Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Outlander at Hafrsfjord

I.  A one-eyed stranger, wandering from afar

From frigid dark and freezing, clinging damp
An outlander came wandering into camp
The night before King Eirik’s lines broke.
He leaned upon a gnarled staff of oak.
His face was hidden underneath the brim
Of his hat but his gait and the set of his shoulders was grim.
His frame was veiled within a woolen robe,
But from his shadowed face a single globe
Glinted as though from deep within a well:
A weary, wild, unfathomable eye.
He looked like he knew secrets he’d never tell.
He looked at you as if he knew how you would die. 

II.  Conditions in King Eirik’s camp of war

The stranger walked unseen among the men
Who sat around the fires with their kin.
Their talk was all about the morning’s fray,
Of all the men of Harald’s they would slay.
They faced away from the surrounding darkness
And boasted of their bloody deeds, their prowess.
But every sudden burst of bawling laughter,
Every hand that twitched at talk of slaughter,
Belied their every grandly drunken boast.
They fought already with a foe whose red
Teeth bit as deep as swords; this howling host
They held confined within their minds was known as Dread.

III.  A man named Bjorn gives hospitality

There was a man who sat apart, called Bjorn,
Who saw their fears and boasts alike with scorn;
This bearlike man who faced against the light,
This silent man who gazed into the night
Alone took note and bade the stranger sit,
To thaw his cloak and drink a little bit.
The old man stopped, and raised his brim, and neared.
As ice upon a cliff-face clings, his beard
From harshly cragged face fell cold and white.
He took a seat, cast of his woolen cloak,
And, taking mead, declined a proffered bite.
He took a sip and curled his lip and, glowering, spoke.

IV.  On warfare and our shared mortality

 “Tomorrow dawns a crimson day, my friend,
A day for men to meet their bloody end,
A day to feed the red-beaked flocks of birds,
To sate the thirst insatiable of swords.
I love to skewer a man, to smell his fear,
And feel his death-throes shiver down my spear.
Tragic, to die beneath your many winters,
But I will die with spear and shield in splinters.
Now, tell me truly, O my gracious host,
Speak truly:  Are you glad of war, as I,
(And don’t think I’ll believe an empty boast)
Or do you cry with fear to think that you may die?”

V.  More joy in the bucolic than the gory

 “Sir, I await my death without much fear,
But nor did love of slaughter bring me here.
The man from whom I took this axe is dead;
His old age took him on the very bed
Where he and Mother first conceived my life
Which I now share with my new son, my wife.
Our house stands in a clearing in a wood.
We’ve barley plots, and hunting there is good.
All we need, we make, or catch, or grow.
I left her weeping, watching from the door,
For towards our home the winds of war now blow.
I stain my hands with blood to save my lands from war.”

VI.  On the rewards of kings; on gold and glory

 “So don’t you love the honor of the kill?
When sword bites flesh, does not your blood then thrill?
Consider, then, the gifts of grateful kings:
Your spear-work earns you twisted silver rings
With gems in intricately worked gold knots,
And slaves to work your sprawling barley plots.
Your former peers will boast of you; they’ll claim
That you were friends.  They’ll seek to share your fame.
Consider, warrior, when you are dead,
Consider, when your head is grey and hoary,
When all that’s left of you is what is said:
Your bloody story then will be your only glory.”

VII.  Family gets more priority

 Bjorn laughed and told him, “Just a single bed
Holds me, my infant son and dearly wed.
What needs have we beyond what we can grow?
Pursuit of gold and glory works but woe.
They only gold for me is my Sif’s hair;
My glory is my firstborn son and heir.
My boy will boast of me when I am gone.
The praise I’ll earn by dying as a pawn
In someone else’s war, sung by a skald,
Means little next to an admiring wife.
I long to live to see my son grow bald,
But for their sakes, I’m here in ranks, and risk my life.” 

VIII.  On justice, peace and strong authority

“Why, then, serve the king of Hordaland?
Don’t think that he will save your precious land.
You’ve followed the wrong man to Hafrsjord
If it’s for love of peace you draw the sword.
It’s Harald that will bring your country peace,
Make safe for trade the North Way and its seas.
His wars will put an end to all this strife,
And end this bloodshed and this waste of life.
He’ll nullify the rulings of the Things
And codify by law both wrong and right.
He’ll crush the armies of the petty kings;
Until he’s king, the steel will sing and flash out bright.”

IX.  Where justice is a mask for mere ambition

 “When Gyda Eirik’s daughter spurned the suit
Of Harald she did not foresee the fruit
Of reckless words:  ‘Before you’re king of all
Of Norway, I will never let you call
Me your queen,’ shaming him with cruel scorn.
He vowed his head, ‘till crowned, would stay unshorn;
For every inch of tangled hair he grew
Since then, a dozen blameless men he slew.
He’d rather see our homeland ravaged, charred
And desolate, than in another’s hands.
He wants to make the world his own backyard,
Then make us pay to stay on what is ours:  Our lands.”

X.  A final chance to come back to the fold

 “Good host, this eye of mine sees very far.
I know the fate of sun and moon and star,
When Naglfar breaks free, and Heimdall’s horn
Is blowing, and the World Tree’s leaves are shorn.
I know that on the morrow, Eirik will fall.
Harald will win the day, and own you all.
Don’t feel bad.  You never had good odds,
Although he weren’t the favored of the gods.
I see through time itself; your bravery
Shines clear; you’re fearless, though you’ll soon be dead.
But why doom wife and son to slavery?
Go bow to Harald.  Vow to fight for him instead.”

XI.  Blasphemy and treason, without contrition

“I will not serve the interests of a king
Or god who for his vanity would bring
Upon mankind the plague of ceaseless warfare,
Who harrows lives like mud on a thoroughfare
Leading to glory.  Warring gods who make
No peace pursue a course whose end will shake
From the face of the earth all clinging, crawling life
As ant-filled rugs are cleaned out by my wife.
Our race deserves a better God than they
Who crave our blood, who, for their sport, have toyed
With us as cats with mice, who haste the day
When the world will burn and then return to trackless void.”

XII.  Death on a battlefield revealed, though left untold

Bjorn’s guest stood up and shrugged, no sign of wrath.
The flames swirled up, sparks tracing out their path
Through stars.  He thanked his kind host, as is right,
Put on his cloak, and left the ring of light.
When he’d walked on a pace he slipped his veil;
Now Bjorn, he took the flash of light for mail
Glinting in firelight.
                                    They found him dead,
His axe haft splintered, the ground beneath him red
With blood from heaps of mangled men he’d slain,
Their flesh and armor hewn and hacked and gashed,
His locks unbound, his features free of pain,
Speared in the side, laying beside an ancient ash.

Copyright 2013 by Ike Wassom.  All rights reserved.


  1. Have you ever thought of writing a short-story (like novella style) reminiscent of a Homeric poem but about modern American themes? Think Washington Irving meets Homer?

    1. I kind of thought that this one was on American themes, even though it's set in Norway. They guy who I modeled the main character on is a huge Libertarian.