Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
(Circa 884 AD)
“And his shield was called Hrae’s Ship’s Round,
And his followers were called the Hraes’.”
Eyvinder Skald-Despoiler; Skaldskaparmal.
Oddi and Sirnir overwintered in Gautland, but as winter dragged on, Oddi became very depressed. He kept revisiting the tragedies that he had suffered at the hands of Ogmund Tussock. He no longer wanted to risk his blood brother’s life in his fight with Ogmund, because, as Raudgrani had said, all those close to him wound up dead. He thought his friends had suffered losses enough already. He formed a plan to steal away one night in Fair Faxi and to explore the Nor’Way once again. He had his quiver on his back and his sword at his side and a few trusted crewmen.
Oddi took a rather circuitous route, which may have been fitting considering he had decided to become a way wanderer, sailing first to Rouen to tell Duke Hraelauger where he was headed and to visit with Kraka and Brak.
“Have you told Prince Hraerik that I think you are his son?” Duke Hraelauger asked, once Oddi had gotten settled in Rouen.
“No, I haven’t,” Oddi replied. And when the Duke began shaking his head, he added, “He thinks that I am the only living child of his best friend, Brother Gregory. He sent my foster-father Grim gold to give to Ingjald so I could have the best childhood possible. How can I sweep that all away by telling the richest man in the world that I might be his son based on the conversations you have had with the spirit of his dead wife, Gunwar, after the two of you have made out? He’ll think that I’m after his estate and worse, that you’re focking his wife.”
“It’s not as bad as that,” Hraelauger answered, looking down at his boots, “after all, she is dead. And she only visits me when she’s saving your ass, so it’s not my fault.”
“I wanted to tell him, but, when I brought up Brother Gregory and Gunwar, he told me that he once saw Gunwar looking at Gregory, at his manse in Cherson, and that was the only time he had ever been jealous. He told me that the two of them had a connection somehow and he tested it once by telling Brother Gregory that Gunwar was secretly starting a Freedom Movement because he knew the monk was very anti-slavery bent. Gregory did meet with Gunwar to talk about it, but that’s all they ever did, according to the Prince. Gregory put the idea into Gunwar’s head and she did start the Freedom Movement.”
“Gunwar started the Freedom Movement?” Hraelauger asked incredulously. “I can’t believe it. Her brother, King Frodi, ordered me to crush the Freedom Movement in Norway. This was just before he wanted your head. I didn’t even know what it was and when I checked into it, I found out that your girlfriend, Gudrun, and her sister, Sigrid, were really into the movement and I suspected they were using you and Asmund to help them. So, I sat on my hands. Her father came back from trading that fall and got all pissed off at them and moved them all to his Hraes’ trading station in Polotsk the next spring.”
“What was he pissed off about?”
“I think he found out they were in the Freedom Movement and Polotsk was right on King Frodi’s slave route, so he was making a lot of gold off the trade they were trying to stop. I also heard a rumour that both girls were in the way, knocked up, but it was just a rumour.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Like I said, it was just a rumour…a rumour their father was busy quashing. I just assumed you knew about it. Besides, you were off in Ireland getting married to Princess Olvor. I visited Dublin last year and little Hraegunhild is going to be a beauty,” Hraelauger said, trying to change the subject.
“I can’t go to Polotsk,” Oddi complained. “Frodi’ll have my head.”
“Well, if you’re looking for illegitimate children,” the duke began, “you could visit Princess Blaeja in York. She visited Princess Olvor last year with a baby daughter in tow, and guess what she named her? Yes…Hraegunhild. And I’m told she is quite the cutie. York is much closer than Polotsk and you’re not as likely to lose your head. You might even get some.”
“I was going to visit Princess Blaeja on my way east anyway. I promised her I would ask Kraka about Hraegunar’s curse.”
“And what did your grandmother tell you? I told her about you being Hraerik’s son, you know.”
“Not good news, I’m afraid,” Oddi answered. “The curse was a challenge for his sons to avenge him, but it applies to grandsons as well, and great grandsons. And Kraka called me Bjorn when I said goodbye…Bjorn Ironshirt.”
“Oh…that was me. Brother Gregory told Grim that he had a preference for your name to be Helgi, but that Hraerik should name you. I told Kraka that Hraerik had promised King Bjorn of the Barrows that he would name his son after him, so we’ve taken to calling you Bjorn of the Ironshirt because you wear your armour all the time and it drives her crazy.”
“It’s not really iron,” Oddi said. “It’s a Roman scale armour made of linen glued over wood, so it floats and it’s warm and it’s stronger. It only has ring-mail under the armpits and down the sides a bit where it laces up,” and Oddi raised his right arm and tapped the rings with his left hand. “I could never wear it all day if it was all iron.”
“Bjorn Ironside, then?” Hraelauger offered. “I’d like you to go by that name while you are lying low in Frankia.”
“What am I going to tell Blaeja?” Oddi asked. “You’re good with the sons of Hraegunar, but watch out for the grandsons?”
“Well, if the curse is an ongoing challenge, you have to warn her.”
“I guess,” Oddi said, taking it all in. “When you talked with Gunwar, my mother, did she actually say I was Hraerik’s son, or did she say I was her son and you just assumed Hraerik was my father? Because you mentioned Bjorn of the Barrows, didn’t Hraerik ‘Bragi the Old’ write the drapa that saved his head, by using a story about a Roman prince who saved his own head by acting crazy, a story he learned while sitting in a jail in Constantinople, then he sat in a jail in Ingleheim, then he was locked up in Sweden, so…”
“So what?” Hraelauger asked.
