The Saga of HROLF 'KRAKI' - 9: Yuletide Reckoning
The fighting was hard but it went Hrolf's way at first...
[Be seated friends. Take mead or ale, make yourself at home in our great hall. Huddle close to the hearth and listen closely as you watch the flames leap to stave off the darkness without. This last part in the telling of the saga of king Hrolf is the darkest - yet leads to the light of dawn for another age. Hear me, heed my words - and stay your fears! All comes well in the end].
Weeks, months passed. None of King Hrolf's neighbours made to attack. His under-kings paid their scot - even his grudging brother-in-law Hjorvard paid his due without grumbling.
It was Hrolf's half-sister Skuld who stirred the pot for him. She could not stand the way Hjorvard yielded without so much as a whimper.
Sighing heavily one day in their hall she berated her husband,
"Why is it we have to pay scot to my brother and be madr now, to allow Hrolf to think he is my over-king. Others do, too, and keep quiet".
"Such a weakling that you are, to let him think we are his underlings? You, husband, should not have to take it!" If she was unhappy about her state of being, she was even less happy about Hjorvard's answer.
"It is better, to let things be as they are for now. I, like the others am biding my time -'
"Such a fool you are, to let this foolishness go on! Just when were you thinking of letting him know he had come to the end of the road as over-king?" She stood, hands on hips, threatening Hjorvard, glaring at him as he shifted his feet like a child, looking down at the rush-covered floor of his hall.
"We cannot take on King Hrolf, not now. To rise against him would surely bring his down his wrath upon our heads", Hjorvard walked in tight rings, shrugged a few times and then stood still.
Skuld's verdict on him was damning,
"What a craven husband I have!" Skuld almost spat the words out. "Then none of you has the will to fight, and so it shall be that those who risk nothing shall gain nothing! Do we know that Hrolf and his champions cannot be hurt without taking an army to Hleidardgard? Change is afoot, and I think King Hrolf dare not fight because he has offended the Allfather. Kinsman or not, he shall not be spared the pain of loss. I believe he will not step beyond Hleidargard's walls and now would be the best time to test him. I shall lay out my thoughts for you - take them or not, for what they are worth - and I shall push Hrolf into a corner or make him fight back!"
Skuld was a strong sorceress, her powers greater than those of Adhils in the east, and she stemmed from elfin stock on her mother's side - you will recall the bedraggled waif Helgi took in one stormy night long ago. King Hrolf would be made to pay dearly for slighting her husband, however undeserving she thought him of her skill. She went on,
"First I shall send men to my half-brother to ask him if he will ease the paying of scot for three years. For that I will offer the payment of all dues at once, as is his right. The ruse should work and if he agrees - I have do not doubt he would - we need do nothing more".
Word was sent between them. Hrolf allowed her the three years and again weeks passed, becoming months... Skuld gathered a body of the best fighting men and the worst dregs from surrounding lands. All the while her treachery was hidden from King Hrolf. Likewise his champions garnered nothing of Skuld's doings, being as they were furthered through skilful sorcery. Skuld's wiles were artfully hidden, to overpower her half-brother when needed and not before. The dark elves, norns and other underworld creatures were summoned to aid her, so that none could withstand such a strong undertaking.
King Hrolf had his hall readied for the Yuletide feasting, and with his champions was unaware of what was to come. They took pat in games and each had a woman to hand.
On a sign from Skuld their hordes - hers and Hjorvard's - made for Hleidardgard. They encamped before the king's garth amidst the low hills, untold numbers setting down ready to await the Yulefeast within the king's burh.
King Hrolf had many good things brought for the feast, and his men had seated thmselves at their benches, ready to drink themselves into happiness. Outside in the bitter wind Skuld and Hjorvard had their odd-looking tents pitched. Long and high, they were festooned with banners or serpents and otherworld beings, the canvas sewn with wild patterns. Between these tents stood waggons laden with weapons and armour, out of sight of Hleidardgard.
So it was that Hrolf was unaware of the comings-and-goings amongst the bare trees and low hills to the east and south of Hleidargard. His thoughts dwelt on the good times ahead. He had been a good year without anyone attacking and the New Year beckoned. Could it be Hrani - the Allfather - had forgiven him his wrongs? Hrolf was also deep in thought about how those of his guests who had ridden farthest might be regaled when they met again. They would want for nothing.
