Ch.16 Holmganger on Samsey

Circa 865 AD

“Hervard, Hjorvard,      Hrani, Angantyr,

             Bild and Bui,               Barri and Toki,

            Tind and Tyrfing,        two Haddings,

            East in Bolm            they were bairns,

            Sons of Arngrim    and of Eyfura.”

                        Arrow-Odd’s Saga;  Author Unknown (Chappell).

A Hero’s Farewell by M.E.Winger

Arrow Odd gripped a bow in his left hand and held three arrows called Gusir’s Gifts in his right and he surveyed the misty shores of Samsoe Island, struggling to keep his balance as the waves of Munarvagr Bay rocked his Nor’Way ship, Fair Faxi.  He had never seen Samsey, as the locals called it, but he was sure this was the right island, the island where the holmganger had been called, west of Zealand, east of Jutland, smack in the middle of Denmark.  The bay looked just as his lord, King Hlodver, had described it, strangely mystical in a moonlit dusk, with a bright curving beach that instantly turned, with a grassy lip, into forest.  “This must be it!” he called out towards the other longship pulling up beside him.

Hjalmar the Brave stood at the forestem of that ship and answered back, “I see no one here.  I think they are late.”

“That’s okay,” Oddi shouted.  “Tomorrow we’ll work on your ship.”  They had hit a bit of rough weather while sailing from Sweden.  Hjalmar was in need of a new rudder oar.  The awnings were let on both ships, lookouts were posted and the crews slept at their benches, weapons at the ready.

On the way to Samsey, Angantyr, a giant of a man a head taller than his eleven berserker brothers, touched in at Jarl Bjarmar’s stead and he married Svafa, the Jarl’s daughter…not because he wanted her, but because he did not want Ingibjorg.  He wanted to give the world notice that he was after their heads, Arrow Odd’s and Hjalmar the Brave’s.  And that’s why they were late.  After their wedding nuptials, Angantyr had a portent dream and he stirred so much in his sleep that he woke Svafa.  The next morning he told Jarl Bjarmar about it.

“In my dream,” Angantyr said, “we went to Samsey and we found a lot of birds there and we slew them all.  Then we walked further and two eagles came at us; I struggled with the first and we fought long and hard and the second eagle fought my brothers and seemed to get the upper hand.  I woke in a cold sweat and I fear the dream’s meaning.”

Jarl Bjarmar told Angantyr to return to Holmgard and tell his father, Prince Arngrim about the dream, because the felling of mighty oaks seemed to have been foretold.

So Angantyr and Svafa returned to Holmgard with the brothers and Prince Arngrim understood the portents of the dream and he told his sons that he had never before feared for his sons in their travels, but he agreed with Jarl Bjarmar’s interpretation.  Princess Eyfura pleaded with her sons to stay, but they refused to have their honour rebuked, but she would not let Svafa leave with them.  Prince Arngrim accompanied his sons to their ship and gave Angantyr the famed sword of Prince Hraerik, Tyrfingr, saying, “I think that good weapons will be needed now.”

When the twelve berserk brothers came to Samsey from the east, they saw two longships anchored in the exposed expanse of the bay called Munarvag.  They knew right away that they were the ships of Arrow Odd and Hjalmar.  They rowed their own longship hard toward the other two and, just when the two crews had got their oars into the water, the berserk’s ship came crashing through them.  Shattered oars kicked up and sent men flying, as the sons of Princess Eyfura drew their swords and gnawed their Lindenwood shields before flying into their berserk rages.  Of the twelve, only Angantyr was not a berserker.

“Odin is with us,” Angantyr called as he leapt aboard Oddi’s Nor’way ship.  Five crazed brothers followed and six more attacked the crew of Hjalmar’s ship on their starboard side.  The warriors raged up the foredeck of Fair Faxi, hacking and hewing their way through men and six more berserks raged up the length of Hjalmar’s ship until they met at the aftdecks, and both decks had been cleared of men.  A dozen wolves howled on the decks as Sweden’s finest lay dead or dying.