“So how long was he away from Gardariki? And was it so long that there may be no possibility that he could be my father? And if the Prince felt there was a connection between Gunwar and Gregory, could the monk have been telling the truth when he passed me off as his child? If Gunwar is my mother, but the Prince knows there is no chance that he could be my father, I don’t want to be bringing that up with him. It’s one thing to be making out with the spirit of someone’s wife, but if Brother Gregory was doing it while she was alive and breathing…”
“Why is everything so complicated with you?”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“There’s more?” Hraelauger asked. “Out with it. No secrets.”
“When I go up the Nor’Way, I have to visit Hildigunn in Giantland to tell her that our son, Vignir, is dead; killed by Ogmund Tussock.”
“That’s a tough one,” Hraelauger said.
“And now I have to go to Polotsk and see if Gudrun and Sigrid were pregnant when they were dragged out of Norway.”
“You can’t go there. It’s too dangerous.”
“I can’t go now, but I have to check sometime, for Asmund. If it was Sigrid who was pregnant, then that will be Asmund’s child. And that child would be the only connection I have left with him.”
“Ahh…and that’s the connection you make for Hraerik with Brother Gregory.”
“Exactly. He loves me because I am his connection with Brother Gregory and I could destroy all that just by telling him that I am Gunwar’s baby, a baby he may not have been there to father.”
“Is there anyone else?”
“When I was in the newfound land the first time, I stayed with a native tribe that lived along the main river inland. When King Frodi chased me up that river the second time I was there, oh, and thanks again for the warlock songs, Kraka told me about them, anyway, I asked the Chieftain of that native tribe for help and his daughter showed me a handsome little boy and she said it was ours.”
“And did they help you?”
“I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t.”
“So that’s it?” Hraelauger asked.
“I think so. I haven’t killed anyone lately. Ohh…except for four assassins in Aquitane. But I told Sister Saint Charles about those thugs. They murdered some Bishop she knew and I avenged the Bishop, so she was pretty happy about that.”
“You know,” the duke started. “Your mother told me that I would soon be marrying a local Christian girl and I was going to have many children. I don’t like complicated. I’m not looking forward to it. Anyway, did Brak get you your load of Jaederen swords for Bjarmaland?”
“He did. He hammered them all out here in Rouen. You know…he never gets old.”
“I know. He’s an Alchemist like your father.”
Then Oddi was off to Dublin to visit with Queen Olvor and his daughter, Hraegunhild, followed by a stopover in York to visit with Princess Blaeja and their daughter Hraegunhild.
Fair Faxi was bobbing in the waters of the River Foss just outside Princess Blaeja’s castle. “I checked with Kraka,” Oddi started, “and she said she thinks that Hraegunar’s curse might be perpetual, carrying over to grandsons and great-grandsons.” He got out of bed and got dressed, peeking out from under the awnings.
“So you tell me this the morning after we’ve made love all night long?”
“I’m one grandson you don’t have to worry about.”
“You’re the only grandson that keeps plundering me,” she jested.
“Only with your permission, my love. Only with your permission. Besides, look at the beautiful daughter we’ve been blessed with.”
“She is beautiful,” Blaeja said wistfully, sitting up in bed. “Where are you off to next?”
“I’ll be visiting Grim in Hrafnista, then I’ll be doing a bit of trading in Bjarmaland. “Shall I visit on my way back through?”
“Please do,” Princess Blaeja answered. “Maybe I’ll have a son waiting for you this time.” For a Christian, Princess Blaeja took Hraegunar Lothbrok’s pagan curse very seriously. She had Hraegunhild under her arm and they both waved bye to Oddi as he sailed Fair Faxi down the River Foss to where it forked into the River Ouse. Blaeja rubbed her belly warmly with her free hand. “Hraegunar”, she whispered to herself.
“What mommy?” Hraegunhild asked.
“Nothing,” Blaeja answered, then she knelt down and faced her daughter. “I was just wondering if you wanted a little brother.” Eventually the River Ouse would fork into the Humber and take Oddi to the North Sea.
Oddi sat becalmed on the North Sea at the mouth of the Humber and he relaxed and warmed himself in the hot summer sun; he was in no rush he told himself, but finally, he stood up, looked to the north, and spread out his arms. He soon found a slight breeze at his back and Fair Faxi’s sail barked a bit, like a dog that knew it was going somewhere soon with its master. Oddi didn’t want to overuse this gift that the men of Hrafnista were blessed with, but too much sun wasn’t good either. He visited with his foster-father Grim at his stead, where he found Gudmund and Sigurd, who had grown tired of Aquitane and Christianity in general and had rejoined the ranks of the Hrafnistamen. Then he raised his arms again, as those men often did, and he summoned Fair Faxi a strong Nor’Way storm that took her all the way past Varanger Fjord and Kandalaks Bay to the mouth of the Northern Dvina.
Oddi and his men traded with the Bjarmians once more; sharp steel swords for blades of silver with pommels of gold. Then they set up camp on Varg Island and Oddi left his men there and he swam under cliffs that took him into a cave to Giantland. He carried with him gifts and some of his son’s personal belongings, and he found Hilder in his kingdom and he found Hildigunn and he told them both what had happened to young Vignir. Hilder was angry and Hildigunn cried.
“Ogmund Tussock shall pay for this crime!” Hilder shouted. “Nothing good has come out of Geirrod the Giant’s line.”
