The Saga of HROLF 'KRAKI' - 4: Of Svipdag the One-Eyed and Bodvar 'Bjarki'
One of the berserkers and one of the invaders was killed. The rest fled the field in disarray.
Svipdag was hailed as Adhils' champion and Yrsa let him know that the high seat next to that of the king's was better taken by him than by any of the king's berserkers - to which Adhils added his agreement.
However, the berserkers raised another following to raid the kingdom. Again Adhils told Svipdag to take his army out against them. Svipdag readied himself for the forthcoming fight, even though he was given a third less men than the berserkers were known to have. Adhils offered to take his own household warriors when he was ready, and would be there to back Svipdag when needed. Svipdag set off earlier than the berserkers thought he would and he took them off guard. The armies clashed and the battle was hard-fought. Adhils gathered his men, meaning - he had said - to take the foe unawares from behind.
In his steading Svip meanwhile awoke from deep sleep, sighed heavily and told his older sons to make their way to where their brother fought against heavy odds nearby. He told them,
'He has lost an eye and has been wounded sorely. Although he alone has slain three of the berserkers, another three with their men still press against him and the few men he has left'
The brothers, Hvitserk and Beygad armed themselves hurriedly and hastened for the thick of the fighting. The raiders still had twice the number of Svipdag's men and Svipdag himself had done much but he was sore-pressed and cut badly. One eye was out, thry saw, as their father had told them, and many of Adhils' men were laid out dead. Adhils himself had not showed to help him.
Hvitserk and Beygad went straight to where Svipdag fought, striking out hard until they were eye-to-eye with the three berkerkers. These three were soon slain and the tide of the battle turned in their favour as the raiders lost heart. Those who still stood took the offer of life over death and swore their lives to the brothers. On telling the king what had happened he thanked them well for their help in his great victory.
Svipdag was cut on his arms, a long head-wound would leave a scar and he would now have to make his way through life with one eye. As he lay wounded Queen Yrsa nursed him back to health. On regaining his old self Svipdag went to King Adhils and told him,
'I shall look for a king who will hold us in greater esteem than you have shown us. You have given me few grounds to fight again on your behalf!'
Adhils pleaded with Svipdag to stay, although deep down he cared little whether he stayed or not. He offered great things for him and his brothers if they stood by him,
'None will be as highly valued'.
Svipdag only wished to ride away. He was unsure whether or not Adhils had wanted either him or the bersekers to win. The king had not showed on the battlefield before the fighting had finished. All that time the king had watched him from the woods, able at any time to join in the fighting. The king would not have been worried whichever way it went, for Svipdag or the berserkers when Svipdag was down in the dirt and dust of the battlefield.
The brothers were set to leave, nothing would keep them when Adhils asked where they were headed but the answer he was given was that they had not yet given any thought to the matter,
'Right now we just wish to leave, if that is all the same to you. I wish to know how other kings rule, and not grow old here in your swamp-ridden kingdom', Svipdag answered for the three of them.
Hvitserk and Beygad thanked the queen heartily for the goodness she had shown Svipdag and they rode away, back first to Svip's steading to ask for his wise counsel on what undertaking they ought to embark upon.
'I would say the greatest fame is to be had in joining King Hrolf's champions at Hleidargard. There you will find a way to make a name for yourselves, at the same time fulfilling your appetite for killing and gains. I have trustworthy word that the greatest warriors of the northlands have gathered at his hall'.
Svipdag asked what King Hrold was like, to which Svip answered,
'He is open-handed and free with the rewards you would earn in his company. He is careful, however, in choosing those who will fight for him but he withholds neither gold nor treasure from those who need or earn them. He is a handsome fellow, men say, and has earned a name as a worthy foe. He is fair to those he trusts, and hard on those who cross or betray him. He will give any man his due but will not stand for any man who gets above himself. Hrolf does not boast about his own wins or skills, and will not be forgotten as long as there are folk in the world to recount his greatness. Tribute he has gained from all kings near him, and from those willing to do his bidding'.
'Having heard what you have to say about King Hrolf, father', Svipdag looked back at his brothers, nodding behind him, 'my brothers and I are more eager than ever to do his bidding - if he will have us!'
'You must see for yourselves, but I should like to have you here with me', Svip told them.
His sons smiled and told him that was unlikely now,
'We wish you well, father, mother', Svipdag told for the three of them. Farewells were taken, tears fell and the brothers set off once more.
On reaching King Hrolf's hall the brothers bowed their heads and Svipdag greeted him.
