The Saga of Hrolf 'Kraki' - 3: Hrolf Is Born out of a Flawed Love Match
King Helgi kept to Hleidargard on Sjaelland over winter, using the summers for raiding
His great name went before him. He was seen as greater than Halvdan had ever been.
He and his queen, Yrsa loved one another deeply. Soon they had a son they named Hrolf, whom they knew would one day be worthy of his forefathers, a king men would seek out to fight for and under, a ring-giver who would earn men's respect.
Queen Olof came to hear of the love Helgi had for Yrsa and the happiness they felt in their wedded lives. She was bitter at the news and thought she would look in on them to sour their wedded bliss. Having reached their lands Olof sent word to Yrsa that she wished to see her and the pair met. Yrsa asked Olof back to the hall but her mother did not want to go there, and told Yrsa she had nothing good to tell Helgi.
Yrsa suddenly became angry at Olof, telling her,
'You were rude to me when I was with you. Have you nothing to give me but woe, nothing to tell me of my kindred? I would like to know them. I suspect I am not the daughter of a lowly ceorl and a serving woman as I was told long ago by you!'
'I could tell you something of your father and mother. Why I came here was to tell you what I know of them. You are happy with your husband?'
'As well I might be', Yrsa answered quickly, 'being the queen to the great man Helgi is. Why do you ask?'
'Your happiness may not be so assured', Olof told her. 'Helgi is your father, and I am your mother'.
'You are the cruellest mother, and the worst I have ever known. What you have said to me is so hideous I could never bring myself to forgive you! I could never in my lifetime forget anything so shameful!'
'You have suffered from Helgi's headstrong ways and my anger at him', Olof told her. 'I am now asking you to come home with me. you will be welcomed as a woman of great standing. I shall treat you as I would a great guest'.
Yrsa was silent for a while, trying to take everything in that she had learnt, and what was being offered. She answered,
'What that would bring I cannot think, but I can no longer stay here in the light of what you have told me, and the shame this would being on everyone if I stayed'.
She went to King Helgi, telling him how bad things had become for her.
'Your mother is cruel enough, but why can things not be as they are?' Helgi shook his head at how Olof came to be so wantonly cruel. Yrsa argued that if their close kinship came to light she could never look anyone in the eye again,
'We should no longer live as man and wife!' With that she left with Queen Olof, staying in Seaxland for a while. Helgi was in such a sorrowful way because of Yrsa leaving, he took to his bed.
No match was thought better than one with Yrsa anywhere in the northlands, but kings were slow to ask for her hand - mainly because they were afraid Helgi would come after them. Yet they had no need to fear. Helgi was a broken man, an empty husk.
Adhils, a powerful and greedy king ruled the Svear from Uppsala in the east of his kingdom. He heard about Yrsa and had his ships made ready. He set out to speak with Olof and her famed daughter Yrsa. He asked Olof to give him Yrsa in wedlock.
'You must have heard how things are with her? If she wishes to take your offer I will not go against you', Olof bade him speak to Yrsa himself.
Yrsa took his offer, not being bothered either way about the outcome of the matchmaking after telling him how little the likelihood was of him taking her as a queen were not good,
'...As you are an overbearing, haughty and greedy king'.
Nevertheless she finally left for Uppsala with Adhils when he set out for home. King Helgi was not told because Adhils thought himself the greater of the two. A great feast was laid on for Yrsa's welcome. The news of the feast reached Helgi after some time. He was now more unhappy than before and slept in a smaller building beside the great hall.
Matters stayed thus for a while until one Yule evening when weak tapping on Helgi's door brought him to see who it could be who was about in the foul weather. Outside was a poor, ragged wretch.
'You have done well, King Helgi', the beggar told him and entered.
'Take some straw and a bear skin so you do not freeze', Helgi told the beggar.
'I have had a better thought. Take me into your bed, my Lord King', he heard the words but could not believe them. 'I need to sleep next to you as otherwise I am likely to die of the cold'.
Adhils stayed in Uppsala and let his twelve berserkers keep a watchful eye on the kingdom for him, lest his many foes stir unrest against him or set foot on its shores. King Helgi set forth to bring Queen Yrsa back to Hleidar. When Adhils learned Helgi was near he asked Yrsa how she wished to greet her erstwhile husband and lover,
'You will make your own plans, I dare say. But mark this, there is no man I would rather won than he', Yrsa told Adhils.
King Adhils felt it fitting that Helgi should be welcomed at a feast. He had no wish to meet Helgi without first putting him through some harsh tests. Knowing Adhils wished him ill, yet not knowing how the Svear king might harm him Helgi left his ships with only five score of his men to go to the feast, leaving the rest with the ships near the coast.