“We all loved Vignir so much,” Hildigunn cried. And in private she professed her undying love for Oddi. “I know that I gave you your freedom,” she started, “and gave you my love unconditionally, but please spend some time with my father and please, once again, play with me.”
At evening-time King Hilder showed Oddi to his room and when the reed torches were extinguished in the palace, Oddi tip-toed his way into Hildigunn’s room and lifted the bedclothes from her. She asked who was there, and Oddi told her it was him and he wanted to play. “What do you want?” she said. “I want to water my steed at your wine-well,” he said. “Do you think it will be possible, my pip?” she said; “it is not used to the sort of springhouse that I have.” “I’ll lead it there,” he said, “and push it deep, if it does not want to drink.” “Where is your foal, sweetheart?” she said. “My steed is between my legs, my love,” he replied, “and you may touch him, but quietly, since he is very skittish.” She took hold of his steed by the mane and stroked it and said, “It is a nimble foal, but rather straight at the neck.” “His head is not very well placed,” he said, “but his neck curves better when he has had something to drink.” “See to it all, now,” she said. “Lie as it pleases you,” he said, “and keep calm.” He now watered the foal rather generously, so that it dove in completely. The princess was very startled at that, so that she could hardly speak. “Aren’t you going to drown the foal?” she said. “He shall have as much as he can take,” he said, “since he is often unruly when he is not able to drink when he wants to.” He continued as long as he wanted, and then rested. The princess wondered where the wetness had come from, which she had in her cleft, since the whole bed was a lather underneath her. She said, “Could it be that your foal has drunk more than is good for him, and has vomited up more than he has drunk?” “Something is wrong with him,” he said, “since he is now as soft as an eel.” “He must be ale-sick,” she said, “like some drunkard.” “That is certain,” he said. They enjoyed themselves now as they wished, and the princess was sometimes on top, and sometimes underneath, and she said that she had never ridden such an easy-going foal as this one. After a lot of enjoyable play, she asked him to sleep with her and ease her pain.
Oddi spent a week in Giantland, sailing with Hilder and playing games with Hildigunn. He told them of his plans to anonymously patrol the Nor’Way to ensure that there was no slave transport being carried out on it. He told them that he would also be searching for Ogmund in his travels, but that Ogmund was foremost man for King Frodi, the most powerful king in the world. Ogmund sheltered under his king’s authority so it would be difficult to confront him without being discovered. So, Hilder and his daughter offered to provide Oddi with some Giantland magic. Hildigunn made him a masked helm of birch bark and overclothes of the bark to go with it and she stitched them up with spirit thread so that they fit over his Roman plate-mail shirt and his gold headband. They had the bark costume steeped in magic elixirs and blessed by dwarves. “When you wear the bark over your clothes,” Hilder started, “even your own father will not recognize you. But you will not stand out as a stranger either. You will seem as though someone who belongs, yet is of no importance. Wear it in your travels along the Nor’Way and even Ogmund will not know who you are.”
Oddi bid the giants farewell and promised to stop in often during his patrols. When Oddi returned to Varg Island he had his men pack up their awnings and gear into Fair Faxi and they resumed sailing up the Dvina. When they came upon merchant ships, Oddi would introduce himself as a Hraes’ Way Ranger and would ask the captain of the fleet for his Hraes’ pass, a velum scroll provided by the Hraes’ Trading Company that detailed merchandise that was to be traded and tithe rates required for that particular product. The pass also forbade the trade or transport of slaves on the Nor’Way as per the trade treaty that Prince Hraerik Bragi Hraegunarson had negotiated with the local Hraes’ Slav peoples that lived along the ‘Way. King Frodi had torn up the treaty when he took back the Southern Danepar Way, but Prince Hraerik adhered to it for his Nor’Way trade. And the bark costume Oddi wore seemed to be working, because he recognized many of the captains he was checking on, but none of them recognized him. He patrolled up and down the Nor’Way anonymously, making sure that the Hraes’ sanctioned traders and merchants plied the ‘Way safely. As the early trading season was ending, Oddi had his men sail south and they kept sailing until they saw the farms and settlements around Gardariki. A great farm stood nearby, but there was a smaller farm closer by. Oddi thought he would try the smaller farm and he saw a man there chopping wood. The man was short with white-hair and he welcomed Oddi and asked him his name. “My name is Barkman,” Oddi said gruffly, “and what is your name?”
He said he was called Jolf. “Would you like to stay the night?” the man asked.
“I would,” said Barkman.
“The large farm next over will accomodate your ship and your men if you wish,” the old man said, so Oddi signaled his men to row over there. Now he followed the man into his house where his wife sat alone on a chair.
“We have a visitor,” said the old man, “and you shall entertain him, as I have much work to do.”
The old woman grumbled and said that he often offered people hospitality, but never had anything to offer his guests. The man got back to work and the woman sat with Oddi. In the evening, when Jolf came in, there was a table set with just one dish in the center, but on the side Barkman sat at, he had put down a good knife. Two rings were on the handle, one gold, the other silver. When Jolf saw it, he reached for the knife and examined it.
“You have a good knife, Barkman,” said Jolf. “How did you come by this little treasure?”
Barkman said: “When I a youth, we made salt by the ocean, but one day a ship was wrecked nearby. It broke to pieces on a reef offshore, and the men were washed up onto the beach and they were either dead or very weak, so we quickly finished them off, and I got this knife as my share of the plunder. But if you, Jolf, have any use for it, then I will give you the knife.”