'Who are these men?' King Hrolf asked one of his stewards, at which Svipdag gave their names. He also told they had been for a time with King Adhils.
'Then why are you here', Hrolf asked testily. 'King Adhils and I are known not to be friendly toward one another'.
'I know that, my Lord king. It is more likely, nevertheless, that my brothers and I would wish to be your men', Svipdag answered, 'however small we may seem in your eyes'.
'I had never meant to befriend any of Adhils' men, but as you have come to me I shall welcome you. My guess is that the lord who does not turn you away has the best of the bargain, as I see you and your brothers are great warriors. Your name goes before you as the slayers of Adhils' berserkers aside from other feats'.
'Where should we sit, Lord?'
'Seat yourself by the man known as Bjalki - but leave room for another dozen on the benches'.
Before taking his leave of King Adhils Svipdag had sworn to go back, but for now the brothers took their seats after Svipdag asked of Bjalki.
'Why does the king wish us to save seating for a dozen men?' Svipdag asked Bjalki when he was seated.
'The king's twelve berserkers always sit there', Bjalki told him, 'when they are here. At this time they are out fighting'.
Of King Hrolf's daughters Drifa was home. The friendlier of the two, she welcomed the brothers and bade them feel at home in the hall. And so it went through the summer until the berserkers showed at the hall in the after-year. In the way they always did the berserkers went up to each man in turn to ask if they thought themselves as good as the berserkers. The king's men found a new answer for each of the twelve according to whether they thought their answer either fitting or least demeaning. None stood up to them until the leader finally came to Svipdag, who leapt to his feet and told the fellow he was as good as any of his comrades-in-arms.
The berserker told him to strike at his helm with his sword, which Svipdag did but his sword would not cut into the helm. The pair squared up, and seemed ready to fight when Hrolf put himself between them,
'I forbid you to fight here. You will both be friends - or leave my hall, never to show here again on pain of death!'
Svipdag and the berserker sat again, parting on friendlier terms. Laer they would stand together in the shieldwall and won through whenever they went to war.
Hrolf sent men east to meet his mother, Yrsa. He wished her to send him the treasure Adhils was to have given his father all those years ago when Hrolf was a child. Yrsa's answer came back that she would have to speak to King Adhils on the matter,
'Should you wish to claim the treasure yourself, son', she had said to the riders, 'but Adhils is so greedy he never cares how his wealth is come by'. With her answer she sent Hrolf costly gifts, by which he would understand there was no ill-will towards him.
As Hrolf was out raiding at the time his meeting with Adhils was held back. With the great army he had gathered, he ensured the other kings paid him scot. They would soner hold with him than any other for his open-handedness.
Hrolf held court at Hleidargard, where his garth was great and strong. He and his followers lived well, and his hall was the most lavishly decorated in the north. There was another strong king, Hjorvard, who wedded Hrolf's sister Skuld. The wedding was agreed between Hrolf, her mother Yrsa and step-father Adhils. King Hrolf asked King Hjorvard to a feast. During one day of the feasting the two kings stood side-by-side outside the hall when Hrolf undid his sword-belt and handed his sword to Hjorvard as he did so. On fastening his belt again he told his brother-in-law,
'We both know the old saying, that he who holds the sword of a man undoing his belt will henceforward be the lesser of the two. You are therefore now an under-king to me and bear this as well as the others'.
Hjorvard was angered at this, yet did nothing nonetheless. He left matters stand when he went home but was unhappy with the way things had become for him. He paid scot to Hrolf, as did the other under-kings and let matters be - for now.
Well to the north a king known as Hring ruled the Uppsdala lands. He had a son named Bjoern. Hring's queen died and both he and his underlings saw her death as a great loss. The king's counsellors urged him to re-marry and he sent to the south to find a wife. Strong headwinds and heavy storms pushed them back, further north. So they turned their ships and allowed their prows to ride before the wind until they could come ashore and landed in Finnmark. There they overwintered.
They went inland one day and came to a dwelling. Within sat two fair women who welcomed them. The women asked of their errand, at which the king's men told of sailing south from Uppsdala and being blown northward. They asked the women to tell about themselves and why two such fine women dwelt so far away from others.
'For everything there is reason. We are here because a strong king asked for my daughter's hand', the older woman told them. 'She did not want to be wedded to him and he threatened her. That is why I have her here whilst her father is away fighting'.
On asking who her father was, they were told he was the king of the Lapps.
'What are your names?' one of Hring's men asked.
'I am Ingebjorg', the woman told them, 'and my daughter is Hvit. I am the Lapp king's woman'.
