HUNDING'S SAGA - 50: ON COURSE To the mouth of the Volkhov, andHolmgard
With stores stowed away before and aft of the masthead, the ship set out again...
Braendings Slange slid out from the haven into the channel.
Under an iron-grey sky, wind-driven waters slapped against her sides. The oarsmen brought her deftly and safely past the skerries where the sea was rougher and threatened to dash them against the rocks. Eddies sought to bring her off course. At last her sail was dropped, to be filled by a strengthening south-westerly wind and the ship gained the open sea once more. By and by the south-eastern Svear coast vanished beneath grey, foam-tipped waves to the west as Hunding steered a course for the Amber Coast.
Soon, with the beitass out to the steerboard side to catch the wind, the Amber Coast ahead curved away eastward towards the Gulf of Riga. Hunding drew the steering arm to himself, a notch only, to pass wide of the island of Saaremaa. Beyond, the long nose of the much smaller and lower isle of Hiiumaa stretched out westward to catch out the unwary before the steering arm was pulled closer to his chest. The ship entered the broader gulf between Estland to the east and Finnmark to the north.
The light began to fail. An islet seemed to beckon, a safe haven off land that few traders knew more than the coast and havens. Land that offered little but marsh and dense forest that was home to hunting tribes and wolves.
Hunding tapped Skuli's right shoulder and murmured,
'In the morning we will make landfall over there, where the flames of torches dance. We shall see if they have amber worth buying - or trading for'.
Kindling was gathered, Aesc and Ealdwin took Ivar with them to look for the driest branches and twigs. It seemed there had been rain lately, and they only looked under the shelter of tree branches and rock overhangs. When Aesc thought they had enough between them he led the way back to camp. A pot was hung over the fire and before long broth was ready for the thirty strong crew.
'Where do we go today?' Ealdwin asked.
'We are to see if these folk across the water there have amber worth buying', Skuli answered.
'- Or trading for', Hunding added.
Skuli smirked and looked across at Ealdwin,
'Aye, I forgot that - or trading for', Skuli finished.
Ivar's ears pricked up,
'Amber? I would like to see some'.
'You would?' Hunding grinned. 'Just as well then. We will all be there, some armed lest we differ -'
'They might attack?' Aesc's eyes were round, childlike.
'Aye, they just might', Skuli beamed. He carried a long dagger in a sheath at his bulging waist and drew the weapon across his left palm. A little blood rose from the wound and he licked the blood, grinning grimly at Aesc. 'They just might'.
'You are not worried, are you?' Ealdwln chided and Aesc shook his head. He wore a worried look nevertheless.
Ivar seemed to relish a fight. He had been learning from Svein and Harold how to parry and attack with axe and sword. He asked,
'Do we take shields?'
'No Ivar', Hunding told him, 'that would make us look as if we were going for a fight, not trade. No, all you need is to belt your sword, you and Herjolf. Skuli has his dagger, I also'.
'Is that all?' Ivar looked let down.
'They are hunters, growers, stockmen who have to fend off wolves from their sheep and cattle', Hunding told him. 'Stay calm and keep your wits about you, that is all. Oh, and keep your eyes off the maidens. I have heard you are a flirt. These folk would have you wed their daughters as soon as you clapped eyes on them!'
Ivar sulked, Hunding kept his mirth to himself. He had learnt from Gytha that Ivar had fought with her son Gyrth over a maid in Bosanham. They had made up afterward, but were both bruised for a time. Hunding wondered, would Ivar be a chip off the old block?
Crossing from Gotland to the Gulf of Riga and into the Gulf of Finland
Hunding left the steering to Skuli when the ship left the gulf.
Skuli knew the narrows, knew where the rocks lay beneath the waters. He also knew the channel to follow. Sandbanks narrowed the usable river at the mouth of the river they should take to Lake Ladoga. Flies made it hard for the men to row, Hunding, Herjolf and Aesc having to fan them off as they pulled hard against the flow.
At last the lake came into sight. Nevertheless the flies still attacked the oarsmen until they had cleared the outflow channel and passed the reedbeds, giving them a wide berth.
'We shall need to make camp soon', Hunding called back to Skuli from where he stood by the mast partner . 'Do you know anywhere that is not plagued by flies?'.
'We shall have to enter the River Volkhov first', Skuli yelled back.
'How far is that?' Hunding stared ahead. 'How far upriver?'
'Where did you make camp when you came with Tofig?' Skuli asked back.
'We had made landfall before entering the river very early one morning and we kept rowing into the Volkhov until we were near Holmgard. Camp was made on an islet in the river and we reached Holmgard by mid-morning the day after'.
'That was a long time rowing!' Skuli whistled and his brow rose.
'We were earlier on entering that river behind us and not bothered by the flies', Hunding thought back.
'All the same!' Skuli scratched under his chin.
'So where do we make camp?' Hunding asked again.
'A few miles upriver...' Skuli answered absently, his thoughts on steering into the Volkhov.