Hjalti went to his woman's dwelling, heart full of the great things he wanted to tell her. As he rounded the corner of the great hall he could see all was not as it should have been around the tents of Skuld and Hjorvard. Nevertheless the sight did not jar too much. What he had seen was not overly threatening. He carried on, not raising the alarm and entered his woman's home. As he lay beside her he threw back the cover and sprang to his feet. He asked of her,
"Which do you think the better, a man of one score and two years or a man of three score and ten?"
Taken aback, she thought briefly and then answered,
"I think a man of one score and two years should be better, surely? Why do you ask - this is all too sudden for me".
"Whore, you shall pay for these words!" He leapt onto her and bit off her nose, and snarled, "Blame me if anyone fights over you, but from now I hardly think anyone would think you worthy of lifting a finger!"
"You treat me poorly, and it is undeserved!" his woman raged, nursing her wound.
"Anyone can be fooled by underhand dealings", Hjalti retorted, his reason lost.
He then reached for his weapons, seeing the land around the stronghold was alive with armed men. War standards fluttered in the brisk easterly Yuletide morning breeze. He strode hard for where Hrolf had caroused in the evening, his champions around him, and sought to rouse them,
"Awaken, Lord King! War has come to our garth. you need to rise to your weapons, rather than snuggle further into your women's arms. Skuld does not mean to pay her dues - she has a great host with her to fight for King Hjorvard's scot!" Hjalti went from champion to champion, rattling their swords and axes in the air above his head, yelling, "Now we must gather the king's men. Let it be known we are worth the gold rings he gives us. What comes now will be no small skirmish. We have overlooked what was coming and men will say I spoke out of fear. It may be that King Hrolf of the Skjoldungs sat feasting with his men for the last time. Rise, champions! Take a speedy farewell from your women. ready yourselves for your seat in Valhol's mead hall if you cannot fight back Skuld's great host. Up, arm yourselves, come!"
Hjalti almost wept with rage at their slowness. Hromund 'the Hard' leapt from his bed, followed by Hrolf 'the Swift-handed', Svipdag, Beygad, Hvitserk 'the Bold'. Haklang was sixth in line for the door, Hardrefil seventh, Haki 'the Brave' and Hvott 'the Haughty' were eighth and ninth. And then came Storolf. Hjalti made eleventh and Bodvar 'Bjarki' twelfth. Bodvar was named 'Bjarki' for driving away Hrolf's bullying berskerkers. Some he had killed - they were weak, like children when put to the test. Nevertheless they sought Bodvar's downfall at each turn.
Bodvar 'Bjarki' stood, donned his war gear and said out aloud that Hrolf was in dire need of brave men, now more than ever,
'Heart and nerve will be asked of all who choose to stand and fight alongside our king, rather than line up behind him!"
Hrolf sprang at last to his feet and told his champions,
"First we down the best ale and mead to hand. This we shall do before the fight, to cheer us. Thus we shall show our mettle. We shall strive to outshine the foe in bravery so that we shall never be forgotten! Gathered here are the finest and bravest champions from the lands about this kingdom of mine. Tell Hjorvard and Skuld and their followers that we shall drink to them and the fight ahead before setting out to take their scot".
Skuld's answer was that King Hrolf, her brother was unlike anyone else and the loss of such men will be a shame. "However all points toward the same end". So highly was Hrolf rated that he was lauded by friend and foe alike.
Having downed as much mead as he wished, Hrolf rose to his feet, his champions did likewise, leaving the sweet mead, ale and small beer in their cups - all but Bodvar 'Bjarki'. He was nowhere to be seen, thought taken or slain by Skuld's followers.
On taking their stand in the long shieldwall before the gates of Hleidargard the fighting began. King Hrolf surged ahead with his standard bearer, his champions and the chosen men of the stronghold on either side. His men were many in number, although not as hardened as their king's champions. Blows rained down on helm and shield, mailcoats rent and rteel rings flew under axe blow. Spearheads glinted in the light of the pale, low winter sun. Corpses littered the field.
