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HUNDING'S SAGA - 1: THE SAGA UNFOLDS - A Viking Raid Sees Hunding Homeless
Life on the coast in late 10th Century Jylland...
Gather around good neighbours, noble guests, trusted household men and maids. Help yourselves to ale or mead and be seated as close to the hearth on this cold evening as you can without roasting yourselves. Listen closely as I tell you of a young man who began life humbly amongst poor fisherfolk on Jylland's south-eastern shore, not far from Hedeby.
Long ago in the days of King Harald, son of Gorm 'the Old', ships scored their foam-spray paths across Njord's anvil through the Eastern Sea, back and forth. They brought goods from the east bound for markets on the shores of the broad western sea for the British isles, for the Frankish havens or for the northern isles of Sjetland, Orkney, Ljodhus (Lewis) and the Faeroes.
Some were filled with the sorry cargoes of thralls to be sold to bullying, heedless masters in eastern lands and worked into an early hole in the earth that bears, foxes or wolves would unearth and feast on in times of want. Some thralls lived out their lives quietly, although without gain, knowing that there would be two square meals a day and straw bedding for the night, working for masters who knew how to get the best from them.
Our story began in earnest one early morning, as the mist rolled in from the narrows that kept Jylland from Fyn in the kingdom of the Danes, three warships with red sails furled were rowed up onshore not far from Vejle. They had been seen the evening before by fishermen in the Lille Baelt, the Little Belt, a stretch of sea traders used to sail from Vejle to Horsens or Aarhus. No-one paid heed to small fleets of ships in these waters. It was an almost everyday thing, so they had gone unheeded.
And then they put ashore on that morning by Soenderstrand.
This hamlet was no different to any other on this coast. The men made a living - if you could call it that - mostly from fishing. some crops were grown, but in Jylland the soil was not good for growing, not like on Sjaelland or Fyn. The women liked a natter, as anywhere. Men quietly mended nets or the rickety old wooden plough they shared. It was hardly worthwhile making another one, if it was rarely going to be used!
As I said, the three ships ran up onto the shingle and men leapt out into the shallows, splashing through the surf to the head of the strand. One tall fellow took measured strides to the outskirts of the hamlet. Well-bearded, tall with shoulder-length reddish hair and wearing a helm that glistened in the eerie early morning light, he looked to be the leader of this band of warriors, but what they were doing here was beyond the few folk who were about.
There was a rush, scuffles broke out between the outsiders and some of the young men, and there was killing. Swords were drawn, axes wielded - no shields were needed here! Corpses were thrown down onto the shingle and left for the gulls, which would no doubt come back after all the shouting, the high-pitched shrieking, clash of sword on iron stave and the wailing went away. Women with children who could walk, young maids and half-grown youths were herded onto the ships, pushed in over the sides to cower cold and shivering amidships before being rowed through the inshore spray and out to sea.
There was only one witness who saw this, saw his childhood sweetheart, Herdis taken along with Sige, his mother. His father, Hrothulf lay twisted as he had fallen, his neck gashed from the sword wound dealt by one of the outsiders. Close to Hrothulf lay Arnhelm, his grandfather. No sword or axe was needed to render him harmless. He was pushed to the earth and died where he fell.
The mist swallowed the three ships as suddenly as it had shown them. Hunding was now alone in the world. He lay there amongst the gnarled tree roots, well back amongst the trees and undergrowth at the head of the strand, unseen by the raiders. He would have been a worthwhile prize for them, straight-limbed, light-skinned, blue-grey eyes and straight flaxen hair.
Hunding was tall for his age - Hrothulf and Arnhelm had been good fishermen and knew how to sell their wares without being done down by the market traders as some were - and the lad had strength in his young limbs for sport; his best skill lay with the bow, and bucks roamed the nearby woods whose sires had fallen to his arrows.
But if he brought down a buck now, there was still the small matter of skinning and cooking it! There was nothing to do but look for somewhere until he was big enough to look after himself. The next question was, which way to go? He could go south, to Kolding, west to Vejle or north to Horsens. Again, which was best?