As Angantyr looked about, he realized that the battle had been far too easy for champions the likes of Hjalmar and Odd.  When his brothers came out of their furies, he said, “Our grandfather, King Frodi’s foremost man, Ogmund Eythjofsbane Tussock told me that Hjalmar the Brave and Arrow Odd were the greatest foes he had ever encountered, and you all know what a killer Ogmund is,” and he led them to shore and pointed out two sets of tracks going inland across the wet sandy beach and disappearing into a grassy lip that turned into forest.  “We have killed only birds.  The eagles have escaped us,” Angantyr swore bitterly.  Amid all this death, his dream, his portent was coming to life.  “Even though we are exhausted from our fits, we must go inland and kill them both,” Angantyr said.  “If we return to King Frodi in Kiev without Arrow Odd’s head, we shall throw shame on our father.”

Just then Hjalmar and Oddi stepped out of the woods carrying a freshly hewn rudder for the Swede’s ship.  The berserk brothers all started howling furiously and fear set upon Oddi momentarily.  Hjalmar shouted, “They have slain all our men!”

“I think we should escape into the forest,” Oddi blurted.

“Let us never flee our enemies,” Hjalmar cried.  “We must endure their weapons even though we rest tonight in Valhall.”  Then Hjalmar bolstered Oddi with these words:

“Mighty are the warriors       our warships leaving,

 Twelve men together,         inglorious in giving;

 We shall be Odin’s             guests this evening,

 Two sworn brothers,           with the twelve still living.”

Oddi suddenly realized that the berserk brothers were all now weak from their fits and he knew that now would be the best time to fight them, so he encouraged Hjalmar with these words:

        “Now we’ll fight them           weak from rages:

        “And to your words        I say, I give:

         They shall this evening       be Odin’s pages,

         These twelve berserks;           and we two shall live!”

The fully armed berserks approached the champions in a clearing in the woods and the sunlight, dappling down through the leaves, brought the forest floor to life.  Angantyr strode foremost and drew the famed sword, Tyrfingr, and a ray of light flashed from it as though a beam of sunlight had burst through the verdant canopy above.  Then Hjorvard stepped forward and drew his sword beside him. 

“I shall take on Angantyr,” Hjalmar pledged.

“I should fight Angantyr,” replied Oddi, slipping the rudder oar off of his shoulder.  “He has that famed sword, Tyrfingr, and shall lash out harshly with it.  I have more faith in my plate-mail shirt than you should have in your ring-mail byrnie.”

“When have you ever taken priority in battle?” Hjalmar shouted angrily.  “You wish to fight him because it shall be the more famed combat.  I am the principal here, and you are my second.  I fight for the hand of Princess Ingibjorg.  It is I who shall fight Angantyr with his famed blade,” and he stepped forward to face him, drawing his sword.

They were ill prepared to fight, having only their shirts and their swords, while the berserks had their swords and shields and mail draped helms, and long byrnies and greaves and arm-rings of red gold.  Oddi patted the haft of the rudder and called out to the berserks:

         “Singly shall we fight,         strong men in mail,

          Unless you be soft,            or your spirit doth fail!” 

He had always preferred a good strong club when fighting berserks, blade blunters or giants.

Hjorvard stepped forward, sword in hand.  The foursome engaged in their deathly combat.  Oddi was angry that he could not face off against Angantyr and Tyrfingr.  He knew the sword, had learned to make arrowheads at the very stone that the sword had been drawn on, and he’d heard of its blessings and curse:

“It will never rust,           it will forever remain sharp,

 it will neither bend              nor break,

 the most powerful of berserks       shall never blunt its edge,

 and the blade must always be sheathed       still smothered in the blood

 of its last victim,            or it will be the death of its owner.”

This ode Oddi cited under his breath as he fought patiently, prodding his opponent back with the great oar.  Hjorvard was still weak from his fit and Oddi watched Tyrfingr take a bite out of Hjalmar’s chainmail shirt.  As Hjalmar fell back a step, Angantyr watched Oddi and he wanted his head, but Hjalmar came at him anew.  Hjorvard overcommitted himself on a stroke and did not even see the great spinning blow that crushed him and killed him and sent his weapons clattering.  Oddi kicked his shield over to Hjalmar, who took it up quickly in a move none had seen before.  Hervard stepped forward to take his place and Oddi rested as the young berserk readied himself.  Hjalmar and Angantyr had been going hard for a while so they took a break as Oddi waited.

“We should swear an oath to bury the dead,” Angantyr shouted between breaths, “whoever they may be.  And with our weapons and arms so we don’t go to Valhall with empty hands.”

