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Hunding's Saga - 16: The Bargain, Freedom Gained... at a High Price
The Holmgang, single combat in a restricted area with weapons of choice
Hunding will take on Lifing in a 'holmgang' to be fought with war axes
'Lifing, anyone would think you had seen a ghost!' the prince towered over the shaken Lifing. 'Win this fight with Hunding and you can name your own reward'.
'My Lord Valdemar, you are too open-handed. I shall take him on -' Lifing faltered. Did he believe he could win against his fellow Dane? They were about the same height and build, after all, although Hunding was that much taller and had the greater reach. From what he knew of Hunding, he should make a good fight of it. There was fear in his heart.
Hunding paid no heed to the prince, staring long and hard at Lifing. He would make a good show of humbling this lying coward in front of those he thought as his friends.
'Will you be ready, Hunding?' Tofig stood close, almost whispering. Aesc and the others stood in a ring around Hunding, worried. All but Sverri, that is. He still smarted at being slapped down in front of the crew days ago. He half-hoped it was Hunding who would be humbled, but he would bide his time. There was still the way back by way of Gotland, or Jylland perhaps. Who knew, even a few brief days on Sjaelland might bring an answer to his desire to get his own back?
'I will be as ready as ever', Hunding winked at Tofig, and scowled sidelong at Lifing. For a Dane, Lifing was no threat with a weapon, he was sure. A plotter rather than a doer, Lifing clearly spent more time thinking up dismal ends for those he thought he could win over to his schemes. Hunding had been one of these, but proved harder to pull into the net as were the other poor fish Lifing had no doubt charmed!
'We shall all meet at the river early in the morning', Prince Valdemar told everyone out aloud. 'The chosen weapons are axes and the fight ground will be marked out by my men overseen by your friend Tofig and my friend Kynrig. Eat well tonight, both of you. I want to see the pair of you fight well in the morning. Kynrig, come with me, I have matters to talk over with you'.
'Are you up to fighting?' Aesc asked Hunding.
'What do you mean, am I up to it?' Hunding asked by return. 'If you mean do I think Lifing can be beaten, I have to say 'aye'. If you are asking can I beat him, you will see tomorrow. Meanwhile we eat and drink. I need to build up my strength. Wielding an axe in a homgang is not for the half-starved. You should eat, too. We should all feast well tonight, as we do not know when we eat next'.
'Or even if', Aesc mumbled.
'Have faith!' Tofig chided Aesc. 'Lifing has no fight in him. He was looking for a way out when I saw him earlier. I think he will be easily beaten. He is afraid of Hunding, and well may he be!'
'He might also cheat', Aesc was still gloomy, even as he tore the meat from a chicken leg. 'Lifing is no warrior. He is a crafty fox'.
Aesc's misgivings did not dampen his appetite, however. By the time Lifing chewed through his first thick slice of boar meat Aesc was already on his third.
'Eat slower, Aenglishman. You will choke! Drink, Aesc. Here', Tofig handed the fellow a horn of ale, 'and shut up about Lifing being crafty. He is not as crafty as you think, eh, if he can so easily be found out to be a liar?'
'If you say so', Aesc mumbled again.
Sverri laughed beside him, nudged his elbow and what was left of a chicken wing flew through the air to land on the shiny wooden floor.
'Hey, who is throwing food around?!' one of Valdemar's guards yelled, and pushed a serving woman toward the offending morsel. He roared at an elderly serving woman, 'Get that swept up, Babushka!'
Hunding sat forward on the bench, tapped the great table before them for Aesc to look at him. Then he assured his friend,
'Aesc, before you saying anything else, I am going to win tomorrow', Hunding laughed off the Aenglishman's fears and finished off his meat before calling his friends to order. 'All of you, drink to the health of our host, Prince Valdemar, and drink another toast to the brave Lifing'.
Laughter and the banging of knives on the oak boards brought other guards running, fearful of a riot.
'We were drinking to your great Lord Valdemar', Tofig raised a cup to them. 'All hail Valdemar!'
'All hail Valdemar!' the crew chorused loudly.
Morning dawned cheerlessly grey, a thick mist cloaked Holmgard. The morning meal was eaten early, Hunding and Tofig in one room, the rest of his crew along a corridor. Lifing ate elsewhere. They would not see one another until a karve came to take them to the chosen eyot. Lifing was shown aft to sit with Kynrig, Hunding and Tofig were shown forward. Ten oarsmen sat between the parties. Another boat led, taking the prince and Hunding's crew to the eyot. Hunding and Lifing clambered over the boat sides and took a gravel path to where their fight area was marked out. The oarsmen stood to either side of Vladimir and Hunding's crew. Kynrig would make sure of Lifing's readiness whilst Tofig saw to Hunding.
