands. She was quite pleased with her prospects, for they were very handsome young men, on the whole. When the festivities were over for the evening, Princess Gunwar retired to her hall and the young men rested on the benches in King Frodi’s longhall. That night Grep and his brothers murdered the young princes in their sleep and they somehow managed to slip undetected into the hall of fair Gunwar and they lined the wainscot of her room with the heads of those they had slain. It was a gory tragedy to which Princess Gunwar awakened the next morn, a horrible nightmare from which she yet suffers. Grep shrugged the incident off by explaining to King Frodi that none of the suitors had been worthy of mixing blood with the descendants of the famed Fridlief and their Skjoldung royal blood. Since that day, Princess Gunwar has hated the sons of Westmar, Grep in particular, and awaits the day she may exact her vengeance. If you may expect help from any quarter in your attack upon these berserks, she is most likely of all to provide you aid.” Thus Einar ended his tale of warning with the hint of a strategy.
“Can I ask you,” Hraerik started, “why you are warning us as to the extent of our trial instead of turning us in, as one might have thought?”
“Why…it’s because you have slain Oddi, Hraerik,” Einar Cuff began. “Odin’s fickle support has flipped on Oddi. You must be Odin’s man sent down to save our King Frodi from himself and those about him. Hraegunar Sigurdson is Odin’s man, and I suspect his son is too.”
Pride coursed through Hraerik at being called the son of Hraegunar Sigurdson. But then a shudder of revulsion followed at being called Odin’s man and he said, “I owe allegiance to no gods, living my life by the strength of my arm.”
“Well, the more to you then,” Einar Cuff humoured him. “Slaying Oddi in his own land was no mean feat without help from the gods.”
“We’ve a larger task at hand right now and we thank you for your support. We had better turn in now, for I have a feeling that important occurrences await us on the morrow.”
As Hraerik and Hraelauger got up and walked to their sleeping benches, Alfgeir turned to Einar and said, “Powerful forces are at work here.”