© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CONFRONTATION WITH GREP (Circa 829 AD)
“Many a stiff rowlock straineth, and the noisy Strand of Fish-Gear,
the Sea, the lands o’ercometh: men’s hands oft span the stays.”
Einar Skulason; Prose Edda.
During the night a light skiff of snow fell upon the land and, in the morning, woodcutters discovered the track of a wolf that had dragged the carcase of a calf several miles toward the harbour, dropping it off by the road to the village. What had the calf been doing wandering loose amongst the dunes and why had the wolf slaughtered and dragged it no small distance only to abandon it outside of town? The woodsmen wondered if the wolf had lost its way in the darkness and they wondered, too, who thereabouts would discover that a calf had wandered off in the night.
Such early morning talk among the villagers ended with the arrival from Liere of the berserker Grep, the eldest son of Westmar. Grep always paid attention to news coming out of Norway and there was talk of a skald of King Gotar’s winning a ship by the shrewdness of his advice and there was further talk of this skald setting out for Denmark. He had decided to look into the matter of this shrewd-spoken one, both for reasons of security and a due interest in clever speech. Grep, like his mother, was over-proud, and considered himself a disciple of flygting and an advocate of fine and clever speech.
Hraerik had just finished strapping on Tyrfingr and was slipping his rune bag, which contained the fine calf-gut rope that he had made, about his waist, when Grep rode up to the front of the harbourmaster’s longhall. The young Norwegian threw a bright red cloak about his shoulders, stepped out onto the porch and was greeted by King Frodi’s foremost man.
“Fool! Who art thou?” Grep shouted down from his horse. He was a big man and his horse was the largest Hraerik had ever seen. Grep’s features were hidden under the ancient Vanir armour he had a wont to wear. A heavy fully-enclosed iron helmet covered his head, with but a T-slit to provide for sight and breath. A massive black iron breast plate protruded from under his dark cloak and studded and banded black leather leggings and sleeves covered his limbs. Heavy boots and iron banded gloves completed the armour that was more suited to frighting than fighting and, Hraerik surmised, reinforced the terror in which the villagers held the berserk. He had both sword and heavy axe strapped on either side and he carried a long lance with a familiar looseness. “What is your business here?” Grep cried out in a husky muffled voice. “From whence do you come and what is your goal? Who is your libidinous sire? Your wanton mother? What is your obscure bloodline? Wandering is for the weak and the worthless; the strong stay with their land and their chattels.”
“It is Grep,” Hraelauger whispered, stepping out onto the porch. “Do not let him provoke you or we shan’t even get into King Frodi’s court.”
“You know me, Hraelauger,” Hraerik shouted, stepping off the porch toward Grep. “Everyone in the hall knows me, nay, the whole village knows me,” and Hraerik swept his right arm out dramatically. “In fact, the only one who doesn’t know me is Grep here, King Frodi’s fine young captain. And he calls me a fool!” By this time a small group of villagers had gathered and subdued snickers coursed through the crowd. Grep was hated by many, feared by all. “Hraerik is my name, Hraegunar Sigurdson my sire and Boddi was my mother. Hraelauger here is my brother. We have business with your king. We have words from King Gotar of Norway.”
“You? You are the skald who won a ship by the shrewdness of his tongue?” And Grep laughed heartily. “Why have you not come to the court of King Frodi then? Why do you languish in this festering harbour town? The last time I saw you,” Grep was shouting at Hraelauger now, “you weren’t nearly as tardy, you and your father, Hraegunar, when you hiked up your shaggy britches and let down your sails and made a run for it back to Jaederen Province.” And again Grep laughed.
It was Hraerik, now, who calmed his brother. Grep was right, he thought. They had stayed overlong out of Liere. Was it shrewdness or was it fear? “We have sought nought but truth. We have sought nought but knowledge,” Hraerik replied, for he had decided that their lengthy stay had been a tactical one. They had learned much. “We have travelled the world in search of these and have found neither. We have found only fools,” Hraerik shouted remorsefully. “For only fools let their desires run unchecked. We have travelled the Sound and have found clean winds above the waves and a foul wind over the land.”
