The Saga of HROLF KRAKI - 7:Pressing The Claim
"It is seen as a shortcoming of yours, my Lord King, that you have not sought to claim your father's treasure".
'I am aware, Bodvar, aye, and I think that wealth would be hard-gained. Adhils is no fool, skilled as he is in the dark arts. He is a crafty, guileful, close-fisted and cruel king - the worst anyone could take on'.
'Yet it would be fitting to seek your share. You could at least meet Adhils to see how he sees your claim', Bodvar pressed.
'What you have aforethought will be no light undertaking, friend', King Hrolf looked into Bodvar's pale, ice-blue eyes and saw in there steely intent. 'However, I owe my father much. Cunning as Adhils is, he cannot always win! I shall set matters to rights'.
Hrolf gripped Bodvar's left arm, gritted his teeth in a bitter smile and stood suddenly. The cup he clasped tightly in his right hand was set down next to Bodvar's and he growled,
'By Odin's beard, I shall see to it King Helgi's share is yielded up to me!'
As King Hrolf sat to a costly feast with his champions one evening, he looked around his hall and called out aloud for all to hear,
'I feel an overwhelming strength gathered here in my hall!' Cheering followed, men emptied their cups and the hall maids were hard-put to keep up with filling them again.
Hrolf turned again to Bodvar on his right and asked whether he knew of any king in the northlands as strong as he, or who led such a fine array of warriors.
'I do not, my Lord king, but one thing - mark, only one - lessens you in the eyes of the gods', Bodvar answered, looking over the heads of the men before them.
'What would you say that was?' Hrolf turned fully towards Bodvar to look at his mainstay.
'This once I should like to test Adhils' mettle'. Bodvar grinned, emptied his cup and finished, 'To see how strong his art really is'.
'That you shall, Bodvar', Hrolf clenched his fist, 'That you shall. We will all see what he is made of without his black magic'.
King Hrolf gathered a hundred men besides his champions and berserkers before the fore-year, the land still rimed thickly with ice. On their way overland a freeman met them on the road to his steading and welcomed them. He asked Hrolf and his men to stay a night or two at his steading.
'You are a bold fellow', Hrolf pressed his horse a little further, 'but do you have the means? We are many in number and it would tax many a landholder to put us up, even for one night'.
'I have seen more here than you have', the freeman laughed. 'you will lack for neither drink nor whatever you and your company will need'.
'We will take your offer, then - er, what is your name?'
Hrolf dismounted, followed by the others. The freeman was happy that King Hrolf would be staying with him.
'Some call me Hrani', the freeman answered. He smiled broadly and winked his one good eye at Bodvar.
The night went well at Hrani's hall, the hospitality so good Hrolf felt he had never met a man as open-handed. The freeman was cheery all evening and he seemed to have an answer for whatever was asked of him. He was no fool, and Hrolf thought well of him.
It was time to sleep. Not long later Hrollf's followers awoke to such biting cold their teeth chattered as they pulled on their clothes and covered themselves with whatever skins they could find. Although the king's champions looked to be happy with what they wore, the rest of. Hrolf's men felt the gnawing cold until morning.
A sly look came over Hrani as he told the king when he next saw him,
'I know many of your followers found it bitterly cold in my hall during the night. It was meant to be thus. They would not stand up to the hardship Adhils could bring to bear on them in Uppsala if they could not stand last night's ordeal. Send home half your men, Lord king, if you wish to come through this. A great company will be no better than a small band of picked warrors in Adhils' lands'.
'You are a wise fellow, freeholder. I will follow your counsel', Hrolf acknowledged Hrani's wisdom.
When ready they set out, wishing the freeholder well. Half the men rode back to the ships in the sound, the core of the company riding on for Uppsala. Not long after that they came to another steading. Hrolf thought he already knew the freeman who owned it. Things were odd, to say the least! Had they been riding round in rings?
Hrani greeted them well, and asked how it was they came this way so often.
'There is little we know of the wily ruses in store for us. Truly, you are a crafty fellow!'