"Many are the split mailcoats", Hjalti roared over the din of fighting, "so many weapons broken, helms split across their crowns and brave warriors on their knees!"
Hrolf himself was in fine fettle, full of cheer as when drinking deeply of his ale. He struck at the foe with either hand, bewildering them, seemingly with the strength of twelve men. Many were the brave foes he slew with his sword, 'Skofnung'. The sword sang, cutting bone, ringing loudly as it sank deeply into skull or shield.
The fighting grew so fierce nothing could withstand King Hrolf and his champions. With 'Skofnung' he cut through all before him. His drive struck fear into Hjorvard's men, who fell in swathes like corn before the scythe. Then Hjorvard and his hordes saw a great black bear push forward ahead of King Hrolf and his champions. Always a short way ahead of the king, this bear swiped to the bloodied, snow-bedecked earth more than any of the champions. blows from sword and axe, arrow and spear fell away from the bear's shoulders without harm. With its weight the bear crushed attacker and mount alike. Everything within its reach was rent by its teeth and claws, spreading fear and panic amongst Hjorvard's and Skuld's men.
Then Hjalti looked about for Bodvar. Not seeing him Hjalti asked King Hrolf,
"How is it Bodvar seeks his own safety instead of fighting beside his king? We thought of him as such a hero - and so he has proved to be - but where is he?"
"Bodvar will be where he serves best, being it is he who deems fit to fight as he wishes. See to your own skill and do not ask of his. None of you is a match for him, but you are all - all twelve of you - as good as one another in your own way", Hrolf answered, hitting one of Hjorvard's men before him with his shield, ramming him out of the way.
Hjalti hastened back to the king's room and found Bodvar - seemingly asleep.
"How long must we wait for the most renowned of warriors? It is a shame you are not with us, to see the inroads we are making on Hjorvard's shieldwall! Test the strength of your limbs, side by side with us, being as strong as the bear you look like. Rise, Bodvar 'Bjarki', else I shall burn down the dwelling with you in it! There is deep shame in your manner, champion that you are - whilst the king risks life and limb you forsake the renown you have for so long basked in!"
Bodvar stood, sighed deeply and groaned at his young friend.
"Do not try to belittle me, Hjalti. There is nothing I am afraid of, but now I am ready to go and join you against our foe. When young I fled neither flame nor blade. Fire I have rarely tested, although weapon blades and points I know well! Until now I have lived through both. I wish only, in truth, to fight to my utmost strength and our king has always named me champion before you all. There are many other rewards I shall repay, such as the bond I have with him, as in wedlock with his daughter Drifa. I have also the land I hold from him as well as the treasures he has bestowed upon me. Did I not also slay the berserker leader Agnar, a man only a little lower in standing than King Hrolf? That deed is well-noted".
Bodvar added, for good measure, for Hjalti's understanding,
"So you will heed me when I fearlessly go to the fight. Needless to day, in this battle we have something more than mere men to beat off. By rousing me here, Hjalti, you may not have done King Hrolf such a good turn as you may think. We almost had the day in our grasp, and you may have been rash enough to harm the king. Of the king's champions, you alone are safest in slighting me the way you did. The others I may well have slain. now the fighting will have to run its course and nothing we do will alter its outcome. I can now offer Hrolf far less, although I go sword in hand to meet Hjorvard's and Skuld's demons".
Bodvar led a now fearful Hjalti out to the fighting. Hjalti said half aloud on his way,
"It is clear my fears for you and the king guided me. It is always hard to come to the right way of thinking when things are as they have turned out". The bear no longer led the king's champions, the fighting began to turn against the king.
Queen Skuld on her high seat in a black tent had been unable to work her spells whilst the bear fought. The champions saw a giant boar show through from the foe's line. Wolf grey and only a little shorter at the shoulder than a bull, its bristles turned to arrows laying low many of Hrolf's warriors. The boar stamped through the ranks of Hrolf's Danes.
Bodvar 'Bjarki' hewed at the coming ranks of Hjorvard's men. They fell around him and across one another until his shoulders were blood-spattered and he fought as though overcome with the berserker fury. Yet however many fell before him, their ranks never seemed to lessen or thin out.