“What is this foolish prattle of unchecked desires?” Grep bawled. “You’re a windy young cock who knows nothing of knowledge and truth. You know only of your dung heap, you crow solely to a fowl wind!”
“It’s a foul wind I’ve found over this land,” Hraerik repeated, “where the foremost man is more than his lord’s right hand. You stand hard and erect for more than your king’s command. Your queen will no doubt vouch for that!”
“Young cock has become an owl astray. Your words explain the length of your stay. You seek truth, yet you spread only lies. Such talk in Frodi’s court shall bring you death!”
“I seek truth and my words gauge my soundings. You have shared more than the cup with your king. You have tasted the sweet nectar of his queen!”
“I have tasted naught of her,” Grep protested. “I protect only her interests. She has kindly rewarded me with gifts of support and counsel.”
“That she has supported you I have no doubt,” Hraerik exclaimed, and now the village folk were laughing aloud.
“You shall die for your lies! You’ll not make it into King Frodi’s court alive!” And Grep set heels to his horse and rode off.
“I’m afraid I have forewarned Grep overmuch,” Hraerik confessed to his brother. “We must leave right away before Grep can arrange to meet us with a host.”
“We should have killed him here and now,” Hraelauger hissed. “He shall pay for his insults against father.”
Hraerik gathered up a very select group of his men and, after thanking his hosts for their support and for horses, a dozen Norwegians set off for Liere.
Outside the town of Liere there flowed a small river and across it was a wooden bridge. As the Norwegians approached, they saw a small knot of men gathered about a tall object on the far side of the river. Hraerik was the first to make the thing out–a scorn pole–and he warned his men of what mischief Grep was about. Grep had gathered up a group of wizards and pagan priests and they had constructed a totem with which to lay a curse upon Hraerik and his followers. The scorn pole consisted of the severed head of a horse, jaw set agape, impaled upon a tall hazel pole carved in ancient runic curses. Hraerik warned his men to keep quiet and to let him do all the talking, thereby putting himself most at risk. When the group of Norwegians had reached their end of the bridge, the head wizard started chanting his spells and his minions followed suit in their unholy prayer and soon the lot of them were dancing and swaying about in some ecstatic state and those holding the scorn pole had it swaying along with them. Hraerik’s men were quickly becoming unnerved by all this sorcery, so Hraerik stepped out onto the bridge and shouted, “May the curses, back upon the bearers, fall!”, and, no sooner had Hraerik finished, then the head of the horse toppled from the pole and crashed down upon the chief wizard, knocking him from the bridge and smashing him through the river ice. The priest thrashed about in the water till his black robes pulled him down and the current took him under the glaze. Panic set in among the wizard’s followers and they fled, forcing Grep to follow in their steps.
Hraerik crossed the bridge and went down the river bank to where the priest had fallen through the ice and he traced the current under the ice until he found the body where it had caught up on a snag. It was already a purplish blue as it floated under the ice and the current caused the robes to swirl about its corpulent face. Hraerik stomped a hole through the ice and hauled the corpse out onto the bank, so that the wizard’s relatives could at least give him a proper burial. The right hand of the body still clutched a bright shard of ice and Hraerik thought it a curiosity and wrested the chunk free of the corpse. He wrapped the ice up in a piece of cloth and told his men that it would make a fine gift for young King Frodi. The men were still edgy about the scorn pole’s magic and the jest eased their tension somewhat. It was common knowledge that a gift must accompany an audience with King Frodi, and, in their haste to get to Liere before Grep could raise a host, Hraerik had forgotten to acquire a suitable present. Hraerik’s prescience told him the ice would do more for him in Frodi’s court than the most shimmering of eastern jewels.
