HUNDING'S SAGA - 32: ROSKILDE -Hunding Counsels Knut

Knut returned to Roskilde with the threat of Aethelred's greater numbers in 1015. A new army was raised across Scandinavia with the promise of wealth for those who took part. He would be in England again in 1016
Knut returned to Roskilde with the threat of Aethelred's greater numbers in 1015. A new army was raised across Scandinavia with the promise of wealth for those who took part. He would be in England again in 1016
Across the North Sea came a new fleet, to land again at Gagnesburh (Gainsborough) and claim the loyalty of the Danelaw lords
Across the North Sea came a new fleet, to land again at Gagnesburh (Gainsborough) and claim the loyalty of the Danelaw lords
War helm - of a king?
War helm - of a king?
War standard - capped by the boar figure, symbol of bravery in battle!
War standard - capped by the boar figure, symbol of bravery in battle!
Hnefatafl - the King's Table, a board game of conquest and strategy
Hnefatafl - the King's Table, a board game of conquest and strategy
The kingdom of the Danes, soon to be Knut' Sveinsson's
The kingdom of the Danes, soon to be Knut' Sveinsson's

'I shall miss you when you are gone, son', Gyrth told Tofig on their last evening together in Kerteminde.

'I know, father. Believe me I know, and I shall miss you, too', Tofig hugged his father, not knowing where he would be at the same time in the next week, let alone the following year. The thought brought him to his senses for one brief blink of an eye. And then he thought again of the rewards he would reap when they shared out the silver gained from selling the Imperator Basil's crown to Olaf Haraldsson.

They would soon sail into Roskilde Fjord and learn what was happening in Aengla Land. Aesc, Odd and Ealdwin needed to know if they were safe with Hunding when he and Tofig went ashore to greet Thorkell 'Havi' and Eirik of Hladir. Tofig had learned early that week that Knut was on his way back from Aengla Land. King Aethelred had earlier been called back from Northmandige, where he and his queen Ymme fled a year or so earlier. Now Knut needed a greater number of men and more leaders to support him. That was why Thorkell and Eirik awaited him at Roskilde.

'We will be back by next summer, father', Tofig assured Gyrth. He smiled, trying to show his fears were unwarranted, but doubt still showed. 'Father, I stand before you - hand on heart - and foretell the day I will be here again to hand you some of the spoils gained under Knut's leadership'.

'You can keep your spoils, Tofig', Gyrth gritted his teeth, trying to stem the tears.

'We have this each year now', Tofig turned to Hunding, who nodded, staring at Gyrth. Why was he so fearful - did he know something his son did not? 'We have this evening yet, father. All our friends will be here to see me away and keep you company in the morning, as Braending's Slange slips out of the fjord into the Store Baelt. You will be happier then. Think on mother, and how she used to stand waving you off. Did she ever blub?'

'Your mother was not blind and helpless', Gyrth scowled.

'You are not helpless, Gyrth', Hunding laughed. 'Tell me, how many helpless, blind old men take an axe to chop wood for the fire?'

'True', a smile lightened Gyrth's brow, showing he was happier. Then the scowl came back and Gyrth turned away.

'You will be merry this evening, father', Tofig laughed loudly. 'Have some of the sweet ale that Torfa made for you, and cheer up!'

Gyrth shuffled away, into the darkness of his hall, saying no more. Ealdwin walked into the hall with him and began talking,

'Tell me about your years fighting alongside Hunding's father...'

Whatever else was said was lost in the clatter of hooves as some of Gyrth's neighbours rode from the fjord over the stony garth yard.

'Ho, Tofig! Why is Gyrth so downcast?' one asked.

'Oh, you know him, Ulf. Sometimes he tries to show himself as old and fearful. The other day he was chopping firewood!' Tofig's eyes opened wide as he told of his father's recklessness.

'You say? Chopping wood, was he? I shall give him frail when I speak to him! What did he think he was doing?' Ulf guffawed and leapt from his horse as one of Gyrth's thralls took the reins from him.

Laughter and drinking, the forlorn plucking of a lute was drowned out in the hall as the smells of smoke, of hogs roasting and ale being ladled overpowered the senses. There was the heady, sweet and strong smell of pipes being smoked as men played board games before the hall filled with new guests. They would have to put them away before the pieces were scattered across the straw-strewn floor of the hall. The fire roared in the open hearth, smoke rising to the roof. Thralls heaped more dry wood by its side to feed the hungry flames as they saw to the roasting meat.

Hunding was hungry, wondering when Gyrth would give word to start the feasting. Torfa came back into the hall from the kitchen and waved to Tofig when he turned from joking with Ulf and other neighbours. He strode up to where Gyrth sat on the dais ringed by well-wishers and called out over the din of laughter and higher-pitched women's tongues around his father,

'The roots are ready father. Shall we see to the serving of the meat?'

