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HUNDING'S SAGA - 8: TAKE FLIGHT! Flee The Jomsvikings!
Hiding from the Jomsvikings
There was a hint of grey in the eastern sky when Hunding felt himself shaken awake. He sat up, about to ask who shared his watch when a hand was pressed over his mouth and one of the crew hissed into his right ear,
'Say nothing! I think your friend Lifing has something in store for us all that we may not wish for ourselves. He is asleep now, but as soon as you put your head down to rest he went astern and whispered something to the steersman. Course was changed after that. We are heading roughly southward now, if you see the Great Bear and the North star are both over our stern!'
Hunding craned his neck around and saw Yrsa astern of them. They were heading past a wide bay where lights twinkled some way off over the steerboard quarter. Bronding was still at the steerboard oar. Hunding had never sailed this way, nor did he know his whereabouts.
'What is your name, friend?' Hunding whispered hoarsely.
'I am Aesc, from Grim's by, one of the few non-Danes in the crew. There are three of us aside from me. Forward from the steersman is Odd, next to him Ealdwin. Some of the Danes are also unhappy with the course Lifing set before he settled down for a rest. I think there are others who are well aware of Lifing's aims, which is why he had you hire them. We outnumber them by two to one, with you on our side. I know you are unaware of Lifing's friendship with the steersman, but they seem to go a long way back in their friendship. Your master's friend Wulfstan is likely to lose his stake in this venture unless we act now!'
'And you - what will you do to help if we can take Lifing's men?' Hunding looked over Aesc's left shoulder at Brond, who seemed to be watching them closely.
'Each of us is a seafarer of some standing, but in these waters. If we can sail this ship between us, on to Bornholm, we might find crew who know their way as far as Holmgard. We can help you to Bornholm, but you must see to that steersman -' Aesc broke off and looked over his left shoulder, thinking he was being listened to.
'His name is Brond', Hunding told Aesc.
'You must see to Brond before we pass land, over there', Aesc pointed toward a low lying spit of land that showed ahead between the waves in the lightening dawn.
'I will tackle him now. How many Danes will help us?' Hunding looked into Aesc's eyes, still unsure of the Aenglishman.
'There are five Danes, one of whom told me we are heading straight for Jumne -'
Hunding almost spat out the name before Aesc put his hand over his mouth again to shout,
'Quiet!' Aesc hissed. 'Do you want to wake Lifing? Take care of Brond, we will see to Lifing and the others'.
Hunding rose, stretched and strode along the deck, climbing painstakingly over sleeping men's outstretched legs.
'Your watch does not begin for a while yet', Brond began.
'I could not sleep any longer. How far past Bornholm are we?' Hunding did not let on about knowing their true course.
'We passed there perhaps an hour since', Brond lied, 'Neksoe, the last settlement on the island lies some way back over there -' Brond, resting his right arm on the arm of the tiller pointed a thumb astern. Hunding drove 'Andvari's Tunge' into the steersman's broad chest. He held the fellow briefly so that he did not fall to the deck, thus waking Lifing's cronies. He let him down slowly to crumple onto the stern deck. One of Aesc's friends freed the handle from Brond's iron grip for Hunding to take over the steering. The Aenglishman heaved Brond's bulk overboard and he was left bobbing in the wake of Braendings Slange until they lost sight of him in the darkness.
They dealt with Lifing's loyal crewmen, a pair of whom knew they were done for unless they agreed to help Hunding. The others were bound, trussed up like swine for the slaughter, ready to be handed over to Jarl Ulf's men on Bornholm together with Lifing, who was left in his slumbers for a little longer.
Torches were still burning on the towers of Jumne when Hunding altered course to come about around the island of Usedom and back out into the open sea by way of a gap in the sand spits. Hopefully the men on the watchtower were still half-asleep from their night's watch, if indeed there was anyone keeping watch at that hour.
Unluckily, though, someone had seen the ship turn about, north-westward away from Jumne. When they were in the lee of the island, running out the oars to get back into the sea wind again, Hunding saw three serpent-headed ships strke out across the wide bay astern of them.
'There are ships behind us, giving chase!' Hunding called out in warning to Aesc, who turned to the others and ran out one pair of oars for him and Odd to draw on,
'Row - for God's sake! Row!' There were thirty men rowing on Braendings Slange. astern were three great drakkars following, oars dipping fast, gleaming wet in the early mist. Who knew how many men rowed aboard the Jomsviking ships? It was likely there were three fully crewed ships there in the cold morning light, their gleaming wet hulls outlined against the sun.