It was at this time that old Ulf sought the one cow he had left. She had kicked down his rickety fence because the grazing was finished and she could see greener grass a little further away from Ulf's home. He had been mending his nets at the time she wandered and knew nothing of her whereabouts. Then he saw the lad, Hunding, cold and shivering, watching his antics as he tried to shivvy the cow back onto his own land before a neighbour claimed her.
'If you help me bring my beast back into her pen, you can eat with us. We are having fish stew this evening!' Ulf told Hunding, and the lad picked up a stick to help herd Ulf's cow back where the old man could tether her until the fence was mended. Hay was brought to feed Thyrig - the cow was named for Ulf's eldest, she had left home now, married to a fellow from Randers so they saw little of her any more - and Hunding was rewarded with a seat by the hearth and a bowl of hot fish stew with bread baked that very morning. The lad was lucky. Ulf's wife, Gudrun asked if he wanted more. There was no need to ask a second time! Between them the stew was gone before the candle had burnt out and they showed him his bed.
'This was Thjorvard's bed', Gudrun led him into the closet furthest from the main room. 'He slept here on his own because he was our only son. Freydis followed him into the big wide world, married to a fish merchant in Vejle who took a liking to her when Ulf took her to sell his herrings. Thyrig was last to go. Now and then we see them, but they have lives of their own. We cannot keep our children forever. Where are your father and mother, that they let you wander on your own?'
It seemed to Hunding that the old woman was scolding him for wandering from home.
'My mother was taken two days ago by freebooters', he began to sob fitfully, 'and my father was killed trying to stop them taking her!'
Gudrun took the weeping lad into her arms to comfort him and called out to Ulf,
'Ulf, this poor child has seen his kindred taken from him - two days ago!'
'I heard the Jomsvikings were about - but not that they were this close by! We were lucky, and he lad even luckier!' Ulf came into the small room and Gudrun stroked Hunding's flaxen hair. 'We will look after you until you are old enough to look out for yourself and make up your mind what you want to do in life. We will not hold you back from whatever you wish to strive for'. Hunding thanked them both and fell asleep in Thjorvard's bed.
Ulf took on the task of showing Hunding the tasks his son used to do, helping with the nets, rowing the small boat out into the sound to catch herring, chopping wood for the fire. He became a father to the lad and asked no more about his kindred. And so everything went until the morning came when Ulf looked up at Hunding, who now towered over him, and asked,
'What is it you wish to do in life, son? Do not get this wrong, we are not throwing you out but Gudrun and I are ageing, as you can see. We will soon be unable to look after this home of ours and will have to call on our offspring for help. This homestead will be sold off to a neighbouring farmer who has made an offer on the land. Thjorvard has his own home and land near Horsens'.
Hunding answered, calling Ulf 'father' and sounded as if he had been thinking ahead already. He sat down by Ulf on the bench and told him of his aims,
'I have heard they need men on the trading ships that sail west from the haven of Ribe on the west coast. It is only a two day hike from here'.
'It is good that you have already worked out what you wish to do. I am sorry I could not offer you this homestead as your own, but we must offer something to our daughters in return for putting us up in their homes. You understand?' Ulf rested a hand on Hunding's right shoulder.
'I understand, Ulf', Hunding sounded suddenly distant, as a man who had known little of the old man. He was steeling himself to the likelihood of never seeing either of them again.
'When were you thinking of leaving?' Gudrun asked, relieved that Hunding had taken Ulf's news so well, and that he seemed to have his own life mapped out. The last thing on her mind was to shove the lad out on his own when they drew up their own roots to leave.
'If you could put together something to keep me from hunger on my way, I shall be leaving at dawn', came the quick answer, 'as I have a long way to go'.
There was an awkward hush whilst the fire crackled in the hearth and threw up dancing shadows onto the daub walls. Ulf was first to break the silence,
'We did not have it in mind to see you going so soon. I was thinking of weeks, perhaps months from now, not tomorrow'.
'I am sorry Ulf, if it sounds so brutal to you, but the sooner I leave the sooner my new life begins. I am deeply thankful to you for all you have done for me, taught me almost everything I know about sailing a boat, about landing fish and so on. I shall think about you both, and thank my stars that I had you to teach me when it could have been so different. You showed me how to wield an axe to keep myself from being killed, as well as to keep myself warm with a good fire. These are skills so many young men of my age might have to learn the hard way! And thank you Gudrun and Ulf, for treating me as one of your own. Where would I be but for the pair of you?'
