HUNDING'S SAGA - 12: Lying Low, Hiding From The Jomsvikings On The Amber Coast

The amber coast at the eastern end of the Baltic

The Amber Coast on the eastern shore of the Eastern Sea - source of nature's treasure for western shores
The Amber Coast on the eastern shore of the Eastern Sea - source of nature's treasure for western shores | Source

A thick mist rolled in from the sea, over the strand.

Here Braendings Slange was heaved by the crew into the still waters of the narrows, away from the sea channel. The sail was furled and the mast lowered to make the ship 'vanish' behind a low bluff. The oars were run out and Tofig pointed the way for Hunding to turn the steering oar so that the rowers only had to pull away when they had enough water under the keel.

An eerie calm came over them as they slipped silently along between low-lying Dagoe and the coast of Estland, a short way to steerboard. Hunding looked over one shoulder at the partly-shrouded low cliffs and almost steered onto the skerries. It was only when he saw the skerries in the swirling surf that he knew he could lose his ship and her valuable cargo.

'Watch out, rocks to steerboard!' Aesc yelled back at the suddenly bewildered Hunding. He almost let go of the oar when he looked over the side in his confusion, bewitched by the maelstrom.

Tofig ran back along the deck and when he saw the dark grey, foam-washed rocks yelled at Hunding,

'She may be your ship, Hunding, but you have a crew to think of - us!' Tofig strode on aft to stand bedide his friend. 'That were you thinking of?'

'Believe me, I am sorry!' Hunding blurted.

'You would have been, had you kept to that course. These shores abound with skerries. As soon as you can, steer north-east for the open sea and make for the east, hugging the coast. I will tell you when to pull hard on the steerboard', Tofig slapped Hunding's back and strode forward again between the rowers to take a seat behind Aesc and one of his fellow Danes, Sverri. 'Move over, Sverri. We can share this bench!'

'I wondered when you would do some real work instead of doing that Hunding's job for him!' Sverri cackled.

'He will know his way around when he comes this way again. Get rowing, and say no more, lest I throw you in to feed the fish!' Tofig cuffed Sverri across the back of his head with the flat of his right palm.

Sverri fumed, but said nothing. There would be other ways of getting even with Tofig instead of taking him to task in fist fighting. The shame of being spoken to and cuffed like a child in front of the others bridled. Yet he would bide his time.

The low lying wooded land to starboard went on forever. Here and there an elk stood up to its knees in the seawater. Why, none of Hunding's crew bothered themselves thinking about it. There would be time to think at night, when they made landfall again on one of the eyots of the Great Gulf. Who knew what might happen if they made camp on the mainland?

'Very well, Hunding, make for that isle to our port side', Tofig strode aft again to give Hunding a bearing when they knew they were so far.

Darkness stole on them from the east like a wolf-pack. The small island, although thinly wooded with thick undergrowth near the shore, was enough for their needs. A long, straight branch was cut and propped between the branch forks of two silver birches, over which was spread a sheet of sailcloth for shelter. One man would keep watch, the next to take over after a tallow candle burnt to a stump. Below, in a small inlet the stern of their ship bobbed on the ebbing waves, the prow resting in the deep, soft sand of the horse-shoe bay. A couple of sisal ropes, one at the prow, the other aft, held Braendings Slange safe against being hauled out by the sea in the night.

'Up, up!' Hunding called out in the early morning. Having taken the last watch he yawned and stirred the broth Aesc had heated up for them. 'There is broth in the pot, bread to dip, and cheese. Ale is here to wash everything down with. Bring your bowls when you are ready!'

The men fell hungrily on the broth like ravenous wolves. Hunger is enough to keep a man's thoughts from straying. Sverri belched, long and loud, forgetting himself and - at least for now - his grudge against Tofig. None of them was bothered, however. There was enough to keep them from grumbling when the meal was over, what with packing away bedding and greasing weapons to keep the salt air from attacking the blades. A mist stole over the small island to cloak their leaving. Above the mist a sail could be seen out to the west, a red sail!