"Deep are the ranks of Skuld's hordes. I would say the dead have come to life to fight anew. It is like fighting Hel's undead. However many limbs we cleave and war leaders we bring down, fighting these corpses is deadening. We do not have the means to level such foes", Bodvar snarled. "Where is the fool champion who summoned me and who doubted my mettle? I no longer see him, although I never decry others".
"I am behind you, Bodvar. You speak truthfully - not a man to question the bravery of others. There is still much to do, closer together as we are, foster-brother. All my chain mail has been shredded. Though I swear I am doing my level best, I cannot repay the blows rained on me. We cannot hold back if we are to be guests of the Allfather, never having fought against such dark art as now. For all we have been forewarned, we are no better off. What will come to pass is beyond our skills with the sword or axe", Hjalti was by now faint, worn by fighting demons sent from beyond mankind's belief.
Bodvar knew Hjalti's meaning. Their backs together they parried blows from fetches, whose strength grew even as they were cut down,
"Listen, friend, I have fought many times. Even when hard-pressed by King Adhils the outlook was never blacker than now. This is something altogether else, this evil. Not so long ago Hjorvard and I clashed. He dealt me a blow I found heavy, Whilst I hacked off a hand - and then a foot. I struck again on the shoulder, scything down that side the length of his backbone. He did not even sigh or groan, but seemed to doze a little, as if regaining strength from it. I thought him to be dead - he ought to have been, but he fought on no less hard than before. I cannot for the life of me think what is behind it. Gathered here are the rich and mighty to fight us. I have not seen the Allfather amongst them, although I must suppose he is here somewhere. Were anyone to show him to me I would crush his skull with my bare hands, as I would a mouse - who else would not be bitter, seeing his Lord so shabbily done down?!"
"Urd has seen our end in her well, foster-brother..."
Both were by now so worn by the fighting they had not even the strength to finish what they wanted to say. King Hrolf kept his foes at bay, fighting well and more bravely although more and more desperately. Attacked time and time again from all sides, Hrolf by now was ringed by Skuld's fetches.
She came to the fore, urging on her followers at her half-brother. Seeing his champions were no longer around him, she knew he no longer fought to stay alive. Bodvar 'Bjarki' yearned to be with his king but was laid low. The other champions, spread wide across the whiteness wished also to die with their Lord. All Hrolf's household warriors had fallen. None stood, who earlier strode out through the gates. Few of the champions still breathed, of those still alive none even had the strength to stand. Only Hrolf was left to Skuld's fury. He used his sword 'Skofnung' as a crutch, sweat drying in the chill morning air on his back. The gnawing cold of winter reached out to him and then he, too was gone - pushed onto his side by a stiffening east wind.
Hjorvard finally sank to his knees, Skuld having done with him along with most of his men, but for those who had held back in the shieldwall. Hrolf's half-sister held the Danes in a grip of iron. She ruled all Danes, albeit dismally, for a short time only.
Elk-Frodhi saw in the stone that there was blood. He gathered a following with King Thorir 'Hounds-foot'. Queen Yrsa also sent men to settle the score for the killing of her only son. It is said they were led by Vogg. These men all made for Hleidardgard and took Skuld without fight - her craven underlings having fled at the sight of this new host - seizing her in her room by throwing a heavy black bag over her. They dragged her kicking and screaming from Hrolf's garth. The few of her bodyguard who chose to fight were slain, some hanged where they cringed, begging for pity.
Skuld was towed behind Hrolf's horse through the streets of Hleidar - as had Hvit been all those years earlier - and drowned in the fjord, still bound within the bag. When the kingdom was handed to Hrolf's daughter Drifa Elk-Frodhi, Thorir and Vogg left for home with their followers.
[A howe [burial mound] was raised for King Hrolf and his champions, the sword 'Skofnung' laid by Hrolf, fitting tribute to a hero king and his hearth warriors].
The Penguin Classics version of the saga. Close to the original, if a little 'bald' in description - the 'skalds' or court poets did not go in much for detail. The early sagas were however big on 'happenings'. The story moves from beginning to end. Actions speak louder than words. One to add to the collection.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
Skuld works her evil to bring down half-brother Hrolf
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