Hunding's Saga - 4: Wulfwila, the Cool One Warms to Hunding
There were times when Hunding wished Osferth's daughter was friendlier toward him.
But then, Wulfwila listened well to her mother, who told her not to chase after her father's hired men. They were not the best company for a merchant's daughter, she was told. Besides, she was more interested in the young thegns, on the rise to greater things. So Hunding took his silver to Tadceaster, to pay for time on the pillows with the young women he knew from when Aelfgar took him trading upriver on the Hvarfe. They always weakened when they saw the emperors' coins from Miklagard and did not even test the silver on their teeth, knowing they had the real thing.
The innkeepers were more taken by the Arab coins, brought from Hedeby once the threat of the Jomsvikings had subsided after Harald 'Blue-Tooth' paid them to leave the Danes alone. From the Hymbra to Burtun on the River Treonta by way of Snotingaham was hard rowing. Overnight halts were a boon to tired oarsmen, and two more men needed to be hired to row even Osferth's knarr all that way upriver. That meant more silver in wages and more yet to put the rowers up in the inns when it rained hard in the after-year. The innkeepers knew their coins to be value, and they were fondest of the five dinar coins that would take more cutting down to pay for barley and yeast to brew ale. They lasted longer.
And then there was the boat that had to be rowed up the Deorewent with goods from the east. They would stop at Richale to deliver goods, and now and then the odd eastern treasures to Thegn Karl before taking the left northward around the growing mud bank. There was the long slog up to Maeltun against the river current in a smaller boat because the knarr was too big to pass beyond Staenfordes Brycg. At times the river ran too strong and fast for them to row far. They had to take it on themselves to call a halt, whether Osferth would have liked it or not. He never went with the boats, either the knarr or the karve anyway, leaving the running of the cargoes to Aelfgar. If the current on a river was too fast to row up, he had to think of his crew and they looked to him for help. He knew the best ways upriver as far as Skalby, around to the west of Skarthiburh.
'How far have we rowed since this morning?' Ordwulf asked once. This was in early evening and the wind was picking up from the east, making it even harder to row upstream.
'From the reed-bed by the river', Aelfgar answered, panting, pointing to the riverside at the wide bend near Kirkeham, 'that is all'.
'We should have been there by now!' Ordwulf yelled so hard he began to cough. Aelfgar took a hand from his oar and slapped his friend hard on his back to clear his throat,
'We could pull the boat out of the water and push it along the bank to the next bend, where the current is less strong in the deep water', Hunding offered to his wide-eyed crew-mates.
'How is that?' the others chorused
'We have our axes', Hunding ifted his. 'Chop down a tree or two, take off the limbs and then cut the trunks into shorter lengths. six lengths should be enough to roll the boat from here upriver to the bend before Maeltun', Hunding told them. 'I am told that is how they cross between the river heads through the lands of the Rus. The logs are kept at the same places so they do not need to be cut again. when we come back the boat will be empty, so all the need do is put ashore after Maltun, stow the logs in the bottom of the boat until we reach Kirkeham again and leave them there for when we next come upriver.
'There are four of us', Aelfgar nodded, 'so it should be easy to cut enough logs quickly'.
'Why did no-one think of it before?' Ordwulf buried his head in his hands and laughed. He was still shaking with mirth when Leofric shoved an axe into his hands and told him,
Ordwulf stopped laughing and set to on the nearest tree with Leofric. as Hunding felled one tree, Ordwulf and Leofric felled theirs. Aelfgar and Hunding had the first three lengths ready, limbs trimmed and smoothed off with fine cuts. It was getting dark before there were enough lengths to roll the boat with its load still roped down.
'Now what?' asked Aelfgar. Hunding's answer was to set three logs on the meadow grass, one after another in line and together, puffing and panting, they heaved the karve onto them.
'Now the other three can be brought up under the prow', Hunding pointed at the second set of rollers. 'Pick up two of the logs, put the third on top and carry them around the boat like that. There will be no need to go back and forth because as three of us push the fourth man brings the logs from the stern end'.
It was laughably easy. As the boat was rolled forward Leofric took the back logs and set them under the prow as it slid forward. In this way they were at the next bend in less time than it had taken them to row upriver from Staenfordes Brycg to Kirkham. By now it was well dark and the wind from the east seemed to whistle through their ribs. Camp was made, a small fire built and the four of them huddled around it for warmth. To the south, when the moon came out, they could make out the low hills. Away to the north were the fore-hills that led up to the high moors.
'Did anyone think to bring a hunting bow and arrows?' Hunding asked next.
'I suppose you mean to kill a deer or whatever there may be hiding out in the woods nearby?' Leofric scratched his beard and looked meaningfully at Aelfgar.
'Whyever else would we need a bow?' Aelfgar knew, but had he thought to bring one? Had he ever? 'No, I must admit I have never brought a bow on these upriver trips for Osferth'.
