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The Saga of Hrolf Kraki

Part Seven: Of Skuld's Battle and the End of King Hrolf and his Champions

47. The Advice of Queen Skuld

Now a long time passed, with King Hrolf and his champions staying put peacefully in Denmark like this. No-one attacked them. All his tributary kings remained obedient to him and paid him tribute, and so did Hjorvard, his brother-in-law.

Now it happened one time that Queen Skuld spoke with King Hjorvard, her husband, and said, with a heavy sigh, "It doesn't seem right to me that we should pay tribute to King Hrolf and be oppressed by him, and it can't carry on like this, with you being his underling."

Hjorvard says, "It'll be best for us to bear it like the rest of them, and leave things calm as they are."

"You're a spineless weed," she said, "putting up with sorts of shames that are done to you."

He said, "It is not possible to struggle with King Hrolf, as no-one dares raise a shield against him."

"You're so spineless the lot of you," she said, "there's no pith in you, and no-one gets anywhere unless they take a chance. It won't be known till it's tried, whether King Hrolf and his champions can be hurt. But the way things have gone now," she said, "I doubt he'll have victory against us, and it doesn't seem so out of the question to have a go and see, and even if he is bound to me by the bonds of kinship, I won't protect him, and that's why he's always at home, because he suspects it himself, that victory will elude him. I shall now propose a plan, if you'll listen, and I won't spare any tricks in trying to succeed."

Skuld was a powerful sorceress, a great galder-being, descended from elves on her mother's side, and King Hrolf and his champions would pay for that.

"First I'll send men to King Hrolf and ask him to let me pay no tribute for the next three years, and then pay up all in one go, all that I owe him. Now I think it most likely that this trick will work, and if this goes according to plan, we should sit tight."

Now the messengers go between them as the queen instructed. King Hrolf agrees to this arrangement, to delay the tribute as asked.

48. Of Skuld's Muster

At this point, Skuld gathers together all the men who were strongest, and all the scum and criminals of the neighbouring districts. The treachery was hidden though, so that King Hrolf did not become aware of it, and the champions suspected nothing of this, as it was done with the greatest spells and sorcery. Skuld deploys the most potent of seid-magic to beat her brother King Hrolf, so strong that she is accompanied by a following of elves and norns and countless other evil scum, such that human strength is helpless against them.

But King Hrolf and his champions have great larks and fun in Hleidargard, and all sorts of sports, all that were known, and they performed with skill and courtly grace. Each had a mistress for his pleasure.

And now it is told that when the army of Skuld and King Hjorvard is fully prepared, they go to Hleidargard with an immeasurable force and arrive at Yule. King Hrolf has made elaborate preparations for Yule, and his men drank hard that evening. Hjorvard and Skuld pitch their tends outside the stronghold. They were vast and long with strange and wonderful trappings. There were many wagons and all packed with weapons and armour.

King Hrolf gave no heed to this. His thoughts were now more on his pomp and splendour and giving and all the valour that lay in his breast, and on how to provide for all those who had come so that his glory would spread the furthest, and he had everything that might enhance the honour of a king in this world. But it is not recorded that King Hrolf and his champions had ever worshipped the gods. Rather, they believed in their own might and main. Because at that time the holy faith had not yet been preached here in the northern lands, and so they had little knowledge of their Maker, they who lived in the north.

49. The Preparations of King Hrolf and his Champions

Next to be told, is that Hjalti the Magnanimous goes to the house where his mistress is. He sees plainly that they haven't come in peace, those under the tents of Hjorvard and Skuld. But he stays calm and doesn't raise an eyebrow, and lies now with his mistress. She was the fairest of women.

And when he's been there a while, he sprang up and said to his mistress, "Which is better, do you think? Two twenty-two-year-olds or one man of eighty."

She answers, "Two twenty-two-year-olds strike me as better than an old man at eighty."

"You'll pay for these words, you whore," said Hjalti, and went up to her and bit off her nose. "Blame me if anyone fights over you, but I expect most will see you as no great treasure from now on."

"You've treated me badly and it's not right," she said.

"Nothing's ever altogether clear," said Hjalti.

He grabs his weapons then, as he sees that the stronghold is surrounded by mail-clad warriors and banners have been raised. He realises now that it's pointless ignoring it any longer: the enemy is at hand. He makes for the hall, to where King Hrolf sat with his champions.

Hjalti said, "Wake up, lord king, for the enemy is in the yard, and there's more need of combat than cuddling women, and I doubt your sister Skuld's tribute will add much to the gold in your hall, and she has the ferocity of the Skjoldungs. And I can tell you this much: that's no small army out there with hard swords and weapons of war, and they're circling the stronghold with drawn swords, and it doesn't look like very friendly business that King Hjorvard has come to see you on, and from this day forth, he won't be begging your leave to rule his kingdom."

"It's time now," said Hjalti, "to lead the army of our king, who begrudges us nothing. Let us now make good our solemn vows, to defend well the most famous king there is at this time in all the north, and let's see to it that word of this reaches every land, and we'll repay him now for weapons and armour and much kindness besides, for this is no wage-work we have to do. Great omens have arisen here, though we've ignored them for a long time, and I think it most likely that great events will unfold here that will be remembered. Some will claim that what I say reeks something of fear, but it may well be that King Hrolf drinks now for the last time with his champions and retainers."