Axes were brought and laid on the ground, handles crossed. Valdemar folded his arms across his chest and watched closely as Hunding and Lifing were asked forward, told to shake hands and stand ready for the order to begin. They would stand twenty strides apart and scramble for their weapons before the fight began. Lifing stumbled at first, but lunged for one axe, kicking the other away and swiped his axe at Hunding's head as he steadied himself. Luckily the axe blade came wide of Hunding's forehead as he ducked and seized the handle of his own weapon with his left hand. They stood weighing their axes, judging the weight and eyeing one another before Lifing made an ill-thought of feint to the right. Hunding knew which way he would go and swung his axe blade at Lifing's, the blades jarring as they met.
Lifing fell back, shocked, leaned his axe against his right leg and shook his wrists to rid himself of the tingling feeling. Hunding circled his foe, watching Lifing's eyes. The mist drifted away now, the sky clearing to show a sunkissed meadow behind Lifing. He walked slowly to his left, following his own shadow from the corners of his eyes. It seemed Lifing was unaware of what Hunding was doing, bringing his shadow across the sloping ground to point toward his opponent. The brightening sun was now behind him, he could feel it warming his back. Lifing had to hold one hand over his eyes. It was now Hunding's time to leap to the attack. He scythed with his axe blade as he crossed Lifing's sight, out of the sun. Lifing barely leapt aside in time, Hunding's blade scraping against his left sleeve, cutting it to ribbons and catching the skin beneath. Lifing cried out in pain but stayed on his feet, blood trickling down his left arm onto the handle of his axe.
'Lifing you are wounded, Are you fighting on?' Kynrig asked.
'It is a scratch. I shall fight on', Lifing answered, panted and grinned, eyeing Hunding with the sun to his left now.
Prince Valdemar nodded and Kynrig called out again,
'Very well then. Fight on'.
Lifing needed no second bidding and launched an attack on Hunding, both arms raising his axe above his head, the pain forgotten for now. He screamed defiance at Hunding and brought down his axe at Hunding's right shoulder. The blade missed, but came close enough to serve as a warning. Hunding checked himself, making sure he was on his feet before bringing his axe blade one-handed around his right at Lifing's waist. The blade caught something, Hunding felt, and turned sharply as Lifing tried to take him unawares. Blood was streaming from a cut to Lifing's midriff, but he was still unwilling to yield the fight. Lifing hurtled past Hunding's left, almost tripping on a grassy hummock, and righted himself before he fell headlong over the nearest markers. He jerked back as several of the prince's oarsmen side-stepped away from the blade of his axe. There was a dark red stain on Lifing's axe handle now, Hunding saw. He had to be careful lest the axe slipped from Lifing's grasp and claimed his life by chance, or - worse still - maimed him.
'Thor aiye!' Lifing screamed and lunged again. His axe slipped from his hand and flew in a great arc through the morning air. Aesc and Sverri, and several of Tofig's friends scattered as the axe flew past them, burying itself in the soft earth behind.
'Call a halt to this and admit you are beaten', Kynrig demanded of Lifing, just as the fellow drew a dagger from his boot and let fly at Hunding. The dagger struck Hunding's left arm above the elbow and Kynrig roared out aloud, 'Stop now, Lifing, or your life is forfeit!'
Lifing snarled, left hand held against the wound on his midriff, blood seeping through his fingers. Someone strode forward to tend to his wounds and Aesc rushed to Hunding's side.
'Let me look at that!', he took Hunding's axe and dropped it safely onto the springy grass. 'You are lucky it did not tear the muscle. A clean binding will help heal'.
'I thank you, Aesc. You are a good man', Hunding smarted as Aesc dabbed spirit onto the wound. 'Prince Valdemar comes now'.
'My friend Hunding', the prince smiled as he came closer, shaking his head at Aesc who thought he should withdraw. 'No, young man, it is I who should stand aside.. Tend to the fellow's wound and I shall come back to speak to the plucky Dane'.