'You will not be poorly entertained, as before', Hrani smiled knowingly.
They rested another night after the freeman's open-handed hospitality. In the night a great thirst overcame Hrolf's followers and berserkers, hardly able to move their tongues around in their mouths. Their thirst was so great they had to go to a great vat filled with cool wine and slake their thirsts.
Again Hrani greeted them in the morning,
'Once more, my Lord king, things have gone so far that you would be counselled to send home those who needed to drink in the night. Your men will have much to put up with from Adhils'.
A storm struck during the morning as they made ready to leave again. The men stayed another night, not having gone a further mile. Again a fire was lit in the evening. Those who sat near it felt the heat burning their fore-arms, and most pulled back from the benches Hrani had set out for them. Only the king and his champions stayed put.
Hrani told Hrolf,
'As I told you before, Lord king, your company could still be less. You should go on with only your twelve champions. There might then be hope for your coming back, otherwise -'
'You are right, franklin. I do only need my twelve champions. The rest should leave for home to guard the kingdom', Hrolf nodded his acknowledgement.
Thirteen men rode eastward out of Hrani's steading three nights after they first rode in. The rest rode back to Hleidargard. Adhils heard of Hrolf crossing his kingdom without asking leave to do so, smacked his lips and told his closest counsellors,
'It is as well King Hrolf chooses to look in on me. Before he goes again - after whatever he has aforethought to ask of me - he will be well seen to. Tales of his coming will be worth the telling, indeed!' He smacked his lips again and licked his lip-hairs, stretched himself in his throne and thought of how he would welcome his stepson.
Hrolf rode with his champions to Adhils' garth. Uppsala's townsfolk thronged the towers around their king's hall to see the Danes' king and his champions, so handsomely dressed and armed they were. Many of the burghers were pleased by the sight of tese mounted warriors.
To begin with Hrolf and his men rode slowly, proudly. Not far from Adhils' hall they spurred their mounts into a quick gallop. Men and beasts had to quickly pull back out of the way as they passed. King Adhils bade his stewards greet the visitors well, had their horses taken from them for feeding and stabling, and their king brought with his champions into the hall. He added,
'They are so high-handed they should be taught a lesson. Have their horses' tails cut to the rump, chop off the forelocks so the skin on the forehead flakes. Leave them barely alive, mind'.
The newcomers were led to the hall doors, but Adhils was nowhere to be seen.
'I well recall the hall', Svipdag told Hrolf. 'I shall enter first, as I do not trust the way we have been welcomed so far. I will be able to see what is in store for us, but for now no-one should let on which one of us is Hrolf. King Adhils has never seen him before, so it will be hard for him to harm the king'.
Svipdag led, followed by Hvitserk and Beygad. Hrolf came next with Bodvar behind him, searching the darkness for threat. No-one was there to see the newcomers, as Adhils saw to it they were out of the way.
Hrolf and their men had their hunting hawks on their shoulders, as was the fashion. Hrolf's hawk, Habrok sat well as the men strode on through the hall. Svipdag peered closely at everything, seeing what had been moved. The company passed many hindrances they further they went, and the going became fraught. Adhils was there, Svipdag saw, swollen with self-worship on his high seat. When both sides saw one another they knew something was to happen. Hrolf knew that reaching Adhils would be hard, although they were within hailing. Adhils spoke first,
'Svipdag, friend. You have come to seek me out again. What might you want here with these champions - is anything as it seems?
'A dent to the back of the skull,
an eye out of the head.
A scar shows well on his forehead
and two blows to the hand.
His brother Beygad, also, has been wounded'.
Svipdag spoke loudly enough for all to hear,
'I ask now for safe conduct, as you agreed when we met last, for these twelve'.
'I did agree, and still do', Adhils answered slyly. 'Come quickly and safely forward'.
Hrolf and his men thought there would be pits awaiting them, traps to thwart their way forward. The light around King Adhils was so dim, they could hardly see him. What they could see was that the wall-hangings had come loose from their mountings, and came inward at them. Sure enough a mailed and armed man came out from each fold as Hrolf and his champions wended their way between the deep pits.