“Well, thank you, and may fortune bless you,” said the man and he showed the woman his knife. “This is a good one,” he said, “much better than the one I had before,” and he passed the woman his old knife. They shared their supper, and then went to sleep, and Oddi slept all through the night and into morning and did not wake until Jolf was away working. When he got up, he asked the old woman if she’d rather he ate breakfast elsewhere. The old woman told him that Jolf wanted him to stay in his home.
It was almost noon when Jolf returned and Barkman was on his feet. Then the table was laid. There was a dish on it and the old man put down three arrows with stone heads. These were large arrows and well-wrought, so Barkman thought he had seen that kind of arrow somewhere before. He took one up and looked at it. “This arrow is well made,” he said.
“If you think,” said the old man, “you like them, then I will give them to you.”
Barkman smiled at him and said, “I like them. These are arrows from Giantland. Is there a reason I should carry these stone arrows from Giantland in my quiver with me?”
“You never know, Odd,” the old man cautioned, “when you might need them. I know that you are called Arrow Odd and are the son of Grim Hairy-Cheek from north in Hrafnista. I know, too, that you have three arrows called Gusir’s Gifts, and they may fail you when you go against the magic of Ogmund Tussock, but these stone arrows are impervious to his powers.”
“Since you know that my name is Odd, and also that I have the arrows called Gusir’s Gifts, it could be,” said Oddi, “that you are right in what you said before. I may need these arrows so, I shall accept them,” and he put them in his quiver. “Should I be thanking King Hilder for them?”
“Let us just say that your bark suit still works and that I was expecting you.”
Oddi laughed and said, “Perhaps it’s time to give this bark a bite. What do you have for a king in this land?”
“We have a very fair king,” said the old man, “and he is called Olmar.”
“Who are the noblest men with him?” said Oddi.
“There are two foremost men,” said Jolf, “one called Sigurd, and the other Sjolf. They are the chief men of the king, and the best of all fighters.”
“Does the king have children?” Oddi asked.
“He has a beautiful daughter named Silkisif.”
“Is she very beautiful?” Oddi asked further.
“Yes,” said the old man, “there is no one as beautiful in Gardariki or any other place.”
“How would they receive me, if I went there and did not tell them who I am?”
“I won’t tell them,” said the man. So they went to the royal longhall, but the old man stopped outside it and refused to go in.
“Why do you stop?” asked Oddi.
“Because,” Jolf said, “If I go inside, I will be beaten.”
“Because they’re royals?” asked Oddi. “We shall go in together, and I will protect you,” and Barkman grabbed him by the arm and they entered the hall. When the king’s retainers saw the old man, they moved in to stop him, but Barkman pushed them out of the way. They barged into the main hall and came up to the king. The old man greeted the king humbly and the king received him and asked whom he had brought along.
“I can’t tell you,” said Jolf, “but he may.”
“My name is Barkman,” Oddi said.
“Who are you?” asked the king.
“I am called Barkman,” Oddi repeated. “I am old and addled and I have lived outside in the forest much of my life and I ask you for winter lodgings.”
The king inquired, “Are you at all skilled?”
“No,” he said, “because I am clumsier than most.”
“Will you work a little?” asked the king.
“I do not work, since I am incapable of work,” said Barkman.
“Then it doesn’t look promising for you here,” said the king. “I have made a vow to take in only skilled men. But we are progressive here in Gardariki and we maintain a poor house for the bereft.”
“Nothing I ever do,” said Barkman, “seems to benefit anyone.”
“Well, you certainly don’t look bereft. You must know how to collect game for hunters,” said the king. “Perhaps I will go hunting sometime.”
“I can do both,” Barkman answered. “I can hunt and collect game. Where do you want me to sit?”
“You should sit far down the back benches there, between the freemen and the slaves,” said the king. Barkman led the old man out of the hall, then went to a bench among the slaves. There were two brothers nearby and they introduced themselves as Ottar and Ingjald. “Come over here, Barkman and you shall have the bench between us,” so Oddi joined the freemen. They sat close on either side and made sure he felt at home. They quietly asked him about other lands he had visited. He hung up his quiver and birchbark staff on pegs above his bench but he kept his club under his feet. They asked him to put away the quiver, as it seemed to only attract attention, but Barkman said he would never let it be taken away from him, and he went nowhere unless he had it with him. They offered him bribes to take off his bark outer clothes and offered to give him good clothes, but he refused.
“I can’t do that,” Barkman said, “because I have never worn anything else, and hopefully always will.”
Barkman usually sat at the end of his bench and had a few drinks after supper, then stretched out on his bench, pulled a fur blanket over himself and went to sleep. So it went until the men began to go hunting in late summer. One evening Ingjald said, “We must get up early tomorrow morning.”
“Why is that?” Barkman asked. Ingjald told him they were all going hunting. Then they all went to sleep early that evening, but in the morning the brothers rose and tried to wake Barkman but he was fast asleep, and he did not wake up until almost every man who was going hunting was gone. Barkman woke and asked, “What’s happening, is everybody getting ready?”
Ingjald answered, “Ready and gone. We tried to wake you all morning. We’ll never shoot any animals today.”
Then Barkman asked, “Are they good hunters, this Sjolf and Sigurd?” as he got dressed.
“They are the best,” said Ingjald as they left the longhall. “No one can compete against them.”
Soon they came to a mountain, and a parcel of deer ran past them, and the brothers drew their bows, and they shot at the deer but missed every time. Then Barkman said, “I have never seen anyone shoot as badly as you two. Why are you so poor at it?”