East of Liere, King Frodi had built himself a fine new fortress of a design unique to the northern climate, being patterned after Eastern Roman efforts his emissaries had observed out upon the great Asian steppe. Byzantine armies had once established a series of fortified barracks to control the nomadic tribes that from time to time threatened Greek cities on the northern coasts of the Black Sea. Alfgeir, himself, Frodi’s stout harbour master, had paced out and recorded on rune stick the standard dimensions of a Byzantine steppe fort while on one of the earliest treks down the Southern Way. Hraerik had gotten a good description of the fortress from his portly patron, so, upon gaining a small rise, he was not as surprised by the sight of it, as some of his men were. All were men who had worked with their hands upon longhalls, rans, ships and boats, but none had ever seen the likes of this and all sensed the vast labour the Danes had invested in it.
Frodi’s fortress stood a short distance out of Liere, in the middle of a broad low plain, where it controlled the main north-south road of Zealand as well as the harbour link. The fortification consisted of a twelve foot high by thirty foot wide circular embankment four hundred feet in diameter, with a twelve foot high post palisade at its crest and a further twelve foot deep trench extending beyond its base. The earthen work was pierced by four gateways in the four directions, the continuous palisade vaulting over these and, although there were no doors, several heavy sledges sat nearby each gate for blocking the openings if necessary. Zealand’s two main roads intersected within Frodi’s fortress, dividing the interior into four equal quadrants. Inside the fortress, the roads were paved with logs in a corduroy fashion to keep down the dust, and there was another, dirt road running around the inside of the embankment. Three of the four quadrants were developed, the north-east quadrant supporting two forty by one hundred and twenty foot longhalls, one being the hall of Westmar and his berserk sons, the other the palace of young King Frodi, while the north-west and south-east quadrants each held four thirty by eighty foot halls that were contiguous, forming a square about a courtyard and serving variously as barracks for Frodi’s troops, stables for his horse and, directly across the road from his own palace, the longhall of his sister, Gunwar. The south-west quadrant contained a huge earthen dugout into which all the rainfall within the fortress drained, the water then being available in quantity during times of siege or for fighting the fires longhalls were so susceptible to.
The small Norwegian party entered King Frodi’s fortress without incident, arriving at the front steps of Frodi’s longhall. Hraerik hailed the two guards on the palace porch and bid them request him an audience with their king. He tossed them each a piece of Arab silver and one of them disappeared into the hall. Moments later, the guard emerged and motioned for the party to step inside. Hraerik ascended the steps and passed by a pair of huge oaken doors, left open to the elements, his troop trailing behind him in their order of rank. As Hraerik entered the hall’s foyer, he stepped upon a hide that had been laid upon the floor by jesting court attendants. The courtiers then yanked upon thongs that were tied to the hide, pulling the slippery skin out from under their Norse guest who, toppling backwards, was caught in the strong arms of Hraelauger.
“Bare is the back of the brotherless,” Hraerik shouted as Hraelauger helped him back to his feet. King Frodi was sitting on his high seat on the left side of the hall laughing hysterically; his berserks, sitting at their benches further down the hall, were hooting and shouting in derision; as Hraerik adjusted his cloak he wondered just what sort of lunatic court he had stumbled into.
“Such childish pranks,” cried Frodi’s sister, “should not be tolerated in the court of a king!”
Hraerik knew her to be Gunwar from Einar’s vivid description the evening before. “Her hair is a rich honey gold” Einar had said, “with traces of brown, and her face is as fair as a summer morn, and her form is as gentle as the spring, but don’t let that fool you, for she is marked by Odin, her right eye being soft hazel while her left eye is a hard cold blue that can stare into the soul of a man. She is a valkyrie and is well trained in the arts of warfare, but she drinks overmuch in these hard times and has lost much of her lust for life.” And Hraerik had seen as Einar talked, that the young Dane had an affection for his princess much as he, himself, once held for Alfhild, what now seemed ages ago.
“When a stranger approaches a foreign king’s court,” King Frodi replied, “he should be prepared for all manner of welcome.”