They had to fight hard and before long Adhils' men were heaped like logs. Yet still they did not know which one of the champions Hrolf was. Adhils was enraged, red with anger at seeing his men cut down like curs. Knowing the game he played could go on no longer he stood,
'What is all this fighting about? You scoundrels, attacking these noble fellows who have come to see us! Be seated, Hrolf, kinsman. Let us greet one another cheerily!'
'There is no honour in the manner of your greeting, Adhils, for the scant regard with which you hold our truce!' Svipdag blasted Adhils.
They seated themselves, Svipdag closest to the wall by Hjalti, and Bodvar seated himself by Adhils. Still Hrolf stayed quiet, as yet unknown to the Ynglinga king.
'I see you ride abroad in an un-kingly way. Otherwise, King Hrolf, you would have a greater company with you'.
'I see you do not shrink from skulduggery against a kinsman and his followers. It has nothing to do with you, whether he rides with few or many around him', Svipdag snapped back.
There the talking ended for the time being, and Adhils called for the hall to be cleared of the dead, the blood swilled away. Those of his wounded were whisked away to be tended.
'Make fires the length of the hall for our guests, show some friendliness', Adhils told his household stewards. He and his own warriors sat on one side of the fire trenches, their weapons close to hand, Hrolf and his champions on the other side also kept their weapons with them.
Adhils' stewards told thralls to build up the fires and the flames spread quickly, the fires built high with dry timber and pitch. On either side talk seemed outwardly friendly.
'Of you champions of King Hrolf much good has been said, of your bravery. Somehow you think yourselves better than others, but there is nothing in your manner that belies what I have heard', King Adhils called across the flames that began to lick at Hrolf's men. He bade the thralls work harder on the fires, 'Stoke up the fires, that I may see in the light of the flames which of you might be Hrolf. so far, none of you has fled the heat, which I would say by now must be unbearable'.
It was done as Adhils wished. In this way he wanted to know Hrolf's whereabouts, thinking their king to somehow be less able to bear the heat. He plainly wished an end to Hrolf and his claim. Bodvar also knew this, as did the others. They could only give their king so much shelter from the flames without giving him away. Where the fire burned at its hottest, Hrolf thought hard on his oath that he would flee neither fire nor iron. This would be a hard trial set by Adhils, he knew. Wither he and his champions would burn or fail their oaths.
They saw Adhils had withdrawn with his men to the outer wall of their hall. All the time more fuel was heaped on the fire. It might reach Hrolf and his champions unless something was done. Their clothing and finery was already scorched when they tossed their shields into the flames.
'Let us feed the flames', Bodvar and Svipdag chanted, 'in Adhils' mighty hall'.
Each seized one of the thralls feeding the fires, telling them first,
'Take comfort in the warmth of the fire for your hard work, as we are well-baked. Now it is your turn, for your good deed to your king'. Hjalti at his end grabbed another and tossed him head-first onto the flames and the others finished the task.
None of Adhils' men dared help them from burning to ashes.
Hrolf next called out,
'He who leaps over the fire
has not fled it!'
Meaning to catch King Adhils Hrolf and his champions leapt over the arching flames, but the Ynglinga king saw what they were up to and ran to a tall tree trunk that stood at one end of his hall. Being hollow, the tree was used by Adhils to flee the hall. He made good his escape, entering the room of Yrsa to speak to her.
She greeted him chilly, telling him much he wished not to hear,
'To begin with you kill my first husband, duping him and withholding what you said you would give him as parting gifts. now you would seek to kill my only son. You are the harshest and vilest of men, and I will use all my wiles against you, to see Hrolf is given his due', Yesa's hatred for her husband burned like a beacon within her breast.
Adhils gritted his teeth and hissed,
'As things are between us, there will be no trust wasted. As of now you will see me no longer'. Adhils left her and Yrsa next sought out Hrolf. Her son welcomed her warmly as she summoned a hall thrall to serve him and his champions. As the thrall came up to Hrolf he said out aloud,
'Is this really your king? His brow is narrow and thinly-fleshed, like a ladder shaped from a birch trunk, a 'kraki'!'