Ottar said, “We have already told you that we are clumsier than most,” and Ingjald added, “We were late getting ready this morning and now all the animals we’ll see are those already stirred up by others.”
Barkman said: “I do not believe that I could be worse than you, now give a bow and I will try.” And so they did. He nocked an arrow and drew the bow but it snapped in half. They passed Oddi the second bow and they told him not to break it, but he pulled the arrow to the tip and that bow snapped into two pieces. “Now you’ve done it,” Ottar said, and Ingjald added, “It is unlikely that we will shoot any deer today.”
“Things have not gone well,” Barkman agreed. “But with the draw weights on your bows, it’s unlikely we would have killed any, anyway. But do you think my bark staff will work as a bow? And are you not curious about the type of arrows I might have in my quiver?”
“Yes,” they chirped. “Show us.”
“Then spread out your thick cloaks, and I will empty it out.” So, they took off their cloaks and laid them on the grass and Barkman dumped the quiver’s contents onto the cloaks and it turned out to have been full of arrows. Then he took his walking staff and began peeling the birch bark away and underneath they saw a fine yew bow with golden trim and a silken string dangled from one end. He bent the powerful bow across his back and hooked the string’s free loop to the other tip. The brothers could see it was a very powerful bow. Barkman nocked an arrow to the string and drew his bow and shot the arrow far over the heads of the men at the hunt and he hit a deer. So, that’s what he did all day, shooting at the deer that Sigurd and Sjolf were going after. He shot all his arrows except six, the stone arrows he got from the old man, and Gusir’s Gifts. He did not miss a deer that day, and the brothers ran and fetched his game, and great was their enjoyment watching his display of shooting skill.
In the evening, when the hunters all came home, all the men’s arrows were brought before the king, and each man identified his arrow marks, and the king noted how many deer each man had killed over the course of the day. Ottar and Ingjald said, “Go up there, Barkman, and get your arrows off the table before the king.”
“You two do it,” he said, “and say you both own the arrows.”
“They won’t believe us,” they replied. “The king knows how badly we shoot.”
“Then we’ll all go together,” he said. So they went before the king and Barkman said, “We claim these arrows with our marking upon them.” The king looked at him and praised his archery. “Yes, sire,” he said, “because we often shoot animals to eat.” And after that they went to their benches and ate and drank.
One evening, after the king had gone to bed, Sigurd and Sjolf went over with horns to offer a drink to the brothers, Ottar and Ingjald, and they asked them to take the horns and drink from them. And when they’d finished, they came with another two, and offered them to the brothers. Then Sjolf asked, “Does he always lie down so early at his bench?”
“Yes,” Ottar said. “He thinks it wiser than drinking himself senseless like we do.”
Then Sjolf asked, “Is he really a good archer?”
“Yes,” Ingjald answered, “It is a gift. He has many talents.”
“Do you think he can outshoot the both of us?” Sigurd asked.
“I reckon he can outshoot anybody in Gardariki,” Ingjald replied. “He shoots much farther and straighter than anyone we have ever seen.”
“We must wager on it,” said Sjolf, “and we will bet a bracelet worth half a mark against your two rings of equal weight.” So, it was agreed that the king would be there with his daughter to see their shooting, and they were to hold the bracelets and rings and give them to whoever the winner was. The next morning, when the brothers woke up, they apologized to Barkman for making the wager. “The bet seems risky to me,” he said, “because even though I can shoot deer in the field, it is quite another thing to shoot in competition against such great archers, but I will try my best since you have staked all your wealth on this bet.”
First the men had drinks, and afterwards the people went out, and then the king wanted to see the shooting. Sigurd went first and shot as far as he could, and a spear was stabbed into the ground where his arrow had landed, and then a courtier went up to it placed a gold chess piece on the butt of the spear, and Sjolf shot and hit the rook, knocking it off the spear, and it seemed to everyone that this was excellent shooting and he said that Barkman need not bother trying to beat that shot, as the courtier replaced the rook. “Good luck often alters bad,” said Barkman, “so I must try.” Barkman nocked one of Gusir’s Gifts and stood where Sigurd had stood and he shot straight up in the air, so that the arrow remained out of sight for a long time, but when it came back down, it went straight through the center of the rook and into the spear shaft so that the chess piece did not move.
“The shot last time was great,” said the king, “but this shot was much better, and I can say truthfully that I have never seen such fine shooting.” Now Barkman took another Gusir’s Gift and shot it so far that no one could see where it came down, and it was agreed by all that he had won the match. Then Princess Silkisif awarded the brothers the bracelet and rings. They offered the bracelet to Barkman, but he told the brothers to keep it. A few days later, the king had gone away on business, and Sigurd and Sjolf went with a horn each and offered them to Ottar and Ingjald, which they drank. Then they brought them another two. Then Sjolf said, “Still Barkman lies at his bench there and doesn’t drink.”
“He is better mannered than us in everything,” said Ingjald.
“I think,” said Sjolf, “that he has rarely ever mixed with noble men, and he has lain often out in the woods like a poor man without entertainments, but does he swim well?”
“We’re sure he is good at all sports,” Ottar replied, “and we think that he is a very good swimmer.”
“Can he swim better than both of us?”
“We think that he is a better swimmer,” said Ottar.
“We will make a bet on it,” said Sjolf, “and we will stake another bracelet worth a mark, but you shall stake two rings, a mark apiece in weight.”