As Frodi and his sister continued their argument, Hraerik surveyed the longhall. It was quite similar to King Gotar’s, but seemed much darker inside, with an atmosphere almost sinister. There were no windows near the tops of the walls, light coming mainly from the smokeholes in the roof and from asphaltene torches of oriental origin that burned brightly of naphtha liquid. Three long hearths ran down the centre of the near end of the hall with twelve benches on either side, the centre of the hall was open with a set of triple high seats on either wall and a further three hearths and twenty-four benches made up the far end of the room. Beyond that was a hallway that Hraerik knew led to the bedchambers and undoubtedly, at the very back, a scullery. As his men began hanging up their weapons and outer garments on pegs at the entrance wall, Hraerik noticed a limp calf-gut rope hanging on a pin on the wall. He deftly placed his cloak over it and took out his own calf-gut cased rope from his rune bag, placing it on the next peg. By this time, Queen Hanund was well into the high seat squabble and, as Hraerik approached the dais, all fell suddenly silent, embarrassed at the excessive arguing they had indulged in.
Koll was the keeper of the king’s gifts and was the first to address Hraerik. “It is customary that all who seek audience with King Frodi present him with some form of gift.” Koll had been a big strong man, but was now overweight and bloated. His hair was all but gone and his nose was red veined and swollen. Struggling, he rose up from his bench and crossed the central space to the front end of the hall. “Have you brought a gift for our king?”
As he advanced, Hraerik positioned himself so that a long hearth was blazing between them. Hraerik then withdrew a bundle from his rune bag and unwrapped the melting shard of ice he had prized free from the priest, passing it over the flames toward Koll. The wet ice caught up the light of the fire and looked as though it were molten metal pooling above the hearth flames. Koll was hesitant in reaching over the hot fire and, when he finally grabbed at the gift, Hraerik held it strongly enough that it slipped from the old man’s grip as he pulled his arms out of the flames, and it dropped with a loud hiss into the hot embers of the fire and disappeared in a cloud of steam and sparks.
His arms still over the flames and an angry look in his eyes, Hraerik shouted, “What is the punishment for one who loses the gifts of his king?”
Koll stumbled back from the hearth rubbing his arms as though this would cool their burning sensation. Young King Frodi stood up at his high seat, tall thin and pale with excess, but with fine long blond hair and bright blue eyes, “My father always passed sentence of death by hanging as a deterrent to greedy courtiers, but I’m sure it was not the intent of the law to punish accidental loss. How judge you this, my queen?” he then asked and turned around to his lady.
Hanund was a princess of the Eastern Empire of the Khazars, a princess of the Huns, a fierce tribe within the realm, and her features were dark and mysterious. Her father was Kagan Bek of the Khazar Empire, second only to the Great Kagan. “My father made it policy to never relax the law and its interpretation. It upset the general populace if exceptions were made.”
Koll appeared to be quite pleased with her reply and declared, “It is good to see that the justice of King Frodi is applied equally to all. If a hanging is what you want, my queen, then that is what you shall have.” And Koll proceeded to the front of the hall and grabbed Hraerik’s calf-gut rope off the wall. He had the guard at the entrance bring in a pair of ladders and lash them together at one end to form a hanging ladder, then made the noose up, tying the other end of the rope to the apex of the ladder. As the guards stood up the ladder in the centre of the hall, Koll got himself up on a stool under the ladder and placed the pliant rope about his own neck saying, “Since I was the one to drop the gift, I’m sure I can drop myself as well!” and he kicked away the stool. Koll plummeted downwards, bracing himself for the landing, but he had not expected it to be so hard. He felt a sharp jolt of pain from his heels all the way up his spine to his skull, but, as his legs absorbed the impact, it dissipated. The calf-gut rope had stretched so much that it hadn’t helped ease the landing at all, and Koll began untying the noose as those in the hall laughed out in merriment at the second jest they had played upon their guests. The laughter was exceedingly shrill and Queen Hanund was laughing the hardest of all and as Koll approached her to take a deep bow he noticed that she hadn’t been laughing at all. She was screaming and staring at something back behind himself, so, when she covered her face with her hands and began weeping, he turned around to see what it was that had caused her distress and his mouth fell open weakly. Koll’s body was still under the hanging ladder and the rope had not stretched at all. It had held firm and had snapped his neck and had forced his tongue out from his mouth and had palled his face with a deathly hue even though his feet still kicked about aimlessly. Koll’s spirit slowly ambled back to its corpse under the ladder.