'Nor I', Ordwulf threw up his hands. Leofric also shook his head when Hunding looked his way.
'What would you do if bears or wolves came out of the woods at you?' Hunding showed how irked he was and dug into his long bag. 'It is as well I did'.
A short hunting bow showed when he drew his hand from the bag. Three arrows came next,
'I shall be back within the hour', Hunding told them. Before setting off into the dark wildwoods he asked, 'Meanwhile set up a spit, if you would?'
'Do you think he will be safe pn his own?' Ordwulf asked after a short time.
'Did the Jomsvikings catch him?' Aelfgar countered, and silence fell in the camp again. The answer was taken for granted that Hunding was safe on his own as if he were home in Jylland. The moon had reached to the tops of the trees when the bushes behind them began shaking.
'What was that, do you think?' Ordwulf looked up. His eyes wide with fear of the unknown, he rose and scuttled to the riverbank, to the shelter of the boat. A growl was heard close by. Aelfgar and Leofric joined Ordwulf, ready to launch the coble. Again came the growling and Leofric grabbed an oar to fend off any wild animals whilst the other two man-handled the boat to the water's edge. There was a loud crashing, branches shook and snapped, an even louder roar went up and suddenly all was silent again. Hunding came through the bushes and held aloft a brace of hares, calling out to his crew-mates,
'You can have hare or bear', he tossed the hares down onto the ground by the fire and vanished into the bushes again, calling out, 'Give me a hand, someone!'
Aelfgar and Leofric joined Hunding and saw he had killed a young bear. The animal was hoisted between them and dropped beside the hares. Hunding stood there, a long-bladed, bloodied hunting knife in his right hand. He looked from Aelfgar to Leofric, to Ordwulf,
'Are you foing to skin them, or spend the night spitting out tufts of fur?' Hunding grinned broadly.
They had been back in jorvik a few days when wulfwile showed at Hunding's door. He had been staring holes in the daubed wattle walls of his room, bored, wondering whether he ought to go to an alehouse and did not hear her at first. But his name was called again, softly, in the stillness of the night,
'Are you there, Hunding?' When he pulled open the leather strap-hung wattle door she was standing there, clad only in a nightshift, a candle flickering in her hand. 'Is it true you killed a bear?'
Her eyes were as big with wonder as the soup bowls in Wulfgifu's kitchen.
'It is true', Hunding answered. 'Who told you?'
'I overheard someone from the kitchen. I think it was Ordwulf or Leofric who told mother about you walking away from their campfire into the wildwood and killing a bear in the bushes whilst they cowered by the boat'.
'You should not stand there in this chill clad only in your nightshift', Hunding offered a blanket from his bedding chest, not answering her question, neither affirming nor denying what she said she had heard.
Wulfwila pushed past him into his bed closet and sat down on the bed, patted a spot next to her and looked up at him.
'Come here', she ordered, as if talking to one of the kitchen thralls.
'Does your father or mother know you are here?' Hunding asked without moving.
'What difference does it make if they know or not?' Wulfwila snapped, yet allowed a smile. 'I am telling you to come here and sit beside me, to tell me in your own words what it was you were thinking of when you took on that bear'.
'He was only a little bear', Hunding grinned and held his hand at waist height to show her the size of the animal. 'I took off one of its feet as a good-luck token'.
He made to go over to a small casket at the foot of his bed and Wulfwila clutched at his hand to stop him. When he turned to look at her he saw the want in her eyes. There was a longing where once she had been haughty toward him, a 'mere hireling'. Now she had sought him out in the night, to his small room clad in a simple nightshift. There was nothing else but to take her.
Wulfwila took the hem of the garment and drew it up, over her head. Her small breasts rose and fell as she dropped the shift onto the sheepskin-covered floor boards. She had no wish to know more about the bear, or irs paw. What she wanted now was to be treated in the same way as the women he had paid for.
Next - 5: The Bait (Hunding's Way East)
Has Hunding won over Wulfwila and will it last, what they have found together? Her father might not be happy with it. Wanting something more than a hired man for her daughter, her mother would be aghast at the thought of them sharing a bed - of all things. This sounds too good to be true, for Hunding at least. Would she wait for him if he went to seek wealth overseas? He will only learn the answer to that if he asks her.
Danes and Norsemen came as raiders, traders, farmers and craftfolk, settled everwhere between Limerick and Lowestoft, between Carlisle and Chelmsford within Danish or Norse enclaves - safety in numbers - and their children's children would be raised as English, hardly a sign that showed them a different to their Anglian neighbours (they usually settled in the north and east, although the Danelaw crossed into Saxon territory to the east of London; some, wedded to Saxon women, were allowed to settle in London itself and during Knut's kingship Danes were encouraged to. It was a Danish fisherman on the banks of the Thames who found Knut's son Harold 'Harefoot' in the river after he'd been disinterred and unceremoniously dumped to appease his half-brother King Harthaknut).
© 2011 Alan R Lancaster