Hunding had ten men rowing a ship three-quarters as big as one of the following ships, with less than half as many hands to the oars! There were two of Lifing's Danes not rowing, watching as they sat side by side at the oars - perhaps hoping to be caught up by Lifing's friends.
'Row, damn' you! Or I shall fillet you and turn you over the side for the narwhals!' Aesc yelled at them, brandishing a knife under the grey-bearded chin of one.
'Braendings Slange' inched forward, the wind against her, her sail now down. A steady westerly wind blew on Hunding's cheeks as he steered, eyes ahead, then astern to see how the Jomsvikings were doing behind him. With two more pairs of hands to power them on a little more the gap grew steadily. Another few would have come in useful, but there would come a point at which the fewer the number of bodies in the ship would make flight easier. Perhaps Hunding had the upper hand there. Lifing's vessel was sleek. Haesten was a good boat builder. She sat low in the water, skimming the waves as they headed around the westernmost sand-bar of Usedom, with two short sand spits curving inward toward them. They could gain speed, pull in the oars at the last moment and hope to slide past the spits before the bigger ships caught up. The last ship's crew astern of them slowed and veered away before ramming the second ship, its walls staved in.
The first ship's crew had beached on the sandspit and men ran across, hoping to catch up with 'Braendings Slange' before she slid through between the sand spits. Arrows flew at Hunding's crew to stop them getting away with the worthwhile cargo Lifing might have offered Palnatoki.
'Pull harder!' Hunding yelled across the wind. The first crew was closing on them, and the crewmen of the second ship were almost throwing themselves over the dunes to reach the sand spits.
The last spit was just ahead now, and Hunding yelled at the rowers to be ready to ship the oars so they would not break on the sand on either side, and shudder to a halt in the shallows,
'When I tell you, raise the oars!'
Astern the first ship's master could be seen, but not yet heard, yelling at his men. He was pointing with his drawn sword at Hunding. Bowmen could be seen running forward along their deck to aim their arrows.
'Raise oars!' Hunding roared. Thirty oar blades shot into the air and they slid through quietly and quickly between the spits, out into the last channel.
Somehow the shipmaster had not seen the sand spits in time and his forward crewmen saw their oars break. The sudden hard crack of splintering wood could be heard by Hunding. Aesc shouted for the men to dip their oars again and begin rowing out of range of the second ship's bowmen lining up on the sand behind,
'This is no time to take a rest!'
Hunding swung the ship round to the north-east to avoid running aground on Ruegen, the next island, and they were beyond the reach of the Jomsvikings' arrows. Lifing was wide awake now as the men raised the sail.
'What are you doing?!' he groaned when he saw what had happened, and then saw Hunding at the steering oar. He tried to grab the arm of the steering oar in the hope of turning Braendings Slange back toward Jumne. Hunding balled the fist of his free hand and caught Lifing on his right shoulder, sending him spinning to the afterdeck in a heap.
'Bind this one and gag him!' Hunding pointed at Lifing, his fist balled. Aesc and one or two crewmen came, took the cowering traitor to the foremost mast tree and bound him tightly to it. A damp rag was found and drawn across Lifing's open mouth. Suddenly the threats and curses stopped. Only the gulls could be heard screaming overhead as Hunding set course for Roenne on the western end of Bornholm.
Sails could be seen astern briefly, once they had gained the freedom of the open sea. And then they were gone again, seen from time to time amid the swell, and... finally gone from sight! On the way back they would have to steer closer to Bornholm, keeping the island's low cliffs in sight, and hope not to be seen by any ships scouting out from Jumne.
'When we reach Roenne we need to buy a new sail or be taken for Jomsvikings', Hunding laughed to Aesc, relieved at having fled a hard fate. He waved his free hand toward Lifing and his fellow plotters, 'after handing over this scum to the jarl's men!'
Next - 9: Bornholm
Eastern Sea shores and the river routes south-east
Trial of strength
Negotiating the coastal areas of the Baltic could be a test of strength with its sand spits and shallows. The lie of the sea bed was such that crews did not want to go too close to land for fear of not getting off again without help. Their enemies might get to them before friends.
Being a relatively shallow sea (compared with, say, the Mediterranean), the Baltic can freeze in winter - that's rarely happened this side of the Jutland peninsula even in the English Channel.