The Saga of HROLF 'KRAKI' - 6: Hott's New Friend Bodvar, and the Berserkers
Men thronged into the hall that evening, the first they saw was Hott seated on a bench near the door.
The man who put him there sat next to him.
"Hah! The cur has come out from behind his bone stronghold! What are you doing, sat on that bench, cur?"
Hott fearfully eyed the speaker, one of the men who had made a fool of him, and had left him in the bone pile. He began to rise, ready to bolt for the corner and safety, but Bodvar held his right arm. Unable to reach the corner Hott just sat and cringed. The king's followers began anew, throwing at first only smaller bones. Bodvar did nothing, and took a mouthful of the king's ale poured for him earlier by one of the hall maids.
Hott was now so afraid he could neither eat nor drink, sure a bigger bone would strike him soon. A man nearby had a larger bone ready and Hott warned Bodvar,
'Sir, a great knuckle bone is about to be thrown, which will do us both great harm'.
'Quiet', Bodvar growled, catching the bone in cupped hands and throwing it back so hard it crashed onto the skull of the man who threw it. The others were suddenly struck with fear.
King Hrolf and his closest champions were in the garth when word was brought to them of the newcomer who wantonly killed one of his followers. The others wanted the outlander put to the sword. When Hrolf asked whether the man had been killed for nothing the answer came,
'Almost, my Lord King -' the man faltered.
'Almost? Was he or was he not killed unjustly?' Hrolf, angered at the man's foolishness turned to another who had sought out the king with him. The truth came; inch by inch the king drew it like bad teeth from the jaws of his men.
'The fellow should in no way be harmed. You have learned bad habits from on another and with that dragged my name through the dirt. Have I not told you, time and time again, not to torment those less able to withstand you? I would say this newcomer is no weakling. Bring him here to me, that I can learn from him who he is'.
Bodvar greeted the king well, without yet giving his name and the king asked,
'And you are -?'
'My Lord King your followers call me Hott's keeper. My given name is Bodvar'.
'Well, Bodvar, what are you willing to offer to pay for the man you killed?' Hrolf asked, eyeing Bodvar closely for any sign of weakness. There was none when Bodvar answered simply,
'He earned his end'.
'Would you be willing to fill his seat on the bench>'
'I would not turn down such an offer, yet Hott and I will not be parted just yet. We should be seated closer than he was, or else we leave', Bodvar answered, boldly looking the king in the eye.
'I see nothing great in him', Hrolf nodded to Hott, 'but I will not withhold food from him'. Hrolf had mulled over his answer, chewing his upper lip. He was still eying Bodvar. Finally he nodded and walked back to his high seat.
Bodvar sat some way closer on the bench to the king's seat, having drawn three men from their seats. He pulled Hott down onto the bench beside him. Now much further into the hall and closer to the hearth than they had been; the others muttered that Bodvar was an awkward cuss. Murmurs went up and down amongst the seated men on both sides of the hall, but none said any more.
Yuletide drew nigh and the men became steadily gloomier. Bodvar asked Hott why they were so down-in-the-mouth when the feasting was almost on them.
'A great beast, a troll no less, with wings has come upon us these past winters. No weapon made by men bites into its flesh. The king's champions have become fewer in number, too. Even the greatest of them has fallen foul of the creature!' Hott told Bodvar, shuddering with fear merely thinking of it.
'This garth is not as well-manned as I should have liked to think', bodvar mused, 'if the creature, troll or whatever on its own could wreck the king's lands and raid his livestock'.
'It is no mere creature, sir!' Hott shuddered again.
Yule-Eve ame and King Hrolf gathered his men around, telling them,
'Yule-Eve is for merrymaking, true, but this time I would ask you to make no noise of revelry. I will have no man risk his life. The livestock must be left to their own ends, as I wish to lose no more men to the winged troll'.
Only too willingly his men told him they would obey his will and do as he asked. Meanwhile Bodvar stole away, taking Hott with him - lifting Hott bodily from the bench. He left the hall behind him and set Hott down on his feet outside in the frost.
'Things will be better', Bodvar told the fearful Hott, who merely stared back in disbelief at him.
The creature heaved into sight and Hott screamed for his life, babbling that he did not want to be swallowed whole.