The oarsmen broke into a rowing chant to make light of the work and Hunding went up to the prow to guide Skuli. The land around was flat and marshy, the riverbed shallow and narrowed by more sandbanks. At long last they came to where another river joined. Skuli yelled out for the oars to be drawn before he steered to larboard, and Braendings Slange slid onto the broad river bank.
Men leapt ashore and hauled on the ship's sides to make her safe. Rope was pulled around stout tree trunks and made fast whilst others scoured the brush for kindling to make a fire for cooking. Hunding and Herjolf took bows to hunt for deer, taking care not to step into the marsh away from the river.
When they came back into camp carrying a buck between them Skuli looked worried,
'Of those who went for kindling only Ealdwin has not showed back here'.
Dropping the carcass they took Aesc with them, to where Aesc said he saw his fellow Northanhymbran vanish between bushes and stunted trees. They shouted time and time again,
'Ealdwin, where are you?'
It was pitch dark by now, dark and threatening. A waning moon gave little light and they had no pitch for torches. They followed the same paths back to camp, by which time a crackling fire was going and Skuli had made short work of skinning the buck. It was being turned slowly by crewmen, who took over from one another.
Cracking branches had them on their feet, reaching for swords and knives. Skuli had his axe at the ready. Was this a band of outlaws, out to rob them of their buck - or more likely their silver?
Hunding yelled out, the bow he had taken for hunting ready to loose off an arrow.
'Who goes there?!' As more dead branches snapped Hunding aimed the arrow. When no answer came he let it loose. Someone shouted in pain, although Hunding did not understand what the words were.
'Hunding, hold!' Aesc threw up his hands and dashed into the darkness. Not long later he could be made out pulling something ... or someone.
'Help me, someone!' Aesc yelled-from the half-darkness.
Hunding and Herjolf leapt over the fire to give Aesc a hand at pulling Ealdwin into the warmth.
'What was that he said?' Hunding asked Aesc, meaning what Ealdwin had shouted out from the darkness.
'That was an old Aenglish word, 'ag-worm', he was bitten by an adder', Aesc told Hunding.
'So it was not the arrow?' Skuli sighed.
'That missed me', Ealdwin groaned, 'It got the adder after it bit me!'
After treatment by Aesc for the adder bite, Ealdwin was safe to go on the morning after...
Having run the oars out again, and Gudbrand the most eagle-eyed of the crew perched atop the unfurled sail, Braendings Slange was on her way south again. The river twisted this way and that, and the strength of the flow was against them again, as on the Neva from the Gulf of Finland.
The river bank was hillier the nearer they came to Holmgard, so a man at the prow would have been of little use to Hunding, back at the steering oar whilst Skuli took a well-earned rest. Skuli was not idle, however. He stood by the larboard wall of the ship, watching out for sandbanks where the river turned. At last they could see rooves to the south, a couple of bends away. The sun had gone behind dark clouds and the flies withdrawn to the marshes behind the riverbanks to prey on cattle and wild beasts.
Soon they could see Holmgard's wood tiled rooves closer. Another bend onward and...
'Where do we put in, Hunding?' Herjolf asked. It had been some years since he last came this way with Tofig. They slid along, a flick or two on the oars until Hunding saw a gap between ships already tied up at the riverside.
'There', Hunding told him and drew the steering oar hard to his chest.
Brendings Slange slewed to steerboard and a few more deft flicks of the oars brought her onto the river strand. Men leapt over the ship walls onto gravel and hauled her up beyond the reach of the flow. Folk gathered to watch the newcomers. One tall fellow pushed through the throng to stride down the shallow slope and eyed the ship before asking,
'Who is the master of this fine ship?'
Hunding had walked forward and not heard the fellow above the din of men setting their oars down. He asked again,
'Who is the master of this ship?' He missed out the 'fine' this time.
'I am', Hunding answered, wondering if he were talking to a steward of the prince.
'You may have to move your ship', the tall fellow told him bluntly.
'Why?' Hunding looked around. 'There is enough room for more ships around the riverbank, surely?'
'Then I would ask why you did not put your ship there'.
'What is it, Hunding?' Herjolf stood behind him now, dwarfing them both.
'This good man says we should have berthed elsewhere', Hunding answered, looking at the fellow.
'Why? We got here first!' Skuli, barrel-chested, squared up to him. 'Who are you, anyway?'
'I am the prince's steward, Eirik Lifingsson. The man whose ship should be there is my uncle, Kofti Ingvarsson'.
'Can we move her when we have eaten?' Hunding saw no way out of moving Braendings Slange, but felt there would be time yet'.
'Are you likely to be feasting?' the man named Eirik Lifingsson smiled crookedly at Hunding. Did he know who he was talking to?
'We have not eaten since we left camp this morning, back downriver near Lake Ladoga', Hunding drew himself to his full height, 'so we are likely to need a good, square meal. We will move her now, if you like'.
The crew stood by the ship, watching, listening. How long would they have to wait to eat? Eirik Lifingsson looked back at them. He scratched his beard, looked up at the darkening sky and thought long and hard, then spoke again,
'Is your name Hunding Hrothulfsson?'
'It is, aye. Why do you ask?' Hunding's brow furrowed.
Next - 51: The Prince
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