'I thought you said the Jomsvikings did not sail this far east', Aesc took Tofig's left arm and turned him to see the sail passing between two low cliffs.

'The Jomsvikings' ships are not the only ones that bear red sails', Tofig answered calmly before turning. 'Wendish freebooters also -'

Sverri looked up, belched and aimed a bony finger seaward,

'God, there is another - to their starboard!'

'Steer back between the islands!' Tofig called aft to Hunding. To the rest of the crew he barked, 'Take the sail down and row!'

Hunding's mouth suddenly went dry with fear. Two ships, whether Wends or Jomsvikings spoke of trouble if they could not be avoided.

'No, leave the sail and steer eastward', Tofig counselled.

'You think we could outrun them? We have cargo on board', Hunding thought of Wulfstan's goods. The loss of them sharpened his worries.

'They are bigger ships and carry more men, at least three times as many!' Tofig shook his head. 'We can outrun them by keeping closer to shore. When we are nearer to where the River Volkhov flows into the sea they will not dare follow. The Rus keep a close watch over that coast. Trade is their staple, and anyone who threatens that staple is dealt with harshly'.

After a few hours of watching over their shoulders the red sails were lost astern. Hunding's crew cheered when Ealdwin called down to them from his perch astride the sail,

'We have left them behind!'

'Nevertheless we must hope to keep our lead for some time longer. If they saw us they will wonder why we fled so quickly, and the only answer they could come to has to be thst we have a worthwhile cargo to safeguard', Tofig told Hunding over one shoulder, still craning his neck in vain to look for tell-tale signs of the ships. He was still watching out for ships when Hunding called out,

'I see land to south and east. Does the sea narrow that much here?'

'Aye, Hunding. The mouth of the Neva is not far ahead now. Upriver from there is a great lake, Ladoga, and the Volkhov drains into the south end of the lake', Tofig winked at his friend.

In the week since leaving the Hymbra behind them they had almost been steered into Jumne and captured by the Jomsvikings, narrowly missed being held by Danes on Bornholm for evading the steerage toll, and outrun Wendish ships out for easy gain.

They had also been regaled by old 'One-Eye', who called himself Gauti. Their wyrd was not their own to steer - not like this ship they were aboard - although even then a man could not be sure his path was of his own choosing. That was in the hands of Urd. The Christians could believe what they wanted, but Christ was not to be found on the shores of the Eastern Sea. Here Odin ruled yet, guided men's sword-hands, and led Blind Urd's hand to shape their wyrd. Out here, in the vast wildernesses untamed by mankind, where wolf and bear roamed freely and widely, the old gods of the Aesir and the Vanir worked their magic... With the say-so of the gods and spirits of the eastern tribes.

Next - 13: Eastern Lord

The territories, the distances, the men. Trade, conquest, settlement and raiding took the Norsemen from their homelands west as far as the St Lawrence River and as far east as Baghdad, north to the Arctic and south to the Balearic Islands The British Isles took the brunt of raiding, assault and settlement, the English language 'shifted' in the vernacular, new words were added - in particular from Danish from the time of Guthrum onward

Taking in the sail

Braending's Slange cuts past the coast of Estland, her crew hoping to dodge their pursuers
Braending's Slange cuts past the coast of Estland, her crew hoping to dodge their pursuers

Ornaments from nature

Amber is prized. Like jet it can be carved, and like jet it is a product of nature. Resin deposits from ancient forests that might have trapped small creatures as they alighted in the days of the pterodactyl or t-rex, they were - and still are - highly sought from the eastern shores of the Baltic. Finnmark as Finland was then known, and the forests of Estland on the Gulf of Finland were the best 'hunting' grounds. .

Hunding's way east

River routes and seaways - arteries of trade, source of intelligence for raiding or recruitment  for the eastern princes and Byzantine emperor
River routes and seaways - arteries of trade, source of intelligence for raiding or recruitment for the eastern princes and Byzantine emperor

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