'Quiet!' Bodvar snapped and threw Hott to the iron cold earth. Hott stayed there on the moor, his blood ran cold with fear, not daring to flee home. Bodvar went against the winged troll, angrily wrenching his sword from its sheath so hard it squeaked. He grasped the sheath and the sword came loose just as the beast loomed over him. He thrust the sword upward under the beast's shoulder, so hard the blade went straight to the heart. With an enfeebled jerk of its wings to fly away the beast slumped, dead, to the ground.
Bodvar strode back to Hott, hoisted him to his feet and marched him to where the beast lay. Hott was shaking hard, his heart hammering in his ears.
'Drink the beast's life-blood, Hott', Bodvar told the unwilling youth. When Hott dithered Bodvar pushed him down and made him take a couple of mouthfuls of the still-bubbling deep red goo. 'Eat some of the flesh as well!'
Bodvar pulled away some of the creature's meat from around its heart and part of the heart itself,
'Eat!' Bodvar almost stuffed the flesh into Hott's quivering mouth. Then he goaded Hott into fighting him and they wrestled for some time in the dead cold. Bodvar grinned and stood back, telling Hott, 'I think from now on you will no longer fear the king's men!'
'From now I will fear neither they nor you', Hott answered and shoved the laughing Bodvar.
'Things have turned out well, then, my young friend. We shall now set the beast up so he looks threatening', Bodvar led Hott back to where the winged creature lay, and between them they pulled its bones about in such a way as it rested on its haunches. They then made their way back to the hall, telling no-one there what they had done.
Hrolf asked next morning if any of his men knew of the beast's whereabouts, and if they knew whether it had come to the hall.
'Your livestock is still safe in their pens, and none of the men has come to grief, my Lord King', his steward told him.
Hrolf shrugged and sent out some of his guards to see if they knew where the beast was. They hastened back, almost falling over their own feet, and told him,
'The beast is on its way! The men shuddered. 'He is coming toward the garth!'
'Be brave!' Hrolf told them. 'Do your best, as befits each of you, and we shall overcome the creature!'
The men did as they were bidden and readied themselves for the ordeal ahead. When they were beyond the walls the king shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun on newly-fallen snow and stared hard,
'I see nothing stirring', the king wondered aloud. 'Which of you will seize the moment and take it on for me?'
'I think you should go, Hott. Throw off the lie that you have neither spirit nor the staunchness of a warrior. Go kill the creature - you can see none of the king's so-called warriors is keen to take the fight to the foe'.
'That I will do', Hott agreed.
'Where does this bravery stem from, Hott, that you have become so hardened in this short time?'
Hott did not answer the king, but asked him instead,
'Give me the sword Gullin-hjalti that you hold, my Lord King. With it I shall either slay the troll or die fighting!'
'This sword is not meant to be wielded by anyone but a man both strong in body and of spirit', Hrolf held the sword by his side, unwilling to hand it to Hott, a fellow he knew only to hide in the corner of his hall behind a pile of picked bones and rotten flesh.
'Take it, my Lord King, that I am made of that spirit, my will of the iron that made the sword', Hott stood his ground.
'How can I tell?' Hrolf was taken aback. 'Has more changed in you than a man can see - few of us would say from your utterings that you are the same fellow we knew even on the Yule-Eve. Take the sword, then. It will serve you well if my feelings are right'.
Hott strode boldly towards the creature, thrusting the sword into the creature's cold flesh when he was within arm's length. Within the blinking of an eye the creature lay torn apart by the loudly yelling Hott.
'See my Lord what Hott has achieved!' Bodvar spread his arms wide.
'He has indeed become a man to be reckoned with, yet I do not think he alone slew the beast. I think you had a hand in it!' Hrolf told Bodvar, tongue-in-cheek. Under his breath Hrolf added, 'Scoundrel and liar you may be, but I could not wish for better than you for a friend, were I in Hott's shoes'.
'You may be right', Bodvar winked.
'I knew when I first set eyes on you that few would be your peer, yet your finest deed has been to bolster Hott and make of him a champion I shall be proud of. Having once been a poor fellow of little promise or luck, he should no longer be known as Hott', Hrolf turned away from Bodvar. 'You will now be known by the name of the sword you bore, *Gullinhjalti. Hjalti shall be your name'.