Valdemar strode away to speak to Lifing. Kynrig called forward a monk skilled in the healing arts, who now looked at Lifing's gaping wound and tutted. The wound on his arm would wait a little longer. A flesh wound, it would take little time to take care of. The wound in Lifing's side was much deeper. He would be dealt with by the prince when the wound was cleaned and the blood flow stopped.
'Your cuts will heal before the hurt to your pride', Valdemar stood back as the monk fussed. 'Meanwhile you must be given warning that your behaviour was unpardonable. You were out of order, In seeking to kill Hunding with your dagger, you have blackened your good name with me. I must ask Hunding what he thinks I should do about you, breaking the rules of the holmgang. You have sullied my name, too, Lifing. I am besmirched! When men come to my court, everyone sees me as the even-handed one, the greatest Christian prince of the northlands. What do you think men will say of me now? They will say I hold with cowards and freebooters. Your friend Palnatoki will wish to wash his hands of you, I should warrant, dragging his name in the dirt as well, lying to me. I am Valdemar! Mark my words, you will be dealt with fairly, but I do not know why I should give you that much. You will go nowhere until Palnatoki next sets foot in Holmgard, hear? Even then I cannot foresee what he would wish for you'.
Lifing said nothing, grateful he had not been struck down by Kynrig for his foul act. Prince Valdemar walked back to speak to Hunding,
'I have something to ask of you, Hunding. We will talk in Holmgard', the prince used the Norsemen's name for the Dane's sake.
'My Lord, I await your judgement', Hunding answered quickly and drew breath sharply as Aesc pulled the wound binding tightly on his arm. He waited for the prince to leave before saying half-aloud to the Aenglishman. 'I wonder what that can be about'.
'Most likely he wants something of you before he lets you leave', Tofig gave Hunding a start, speaking over his left shoulder as he walked up behind him. 'This Valdemar is tricky. He has a name for asking his guests to undertake risky tasks on his behalf'.
'What could he ask of me?' Hunding spun on his heels and stared at his friend. 'Tell me, what could he ask?'
'He will think of something you would not want to undertake in your wildest dreams, but be on your guard, but do not openly turn him down', Tofig tried to calm him. 'We can go back another way, down the Dvina to the Gulf of Riga if you like'.
'After first taking the Dnieper downriver, I trust'. Hunding already had misgivings, but as Tofig said, he could not openly deny this great prince his wish. Who could he turn to if Valdemar took offence? 'Who knows, he may ask me to do something for him that does not mean us breaking the law'.
'You should wish so', Tofig coughed and held his hand to his mouth, as if clearing his throat when Hunding looked askance at him.
Prince Valdemar beckoned to Hunding and his men to follow back to the boats. Lifing had already been taken back to Holmgard under armed guard in a different boat. Hunding.was to be rowed with the prince in his karve to the royal garth. There he and his crew would be wined and dined in the manner of guests of honour, as Lifing had been. What would happen to him now? They were not likely to learn of his fate, if they were to make their way down the Dnieper before Palnatoki came to Holmgard.
Vladimir took Hunding to one side as he clambered over the side of the boat,
'Can you do something for me?'
Hunding thought Valdemar would wait until they were back in the palace before asking the favour.
'Aye, my Lord Valdemar?' he knew he would have no time to think of something to say in order to slip the leash.
'Would you bring me a crown Basil the imperator keeps in his inner sanctum?'
'The imperator?' Hunding made out he knew nothing of any imperators.
'Basil, the imperator - or over-king - in Miklagard, known to all as the Bulgar-slayer. You will need to offer your swords to him in his Varangian Guard', Valdemar smiled. Tofig held back from boarding the prince's boat, but was prodded by Sverri from behind. Joining the Varangian Guard was the last thing he thought he might have to do. That would mean he would be away from home for a lot longer than his woman would stand before looking for a new man. Hunding looked taken aback as well. How could they get out of this? 'Oh, and I shall send a few of my Rus guards with you. Kynrig has told me he does not trust you not to try to flee. I think he is wrong, but you will prove me right. Is that not so?'.
Next - 17 - The River Way
The river courses of the east through Valdemar's lands
You could see them from the west in Ireland to the east in Byzantium, to the south in the Mediterranean. The Vikings ruled the waves as much as they did on land until well into the Middle Ages around the Northern Isles, the north of Scotland Man and Ireland. Ragnar Lothbrok, legendary Danish king, was feared along the Frankish coast and inland as far as Paris. His raiding brought him eventually to Northumbria, where the usurper Aella reigned.