“Strike the sails!" King Olaf said;
“Never shall men of mine take flight;
Never away from battle I fled,
Never away from my foes!
Let God dispose
Of my life in the fight!”
“The Saga of King Olaf” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Thyra, daughter of Harald Bluetooth, stood bravely before the little church her father had built in the beechwood forest of Roeskilde. It was even smaller than she remembered it but she was glad to see that it still held the mystical charms of her childhood. Bathed in the morning light, its timbers laced now with flowering ivy, birds perched in its eaves, it somehow resembled an Elven hut more than a house of worship built for Hvita kristr--the White Christ. It brought back happy memories too: the sound of axes ringing through the forest, her father’s amongst them, and the joy and honor of being his cupbearer--running to hand him his mead horn, that he might pause and take a drink, tell her about the work, smile down at her. Even at that age she knew her father was not like other kings. He did not stand back and command the men from afar. It was his idea to build the church and he was just as willing to put his muscle behind it. He let her tag behind him all day, as he lifted timbers or bent down at the water’s edge to wrap his thick fingers around the rushes and pull them out. He would then climb up with the younger men and lash them to the eaves. There was no job too big or too small that he would not do, to bring honor to the new God that he served.
In the distance she could hear the thunder of the Danish army approaching. The woods were already filling up with the sound of hooves and armor, shields and drums, and the glorious war lure, played not for battle but in memoriam. Her father was coming home. Not as she wished it, flesh and blood, his broad smile, his laugh, his charm, but as her brother, Sweyn Forkbeard wished it--dead, dead, stone cold dead. It should have been a day of feasting and celebration, for just as her father promised her, he’d defeated Sweyn off the coast of Jutland in a mighty sea battle, but later that evening, as he was celebrating, an arrow from the enemy camp took his life. Who shot it she did not know, but she was determined to find out.
The light was rising now, up from the base of the trees, and wind blowing through the thick canopy overhead. The army flowed like a river of iron, iron and flesh, standards flying, as it passed amongst the beeches, bearing down upon her. She stood very still, still and tall, regal in her simple kirtle--the way her father preferred it-- a pleated linen secured at the shoulders with two tortoiseshell brooches—her hair braided around the temples and intertwined with flowers. Three strings of the finest glass beads shone against the front of her sark, green and amber, a recent gift from her father’s travels, worth countless dirhem. Yet, the tiny signet ring she wore on her left hand meant more to her than any costly jewels. Her father had commissioned it when she was no higher than his knee and it now fit only her smallest finger. He wore a matching ring of a similar design. As she looked down at the round face with the rune for protection, her heart seemed to skip a beat. How could she live without him? This was going to be the most terrible goodbye.
Her father’s elite forces, the Jomsburg fighters, were now leading the army down a steep ravine. She watched the hooves of the mighty warhorses turning up the earth of her quiet place, dislodging small rocks that tumbled to her feet. She did not flinch but held her head high, waiting. Finally, with a great crash of armor, spears, and shields, the army came to a halt. Her father’s banner unfurled in the wind: the lion of Denmark, gold against a red backdrop. She drew strength from her father’s seal and her voice seemed to take on a new authority: “Thank you for bringing my father home....” In the ensuing silence she could hear the pawing of hooves and the jangle of harnesses, “My father’s Cleric, Poppo, shall lead us in mourning.” Behind her, the men watched the double doors of the church swing wide and out walk Poppo, the tall, warrior monk sporting a dagger and a cross. The dagger rested at his hip, the cross was bound about his neck, but his eyes were the most intriguing of all, the wild blue of a Beserker.
She watched the men dismount and the ranks part. Something was being carried towards her. It took six men to shoulder the burden. She knew what it was but she didn’t want to accept it. She stepped aside as her father’s body was brought on a bier towards the doors of the church. As her father passed beside her she allowed herself to glance at his face—it was not as frightening as she thought...perhaps even a smile played at the corner of his lips. His skin was an odd tone, much too pale, not the swarthy color she remembered, and his lips were closed in that strange half smile over the rotting, blue teeth that gave him his famous name. She followed behind the bier, passing under the doorframe carved with runes. She looked up for a moment, remembering that long ago summer day, when she first watched the motion of his awl as he carved out a crude cross and then, at his command, held out her skirt to collect the shavings. She whispered now to herself: “This cross in memory of my mother, Thyra, and my father Gorm.” Proud words, words that straightened her shoulders and lifted her foot over the threshold, that she might walk, like a king’s daughter, into the darkened sanctuary.