It was again agreed that the king and his daughter should see their swimming contest, and all was set up as it was the first time. In the morning, when they woke up, news of their bet had gone round the benches of the hall.
“People are saying,” Barkman started, “that you accepted another bet last night?”
“Yes,” the brothers replied and they told him all about the bet.
“Now I think it looks even riskier than before,” said Barkman, “for I am no great swimmer and it’s a long time since I’ve been in cold water. Have you wagered much silver?”
“Yes,” they said, “but you don’t have to swim unless you wish to. It would serve us right if we had to pay for our own foolishness.”
“That shan’t be,” said Barkman. “I’ll try my best, since you treat me with honour and respect, and the king and Princess Silkisif will certainly see me go for a swim.”
The king and his daughter were invited to judge the swimming competition and the people went to the water, a big lake nearby. When they came to the beach, the king and his retinue sat down and relaxed and the competitors went swimming in suitable clothes, but Barkman wore the guise that he was accustomed to. Sjolf and Sigurd swam at him when they came from the shore and they tried to push him under but the bark he was wearing was buoyant and he would pop back up. Then held him under for a long time, but their strength waned and he popped back up and they took a rest. They tried to double up on him a second time, but he reached out for them and took them by the scruff in each hand and forced them down and held them down so long that it seemed unlikely that they would come up again. He let them up for air then took them under a second time and held them longer, and then for a third time he held them under for so long that no one thought that they would come back up alive. But he let them up and out of their nostrils spouted the royal blood of these nobles and it seemed that they would need help back on land so the Barkman took them and cast them ashore. Then he went on swimming and put on a show of games and tricks, and the royal retinue was glad to watch the display of swimming. Later, he went ashore to meet the royals and the king said, “You are a better atheling than the rest, both at shooting and swimming.”
“You have seen my skills,” said Barkman, “and my name is Odd, if you would like to know, but I will not tell you anything about my family.” Princess Silkisif gave him the bracelet and rings and said she admired his skills. Then they went home. The brothers said that Oddi should have all the rings, but he refused and told them to keep them as he passed them over. The king seemed very anxious about who the man, this Odd, in bark might be.
One day, a man named Hraerik returned to Gardariki from Novgorod, and the king had great respect for him. He was an older man and he had fostered the king’s daughter. The king talked to him about the Barkman, but he said he did not know him and thought it likely that Odd came from a noble family. It happened again, when the king had gone to bed, that Sjolf and Sigurd went up to the brothers and they brought two horns, and they drank from them. Then Sjolf said, “Does Odd the Great sleep?”
“Yes,” Ottar replied. “It is more sensible than drinking yourself witless like we do.”
“That could be because he is more used to sleeping in forests with lakes than to drinking with people in halls, or is he a great drinker as well?”
“Yes,” Ingjald said. “He is a fine drinker of meads and ales.”
“Would he be a better drinker than us both?” Sjolf asked.
“It seems to us,” said Ottar, “that he could drink more than all of us.”
“We must wager on it,” said Sjolf, “and we’ll bet this gold bracelet, which stands at twelve ounces, but you shall stake your own heads.” The brothers drank some more and the glittering gold caught up their eyes and they bound the wager with the noble warriors just as they had in the past.
The next morning, Oddi saw the sheepish looks of his friends and asked what was said and they told him. “Now you’ve really made a mindless bet,” said Oddi, “and you’ve increased the stakes and now risk your heads, but it is not certain that I shall be the greater drinker though I am bigger than those two, but I will take them on in a drinking match.” Then the king was told about the drinking competition, the bragarful, and that the king and his daughter were invited to sit in and judge, and Hraerik, her foster father as well.
Sigurd and Sjolf went up to Odd and said, “Here is a horn,” and poetry came to Sigurd’s his lips:
“Odd, you’ve never split mail coats in battle
when helmed warriors, in Odin’s fetters fled;
while battle sweat flowed, and fire razed the town,
when our king won, victorious over the Wends.”
Sjolf brought him another horn, and told him to drink it and recited:
“Odd, we didn’t see you at the sword clash,
we dealt the king’s forces death on a plate;
I took sword cuts, six and eight,
while you were begging your food from boors.”
Then they returned to their benches, but Oddi got up and went before Sigurd, bringing him a horn and another to Sjolf, and he recited a verse to each of them before he went away:
“I shall serve to you my sweet nith song
Sigurd and Sjolf, on benches too long,
you both need word-mead for your fine poetry,
a couple of pansies the pair of you be.
You were, Sjolf, yet on kitchen floor
whelp lacking deeds, undaring doer
while in far-off Aquitane
four assassins I had slain.”
They drank from their horns, Oddi went to sit down. Then they went over to Odd, and Sjolf gave him a round, then laid this verse down:
“You, Oddi, have been with beggars before
Getting scraps and tidbits from the table,
While I all alone bore from Ulfsfell
my hacked shield in my hand.”
Sigurd bore him another horn and recited this:
“Odd, we saw you not out there with the Greeks,
fighting Saracens with battle reddened swords;
we made the hard din of Odin,
we felled fighters, in the red folk flame.”
Oddi now drank from the horns, but they went to sit down. Then Oddi rose and went with his horns to each of them he recited it thus:
“You were giggling, Sjolf, with all the girls,
while keen flames swept the fort in dancing swirls;
we slew the hard Hadding there,
and Olvir’s life we did lay bare.
You, Sigurd, lay in the lady’s sweet vice,
while we battled hard the Bjarmians twice;
warlike heroes with hawk like minds,
while you slumbered in the hall, closing the blinds.”