Winter dragged on and the king's berserkers would soon be back. Bodvar asked Hjalti of them.
'On coming back to join the king's household they would dare each and every man to stand up to them', Hjalti answered. 'They ask whether any man thinks he has the mettle to be their peer. The king usually tells them it is hard to answer, as they have won him renown far and wide. He answers thus because he knows how they think, not from fear of them. Thereafter they ask each man in turn, but none thinks himself as good as they'.
'The king's warriors do not count for much of they let the berserkers run roughshod over them'.
Bodvar had been with the king a second Yulefeast by this time. King Hrolf was seated in his high seat when the doors crashed open, dust flew and the twelve berserkers stormed in. With all the iron in their gear and the winter frost on their weaponry they seemed as grey as the ground ice on their boots. Bodvar asked Hjalti quietly if he would pit himself against one of them.
'Aye, yet not only against one but all twelve! I know no fear with overwhelming odds nowadays. One alone of them does not make me feel weak at the knee!'
When the berserkers came through the king's hall they saw the number of his champions had grown since they were here last. Warily eyeing the newcomers they saw one at least was no weakling. This outsider took them off-guard and they settled into the usual haranguing. The king answered as ever, weaving words that seemed to soothe them. They next came to each man in turn and roughly each answer sounded alike. It was the turn of Bodvar next.
'I do not think of myself as being as able as you - more able, rather. I shall prove this to you in whichever way you wish to test yourselves. I think for a start you chose wrongly in sidling ip to me in the way you did, you stinking son of a mare!'
With that Bodvar leaned forward and hoisted the berserker off his feet, weapons and all. He then threw down the berserker so hard he lay as though every bone in his body were broken, Hjalti did much the same on the other side of the hall. When it seemed as though there might be a free-for-all King Hrolf stepped down from his seat and asked Bodvar to bring the unrest to a close.
'Stand back and let the man up', Hrolf asked.
'When he yields, and allows that he is the lesser of us both. Otherwise I shall break every bone in his worthless carcase', Bodvar answered.
On hearing the berserker yield Bodvar stood back. Hjalti did likewise and the men went back to their benches. The berserkers, much more wary of Bodvar and Hjalti, took their seats. King Hrolf told all around that now it had been proved there were others in the world as strong as they had known before.
'...But should you begin any more fighting in my hall you will forfeit your lives. Be as wolfish as you wish when fighting my foes, win renown and storm the kingdoms of those who will not yield to me. Now I have champions like these, I shall not have to fall back so much on my berserkers', Hrolf looked at them, shrunken now in their fear of Bodvar and Hjalti that they merely nodded and swallowed their pride.
His speech was cheered, the words well-heeded and his men, all, lived and fought side-by-side. At the king's right now sat Bodvar . Beside him sat Hjalti 'the peacemaker', the nickname well earned as Hjalti now joined with those who had tormented him. He bore them no ill-will. However, Hrolf would not have been taken aback had his new champion avenged himself on those who had once thrown bones at his 'shield-wall' in the corner, but this was not to be and he was the greater for it.
To the king's left sat the brothers Svipdag, Hvitserk and Beygad. Beyond them sat the twelve berserkers. The other champions and warriors were seated further down the hall.
Sports were set by the king to test his men daily, to ensure their battle-readiness. Bodvar became foremost amongst Hrolf's champions, held in such worth by the king that he offered the hand in wedlock to Bodvar of his daughter Drifa.
So things went on for a time.
Next - 7: The Claim
The Denmark of Hrolf 'Kraki' did not extend across all the islands and territory it occupied at the height of what we call the 'Viking Age'. His royal seat was at Leithra, (later Lejre, renamed Hroarskilde, finally becoming Roskilde), on the island of Sjaelland, Zealand in English. Hrolf was the last of the Skjoldung dynasty at the time the Angles, Jutes and Saxons forged their kingdoms in Britain. Poul Anderson's version of the saga is as imaginative as it is descriptive, a definite plus in terms of interpretation of an old saga...
The Saga of Hrolf Kraki
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