Hring's men were very taken with the women and asked of Hvit whether she would go with them and wed their king. Hvit did not give an answer straight away, but told them to ask her mother.
'Out of all trouble comes gain', Ingebjorg told them, 'as the saying goes. I am not happy that we are doing this behind her father's back, but Hvit must get ahead in the world'.
The younger woman readied herself for the sailing and took her farewell from her mother. The king's men asked, when they reached Hring, whether they should send Hvit back but the king was happy with her. They wedded at once, Hring not being worried about her dowry. Life went on well enough at the king's hall for some time in Uppsdala. Hring's new queen settled in but over years the newness wore off. Hring was getting on in years and Hvit's manner soon told that he was no longer able to fulfil her needs.
A freeman's steading lay not far from the king's garth. The freeman had a wife and daughter, Bera. She was wondrous to behold. The king's son Bjoern and Bera played together as children and the pair were very close. Having long been raiding and in his youth a great champion, the freeman was wealthy. By now Bera and Bjoern loved one another deeply and met often.
Time went by, nothing of note happened and Bjoern grew to manhood. He grew tall and strong and was well-versed in all the skills he needed to fill his father's boots one day. When Hring was away fighting through the summer Hvit stayed home, ruling his kingdom for him. She was not well liked by those neneath her but towards Bjoern she was kindly and tender, although he he did not seem to care for her company.
Once when the king was ready to set out for his summer raiding the queen told him she thought Bjoern ought to stay with her to help rule the kingdom. Hring thought it over briefly and agreed. He told Bjoern to stay with Hvit and keep an eye on the kingdom with her. She became overbearing and haughty to those around her, and although he had told his father he had no liking for the thought of staying at home with the queen he was over-ruled. The longer his father was away, the more his dislike for his step-mother grew.
Downcast and flushed with anger, Bjoern took to his bed. Hvit, wishing to raise his spirits spoke tenderly to him. When he told her to leave she did so - for a short time. The queen often spoke to Bjoern, trying to tell him that their sharing a bed would be better than the old king's fumbling with her. Bjoern slapped her hard and told her to leave him alone before bundling her out of the room.
Hvit spat back at him,
'I will not be beaten or turned away, and do not think you will find a yeoman's daughter better company. You shall be punished, if I cannot take you to my bosom! I think something bad will happen to you to make you suffer for your foolish, woolly-headedness!' She struck him with her wolfskin gloves and told him he should become a grim and savage cave bear, adding,
'You shall live off nothing but preying on your father's stock, and in feeding your appetite you will kill more than you have need of. You will never be free from this spell and you will know your shame to your dying day!'
Bjoern left for no-one knew where. When it became known that he was no longer at court a search was mounted for him, but he was nowhere they knew he might be. Soon the king's herds were under attack by a great, grey savage bear. One evening Bera spotted the creature. It came meekly to her and she thought fleetingly that she knew the eyes of her lover, the king's son. The beast ambled away and Bera followed it to a mountain cave. On entering the cave she saw a man, standing naked before her. When he greeted the freeman's daughter she saw it was Bjoern before her. Their reunion was joyful and for a while they stayed together in the cave, she unwilling to part with him. Bjoern told her it was not right that she should stay with him. By day he would be a bear, angry, hungry for the king's cattle. Only in the evening would be be a man again.
The king was told of what had happened whilst he was away, and learned of his son's sudden leaving. He was also told of the great, grey bear that had begun raiding his herd. The queen wanted the beast killed but Hring held back, saying nothing. He knew there was something odd about her story but kept his thoughts to himself.
One night as Bera and Bjoern lay on their bed of heather and straw Bjoern told her,
'Tomorrow is likely to be the day of my death, I fear. I will be hunted and snared. You are my only comfort, but that will also have to end I shall give you the ring that is under my left armpit. When you see the men stalking me in the morning ask the king, my father, to give you whatever is under the beast's left foreleg. He will grant your wish. The queen, Bjoern went on, 'will suspect you when you wish to leave the feasting. She will try to make you eat some of the bear's meat. You must not let a morsel pass your lips, as you must know you are carrying my offspring. You will give birth to three sons, our sons. It will be plain by looking at them if you have eaten any of the meat. The queen is a witch. Go home to your father's hall where you will give birth to our sons, the third of whom will seem like any other child. If you cannot raise them at home because they seem odd and behave badly sometimes, bring them to this cave. You will find a chest with three false bottoms. Runes are carved on the chest and will show what each child is to have as his birthright. Three weapons will be embedded in the cave walls, each meant for one of our sons. The first-born will be Elk-Frodhi, the second Thorir, the third will be Bodvar and they will not be weaklings, oh no! Their names will be recalled long after they are gone'.