Oddi went back to his bench, and they drank from the horns, and everybody thought it a great entertainment and were giving it a good hearing. After that they went before Odd and offered him two horns. Then Sjolf said:
“Odd, we saw you not on Atalsfjalli,
when the fen-fire we had gathered;
we the berserks bound up there,
of the king’s troop many a warrior was killed.”
Oddi drank from the horns, and they sat down. Then Oddi brought them horns and said:
“Sjolf, we saw you not, where all was wet
ring-mail byrnies washed in battle sweat;
spears dug deep in chain-mail sarks,
but in the king’s hall you’d rather lark.
Sigurd, we saw you not, when we cleared decks
of six high-pooped ships off of Haukaness;
we saw you not in Angleland’s west,
when Skolli and I ransacked a king’s nest.”
Oddi sat down and they brought him horns but no poetry. He drank of them, but they settled down. Then Oddi brought them horns and recited this:
“Sjolf, we saw you not, when we reddened our brands
sharp on the Earl off Laeso Island;
but you stayed there at home, torn between,
the cuddlesome calf and the slave maiden.
Sigurd, we saw you not, on Zealand where I slew
the battle-hard brothers, Brand and four more too:
Agnar and Asmund, and Alf and Ingjald;
but you in the hall the king’s tall tale skald.
Oddi sat at his bench and they brought him two horns. Oddi drank both and he brought them two horns and then recited this:
“Sjolf, we saw you not south at Skien,
where noble Kings knocked helms in the rain;
dabbled in blood, we became ankle deep;
I was slaying men, passing out battle sleep.
Sigurd, we saw you not at Svia Skerries,
when we took Halfdan’s fleet of slaver ferries;
where sword hacked upon battle-hewn shield,
And Sotti fell too, both refusing to yield.”
Now Oddi sat down and they brought him the horns and he drank them back before they sat down. Oddi then brought them the horns and he said:
“We sailed our ash-ship through Elfar Sound,
content and happy, at Tronuvagar;
there was Ogmund Eythjofs Bane,
tardy to flee, with two ships.
Then we showered linden shields
with hard stones and sharp swords;
Only three of us lived and nine of them.
Captive rogue, why so quiet now?”
Oddi then sat at his bench and they brought him two horns. He drank both down and offered them two more and said this:
“Sigurd, we saw you not on Samsey Island,
when we received strokes from Hjorvard;
two of us, but twelve of them;
I seized victory, you sat quietly.
I went over Gautland grim in mind
seven days I went, until I met Saemund;
I took then, before I travelled,
Eighteen people’s lives away,
but you took, reeling your way
through the blackness of night, a slave girl to bed.”
Cheering rang in the hall as Oddi sang, and they drank from their horns, but Oddi sat down. The king’s men basked in the tales, immersed in the verses. They brought Oddi two more horns, and he finished both quickly. Then Oddi stood up and went to them and he saw that the drink had the best of them. He gave them the horns and recited this:
“You will never be thought worthy,
Sigurd and Sjolf, company for a king;
I think of Hjalmar, Hjalmar the brave,
who swung his sharp sword more briskly than any.
Thord forced his way forward and broke shield walls,
when we were in conflict, that heroic thane;
we laid Halfdan low upon the deck,
and all of his fellows and allies.
We were together, Asmund, often in childhood
sworn brothers together many a time;
I often bore in battle a spear,
where kings clashed in the fray.
We smote the Saxons and raided the Swedes,
Ireland and England and once Scotland
Frisians and Franks and Flemings too;
I smote them all I was like a plague.
I’ll list them now all of them;
those fierce warriors who followed me there;
never again will we ever see
such brave warriors go into battle.
Now I’ve listed all the deeds,
That so long ago we had done;
Rich in victories, we returned to our homes
to sit in our highseats; so now let Sjolf speak.”
After that Oddi sat at his bench, but Sjolf and Sigurd fell back on their benches and quietly fell asleep. Done with their drinking, they now began snoring, but Oddi kept going for a long time. Then all retired and slept the night. In the morning when the king came to his highseat, Oddi and his companions were already outside. He went at once to the water to wash. The brothers saw that the bark cuff was torn on one of his hands and there was a red silken sleeve and red gold rings on the arm, and they were not narrow. And then they ripped off his bark. He did not try to stop this, and underneath he was clad in a scarlet robe of velvet, and his hair lay down to the shoulders. He had a golden band on his forehead and he was the most handsome of all men. They took his hands and led him into the longhall to the highseat of the king and said: “It seems that we did not fully appreciate whom we have had here in our care.”
“It may be,” said the king, “and who is this man who has so hidden his identity from us?”
“I am named Odd, which I told you months ago, foster-son of Grim Hairy-Cheek of Hrafnista from northern Norway.”
“Are you the Odd who travelled to Bjarmaland a long time ago?”
“It was not so long ago that I was there.”
“It seems not so strange now that my nobles did badly with you in all sports.” The king now stood up and welcomed Oddi and invited him to sit on the highseat with him.
Oddi sat with King Hraerauld and asked him, “Are you also known as King Olmar?”
“That is my Slavic name, when I was king of Kiev many years ago.”
“And you are the grandfather of Prince Hraerik?”
“Yes. It took me many years to learn that,” King Olmar admitted. “Probably more years than it should have, but he is my grandson by my daughter, Princess Boddi.”