The two kings met open-armed. Queen Yrsa hoped to bring them together as friends and bestowed many honours on Helgi. He on his part was happy to see her and saw nothing untoward in Adhils' manner. He wanted to use all the time he had to be close to her when they all sat to the feast.
King Adhils' berserkers came back to Uppsala whilst the feasting went on. Their master went to greet them without anyone in the hall missing him. He told the berserkers to hide in the woods between his garth and Helgi's ships, where they would ambush the Danes, overcome as they would be by drink and full stomachs.
'I will send more men to help you. They will attack Helgi and his men from behind, thus they will be locked in the jaws of my snare. He shall not get away, enthralled as he is with my queen!'
King Helgi was wholly unaware of the skulduggery Adhils planned as he feasted side by side with Yrsa. She asked Adhils to give Helgi some memorable parting gifts and Adhils allowed their Danish guest to take gold as well as treasures - he would enjoy them himself, he thought, when Helgi had been dealt with!
At last Helgi set forth back to the ships. Adhils and Yrsa went with Helgi a short way before taking their farewells. Soon after Adhils and his queen turned back for the hall and Helgi became aware of something being wrong. A fight began in which Helgi pressed forward, battling bravely but he and his men were overcome. Wounded badly, the Danes' king fell. He and his men had been caught as between hammer and avil.
Yrsa learned of Helgi's fate only after he and his men had been taken for burial. Those still with the ships withdrew and sailed for Hleidar. Adhils bragged of his men having beaten the greatest warrior king in the north. In his eyes he had won renown, as famed a king as Helgi had been in warmaking. His queen knew better,
'It is not fitting to boast so much, having underhandedly tricked the man to whom I owed the greatest debt -and the one I loved most. Because of this I shall never be true to you, should you ever have to fight his kinsmen. I shall have your berserkers killed as soon as I am able, and I will look for a man who can do that, both for my sake as well as being proof of his own skill with the sword!'
'Threaten neither me nor my berserkers!' Adhils warned Yrsa. 'It would not help your cause. I will make up your loss with good gifts, riches and treasures'.
Yrsa seemed happy with the offer and took the sop. Yet from then she became testy with him, watching and waiting for a good time to wreak her vengeance on her husband's berserkers. She no longer showed happiness, nor was she of good cheer. Bickering followed and, when she could do so safely Yrsa withstood Adhils' wishes.
As it was Adhils was not bothered that his queen shunned him. In his own eyes he had achieved outstanding renown and his berserkers thought themselves masterly. Adhils stayed at his hall, within his own kingdom in the belief that none would raise weapons against him or his berserkers.
Svip was a landholder in the kingdom of the Svear, who dwelt far away from others. He was wealthy and had once been a king's champion in the days before Adhils' reign. Svip was not all he seemed to be, however, being learned in the darker crafts. He had three sons, Hvitserk - 'White Coat' - was the eldest, then Beygad and the youngest Svipdag. Each was powerfully built, strong and good looking, enough to turn any fair maid's head.
One day, when Svipdag was eighteen summers old he told his father he wished to leave,
'Our life here in the mountains is boring. We live in a faraway and thinly peopled dale, never call on anyone nor does anyone call on us. We would have more adventure going to King Adhils and joining his followers. We could be his champions, were he to take us!'
Svip took him to one side and told him,
'This is ill thought-out, what you want to do. The king is cruel and untrustworthy, although he can be the good host when he chooses to be. His berserkers guard him jealously, without thinking. Yet I understand, for all that, he is a powerful and renowned king'.
'Men must try if they wish to get on in life', Svipdag countered. 'without at least trying no man can know which way his luck lies. I no longer wish to stay here, whatever Urd has in store for me'.
When Svip saw his son was set on leaving he took Svipdag to a room where he took from a chest a great axe, a handsome and warlike weapon. Turning to his son Svipdag he told him,
'Do not envy others and steer clear of haughtiness. Such behaviour lessens a man's renown. Fight, by all means, and fight well if you are attacked, and be humble. Make a good showing, nevertheless when put to the test'.
He gave his youngest son fine chain mail and other war gear, finally seeing his son had a fine horse. So Svipdag set off on his way east to Uppsala...
On coming to King Adhils' stockade one evening he saw men taking part in games outside the hall. The king sat on a great, golden throne close to the door, with some of his berserkers standing beside him. When Svipdag came to the gate he found it barred from the inside. Not that he knew it, he was meant to ask to enter before riding in but Svipdag paid no heed to that, broke down the gate and rode into the king's garth. Adhils turned to one of his berserkers,
'The way this fellow comes here, he seems not to have any manners. He may be the high and mighty sort who is willing to be put to the test'.
The bertserkers scowled darkly. To them Svipdag had crossed the line and was fair game. He rode towards the king, greeted him well enough - this much he knew, at least. When Adhils asked who he was, Svipdag have his name and added his father's name for good measure. The king knew straight away whose son he was - having heard of Svip from others - and that he must be a warrior of outstanding skill.
