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HUNDING'S SAGA - 52: CORNERED On Lake Ilmen
The broad expanse of Lake Ilmen allows Hunding to see far across...
Eirik took his farewell from Hunding early the next morning on Holmgard's river shore
'Stop by on your way back from Koenungagard, Ivar. You and your crew will be made welcome again! The prince told me to let you know you should see him on your way home. He is eager to know what gives in the south'.
'I shall indeed, Eirik', Hunding gripped Eirik's hand and shoulder before climbing up over the sidewall onto the glistening deck of 'Braendings Slange'. A mist hung on the early morning air. 'We look forward to seeing you again'.
Hunding wondered that Eirik bore him no ill will. He must have heard from his father Lifing of how the holmgang went so badly for him, and how Valdemar belittled him thereafter until the prince died within the year. He thought back on Valdemar's offer of riches if he would take Lifing's post in Holmgard. But that was not for him. He longed for the open sea and the wind, the salt spray across his cheeks as he stood at the steering oar.
Something nagged at him. It might not be anything, but all the same it was there. Surely the prince had links with Koenungagard through his own men, and needed no outside help to learn what went on there? Were they about to enter a trap from which there would be no escape? He had heard of ships' crews vanishing on their way along the rivers. Was there any truth in these tales?
The noise of the crew's cheering brought Hunding back from his thoughts, as some of Eirik's thralls brought kegs of ale and food for the long way south. Eirik smiled thinly and backed away as half of Hunding's crew passed and boarded. The rest stood ready to heave the ship into the water. Hunding missed Tofig, but Herjolf was with him, and an ageing Skuli. Herjolf was filling out in middle age, so he had welcomed this chance to take some weight off his feet.
There were other old hands, Ealdwin and Aesc were here. They were a bit long in the tooth but able seamen nevertheless, having come this way before. Near the sternpost stood Ivar, Osbeorn a few years younger looking eager for whatever was to come.
'Ketil, Sverri', Hunding called out from where he stood at the steering oar, 'keep an eye on the shore here and shout when we are free of the strand. I have to steer sharp to this side so as not to run aground beneath Svyatopolk's walls!'
The three touched their forelocks to acknowledge Hunding and leaned out over the water to watch as the keel cleared the gravel bank and yelled together, arms high. The others, in the shallows , heaved themselves over the sides and set themselves to rowing when Hunding waved that they were safely in mid-stream. Eirik and those with him waved a final farewell and made their way back to where their ferry awaited.
The banks on either side could hardly be seen through the still swirling mist and from time to time Hunding called for the men to raise their oars, to let him hear the water lapping under the prow. When he knew the river turned he steered that way and the oars dipped again steadily.
At the prow a lank-haired, burly Svart watched for the channel's bends and yelled sharply for Hunding to look before stretching an arm out either to larboard or steerboard. The men rowed again, backs bending and straightening as they pulled hard and then raised the oar blades to push away again. And so it went on for nearly half the day. The sun had burned away the mist by the time it stood at its highest above.
Hunding told Skuli to take over at the steering oar when 'Braendings Slange' left the mouth of the Volkhov to enter the broad Lake Ilmen, into the sun. A wind blew strongly from the north-east, whipped up the waves and filled the sail that Aesc, Ealdwin, Ketil and Sverri unfurled between them. The sail billowed and the beitass was run out to larboard, to take more of the wind as it veered a few points to the south.
As Skuli pulled hard on the steering oar to round a point on the eastern shore Hunding saw sails in the west. As they veered south-easterly toward 'Braendings Slange' Hunding knew something was amiss. Were they to be harried now? The wind seemed to push his ship westward, so how were these ships able to cut across the wind? It seemed as if there would be a race to the mouth of the Lovat, so as not to be cut off. Once in the river itself it would be harder for these other ships to pass them, the channel being shallow where it bent back and forth across the flat land. As long as they were able to reach a settlement before dark they would be safe, he thought. He hoped so.
Even as Skuli steered for the Lovat it seemed the men on the ships to the west had checked their steering. The wind came around again from the north-east to fill Hunding's sail. It also filled the others' sails. Their ships seemed to bound over the waves like hounds or horses. And still there was a long way to go before they reached the Lovat. Could he throw them off by veering toward the river that coursed south-east? Hunding's brow drew down in deep thought. Skuli looked over one shoulder at him,
'What do we do, Hunding?' Hunding stared out to sea, stroked a greying beard and thought hard. 'Hunding?'
The two ships still bore down on 'Braendings Slange' as if pushed hard by an unseen hand.
Where could Hunding's ship go, he wondered, or how best to outrun them? Their sails were bigger than his, and although they were still some way off the mouth of the Lovat, the nearest ship looked set to reach it before 'Braendings Slange' did.
'Steer more easterly, Skuli', Hunding told his steersman and friend. 'They might think we are making for the Pola. When we are almost beyond the rivermouth come about sharply. We will see then whether they are merely on the same bearing, or whether they mean us harm'.
Skuli's brow deepened now. His frown told Hunding he was in error.
'So - what then?'