“Then perhaps you know if Prince Hraerik fathered the son of Princess Gunwar; was he here in Gardariki with her, or was he locked up in Constantinople?”
“He was here,” Olmar reassured Oddi, suddenly showing a marked interest. “She was pregnant with Helgi, that’s what she wanted the baby named, before the Prince went to Constantinople for aid. And the Romans turned on him, imprisoning him in a dungeon in the Emperor’s palace.”
“So there is no chance that Brother Gregory may have fathered the child?”
“Certainly not!” King Olmar exclaimed looking about his highseat hall. “Brother Gregory took the child up the Nor’Way to be raised in the west, but they all died in the Nor’Way crossing. We had Sami witnesses. Brother Gregory was Prince Hraerik’s best friend. He was duty sworn to take his son to King Hraelauger of Norway, but they never made it. It was a great loss. The baby was never found but the Sami said there were wolf tracks out on the ice where the ship was found icebound. Many of the men had been dragged off by wolves and eaten, and, no doubt, that was the baby’s fate as well. We never told Prince Hraerik that Brother Gregory had been tasked with taking little Helgi to the west. It would have destroyed him. We told him that both the wet-nurse and baby went missing during the fall of Gardariki, that she had taken him. He searched and searched for her, but looking was better than knowing, hope was better than fate.”
“What if I told you that Brother Gregory made it to the west and died on his return to the Eastern Realm? And that he left a baby in the west that he passed off as being his own? And that the Prince had paid for the upbringing of that child in the west, believing him to be the orphaned son of Brother Gregory, and that I am that son.”
“But Brother Gregory had no son,” King Olmar said slowly. “You are Helgi?” Tears came to the old king’s eyes as he realized just who it was that was sitting with him. “We must tell Prince Hraerik.”
“I’m afraid to,” Oddi admitted.
“I am as well,” King Olmar said, “but it must be done. I spent years knowing Hraerik was my son, but not knowing. My own mind tricked me, lied to me.”
They sent word to the Prince’s palace in Gardariki that he was required at the highseat hall of King Hraerauld and when he came they changed their seats and Oddi sat next to the king, and Prince Hraerik moved from his usual place to a high stool before the king, and the three talked for a long time in low hushed tones. After the talk, Prince Hraerik and King Hraerauld showed much respect to Oddi, and they valued no man more than him.
In the fall, Nor’Way ships began returning from their trade missions to Constantinople and Baghdad and parts further east, a few at first and then by the hundreds. It was time for Oddi to don his birch bark threads once again and begin patrolling the Nor’Way. He had a last long talk with his father, Prince Hraerik, and he bid farewell to his great grandfather, King ‘Hraerauld’ Olmar, and a fond farewell to his grand-aunt, Princess Silkisif, who was far younger than he. The brothers, Ingjald and Ottar, accompanied him through the streets of Gardariki and he caught a ship at the docks that took him down the Kuban River to the farm of Jolf and his wife. He bid them goodbye and rejoined his men at the large farm next over. His men hadn’t been idle over the summer. They had been busy selling their Bjarmian silver swords for silver Dirhams and gold Byzants and then using the money to buy silks and spices for trade in Frankia. His sea steed, Fair Faxi, took them to the mouth of the Kuban then north across the Sea of Azov and into the mouth of the Don River. He checked the Hraes’ passes of the merchants he passed as he sailed up the Don and made sure that they had paid their tithes for the silks and the spices and the silver and the gold they were taking back north to trade in their homelands.
Oddi established a checkpoint at the Don-Volga portage and inspected passes for ships pulling into the portage quays and also ships that were continuing up the Don into the Hraes’ hinterland. When the last of the Nor’Way ships arrived at the portage, Fair Faxi followed them across to the Volga to Hawknista and a quick stopover in Giantland.
King Hilder was angry with Oddi. “You were playing with Hildigunn again,” the giant complained. “She is in the way again and due in the spring, just in time for your spring trade.”
Oddi apologized to the king but told him he hoped it would help her get over the loss of their son, Vignir. “I hope it does too,” Hilder admitted. “But you’re so puny. She calls you her little pip. I just don’t see how you two can even make it work. Your father must have blessed you.”
He spent another week in Giantland and he played with Hildigunn some more. “Your steed sure likes getting his fill of water,” she jested, as Oddi felt the bump of her belly.
“My father, Prince Hraerik,” Oddi began, “claims you will have to find a giant to marry someday. He says it’s not good for your race if we continue to have half-trolls. Your race will die out.”
“How does he know this?” Hildigunn asked.
“He knows everything…he has visions. The past, the present, the future, none of the three norns is a stranger to him. The men of Hrafnista are related to us…to the Hraes’, and the Hrafnista men are all half-trolls or quarter-trolls and they’re damn proud of it. They command the winds and waves and are stronger than other men. But my father says the interbreeding tends towards stronger men and not weaker giants.”
“Our Vignir was strong,” she argued.
“Strong compared to me!” he laughed. “But not compared to your father, Hilder.”
“That’s quite true,” she admitted.
Oddi visited with Grim in Hrafnista on his way back to Frankia and stopped in at York to visit Princess Blaeja and her daughter Hraegunhild and then stopped in Dublin along the way to visit with Queen Olvor and her daughter Hraegunhild. When he arrived in Rouen in the late fall, his Uncle Hraelauger had bad news. A certain Prince Alf of Kiev, son of King Frodi, had led a small fleet of Danish ships into Frankia over the summer and may have learned who was operating the Hraes’ Trading Company stations there.