“It is bad luck to walk under a ladder,” Hraerik said, going around it, “for there lurk the souls of the hanged.”
Grep rushed over to his uncle, grabbing him by the legs and lifting him, while a guard slipped the noose off. “I think there is more to this rope than appears,” Grep cried.
“Quite so, it would seem” Hraerik said, approaching Koll’s body as they laid it out on the floor, “for it appears more calf-gut than rope.”
As Grep and his brothers hauled away the body of their uncle, Hraerik started in on a eulogy for the so recently departed Koll. “This strange occurrence proves his death to be the will of Odin, for just such an occurrence claimed the life of King Vikar of Agder when headwinds stranded his army by some islands off Hordaland. Through divination he learned that Odin desired a human sacrifice from the host, but when they drew lots, King Vikar’s came up. The famed hero Starkad was among the host, and was the king’s foremost man and friend, when Odin contacted him and instructed him on how the sacrifice was to take place. On one of the islands they slaughtered a calf and planned a simulated hanging of their king. ‘This device seems safe enough,’ King Vikar said, as he studied the calf-gut noose Starkad had strung from a tree. ‘And I shall mark you for Odin with this reed,’ Starkad added, brandishing a twig of holly.”
Hraerik paused for a moment and studied his audience. The berserker sons of Westmar were at their benches at the back of the hall while his own men were at benches at the front. Between them, on the left high seats, were Westmar and his wife Gotwar on the third high seat, with Gunwar alone on the second, and on the centre high seat sat King Frodi and Queen Hanund. All were listening attentively, so with some solemnness Hraerik continued. “But when it came time for the mock hanging, Starkad’s reed became a spear and pierced his king and the calf-gut turned to strong withy rope as the king leaped from his perch and there he died in a place now known as Vikarsholmar. And Starkad composed a poem for his king called Vikar’s Piece.”
“Thus you claim,” King Frodi started, “that this strange occurrence is the work of Odin?” and the young king looked about his people and said, “Well-spoken Hraerik Bragi, for your eloquence is known to this court, just as we know you to be King Gotar’s man and emissary.” Hraerik was relieved to be called a statesman, not a spy. “How came you here and why have you come?” King Frodi asked, putting a flourish in his speech.
“I come from Rennes Isle and took my seat by a stone,” Hraerik started. “From that stone I rode a beam, taking my seat by many a stone. I left a crag and came to a rock and took a seat across from a stone. Leaving the rock, in my ship Fair-Faxi, we came across a dolphin and another and soon a whole herd we did harvest. After the dolphins we came across the trunk of a tree, bobbing heavy in the waters, and we trimmed its branches, those still above the waves.” Frodi listened intently, for it was now apparent a riddle was being wrought. “After the trunk, we passed onto a log and I made my way through heavy hewn timbers, where wolves, which sated themselves on the carcasses of men, licked the tips of lances. There, a spear-head rattled off the lance of a king, and it was the grandson of Fridleif.”
“I am at a loss to divine the meaning of your words,” King Frodi said, somewhat bewildered. And he looked about his sombre retinue and he knew that they, too, were lost. “You have beguiled us all with your dark riddling!”
“Then you owe me a gift on this match that is done, for I have described a portentous matter in that the spear-head I described was your cousin Oddi, whom I have slain in open combat!”
A sonorous clamour rose up from the Danes in the hall. Their sea-king had fallen and they demanded revenge. Hraerik was counting on this, but, by openly declaring that it was he who had killed Oddi, there could be no accusations of murder. The only lawful recourse left to the Danish people would be a challenge to arms. Everyone knew this and it became apparent to the Danes that Hraerik was more than just an emissary for his king. He was the avenging son of Hraegunar Sigurdson, and King Frodi knew whose sons he was after.
