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Hunding's Saga - 31: Gyrth's Tale, of Clashes Amongst Danes Between Harald's and Svein's Followers

Updated on June 3, 2019
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Alan's interest in early mediaeval Scandinavian history extends beyond 'Viking' themes. Kings fought against sons, their kingdoms divided

"...In the days when Svein 'Forkbeard' and his followers clashed with Harald 'Bluetooth' and his..."

The Vendel helm, found near Uppsala, Sweden - not far from where the Valsgaerde helm was unearthed
The Vendel helm, found near Uppsala, Sweden - not far from where the Valsgaerde helm was unearthed

'We threw our lot in with King Harald, the one you know everyone nicknamed 'Bluetooth', owing to his weakness for bilberries',

Gyrth began to take Tofig and Hunding back to his warrior days. He waved his guests to sit on the benches nearest to him. The fire in the hearth was built up by Bengt, his ageing thrall. Although he could barely see, Gyrth looked straight at the man, 'Pile up the logs, Bengt, be a good fellow. He has been with me for many a year now, but still needs to be told'.

Bengt pulled a face, yet did as he was told, stiffly touched a greying forelock and bowed as he left, even though he knew Gyrth could not see him, only felt his presence. Nevertheless, against the light of the fire Gyrth would be able to see his stooped back as he passed. Tofig's father nodded acknowledgement and leaned on his stick to begin again,

'Be a good man and do not pull faces at me, Bengt'. Gyrth began again, and then looked up suddenly, as if he knew someone else had come in. 'What is it, Helga?'

'Master Gyrth', a tall woman past her prime bobbed, picked up a few platters from one of the boards and backed out again. She had only come to clear away after the afternoon's snacking before the kitchen thralls readied the hall for an evening's feasting.

'I shall begin again, and hopefully no-one else will enter'. Gyrth shrugged and smiled wearily, cast his heavily bearded chin heavenward and rested his head in one hand, seeming to look through one eye at Tofig, although all there knew him to be blind. At least that was what Tofig told Hunding. 'Where was I? Ah!'

Laughter from everyone around him in the hall greeted his words, and then they fell silent again for him to tell his tale.

'Hrothulf Arnhelmsson and I knew one another from sharpening our weapon-skills at Aggersborg, at the height of Bluetooth's reign. We sailed into the Rosklde Fjord when Harald was locked in a struggle with Styrbjoern and his Jomsvikings. Hrothulf had come from Vorbasse in mid-Jylland, riding to Vejle and taking ship from there to Kerteminde. We were welcomed at Roskilde by Ulf-Ketil Eyvindsson, who told us they were to sail the following morning to Halland to raise more men to fight Styrbjoern. He asked us both if we wished to go along with them. "This is why we came here", Hrothulf told Ulf-Ketil. You can guess he was mightily pleased with your father's answer', Gyrth uncannily looked Hunding's way, making him feel awkward, uncommonly warm - but that was due only to being closer to the hearth than the others.

'Sit away from the fire, Hunding', Gyrth told him, shaking his head. Hunding wondered how he could know. 'When you lose your sight you gain a sixth sense, Hunding. Besides, I marked where you were from when you spoke last. Where were we? Ah, Ulf-Ketil told us to get some food, drink well and sleep deeply and we filled ten ships the following morning. Harald gave the order to set sail for Halland and with a good following wind off Hundested we reached Tyloe on the Halland coast in late afternoon. Whilst a hundred men went with Harald to the Skaane Thing at Getinge, the rest of us guarded the ships lest Styrbjoern happened to land at our backs. Harald showed again at dusk with just two hundred more men. We wondered how we were going to get them onto our ships, them being fairly full at the time. It turned out that all the time Styrbjoern was further south in Skaane, near Trelleborg, waiting for Harald's fleet to come through the Sound. There was going to be a real fight! Harald sent most of his ships around western Sjaelland to come through the gap between Sjaelland and Nykoping past Moen. A few ships would sail down through the Sound after waiting a couple of days. We, Hrothulf and I, were to sail through the Sound on Ulf-Ketil's ship with Harald. I had my fingers crossed that the king's timing would be right when we set sail southward past Viken after less than two days had past! "Fear not", Harald assured us, "The ships will show in good time past the Fakse Bugt off Sjaelland)'

'As it was, Thorolf Eskildsson lost three of his ships on the way through the Storstroemmen channel and we were locked in battle for four hours before he showed on the far side of Styrbjoern's fleet. Styrbjoern escaped with many of his ships, but some were wrecked off the point at Skanoer. I thought my days were over; my left arm was nearly cut to ribbons and Hrothulf's right arm had been cut at the shoulder. Styrbjoern came back not long after with another fleet, having had some built himself and the rest borrowed from the Wends. Jomsborg must have been crawling with Wends at the time, the number Styrboern recruited! Harald had to withdraw back to Sjaelland and then Svein 'Tveskegg' (Forkbeard) took on his father, beating him three years later. Harald was slain by one of Svein's followers, they say. By that time your father was in Jylland again, wedded to Sige. As for me, my sight was failing after an eye wound fighting the Seaxans near the Danevirke in eastern Slesvig not long after we fought Styrbjoern. Tofig was a growing lad by that time, anyway, but life was lonely for me without my woman. That was when I had Torfa brought in from the fields to look after Gytha. It turned out I need more looking after and Gytha is now wedded herself to Ulf 'Spraki', over at Ladby'

'She's wedded to Ulf?' Tofig half-laughed, amazed. 'He is at least ten years older than she, the old goat! Well, I never did. What does he do with himself tnese days?'