“You just want Tyrfingr in death, as you’ve had it in life,” Oddi shouted, eyeing the blade, then charging at Hervard.  A few pokes and prods, then a mighty blow and Angantyr watched another brother fall.  Then Hrani stepped forward and he quickly fell.  And the famed sword took another bite out of Hjalmar.  Bild and Bui were next, and they fell to the great club one after the other.

Once more Hjalmar and Angantyr rested while Oddi waited.  Barri stepped forward.  He was recovering from the exhaustion of his fit and was able to fight more vigorously, so Oddi had a difficult time finally striking him down.  And Hjalmar managed to strike a blow that wounded Angantyr.  As Toki prepared to face Oddi, Angantyr once more insisted that they take oaths to provide full and proper burials for the slain.  Hjalmar was losing blood now and was more prone to agreeing with the request.

“We shall provide for burial with weapons,” Hjalmar shouted, as he prepared to renew his battle with the eldest berserker brother.  Just as Oddi was about to protest, Tyrfingr once again bit into the chainmail of Hjalmar.  Oddi took the fight to Toki hard.  He knew he would have to defeat the rest of the brothers quickly or his friend was going to die.  A few club blows later and another brother was dead.  But it was too much.  Tind and Tyrfing both attacked simultaneously and Oddi was pressed defending himself, but he kept to the one side of the brothers and he slew Tind first and then Tyrfing.  The Hadding twins attacked in a similar fashion and got a similar result.

Oddi then turned his attention to Angantyr.  “Let me finish him for you,” Oddi shouted out to Hjalmar, again patting the haft of his bloody rudder oar.

“I must finish him off,” Hjalmar replied angrily.  “If I do not win this combat, the hand of Princess Ingibjorg is forfeit.”  And the exhausted combatants carried on with their duel.

Oddi could see Hjalmar was dying.  It was the curse of Tyrfingr:

“The blade is             heavenly poisoned;

 the steel,         when forged to an edge

 is the death of          any man it cuts,

 for, no matter               how insignificant

 the wound,       it never heals.”

Brak had told Oddi this in his youth.  And Hjalmar’s wounds were anything but insignificant.  He was slowing down now, as the poison took hold.  “It matters not,” Oddi shouted over the din of battle.  “Angantyr shall not be leaving Samsey alive.”

“I will not be leaving Samsey ever!” Angantyr shouted.  “And I don’t give a damn about Ingibjorg.  You can have her for all I care.  We came here for Odd’s head and his head alone.  King Frodi wants it bad, and he’ll want it even more, now that Odd has slain his twelve berserker grandsons.”  Angantyr swung Tyrfingr in a high arcing blow that sliced off the leading edge of Hjorvard’s shield and buried the blade tip deep in the ground.  Starting to pull the blade out of the earth, Angantyr suddenly stopped himself and he placed both hands on the blade’s pommel, left atop the right, and he leaned forward, fully exposing himself.  “We pledged full burial with weapons,” the great berserker reminded Oddi, as Hjalmar thrust his sword deeply into Angantyr’s chest.

“Eleven berserker grandsons,” Hjalmar corrected, as, foot upon chest, he pulled his sword free of the dead berserk.  Hjalmar sat and rested on a huge flat stone, leaning forward weakly, his elbows on his knees.

Oddi said:

“What ails you, Hjalmar?                Your colour is gone;

 Wasting your strength:            many wounds, many ways,

 cleft is your helmet,            your ring-mail is done,

I think you have seen            the sum of your days.”

Hjalmar replied to his comrade in arms:

“Wounds have I sixteen,         slit is my corselet,

 Sight is darkened,               I see not my way;

 To my heart pierced me,          poison-hardened,

Angantyr’s Tyrfingr, bitter is that blade.

Farms I owned there           five together,

my lot in that land                yet loved I never;

now I must lie here              of life bereft,

here on Samsey                   by the sword wounded.

Mead they are drinking,      adorned with gems,

the throng of his folk            in my father’s hall;

ale overmasters                    many a warrior,

but the marks of the blade   torment me here.

I went away                           from that white maiden

on the outer shore               of Agnafit;

her fore-telling                      true will prove now:

I shall return not                   ever again.

The red gold ring-                from my wrist take it,

to Ingibjorg                            I ask you, bear it;

it will give her                        grief long-lasting

when I come not ever          to Uppsala.