Hunding became silent and thoughtful. It seemed to Ulf he was brooding. The young fellow had a right, after all. He would soon be in the wide world, away from his home stamping grounds, this quiet corner of Jylland. Who knew what would be ahead. Did he have second thoughts about leaving?
'Hunding this is a time to think back on your past life. Do not dwell on the bad, but by the same token never give up on ever seeing your mother and friend again. They will not be dead, be sure of that. These raiders would not harm their stock in trade, so to speak. Your mother would be useful, as would your friend have become - she might be a mother herself, think on that. Women thralls are not harmed. Although they might have to do hard work a good owner would not drive a useful thrall who knew how to do many tasks around his house'.
'You seem.to know a lot about these things, Ulf. How come you know so much?' Hunding's eyes narrowed. Had Ulf brought down the raiders on them, by some dint of bad fate?
'When you get to my age, Hunding, many things are no longer so new that they cannot be reasoned. Besides, you know, I have not always been a simple stockman - such as I have left. Once I served the king as a steersman in his fleet'.
'You kept quiet about that one', Hunding grinned lopsidedly. 'Is there anything else I might learn about you?'
'Not the wrong way I hope', Ulf laughed. 'No, I was a steersman on one of Harald Gormsson's ships, but I did not seem him very often. It was his son Svein who made more use of the ships. Harald was a bit lazy and young Svein had high hopes of carving out a bigger kingdom than what his father had so far achieved. I think Harald was happier chewing through his blueberries - although I hear he has had trouble with his teeth of late. That priest he has, who came a few years ago from Hammaburg -'
'The one they call Poppo? What sort of name is that for a man anyway?'
'Aye, Hunding', Ulf looked a little annoyed with the lad he had raised from late childhood. He had a long way to go with his manners! 'Be that as it may, I hear the kingdom seems to sway towards Christianity these days. And that is only because the king suffers from toothache! I hate to think what would happen if he became really ill. We would have the Franks breathing down our necks again, as Godred nearly had -'
'Who was Godred?' Hunding knew he had overstepped the mark as soon as the words came out.
'Hunding, wait for me to finish! Godred was a Danish king who ruled from Sjaelland. Harald has spread his rule more. King Godred, however, kept the kingdom from being overrun by the Franks in the days of Karl the Great'. Ulf waited for Hunding to break in again before going on, but it did not happen. Hunding did not wish to know, or else he dare not break in again. 'Godred had words with the kings and nobles of the West Norse to attack the Christian kingdoms to the west'.
'The lands of the Seaxan kings?'
'Aye', Ulf nodded. 'The rich lands of the Seaxan and Aengle kings. One day, as when I was much younger, you might get to see their great burhs such as Jorvik'.
'I would like to go there, Ulf', Hunding answered more meekly.
'You would need to go to Ribe, where their ships come in to trade'.
'Aye, Ulf, I have thought long and hard about that. That is where I shall go!'
'Good lad, Hunding. Make the most of your youth. I wish I had mine back again'.
They talked longer, until Gudrun called out,
'Ulf, are you coming to bed? It will be morning soon, and you know well what you are like when you have not slept enough!'
Ulf grinned and shrugged, rested a hand on Hunding's back and bade him a good night. Hunding would not sleep much that night.
Next - 2: Jorvik beckons.
Now you've finished part one of 'Hunding's Saga'...
You might like to look at another couple of pages before going on to part 2.
The first is 'Hunding's World - Places, People... Purpose'. Geographical glossary and terminology of place names,
Second is 'Hunding's Saga: Mapping his exploits between Jorvik and Miklagard' Listing the 49 episodes, about the Vikings and their world of trade, craftsmanship and war-making
Learn more about their conquests, their origins, the most famous of the Viking personalities through the VIKING hub-page series on this site
Viking Age York
Let English Heritage guide you through Viking Age York - Jorvik. This is where Hunding will come to further himself, to get away from a past he would sooner forget. A handy historical guide to help understand the age of expansion in the 9th-11th Centuries across the northern world