Hunding's Saga Essay

The threat of attack by greater numbers means Braendings Slange must be steered into the shallows between the isles off Estland

Braendings Slange cuts like a blade through the eastern sea to gain shelter of islands when the Jomsvikings are seen

‘What did Gauti have to say for himself last night, Hunding?’

‘Oh’, Hunding answered warily, ‘this and that’. Tofig did not push for an answer Hunding was unwilling to give.

Whilst the rest of the crew busied themselves stowing away kegs of water and food bags on ‘Braendings Slange’, Tofig and Hunding looked around the outer hull for signs of wear and tear. She had been dragged between riverheads, both ways after all. With the tip of his sword, Slanges Kys Hunding eased out worm-eggs from several holes and flicked them onto the shingle with his finger tips. He wondered if he should tell everything Gauti told him, of meeting a princess for a start. Would Tofig laugh it off and forget what he had been told, or would he bring it up again time and again? Hunding did not believe in such things, but what were Tofigs beliefs? He did not want to be reminded, annoyed by a Tofig he did not know of. In the end Hunding shrugged and grinned,

‘He just told me of the Jomsvikings passing by this way, way out over the sea, and to be careful’.

Did Tofig believe him? It seemed not so, because the Dane went about the business of prising out the eggs all the way along the strakes. No more was said by either on Hunding’s meeting with Gauti. They both knew who he was, as Tofig had said as much on the way to Holmgard. Both men knew also what was behind Gauti’s visit, but that it did not point at them ever being drawn by Frejya to Valhol if they died fighting. That was only for warriors, jarls and kings, not for mere traders who knew how to look after themselves – or died trying. Thor was their god-lord. Thor watched over craftsmen, traders and all free-born men. Hunding rubbed a thumb over his hammer pendant. Mjollnir, Thor’s hammer would keep him from harm. What the Aengle from Jorvik believed – what was it they called their burh? Eoferwic? – was for them. That their god kept them from harm was not doubted. After all none of them had been killed or wounded – yet. Then again only one of his crew had come to grief, but that was because he had angered Thor with his underhand wish to harm Hunding. Had he fought Hunding man-to-man, as even Lifing had done, then perhaps Urd – weaver of men’s fates – might have looked on him differently. That still did not answer Hunding’s wish to know why Gauti sought him out. Was he to be raised to the lofty heights of nobility, or was the king and his kindred to be seen as a friend?

‘Everything has been stowed away, Hunding’, Aesc told him a little later. ‘We are ready to run the ship out’.

‘Thank you, friend. When Tofig and I have finished this task we will be with you. Ask the crew to be ready to heave away when we are aboard’, Hunding gave Aesc the ‘thumbs up’, although he did not know why. It was a signal he had seen being given countless times during his time in Jorvik. Aesc raised his own right thumb and left Hunding seeking worm eggs below the steerboard arm. ‘Not long now’, Hunding thought to himself. ‘Not long now’.

Rik and his wife Asta came down to the foreshore to see off Hunding and Tofig. They waved off the crew and Rik yelled against the freshening south-easterly wind,

‘Gauti says to remember what he told you!’

Tofig’s head jerked fleetingly, oar in hand. Although pulling mightily, blood rushing to his ears with the effort, he still caught Rik’s words and wondered just what it was Gauti had told his friend. He could not dwell on the matter, not now – not until they stowed the oars and the wind caught the sail. From where he sat rowing, he could hear someone behind running out the beitass. They needed to catch as much of the wind as they could on the course they had to take for Bornholm. The sail was lowered and made fast, the sheets secured and rigging tightened.

They were on their way, the low-lying coast of Oeland to the west no more than a smudge atop the waves when their prow rose and fell. If the wind stayed with them by evening they might cut the waves closer to the coast of Blekinge in order to pass between Bornholm and the headland just east of Ystad. They could put in for the night on the north coast of Bornholm, miles from Roenne. That would depend on whether there was anyone there, who might ride to Roenne to say a ship had put in.

Ragged cloud chased across their stern, where Hunding held the steering arm. Tofig offered to take over.

‘If you would, friend. I am stiffening here with the chill wind chasing us. I need to pull my cloak over my back and take it easy for an hour or so. Thankyou, Tofig’. Hunding stretched, looked over his right shoulder at the following cloud banks and yawned. On his way forward past the rear-most mast-tree he called out ahead to one of the Aenglishmen, ‘Aesc, give me that skin of ale’.

‘Very well, Hunding. I think it tastes odd, though. Where was this ale brewed?’

Hunding took the skin from Aesc, swallowed a mouthful and spat it out into the surging sea-foam. His upper lip curled, the left corner of his mouth turned down and he coughed,

‘Fenrir’s mane! What in damnation is that? It is not ale!’

‘Give it to me, Hunding’, Tofig called from aft. ‘Let me taste it’.

‘By all means’, Hunding strode back to the steerboard deck and handed the skin to Tofig. ‘Here, see what you make of it’.