'Aye, son! Do so before my throat forgets where my stomach is! You must all be hungry, surely?' he asked his neighbours' womenfolk. More high-pitched laughter and Tofig waved back at Torfa, unable to hear Hunding next to him as he asked when food would be served.

The laughter and drunken yelling from Gyrth's hall could be heard all over the small fjord-side township. Nowhere was far enough away not to hear. By early morning the laughter left the hall as neighbours sought their homeward paths. Guests found their sleeping quarters aided by Torfa and the household women. Then finally sleep overcame all within the garth's wooden walls. The crew were tucked beneath lamb and wolfskin fleeces, snoring. Hunding rested against the wall of the small bed-closet, thinking of Wulfwila before he too slid under his fleece covers and drifted off into deep sleep.

The waves were choppy as Braendings Slange slid between the skerries under oar as the tide rose. They rounded the headland and set out across the Store Baelt under sail before rounding Rosnaes.

'Not long now, Hunding', Tofig stood beside his friend, staring across the sunlight towards the prow as the ship snaked past well beyond the reach of the skerries. He could see the waves welling around the rocks, surging over them from time to time, and ebbing again. 'At least we can see these rocks now. In another hour or so they will be covered again. Steer due west when we round the Gnib'.

Hunding nodded and looked ahead, beyond the prow. He had nothing to say, but wondered what lay ahead of them. More, he was deep in thought about what Gauti foretold of a meeting with one of Svein's daughters. Which one was it he said, Gunnlaug? What did she look like? There was no point toying with these thoughts, Hunding told himself as he steered the ship around Sejeroe and sought out the headland to the steerboard quarter. By and by they rounded the Gnib and sailed across the sunlight in search of the next landmark, the ness to the west of Roskilde Fjord.

'When we pass into the Isefjord, turn east into the Roskilde Fjord', Tofig stood beside Hunding again, showing with his hands how Hunding was to steer into the narrows at the northern end of the fjord. 'Then there is only one way to steer and we will have to take down the sail'.

'Give the crew a shout when the sail needs to be lowered', Hunding agreed and Tofig slapped his back playfully.

'We will be in Roskilde in good time, my friend', Tofig breathed in the sea air as Braendings Slange nosed unsteadily into the Isefjord across the waves pushed toward them by a brisk, chill north-easterly wind from Halland.

By dusk the ship slid to within sight of Roskilde church. There were other ships bobbing on the wavelets at the southern limit of the fjord, sheltered by trees. The wind had dropped even before the ship rounded the last headland from the Isefjord, eastward for a short time before the beitass was drawn in, the sail lowered and the oars run out for the last few miles. There was hardly enough wind now to fill even the small sail of a child's boat. Narrower after passing southward, there had been an isle to the east they would pass before the fjord widened once more. Lights were twinkling already through the trees when the oars were drawn in at last, and Braendings Slange rubbed her keel over the shallows. She came to a gliding halt on soft sand and pebbles and the crew leapt overboard into the lapping water, splashing ashore glad of the rest from the steady two hours of rowing. Aesc arched his back and stretched his arms, laughing as his friend Odd almost stumbled in a sand hollow at the head of the strand.

'Food!' Tofig laughed as he helped Hunding haul the steerboard oar over the ship's wall. 'I smell food!'

'I could down a bucket of ale, let alone scoff a whole hog's leg', Herjolf roared, drawing sharp looks from women taking the air in front of the church. He laughed at their haughtiness and growled, 'What does a man do for a roll in the hay around here?'

The women scurried away to Herjolf's renewed laughter and the air was suddenly rent by shouting,

'Who is it who yells for ale, food and women - all in the same breath?' A tall fellow showed from between ships drawn up on the strand-head.

'Is there a law in this kingdom that says they must be kept apart?' Herjolf laughed, turning to see the newcomer.

'Only if he is Svear, and helped these Danish freebooters steal a crown from Miklagard!' came the gruff answer and Herjolf stood eye to eye with the fellow.

'Who are you?' Tofig asked of him. 'What is this about freebooters stealing a crown?'

'Do not play the innocent with me! Tell me, who is the fool who has not heard of Basil's anger? Everywhere on the eastern rivers men are laughing into their ale every time someone says a word about Basil's crown! Have you sold the trinket yet, Tofig Gyrthsson?' the stranger stood, hands on hips, peering under his bushy eyebrows at Hunding, Tofig and Herjolf.

The rest of the crew stayed back, unsure if or not they were about to be chained and dragged back to face the wrath of the Imperator.

