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HUNDING'S SAGA - 13: VALDEMAR'S WELCOME, Holmgard's Lord Honours Hunding's Crew
Far to the east... a boundless kingdom, wealth un-dreamed of
Wulfstan's Treasures Laid Out
'My Lord, Prince Valdemar, I bring guests for you from the west beyond Varangia*. A stately chamberlain had brought Hunding and open-mouthed crewmates to his master. The tall, square-jawed, bearded prince in his fine ermine-trimmed silk robes and cap.
'Welcome, friends, to Holmgard', Valdemar boomed, 'although we know it as Novgorod, the new citadel'.
He reached out a hand in greeting to both Hunding and Tofig,
'I have been told you have a costly cargo for me to see. Have you showed it to anyone else, or am I the first to be honoured with these goods you have brought?'
'You are, my Lord Prince, the first to set eyes on what the craftsman Wulfstan of Jorvik has made. These goods have been chosen for you by the craftsman himself'.
'Tell me Hunding - it is Hunding?' Prince Valdemar searched Hunding's eyes with his own grey-blue hunter's eyes. 'Who told you I would want to buy what you have brought?'
'Aye, my Lord, my name is Hunding, and I was told in Jorvik by a man that of all noblemen, you would best welcome the fine craftsmanship of a master sword-smith, the craftsmanship of the weapons we have for you has to be seen'.
'Is he with you, this fellow?' Valdemar looked from Hunding to Tofig and the others behind them when Hunding took longer to answer than he ought. 'I ask you this as I should like to show my thanks to him as well as to your good self'.
'The man, Lifing is his name, met with bad luck in a storm on our way through the eastern sea. We were unable to save him and a few other of our crew who were swept overboard trying to stop our cargo from being washed away', Hunding lied. When Valdemar's look darkened he halted in the telling. 'We looked for him on the nearest shore, but he may have been swept out to sea'.
'I can understand now why you would be saddened at the loss of your friend', the prince stroked his long, silk-like beard thoughtfully. 'Did you stop anywhere on your way here, Hunding?'
'We made landfall at Burgsvik on Gotland to find supplies, my Lord', Hunding thought he would ease the telling by missing out the fore-shortened stay at Roenne.
'That was after putting in on Bornholm', Tofig put in, irking Hunding, 'but some toll officer wanted to nose about in our cargo to see whether what we were carrying was worthy of extra tolls. When we sent him packing with a flea in his ear he came back with armed men and it was as much as we could do to push our ship back out away from the strand head before they could seize us'.
'This is a very dear cargo you speak of. We must look over it soon, but first we have to drink a toast to your friend Lifing. Bring wine, Ivan, for our guests - and bring our other guest to share in our good luck!'
Hunding breathed out, having bethought himself about telling him of their brush with the Jomsvikings. He was sure he had done the right thing... until Lifing was ushered into the great room ahead of the wine-bearing chamberlain. Tofig stiffened, as did the others of the crew behind him.
Hunding glared, unable to believe his eyes.
'Surely you are overjoyed to see your friend?' Valdemar croaked, astounded at the way Hunding and his crew behaved at the sight of the detested Lifing.
'We were merely taken aback, my Lord, having feared the worst. I thought perhaps what we had here was a fetch, or at worst someone making out he was our friend Lifing', Hunding lied again, pushed into a corner as it were. He did not know how much, or even what Lifing had told this Rus prince. He was soon to find out.
'Lifing said he was unluckily parted from you in this sea storm off the Wendish coast. He told me, well Lifing', Valdemar turned to the smug-looking Lifing standing beside him, 'you tell them what happened to you'.
Lifing's eyes narrowed as he took in Hunding. His eyes then rested on Tofig,
'I was knocked overboard when the sail spar came around at me as the squall hit us amidships'.
At least his tale sounded like theirs. Valdemar frowned nevertheless, and challenged Lifing's re-telling.
'You did not tell me that, Lifing'.
'Things are slowly coming back to me, my Lord. I found myself being sucked away from the ship by a maelstrom, and away from the shore nearest us to an eyot in the rivermouth', Lifing looked from Tofig to Hunding and the others before adding, 'and I was still there, on the strand when a ship's crew found me and brought me to. How long I had lain there God only knows'.
'You are a Christian, Lifing?' Valdemar's eyes opened wide. 'I thought you Danes were all still heathens, like your king Svein Haraldsson'.
'Some of us have seen the light, my Lord', Lifing brazenly lied.
Hunding knew he must stay still about his own beliefs, in the light of Lifing's talent for lying. He, too, knew how supple the Jomsvikings could be at bending the truth.
'I have asked the over-king in Miklagard - Basil is his name - to send me priests and to show me how I might spread the belief amongst my own benighted underlings. Is Hunding a Christian?' the prince half-turned from speaking to Lifing. 'Ah, what a fool am I! Does it matter what you believe in? You have brought me a cargo of worth, have you not? We will look at it when my men have brought it from your ship - the one with the red sail, I believe?'
Hunding nodded, clearing his throat, remembering who it was asked him and answered,
'Aye, my Lord Prince'.
A troop of Rus warriors carried the oversheet between them with the swords and fleeces spread out for their lord to look over. Valdemar stood agape at the sight of the bright, shining blades and their hilts. He ran his fingers lightly over the fleeces and shook suddenly.
'I felt something crackle against my fingers', the prince laughed, worriedly at first, and then broke out in a deep belly laugh. 'These fleeces have been tightly bound for weeks. It is no wonder they crackled when I touched them!'
Everyone laughed with Valdemar except Lifing, who kept an eye on Hunding, plainly thinking about what his next move should be. He did not wish to be seen to stir hatred, but Hunding knew something was afoot. After some time of being watched by Lifing, Hunding knew the fellow would have to be kept under close eye. There might be nasty things in store for the crew if he were somehow to cut off Hunding and Tofig from the others.
The mighty Valdemar asked Hunding many things, such as who Wulfstan was, where he lived and worked, even what he looked like... He was trying to build a likeness in his thoughts. It was a weighty matter for him to know about who he was buying from if he could not meet them. Lastly came the matter Hunding had awaited, and had a ready answer for,
'Why is Wulfstan not with you?'
'Ealdorman Uhtred of Beornica wished for swords, too, my Lord Prince', Hunding answered quickly.
'Weapons such as these, I hope', Valdemar stroked the edge of the blade of a sword he picked from those left on the table next to him. Blood rose from the fine cut he made and he smiled, sucked at the wound and asked again, 'These are weapons fit for a king. Did he not offer them to the Aenglish king?'
'I think King Aethelred has his weapons made by a Seaxan smith in the south, at Wintunceaster, a long way away overland from Northanhymbra', Hunding answered to the best of his knowledge, but felt by Vladimir's stare that this account was not befitting. He added, 'The West Seaxans and Northanhymbrans do not wholly trust one another, my Lord'.
'Is this true, Lifing? Surely such a rift within a kingdom would leave it open to attack from overseas?' Valdemar looked at Lifing for his answer, but the Dane merely shrugged. 'Perhaps, then, the Aenglish king should be on his guard if Hunding brings weapons to an outsider such as I?'
'It might seem so, my Lord', Tofig observed, overlooking the way his Aenglish crewmates shuffled their feet beside him.
'Would that not worry King Aethelred?' Valdemar was bored with the swords now and plumbed Hunding's knowledge of Aethelred's kingdom.
'He has enough warriors around him to ward off his foes, my Lord Prince', Hunding assured Valdemar.
* Varangia was the Rus homeland, that we call Scandinavia
Next: 14 - BETRAYED