“Your gift shall be a combat, should such you desire. Grep has forewarned me of your lineage and of your penchant for revenge, but I must now warn you that the sons of Westmar have never been defeated in combat.” King Frodi looked at Hraerik with both admiration and poignant sadness. “You should never have come,” he whispered.
“A combat is hardly reward for such eloquence,” Queen Hanund cried. “His words had us all in wonderment!” The queen was not that well acquainted with Germanic law. Any gift King Frodi presented Hraerik now would only revert to his vanquisher, once he was, as he surely must be, slain. But, this time, King Frodi was in accord with his wife. He took a ring of gold from his arm and he offered it to Hraerik. It would be an incentive to whomever slew the man who had slain his cousin Oddi.
Hraerik slipped the ring onto his arm and slid it up onto his right biceps and showed it off to the now raucous berserks at the back of the hall. While doing so, he kept his left arm hidden behind his back as though he was embarrassed somehow. When asked by King Frodi under what affectation his arm suffered, Hraerik answered, “Jealousy, my lord. The left arm, having no ring, is embarrassed to show itself in the presence of the right.”
“Such an eloquent rogue I have never met,” King Frodi swore as he stripped his other arm of its ring and presented it to Hraerik. The berserk sons of Westmar applauded their king’s generosity the loudest of all, for, in the end, they intended all this gold to be theirs. Grep was shouting the loudest of the bunch, raising Frodi’s curiosity. “I wish to know, Hraerik Bragi,” the king said, “how it was you defeated my champion, Grep, in a contest of flygting?”
“It was no great feat, for I merely proclaimed his adulterous behaviour towards your wife and his guilt left him powerless to respond.”
When King Frodi turned to his queen, Hanund gasped and blushed guiltily. Frodi then flashed his steel blue gaze upon Grep, who was standing at the foot of his bench. Rather than answer to the charge, Grep decided to attack his accuser and, wresting a spear from a nearby guard, rushed at Hraerik in a deadly lunge. Once again, Hraelauger aided his brother, knocking away the spear and plunging a knife deep between the ribs of Grep. The berserk slid, dying, across the oriental carpet in front of the high seat dais, a trail of blood marking his ebbing flight.
“Bare is the back of the brotherless,” Hraerik cried as Grep lay bleeding at his feet, “for I’d have been murdered, just as surely as I stand before you, were it not for the actions of my brother, Hraelauger.”
As Grep lay in mortal pain, he waved that his king might come down from his high seat and hear his last words. While Frodi was descending the steps, Grep stared at Gunwar and she felt his malice ever strong. “Your sister gave me rings of gold,” Grep gasped, “And I gave them to your wife.” That said, he died. King Frodi looked up at Hanund and he looked to his sister. Gunwar gasped in horror at what had been said.
“I think,” Frodi said to Hraerik, “that this is a stroke you shall not long enjoy.” And Grep’s berserk brothers were howling for revenge, the nervous guards holding them back at King Frodi’s bidding.
Westmar rose up from his high seat and spoke out in a choked voice, as Gotwar scurried down and cradled her dead son. “You have done much to warrant our hostility, so, without further ado, we challenge you, Hraerik Bragi, and ten of your warriors to a combat to the death with my remaining sons.”
“I accept the challenge, but on these conditions: since we are inexperienced at arms and in the way of the berserker, we ask three days grace and choice in the location of the combat,” Hraerik said.
“So be it,” King Frodi declared, then turning once more on his queen he said, “You were quick to point out your countrymen’s punishment as regards Koll’s misfortunate crime. What punishment do you declare on yourself for your crime of adultery?” Everyone knew that, in her eastern realm, Hanund would have been put to death, but in the north the law was more lax and promiscuity more widespread. When the queen refused to arbite her own crime, Frodi proclaimed angrily, “You are to be banished from my kingdom and returned to the land of your father in disgrace.” And Hanund wept freely and clutched her sister-in-law Gunwar in her grief.