'Again, who are you?' Hunding asked this time, stepping forward between Tofig and Herjolf.

'Just say I wish to hire the men who could pull off a feat like that and live to tell the tale!' The fellow grinned broadly, somehow delighted that Hunding and Tofig were irked, yet taken aback. 'You are all guests, friends. Tell the men at the gate of the king's garth that Eirik asked you to come'.

'Eirik?' Aesc nudged Hunding. 'Who is this Eirik?'

'If he is who I think he is, we live a charmed life!' Hunding answered. 'We could be back in the Hymbra soon, our ship lost in a forest of masts!'

Tofig laughed loudly,

'Eirik of Hladir is one of Knut Sveinsson's friends. He wants us to sail with Knut's fleet back to the Danelaw. Your king is back on his throne and our king is too busy to bother with Aengla Land, so he will let his little brother fight it out with the Seaxans for mastery of his own kingdom! Svein 'Tveskaeg' died last year, and Aethelred was called back to fight off the Danish threat. He thinks Knut will be a pushover!'

'We will see who is a pushover!' one of Tofig's friends guffawed, and the others laughed - all but Odd.

'Why so earnest, Odd?' Hunding turned to his Northanhymbran friend.

'Aethelred is our king!' Odd almost choked.

'Sh-h-h! Not so loud!' Aesc stifled a giggle. 'We are going to be feasted and feted for stealing Basil's crown. It is worth a bit of treason for that kind of hospitality! When are we likely even to be feasted by a thegn, let alone an ealdorman?!'

'Aye, here we are about to be feasted by a king, no less!' Ealdwin held a big hand over Odd's mouth. 'You would never get within a mile of that snotty Aethelred's table down south in Wintunceaster! Be thankful and keep your loyalty to yourself, although it is hardly warranted!'

Ealdwin took his hand from Odd's mouth and wiped the spittle on Odd's cloak, chuckling,

'Like a foolish child!'

Odd fumed. He knew Ealdwin and Aesc meant well, but what could Knut do to him? He asked out aloud,

'What can befall us?'

'You do not know, nor do you wish to hear the answer', Tofig told Odd. 'Just keep your mouth shut, toast King Harald* when I elbow you, and toast Knut unless you wish to feed the crabs in the pale glow of dawn!'

'Feed the cr-?' Odd began to ask, and was elbowed by Aesc for his troubles.

'You wish to be made into crab-food?' Hunding smiled shallowly, and Odd saw what was meant.

Eirik of Hladir waved Tofig and Hunding over to him when the great door was opened. Drinking had been going on for some time when they entered King Harald's hall. The hog spit was still being turned over a huge hearth, and the heat almost slapped Hunding backward when they neared Eirik's bench.

'Sit, drink - eat and be of good cheer!' Eirik laughed out aloud. Beside him sat a young lord, and beyond him was Thorkell 'Havi'. Who was the young lord? Hunding wondered.

'Which of you is Hunding Hrothulfsson?' the young lord asked. Tofig pointed, and a drinking horn was thrust into his hand. 'Come sit by me, Hunding. There are things I should like to know about the other rivers that feed the Hymbra before I return to Gagnesburh'

Next - 33: Gunnlaug's Bed.

Harald Sveinsson was the elder son of Svein Haraldsson, ('Forkbeard'), named after his grandfather Harald Gormsson ('Blue-tooth').

Olaf Haraldsson was no kinsman, being the son of a minor West Norse (Norwegian) chieftain whose bloodline went back to Harald 'Harfaigri' (pron. Harfayri, meaning 'Fair Hair'). Olaf's half-brother was Harald Sigurdsson, son of Sigurd 'Sow', so-called for his fat belly.

Olaf and Harald fought side by side at Stiklestad when faced with a popular rising due to Olaf's trying to convert Norway to Christianity 'by the sword'. Knut, although a Christian himself, decided to fan the flames of unrest in order to expand his kingdoms (Denmark and England). He was no man to play with, as Jarl Ulf found.

Great grandfather Gorm 'the Old' had extended Danish territory east to take in Skaane, Halland and Gotaland (now Sweden). They also held the isle of Bornholm (to the south of Sweden, still in Danish hands) as well as territory within what is now Norway. Knut's father Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard' set out to take England in 1014 but died within the year... Fast forward to 1016, Aethelred's son Eadmund.'Ironside' had to slog it out with Knut. After a long campaign across southern England Eadmund offered to share the kingdom but died of wounds sustained at Ashingdon. Knut had the kingdom. When older brother Harald died not long after, Knut became king in Denmark as well and there was the makings of an 'empire', although he was not consciously an 'empire builder'.

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