Tofig rubbed the spout with his thumb and took a draught. He swilled it inside his cheeks from side to side and swallowed it. He raised his eyebrows and stared hard at Aesc,

‘Who gave you this, Aesc?

‘Rik handed me it as we boarded and, with a grin told me to taste it if I felt lonely’.

Tofig roared with laughter. Hunding had to take the steering oar from him, lest they veer toward the rocks that jutted up through the waves.

‘What is there to laugh at?’ Hunding laughed and prodded Tofig with a bony forefinger in his ribs. ‘What do you know that is so funny?’

‘That’, Tofig chuckled, ‘is anis. It is meant to keep guard hounds from mauling you’.

Aesc did not know about anis, and asked,

‘How would it help me if a hound were to set on me. I would never have the time to pull it free!’

‘You keep it in your hand as you go, and drip it onto stones before the hounds set about you’, Tofig laughed. ‘The smell will make them drool and when they begin licking, they will roll over for you like pups, waiting for you to tickle their bellies for more! Easy! No hound can withstand the smell! I know what Rik meant, though’.

‘Tell me’, Hunding demanded, ‘how do you know about this… er, anis?’

‘It grows on the northern shores of the Middle Sea; a spice used to make food taste different. It also draws hounds for some reason. I learned of aniseed when I sailed around Sicilia and Sardegna. What Rik meant was, that if you take a sip of anis and spurt it into the mouth of a hound you will have a friend for life. Travelling folk know that, to steal good guard hounds from their owners!’

‘How did Rik know that?’ Aesc asked, drawing down his eyebrows, thinking Tofig was playing with him.

‘I told him’, Tofig grinned. The ale skins are down there by the mast-mate. Take a drink of ale – or water – before you take to the anis. It can ruin you, if you get the taste for it, believe me!’

Aesc hastened forward, bracing himself when the ship rolled to one side. He snatched a skin.

‘One of these?’ he asked, to nods from Tofig and others of the crew around him. Unfastening the top he swigged ale until the taste of anis left his mouth.

‘Bring that ale here’, Tofig beckoned Aesc. ‘We need to take the smell away, too!’

Laughter and the strengthening wind drowned out Aesc’s answer, but Hunding thought he knew what the Aenglishman had said. Ealdwin and Odd almost choked with laughter. Although the Danes might have understood the words, their true meaning in Jorvik meant something a lot coarser than just, ‘Horse droppings’!

‘I see red sails to the south-west’, Ealdwin called back from where he braced himself against the prow.

‘Are they red because of the low sunlight I wonder, or are they dyed red?’ Hunding asked idly.

‘I think they are red sails, and they have been lowered for entering coastal waters. They may not even be Jomsvikings..’ Tofig cupped his hands over his eyes and stared past the prow, and with him half the crew watched to see the ships ahead did not alter course. ‘You had best turn the steering oar toward Blekinge. They may not have seen us, as they are keeping course for the Sound’.

‘Braending’s Slange’ nosed northward for a time until the sails vanished beyond the jutting coastline of Malmoe-Hus. Hunding brought the ship about and they hugged the coastline for a little longer. The darkness was creeping up on them from the east, and the prow of ‘Braendings Slange’ pointed into the reddening sky to the steerboard quarter. The coast of Blekinge was behind them now to steerboard. Low, eastward-facing cliffs sat like black lines on the sea as they rounded the northern tip of Bornholm.

‘Can you see any fires?’ Hunding asked Aesc by the far ship wall from him.

‘No’, Aesc strained his eyes in the gathering gloom. If he missed any, they could awaken in chains again before morning.

‘Down sail’, Hunding answered, ‘oars out. We will go inshore and see. Two can keep watch, take turns’.

The strand was dark, and still, but for small waves that sucked at the shingle. Two of Tofig’s Danes leapt overboard and went looking for signs of life. They seemed to be hidden from sight in a small cove to the east of the point. Roenne would be on the other side of the island, Hunding reckoned, a hard hour’s ride away to the south-west across wooded, low-lying hills. Was it worth anyone’s while to tell of their being here? He recalled that, when they left Roenne on their way east, many of the folk in Roenne’s haven cheered as they cheated the king’s men of unwarranted tithes.

They would be gone by dawn after a quick meal, and two of the crew would be on watch at all times. Even in the night someone could happen on them – and they need not come from Roenne. The men on watch had to keep their wits about them. The small cooking fire was allowed to go down – as long as someone bothered to feed it to glowing – until morning.

Next – 28: Rognvald

Between river-heads ships were hauled overland…

A ship’s crew might have to heave their vessel between river-heads, using rollers fashioned from tree trunks that would be brought out from under the stern to put under the bow as it was heaved to the next river shoreline. Or they might find willing locals with horses, preferably oxen, who for payment would haul their ship up over hills and ease them down to the next river. This would be ‘omkostning’ in Danish and similar in Swedish or West Norse (Norwegian) known as ‘portage’ in modern English.

There would certainly be several such land crossings between river-heads in crossing the land between the Baltic and Black Sea.