I went from delight               of women’s singing,

for joy eager                          east with Soti,

sped my journey                  to join the host,

left for the last time              loyal companions.

From the high treetop          hurries the raven,

from the east flying,      the eagle his escort;

food for the eagle                 I find for the last time:

he shall make his meal       on my blood now.”

Then Hjalmar died.

Oddi carried Hjalmar out of the woods and across the beach, then rowed him out to Fair Faxi and laid out the body of his friend on a rowing chest.  He covered him with an awning and returned to the scene of the holmganger.  He sat down beside Angantyr and cursed Hjalmar for promising the berserks a burial with weapons.  “You should have stayed in Holmgard,” he told Angantyr.  “You’re all too young to be playing this game by yourselves!” he shouted to the rest of them.  Then he thought of Ogmund Eythjofsbane, who was even younger and impossible to kill.  “These are hard young men coming out of the east these days,” he muttered as he got to work.

He dragged the berserks bodies into a side by side line, with Angantyr and Hjorvard in the middle and he covered them with a sail, then he threw all eighty of his men into the sea and he waded in the water and herded them toward shore.  He washed the blood from their bodies as they floated in the shallow water and he cleaned and dressed their wounds as best he could before dragging them up onto the beach.  He laid them out on several sails and covered them with the sailcloth, then put large rocks around the edges to keep the wind at bay and the wolves in the woods.  He unfooted the masts of two ships and guided them as they fell into the sea, then he floated them to shore and dragged them up onto the beach.  He went back into the water and dragged the twelve oared ship of the berserks onto the beach.  He left Hjalmar’s ship at anchor, but he tied it to Fair Faxi in case a storm arose.  He went back inland with more sailcloth and he covered the berserks bodies with several more layers and weighed down the edges with deadfall.  Then he went back to his ship and he let down the awnings and he gripped a bow in his left hand and held three arrows called Gusir’s Gifts in his right and he watched the misty shores of Samsoe Island for wolves and eagles until he nodded off in the moonlight.

The next morning, he sawed rollers out of oars and he used the masts and yardarms to support the rollers from the sand and he portaged the twelve oared ship of the berserks across the beach and up to the grassy lip of the forest.  The great rudder oar he had used to batter the berserks, he now used to pry the ship up over the lip and into the forest.  He strung out the masts and laid them across with rollers and he pushed the ship into the forest to where the berserks lay in a line.  He tipped the ship over them to form the roof of a howe and he laid their weapons under their bodies.  He could stand up under the ship, but he had to stoop under the port topstrake to get out from under the howe.  He sealed up the open side with deck planks that he nailed in place.  He then realized that the twelve oared ship had clinch-nailed strakes that he had invented as a youth. 

While he was working on a howe for his men, some local farmers came along and Oddi hired them and paid them silver to cover the first howe with turf.  He paid them for draught horses to drag Hjalmar’s thirty oared ship out of the water and onto the rollers and up the masts.  When they reached the grassy lip, even with the two horses, they could not get it over.  Oddi stepped back and looked out at the view of the beach of Munarvagr Bay on Samsey and he told the farmers, “I think my men wish to watch the sea rolling into and out of the bay.”  They laid up the ship much as before along the grassy knoll and Odd laid out his men without weapons so they could rest in peace and sealed off the view with deck planks.  He paid the farmers more silver to haul turf out of the woods and cover the ship and the sand around it.  They were still working at that when Arrow Odd sailed away from Munarvagr Bay with Hjalmar’s body in Fair Faxi.

Back in Sweden, Princess Ingibjorg died of grief when Oddi announced Hjalmar’s death and King Hlodver buried the two lovers in a great mound together in Uppsala. The king had watched his daughter’s champion, Hjalmar, and his friend, Arrow Odd, struggle as their sea battles and combats with the Danes and then the Hraes’ of Gardar grew more and more desperate and the rivalry of champions spiralled out of control.  The harder the two young men had fought, the harder the champions they faced became.  And now they were dead….his daughter and his foremost man, his future son in law.  Never had he met men as hard as the Hraes’ warriors from Gardar.  They were hard men living hard lives.  And he knew Oddi’s growing desperation was not over.  He could see it changing the young man….wearing him down.  He would need friends now, more than ever.