Bjoern foretold much before the bear took over him. He left the cave followed by Bera as the king's men ringed the mountain side. A pack of hounds rushed ahead of the men and Bjoern began to lope through the trees along the hillside, turning away from the cave-mouth. The men and hounds chased after him but the bear was hard to catch. Before they did catch up with him he had maimed and killed many men. All the hounds were slain. The men ringed him and finally the bear hurtled at them but was prodded back by spearpoints. The ring tightened and the bear made for Hring. Seizing the man closest to the king he tore him apart alive, but by this time Bjoern was spent. He threw himself to the grass where the hunters slew him.
Bera saw everything, and when her chance came she went up to Hring and asked,
'My Lord king, will you give me what is under the bear's left foreleg?'
The king granted her wish. She said nothing - anyone else there might be harmful to her. By then the king's men were flaying the bear, readying the carcase for roasting on a spit. Bera went to the carcase and took the ring. She hid it carefully so the men would not see what she took, but by then none of them paid any heed to what else was happening.
Hring asked who Bera was, not having seen her for a long time and she gave him another name, hoping he would ask no more of her. The king went to his garth and Bera was swept along by his followers. Cheered now, Hvit made Bera welcome, asking her name. Again Bera gave the name she had given the king. The queen had a great feast set out, the bear meat was roasted and Bera now found herself in the queen's room, unable to leave because Hvit was not happy about the name Bera had given her. The queen breezed back into her room with a dish of the bear's flesh and told Bera to eat. The young woman wanted none of it, needless to say.
'Are you not the rudest', Hvit mocked, cutting a mouthful of the bear's flesh, goading her, 'that you turn aside meat offered by the queen herself? Eat this meat before something far worse is served up to you!' Hvit held the dish almost under Bera's nose.
The freeman's daughter wavered, then took the smallest morsel and held it between her teeth before swallowing. the dish was pushed at her again and again she took the smallest mouthful before spitting it out again, swearing,
'I shall eat no more, do whatever you will!'
'I may not have to. As much as you have already swallowed should be enough', the queen laughed and Bera fled to her father's hall, Hvit's shrill laughter echoing in her ears.
Bera had a hard time bearing her lover's offspring, and unburdening all her woes on her father she told him what had happened and why she was in this state. Not long later she gave birth to a son. From the navel downward the child had an elk's lower body. He was named Elk-Frodhi as Bjoern had told her. The son son came shortly after, with a hound's lower body. He was given the name Thorir 'Hound's-foot'. Aside from their lower limbs being those of beasts these two sons were handsome. The third looked as any child could. He was named Bodvar. There was nothing that anyone could see plainly wrong with him and Bera loved him most.
The children soon became youths. At games they were hard to beat and unyielding. Elk-Frodhi maimed many of his sparring partners, some he haplessly killed. Thus things went on until they had reached twelve summers. By then they were each so strong the king's men could no longer stand up to them and they were no longer allowed to take part in the games.
Frodhi told his mother he wished to leave,
'There is no longer any fun to be had around here. I am not allowed to test my skills against those of other youths or men. They are but fools, easily beaten as soon as I came near them!'
Bera told him being with most men did not suit him because he was so unyielding. She took him to the cave and showed him the treasure his father had chosen for him. Frodhi's was the smallest share, although he was the first-born. He tried to take more but could not. When he saw the weapons in the cave wall he gripped the sword hilt but it would not give. Next he took hold of the axe handle but it, too, was not for the taking. The last weapon he tried was the short-bladed sword. He looked long at it, and at the other weapons,
'The one who allotted these gifts was unjust!' Frodhi took the short sword and struck at the cave wall hard, hoping to break it - so great was his fury - but the sword went into the rock instead, up to the hilt. He wondered out aloud, 'However I wield this ugly thing it knows how to bite!'
Without wishing his mother farewell he set out for the road into the mountains. Here he lay in wait for and attacked wayfarers, killing for gain. He put up a shelter for himself and settled in.
Next - 5: Thorir, King of the Gautar
Poul Anderson's version of The Saga of Hrolf Kraki was the one I read first before the original. I prefer this version, with his descriptive flair and attention to detail - don't reckon a lot to the cover design, but look beyond and you'll find a treasure of a story.
Poul Anderson - The Saga of Hrolf Kraki
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