'They must know that leads away from Koenungagard. No-one in his right senses would go that way. It would mean hard rowing to get back to our true course', Skuli checked his steering again..
'So, then what?' Hunding folded his arms and stood watching the ships draw closer. Their sails seemed to be bigger. Why had he not thought to tell Haesten he wanted a greater sail. Was that also part of Lifing's scheming, to enable others to catch up with 'Braendings Slange'. It was his own fault, he knew. Blaming others for his shortcomings would not make things better.
'Why would they chase us anyway? Do they know you?' Herjolf asked behind Hunding, who turned to look at the fellow.
It suddenly struck him He said half aloud,
'We have no cargo to steal, so maybe they want to get even with you for some insult or whatever?'.
'That is what I thought', Herjolf half smiled and shook his head, 'But I do not think so. It has to be you'.
Skuli snorted with laughter. Looking sideways at Herjolf he asked,
'How would you know, if you were drunk at the time?'
'What are they looking for if they do catch us - maybe they want the ship?' Aesc raised a new fear, overlooking the ribaldry between Skuli and Herjolf.
'She is an old ship', Skuli sighed. 'It is not as if they would gain that much. Their ships look much newer'.
'Now he tells us', Ealdwin coughs and Hunding spins around to look at him, grinning.
'I had not thought of that. So why are they chasing us?'
'Why indeed/' Skuli seemed to be laughing at his own wit still. A fear had gripped them, all for nothing. All they had were their own weapons. In Hunding's case his sword had been given him as thanks from Earl Godwin for bringing Ivar safely to his aunt. His aunt? She had no blood ties to Ivar, only what Knut told them. Everyone still believed Ivar was Ulf's son, so maybe that was for the best. At least he was well looked after by his foster mother Gytha.
They all began to laugh. They still laughed when the first ship drew alongside and the shipmaster bellowed across the still heaving lake,
'Why are you all laughing? Has someone laid an insult at us?'
'Why are you chasing us?' Hunding asked when he fought down his laughter. 'For that matter, who are you?'
'Chasing - you? Why would we chase you?' The tall, lightly bearded young fellow roared with laughter. He called to one of his own men and his crew started to laugh as one. 'See? My men think you are mad! Anyway, what made you think we were chasing you?'
'You suddenly turned onto our course, that is why', Hunding chewed his upper lip. The other ship came around the stern of 'Braendings Slange' and rocked in the swell opposite her sister ship to their larboard side.
'Oh, that! We were lost and thought you might know better which way to reach Koenungagard. We had already left Holmgard when this ship of yours still rested on the strand. When he saw your ship my shipmaster said you would know which river to take off this small sea. You can lead and we will follow'.
'We should reach Holmen when darkness covers the land, if not before. It would be foolish to follow the Lovat in the dark', Hunding told the young fellow. 'By the way I am Hunding'.
'And I am Harald', a dish-like hand reached out to take his. 'You say your name is Hunding?'
'It is, and I am', Hunding called back, 'Hunding Hrothulfsson'..
'Where have I heard that name before?' Harald touched his mouth with the long finger of his right hand, one eye almost hidden by his brow in deep thought. 'It will come back to me'. .
'Tell your men they should cover up for the marshes', Hunding told Harald. 'Smear your noses and cheeks with swine fat. The horseflies will eat them alive otherwise'.
'You say?' Harald turned to speak to his men. He bellowed across 'Braendings Slange' to his other ship, then turned to look back at Hunding. 'We have none. Do you have any to spare?'
'Then we will have to make it go further. We can land near the rivermouth and I will let you have some in a keg. How many men do you have between your two ships?'
'There must be four score', Harald answered, his eyes narrowing. 'Are you having a laugh on us? I mean who carries that much swine fat on board ship? The idea of it makes me think there is something you are not telling me!'
Hunding began to assure the newcomer,
'Believe me, Harald. Smear it on arms, bare legs, around the eyes, brow and cheeks. Anyone who is clean shaven should smear their jaws. We will show you -'
'When we make landfall, Hunding. I will believe you - I believe you now!. Sail on'.
That evening Harald and Hunding shared a bench in a small inn near the river.
It took some time for everyone to smear their noses, cheeks and ears with the fat. A sour smell drifted across the wind.
'I am glad we did not have to smear any more on us. We must smell awful', Harald's mouth twisted in disgust.
'The horse flies will leave us all alone, believe me', Hunding nodded. 'Cover your arms and necks, all of you. These flies will all head for the smallest gap on your skin, and you will be in agony before we pass through the marsh'.
When they reached Holmen a little after the sun dipped in the west, they all drew their ships onto the river foreshore, over the gravel and up beyond the flood line. Harald asked the way to the nearest inn and everyone trooped after him but those set on watch.
Within the inn serving wenches passed between the benches with cups for ale, ahead of the alewives who poured foaming ale for the thirsty. After rowing most of the way from Lake Ilmen there were few who were not thirsty, or hungry. An ox was being turned on a spit over the hearth when Hunding looked that way. He was drawn back to life by Harald elbowing him to ask,
'Tell me', Harald fixed Hunding with one dark eye, 'have you ever met my kinsman Olaf?'