King Hrolf grinned broadly and told the fellow,
'You have bestowed the nickname 'kraki' on me. It will stick, but what naming gift can you give me?'
The man, Vogg, answered boldly,
'I have nothing to give you, Lord, as I own nothing'.
'He who has shall give', Hrolf smiled ruefully at Vogg and pulled one of his arm-rings off and handed it to the thrall.
'Of the men who give, you are surely the greatest, and this is the best of treasures', Vogg's eyes opened wide as he turned the ring over on his hand.
Hrolf thought Vogg saw too much in his gift, as he told Bodvar,
'Vogg's hopes are fulfilled by little'.
Vogg, on his part set one foot on the bench and, unasked, swore an oath to Hrolf,
'I swear you this, that I shall avenge you if I live longer and you are slain by Adhils' men'.
'You mean well enough, although others with me are more likely to fulfil such an oath', Hrolf answered, moved by the man's words. Vogg would prove true to his word, however short his skills mitght fall of a warrior's.
Nothing was hidden from the thrall, but first sleep was needed. Rest could be had without fear of attack in queen Yrsa's rooms.
'We will be well cared for, and the queen wishes us well, but Adhils still means to harm us in as many ways as he can', Bodvar said, seating himself in one of the chairs. 'Yet I do not think things will stay this way'.
Vogg let them know of Adhils' offerings to the gods,
'He makes offerings to a boar of such great size I hardly think there can be one so big! Be aware, King Hrolf, King adhils seeks to kill you in any way he can'.
'It is more likely he hated having to leave his hall because of us', Bodvar yawned, dozing off still seated.
'You should know him to be harsh, sly moreso', Vogg warned, not that Hrolf and his men did not already know. As it was they were tired out and fell asleep, but soon a great snorting noise roused them from their slumbers. It was a noise so loud it echoed around the garth's walls, and the dwelling they were in shook and swayed as if on marshland.
Vogg spoke up,
'The boar has been brought to life, set to wreak havoc on you for its master, Adhils. It is such a great troll-creature none will be able to stand against it!'
'The sorcerer Adhils has brought to life his idol Gullinbursti!' Bodvar laughed. 'He will prove no worse than your serpent-troll, King Hrolf!'
Hrolf had with him his hound Gram, a brave and strong mastiff. Squealing loudly the great boar-troll burst into Yrsa's house. Bodvar set Gram at it and the hound laid into the creature. bodvar, too, set about the boar but his sword would not cut into its golden hide. Nevertheless Gram's strength allowed it to tear off the boar's ears, with them the plated skin from its cheeks. Suddenly the boar fled, vanishing into the earth whence it sprang.
Adhils came next with armed men, who set the house alight. There would soon be enough fuel for a fire to burn Hrolf and his champions.
'This day will end poorly if we are burned to a cinder in here', Svipdag growled. 'A sad ending indeed for King Hrolf, instead of being able to draw our weapons and die like warriors out there. We should hurl ourselves against the walls, as the boar did, and break out of here - as long as we are able'.
The task proved hard, as that part of the building was still sound, the building well put together.
'Each of us will be eye-to-eye with one of Adhils' men when we burst out of here. As before they will lose their nerve when we suddenly come upon them from the smouldering walls', Bodvar put to Hrolf.
'A worthy scheme', Hrolf agreed, 'and we shall be well-served by it'.
Next - 8: The Treasure
In the days when warriors could afford to be choosy about whom they fought for, warbands were made up of men who followed their king or chieftain by choice. Only household retainers were tied by oath. A ruler had to be worth following, had to be seen as a 'go-getter'. Whereas the Svear king Adhils kept his men in fear of his sorcery, a fair-minded king like Hrolf needed to go out of his way, and be seen to go out of his way, to gain renown. An expedition to gain the treasures owed him would inspire his closest followers to great things when they saw him endure hardship or battle.
The Saga of Hrolf Kraki
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