"Arise now, all you champions," says Hjalti, "be quick and bid your girls farewell, for other business lies before your eyes, to get ready for what will follow. Up, all you champions, step lively, arm yourselves, every one."

Then up sprang Hromund the Hard and Hrolf the Swifthanded, Svipdag and Beigad and Hvitserk the Keen, Haklang sixth, Hardrefil seventh, Haki the Bold eighth, Vott the Mighty ninth - the tenth was called Starolf - Hjalti the Magnanimous eleventh, and Bodvar Bjarki twelfth. And he was so called because he drove away all of King Hrolf's berserks, because of their pride and arrogance, and some he killed, and none of them could lay a finger on him, because they were like women next to him, when push came to shove, although they always considered themselves better than him and were always conspiring against him.

Bodvar Bjarki stood up in an instant, pulled on his armour, and said that now King Hrolf had need of proud lads, "and heart and head must not flinch, in those who stand by King Hrolf."

King Hrolf springs to his feet then and speaks up with no fear: "Enjoy with me that drink which is best, and we shall drink first and become glad and show in that way what sort of men we are, Hrolf's champions, and let us strive for one thing only: that our valour will be remembered, for to this place have come the greatest and boldest champions from all the lands around. Tell this to Hjorvard and Skuld and their boys, that we will drink ourselves merry, before we receive our tribute."

It was done as the king had said.

Skuld answers, "My brother King Hrolf is unlike all others, and the passing of such men is a terrible loss, but things are coming to a head, for all that."

So much was King Hrolf admired that he was praised by his friends and foes alike.

50. Of the Deeds of Bodvar Bjarki

King Hrolf leapt from the high-seat, now that he'd drunk for a while with all his champions. They leave the good drink for then, and are outside in an instant, all except Bodvar Bjarki. None of them saw him, and they thought that very strange, and they supposed it not unlikely that he was somewhere else, captured or killed.

And the moment they're out, a tremendous battle breaks out. King Hrolf presses forward himself with the standards and his champions beside him on both sides together with all the garrison, which amounted to no small number, although they counted for little in a fight. Hard blows could be seen there, to helm and hauberk. Many a sword and spear could be seen in the air, and so many dead, they covered every inch of the ground.

Hjalti the Magnanimous said, "Many's the byrnie now slit and many weapons broken and many a helm destroyed and many's the brave rider dashed from his steed, and our king is in fine spirits, for he is now as glad as when he drank ale so deeply and strikes always with both hands, and he is most unlike other kings in battle, for it seems to me he has the strength of twelve kings, and many a doughty man has he killed, and now King Hjorvard can see that the sword Skofnung bites, and now it rings loud in their skulls." The nature of Skofnung was such that it sang aloud when it tasted bone.

Now the fight grows so fierce that none can withstand King Hrolf and his champions. King Hrolf strikes with Skofnung, it seemed a marvel, and they make such inroads into the army of King Hjorvard, and the enemy fall in heaps.

Then Hjorvard and his men see a huge bear going before the King Hrolf's men, always nearest to where the king was. He kills more men with his paw than any five of the king's other champions. Blows and missiles glance off him. But he bursts under him both men and horses of King Hjorvard's army; and everything that comes in his way, he crushes in his teeth, so that panic sweeps King Hjorvard's army.

Hjalti looks around now and can't see his mate Bodvar, and said to King Hrolf, "What can this mean: Bodvar sheltering himself like this, and not coming near the king, such a champion as we thought him to be, and all the times he's proved himself?"

King Hrolf says, "He'll be where he's most needed, helping us, if he has any choice. Look to your own glory and courage, and don't do him down, for none of you is his equal, and I don't blame any of you for that, for you are all doughty champions."

Hjalti sets off at a rush now and home to the king's dwelling and sees Bodvar sitting there motionless.

Hjalti said, "How long must we wait for the most famous of champions, and this is a monstrous disgrace. Why don't you stand on your own two feet and try out those strong arms of yours that are as strong as bear's. Up now, Bodvar Bjarki, my better, or must I burn the house and you in it, and this is a crying shame, a champion like you, that the king should put himself in danger for us, and now you're ruining that great reputation of yours, that you've had all this time."

Bodvar stood up then with a sigh and said, "No point trying to scare me, Hjalti, because I'm not scared yet, but now I'm ready to go. When I was young, I fled neither fire nor iron, and fire I've seldom tried, but I've endured iron many times, and yielded to neither so far, and you shall tell truly that I want to fight to my utmost and always have King Hrolf call me champion in front of his men. I have much to repay him, first a wife and twelve estates that he gave me, together with many treasures of worth. I killed the berserk Agnar, a king no less, and that deed has been remembered."

Bodvar tells him of his many great deeds, which he has performed, how he's been the death of many men, and assured him that that he wouldn't be scared to go into battle, "and yet, I think we're dealing with something far stranger here, than we've met before. But you've not been as helpful to the king as you think, in doing this, because it had almost been decided which side would win, but this was more through ignorance on your part, than any wish to harm the king, and none of his other champions could have done this, apart from you, could have called me out, except the king, but anyone else would have been killed. Now no plan will work, and what will be, will be. I tell you truly, that now the help I can give the king is many times less than it was before you called me up from here."

Hjalti said, "It's clear that I'm concerned for you and King Hrolf, but it's hard to know what to do, when things turn out like this."

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