'I met an Olaf long ago at Kaupang', Hunding nodded. Skuli nodded with him, as did Aesc, Ealdwin and Herjolf.
'You all met him', Harald looked at the five of them. 'How so?'
'I had a crown to sell -'
'Basil's crown!' Harald stood. He looked almost like a pillar from a king's or a jarl's high seat as he stood and stared at Hunding, then sat down with a bump. 'I knew I had heard your name before. Olaf raised a whole army on the sale of that to a Rus prince in Koenungagard!'
'From the way he spoke to me it sounded as if he were about to shackle my crew and take us back to Miklagard', Hunding answered calmly.
'What should stop me doing that?' Harald peered at Hunding through narrowed eyes again..
'We might lose you on the river', Hunding laughed. Harald stared, then slapped Hunding on his back and laughed thunderously.
Harald stopped laughing as suddenly as he started and asked,
'You would not do that, would you Hunding?'
'Try me', Hunding stared down as his ale shook in the cup with Harald's hand on his back again.
'For a Dane you have a very dry wit', Harald laughed.
'For a West Norseman you shout loudly in strange land', Skuli quipped.
'What was that?' Harald stood again, overshadowing Skuli, who glumly stared down at his ale.
'Everyone this side of Koenungagard will know who you are before long. Believe me, Lord Harald, you would not wish that. There is still a good bounty on your head, even your friends could be tempted'.
Harald looked around and sat down, hunched over his ale cup. Hunding looked at him, now trying to look smaller in the half-darkness of the inn.
'It is as well you have as many trustworthy men around you as you do, Harald. You may need them', Hunding told him.
'What about you?' Harald asked Hunding without looking at him. 'Do you not wish to be rich?' .
'I have what I want, Harald. I have a ship that has carried me across these eastern lands, back and forth from Miklagard. I have my friends, and I have the assurance that you need me as much as you need your own men'.
'True, Hunding. Very true indeed. I should have friends like you. Can I count on you for your help?'
'We need one another', Hunding answered, looking into his ale.
'Are you coming with us, to Miklagard?' Harald asked. 'Basil is gone now'.
'He and his kind are all the same. We stole from them, not just him. We could be food for the fishes if we went there', Hunding smiled. 'No, Koenungagard is as far as we go'.
'You are not afraid of being taken on your way back?' Harald's eyes almost looked as if they would pop out of their sockets. 'I wish I had more like you with me!'
'Be that as it may, I still count Knut as one of my friends', Hunding's answer took Harald aback, but he had no answer for that. 'And I have Svein's brother Osbeorn with me, along with my nephew Ivar. Osbeorn, Ivar, give our friend Harald a friendly greeting'.
The two youngsters touched their forelocks to Harald and shook his hand, theirs dwarfed in his. Ivar stared at Harald, who blinked and looked away.
'You should not stare, Ivar', Hunding chided and reached a deep dish to him with flesh from the ox, sizzling in its own fat.. 'Have some meat'.
Ivar reached, and pulled back his fingers,
'It is hot!' he yelped like a stung pup.
'There', Hunding lifted a wedge of dark brown meat and dropped it onto Ivar's platter, licked his fingers and wiped them. 'Never mind my fingers, son'.
Ivar looked back at Hunding as if he had been slapped.
'What is it?' Hunding shrugged, but Ivar said nothing. He wondered to himself why Hunding had said 'son' to him. Then again, he bethought himself, older men usually talk that way to youths. He shrugged and set to eating greedily, the first food that had passed his lips since leaving Holmgard that morning. Hunding winked at Harald, who grinned back and shook his head, laughing,
'Young men, eh?'
Hunding grinned and said nothing. Nor did he say anything about Ivar being kinsman to Knut. It was after all Knut who had armed the West Norsemen to rise against Olaf when he tried to take the kingdom. It was Knut who gained from Olaf being beaten at Stiklestad a summer ago!
Hunding and Harald agreed to bury their differences until they reached Koenungagard. After that Harald would go on his way - or maybe not. He might linger there as a guest of Prince Vladimir and court his daughter, the fair Ellisif before going on to Miklagard.
*(Harald and Hunding would not meet again but Osbeorn and Ivar would meet him, one day, although not together. Harald would wed Ellisif, who bore him two daughters. A common law wife, Thora, would bear him the sons he needed, Olaf and Magnus would follow him to the throne in the fullness of time. Harald's end would be gruesome, an Aenglish arrow wedged in his windpipe throttled him slowly until he sagged to his knees and fell forward... Some time after his death on September 25th 1066 at Staenfordes Brycg (Stamford Bridge near York), Ellisif would wed his mortal foe, Svein Estrithsson, king of the Danes with whom he was once allied against his nephew Magnus. Then when Magnus offered him a half share of Norway's crown Harald turned on his erstwhile ally to expand Norway's holdings. Ivar would stand face-to-face with an ageing Harald at Stamford Bridge, and see him fall to an English arrow to the throat - this last part is fictional and features in the book RAVENFEAST, part one of Ivar's saga)..