'Not too badly, by all accounts', Gyrth misheard his son, 'He has three ships now, trading at Kaupang, Hedeby and Bornholm and all over the place. He is busy, that one!' Gyrth raised his beaker as if in toast to his son-in-law. 'And I must say, Gytha is happy - well, she sounds happy! She will be here again the day after tomorrow to see how I am'.

'Well I never!' Tofig laughed. This time he sounded less taken aback than before. 'I shall look forward to seeing her, not having seen her for a couple of years at least. Is Ulf coming with her?'

'He has a lot on his hands, Tofig. Unless you go there, you are unlikely to see him. He has been asked to take more weapons to King Svein in the Danelaw and will be setting sail from Ribe at the end of the week', Gyrth lifted his beaker again and slurped down the rest of his ale.

'You want some more?' Hrothulf asked, lifting the jug.

Gyrth put a hand flat over his beaker and shook his head, answering as he rose slowly to his feet,

'I shall drink more later, when we eat. I must see how Torfa is doing in the kitchen, she might want some wood chopping'.

'I will chop some wood for you, father', Tofig rose and Gyrth pressed down on his right shoulder.

'Sit, son. I shall see to it myself'.

'You - chop wood?' Tofig almost choked on his ale.

'Would you like to see me?' Gyrth beckoned from the doorway. 'Thor guides my hand'.

Ealdwin and Aesc looked askance at one another. Odd shrugged and grunted,

'Each to his own'.

'There are many Christians in the Danish isles', Gyrth told them, 'and they wear both crosses and hammers around their necks. Many farming folk leave gifts for Frey at field corners before going to church to pray for good growing weather and healthy calves or lambs. King Svein himself is a good Christian, but the Hammaburg missionaries say he lapsed because he does not wish to fill their coffers. He believes the way the Northanhymbran Aenglish run their Church is the right way! For myself I am not bothered. Although I fought alongside King Harald I did not share his trust in the new god'.

'What of Hrothulf, my father?' Hunding asked Gyrth, but the old man was already at the door. He would ask later. He knew there had been a small church near the sea at Sonderstrand, but only a few ever went there. Were they being punished by the raid for not believing? He shuddered at the thought that he was beginning to think like a Christian. Neither the Allfather nor Thor punished anyone for the way they led their lives. They did not sit in judgement on men, so why should he suddenly think otherwise?

'So what are we doing at the end of the week?' Hunding asked Tofig, suddenly feeling aimless.

'It is up to you. I should like to see Ulf 'Spraki' before we leave, if only to see what he was getting up to. I thought we were going to Roskilde before leaving for Jorvik?' Tofig held his hands palms upwards and then stood. 'Who wants to see my father chop wood?'

'Should we?' Aesc thought with everyone watching Gyrth was be put off.

'We can but come back in if it is too much for him', Tofig stood and made for where he heard Torfa laughing and clapping. Hunding and his friends from Jorvik - or Eoferwic as they insisted - followed.

Torfa held her hands as if in prayer, and then up to her mouth to stifle her laughter as Gyrth played with the axe. She looked up to see Tofig, Hunding and the Aenglishmen standing at the doorway, and passed them quietly on her way back indoors.

'Ah, you have come to poke fun at me?' Gyrth stood straight.

'No, father. We just want to make sure you do not kill yourself', Tofig fought down his laughter.

'I can hear it, in the way you speak. Watch', Gyrth licked a finger and held it up to feel the breeze. 'Now...'

With that he brought the blade of the axe down onto the stump of wood he had put on the cutting block. A clean cut. Half the stump flew one way, the other half went the other way. Gyrth set another stump on the block and raised the axe, stopping his arm before it came down and asked, grinning,

'Who wants to finish the job?' He turned the axe in his hand to hold it by the blade, and offered the axe to his son. 'Here you are, son. You will be finished in less than half the time I would take. I can chop wood when you have all gone without you standing there, shivering at the thought of me losing a limb!'

Tofig's eyebrows lifted. He was taken aback, but pleased with his father. The Viking spirit had never left him, even though his sight had.

.Next: 32 Roskilde


Battling the world serpent - intricate wood carving

Fighting Jormungand, the serpent winds itself around the framework of the carving
Fighting Jormungand, the serpent winds itself around the framework of the carving

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster

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