The prince's Rus household guard
Hunding calls out Lifing to a holmgang,
'I have given you good clothes, Dane, to show you how well I think of you, and showed you my treasures. You and your crew were fed at my tables, and this is how you repay me?' Prince Valdemar laid into Hunding as he strode up to him past a smirking Lifing. The prince stopped close to the young Dane and stared coldly into his eyes, going on,
'Your friend Sverri tried to kill one of my men - your friend! - and now he will helplessly feel the river's cold claw at his manhood. If he is alive in the morning, which I very much doubt as even at this time of year the river freezes at night, he may go free. How he will be in is anyone's guess, however, but he will be set free. As for you, my friend, you will be chained to a cell wall within hearing of his death cries. You will feel the cold, as he does, but he will curse your foolishness to his dying breath as his body is racked with the slow, gnawing cold'.
The prince stopped there, held Hunding's steady gaze with iron dark eyes. He stood for a time, playing with his long beard. He began again,
'I wonder if your thieving ways have anything to do with your heathen trust in your many gods and goddesses. Tell me, do you really believe in the old warrior ways?'
Hunding waited, trying to think of an answer that would give this Rus prince an inkling of how deeply offended he felt,
'I am a trader, my Lord', he said slowly, as if speaking to a fool, 'not a warrior. True, I must know how to look after myself, and I trust my friends will not let me down -'
'Have you not let yourself down... and your friends?' Prince Valdemar broke in, 'And what of Sverri - who did he let down, you - or himself? your friend Lifing here spoke highly of you when we were alone, do you know? He plainly had no knowledge of your freebooting ways! How betrayed must he feel?'
'Neither I not any of my crew are freebooters, Lord Valdemar'. Hunding could no longer stand this Rus prince's slighting and snapped, 'We were almost betrayed to the Jomsvikings when we came into the eastern sea past the Danish isles. My mother, my sister and my childhood sweetheart were taken by them a long time ago, my father killed when he tried to stop them and my grandfather died on the strand, left for the greedy gulls when his heart gave away in the attack. I was taken in by an old fisherman and his wife nearby to where we lived until I was of an age to look after myself and made a living. I chose to sail to Jorvik, to work with a fellow named Aelfgar who worked for Osferth. His friend Wulfstan made the weapons we brought to sell to you, and when we are back in Jorvik I will be well rewarded for my part in Wulfstan's gain. Why would I or any of my men turn freebooter?'
'Tell me who has my crown and I will set you all free', Valdemar laughed, un-smilingly, coldly. He thought he knew the answer anyway.
'That I am unable to do, my Lord', Hunding answered quickly.
'Are you unable - or unwilling to do that?' Valdemar challenged, drawing a shortsword from its scabbard. 'Would this make you tell?'
'Were I dead I could not tell you, but I cannot say either way', it was Hunding's turn to laugh now, although he did not feel in any way this this tight corner they were all in was laughable.
'You are sure you did not take my crown?' Prince Valdemar held the blade under Hunding's thickly bearded chin, eased his grip on the handle and sheathed the shortsword. His eyes narrowed as he stared into the Dane's light blue eyes, 'You had better be right!'
'May my gods strike me down, my Lord', Hunding breathed out slowly. 'Thor is the god who sees to the welfare of men who make their living by means other than standing in the shieldwall. May Thor leave me to my wyrd should I have lied to you, Lord'.
Behind Valdemar, Lifing looked to the doorway for a way out. He was still looking when the prince turned to speak to him,
'Lifing, my friend, are you sure it was Hunding who stole my crown?'
'As God is my witness, Lord Valdemar', Lifing lied brazenly, his eyes on the doorway. He looked briefly back at his host before searching for an unguarded door that would mean freedom.
'This God you speak of, Lifing - would he be the same as mine?' Valdemar beetled his brow at Lifing.
'Aye... Lord', Lifing's manner changed. He faltered and began to slowly edge toward the nearest doorway.
'Then you should be willing to test your faith in God's help You have been asked to take on Hunding in a fair fight', Valdemar smiled thinly at Lifing. The smile was not as warm as it had been. It was the smile of one who had cornered a rat in his food store, and was about to spring an unseen trap. He looked at the nobleman who stood behind Hunding, 'Release Sverri, and take the chains from these fellows'.
Lifing gave a start when Prince Valdemar barked at his guards,
'Give Lifing an axe! He can fight his fellow Dane, Hunding, on the eyot in the bend of the river downstream of Novgorod. I believe the Varangians call that a holmgang, is that right Kynrig?'
A tall, heavyset fellow stepped forward. He wore his beard plaited like the Danish king Svein and looked for all the world very much like him. Kynrig hailed Valdemar and boomed across the hall,
'Aye, my Lord Valdemar, it is indeed called the holmgang!'
'Do you know how a site is marked out for such a fight, Kynrig?' The prince grinned sidelong at a much paler Lifing, telling him, 'Why worry, Lifing? Hunding may be no match for you. Has he not told us all he is merely a trader and only fights to save his skin?'
Under the gaze of all the men in the hall Lifing shuffled unseasily and answered, almost in a hoarse squeak,
'Indeed, my Lord. Why should I worry with God to guide me?'
Hunding laughed inwardly. Behind him Tofig, Aesc and the others were freed of their fetters and bindings, and now a shivering Sverri was ushered into the hall through the furthest door. Sverri's clothes dripped ice-cold water onto the smoothly polished stone floor, and a Rus warrior handed him a fleece-lined cloak to warm him. They all smiled, knowing Lifing to be afraid of what was to come - whether he chose to fight or not. Hunding may not make a living from fighting, Tofig knew, but he was nevertheless skilled with weapons...
Next - 16: The Bargain
Novgorod, the new city founded by the Rus, Holmgard to its Scandinavian visitors and traders, and those who sought to begin their lives anew in the east. It was Vladimir - Valdemar to his Norse friends and underlings - Grand Prince of Kiev and Novgorod (AD 956-1015) who had sent envoys around Europe to help him make his decision on which path to take, in Christianising the Rus state.
The citadel where the princes dwelt was strongly fortified on one side of the Volkhov. Where the merchants and artisans stayed in their crossings from north to south or eastward was across the river on the hillside. Many merchants had made their home here, far from their homelands, as had craftsmen. They were well guarded against attack from the princes' enemies, and well provisioned. The princes needed them, after all. Through them came Holmgard's income in taxes and rare, luxury or valuable goods came with them.
© 2011 Alan R Lancaster