The game went on and Svipdag seated himself on a log to watch. The berserkers eyed him threateningly, telling the king they wished to test the newcomer.
'Granted he is no weakling. I should say testing him might let us know whether he is the man he thinks he is', Adhils told them and nodded.
Men thronged into the hall as the berserkers came up to Svipdag. He was challenged,
'So you think you are fit to be a king's champion, eh?', one growled at Svipdag, snarled like a wolf and walked by.
'I am as good as any of you', Svipdag grinned as he looked up over one shoulder at the fellow.
His answer worked them into a spitting fury. Nevertheless the king told them to hold back for the evening. His berserkers were unhappy with Adhils' command. They bellowed, snapped and snarled like maddened wolves. They prodded Svipdag,
'You dare to fight us? If you do you will need more than tough words and that haughty manner'.
'I agreed to fight', Svipdag answered. 'I will fight one of you at a time, thus we will learn who among you still wishes to fight after seeing what happens to the first one or two'.
Adhils was happy for them to test themselves on Svipdag. Needless to say, Queen Yrsa was overjoyed, telling all near,
'This fellow is welcome here!'
She was answered by one of the berserkers, who told her,
'We know you wish us dead and claimed by Hel, but we are strong enough not to fear your ill will!'
Yrsa retorted that the king's wish to know how well supported he was would show him just how good they really were. The berserkers leader snarled back,
'I shall block your wish and cut your haughtiness to the quick in a way that will show we have nothing to worry about this newcomer'.
On the following morning hard fighting in the garth outside the hall showed how Svipdag's sword cut. As the first berserker fell back under his blows he was killed. Another stepped forward, bent on avenging his comrade but he too fell to Svipdag's blade. The bloodshed did not stop until four of Adhils' berserkers had been slain. Adhils, now grim warned,
'You have cost me dear and now you too will pay dearly'. He ordered the rest of his men to attack at once and kill Svipdag. The queen meanwhile had brought together her own champions. She told ger husband that Svipdag alone had shown how weak all his berserkers really were. She brought about a truce and Svipdag was now seen by all to be a man of great bravery. By Yrsa's counsel he was seated on a bench across from the king.
Svipdag cast his eyes over the hall as it grew dark outside and the great torches were lit within. It seemed to him he had not wreaked as much harm on Adhils' berserkers as he would have liked. He thought he would goad them into another fight. They would no doubt attack if they saw he was alone. He was right when he moved to another bench. They started on him straight away and were at one anothers' throats when the king entered the hall and ordered them apart. He then cast out his berserkers, as between them he had seen them unable to overcome one man on his own.
'Had I known you all to be so feeble, for all your big words, I would never have hired you to behin with!'
When the berserkers were pushed out they threatened to raid the kingdom. adhils was unworried, telling them they hardly posed a threat. So they left. It was Adhils who had egged them on anyway, and told them to slay Svipdag when they saw him leave the hall alone. Had they done so they could have had their vengeance without the queen knowing. as it was Svipdag had already killed one of them before the king showed in his hall. The king asked Svipdag to give him his oath and fight for him no less than the berserkers had done before,
'Moreso', Adhils sneered, 'because my queen wanted you to fill their seats'.
So Svipdag stayed whilst things were quiet. Tidings of unrest reached Adhils soon after. Having gathered together a great army the berserkers now raided freely around his kingdom. The king asked Svipdag to take on the berserkers,
'It is your duty, after all', Adhils reminded him, adding that he was ready to summon as great an army as he wished.
'I have no wish to lead an army. My wish is to serve you and follow you'.
Nevertheless Adhils was set on on Svipdag leading his army.
'Then you should grant me the lives of twelve men whenever it suits me', Svipdag demanded.
'That I shall grant you', Adhils coldly agreed.
So Svipdag set out to war, leaving the king at Uppsala. He called for 'war-spurs' to be made,
'These spikes be used to hold back the foes' horses', he told them.
The spikes were spread on the ground where he knew the horses would come. At first the Viking army drew back after suffering severely from the spikes that they had not seen covering the earth before launching their attack.
Next - 4 Svipdag, One-eyed Warrior
This is Denmark before the days of the Frankish empire of Charles 'the Great'
Charles 'the Great' had not stretched the Frankish kingdom this far north at this time. All the small northern kingdoms and chiefdoms were still very much heathen, their own masters. The gods roamed the lands and the uncanny reigned unchecked... Read how the gods, demons and dark witchcraft shaped the wyrd of the Skjoldung kings after the time of the legendary Bjovulf (pron. 'Byov-Ulf' - cf. Beowulf), their household warriors and champions
The magic of the Runes - Queen Olof would have known how to use them
© 2012 Alan R Lancaster