While King Harald was reigning in Denmark, he built on the shores of the Baltic a fortress which he called Jomsborg. In this fortress dwelt a famous band of Vikings named the Jomsvikings. It is of one of their most famous sea-fights that I am going to tell you now.
The leader of the band was Earl Sigvald, and a bold and fearless leader he had proved himself.
It was at a great feast that Sigvald made the rash vow which led to this mighty battle. After the horn of mead had been handed round not once or twice only, Sigvald arose and vowed that, before three winters had passed, he and his band would go to Norway and either kill or chase Earl Hakon out of the country.
In the morning Sigvald and his Jomsvikings perhaps felt that they had vowed more than they were able to perform, yet it was not possible to withdraw from the enterprise unless they were willing to be called cowards. They therefore thought it would be well to start without delay, that they might, if possible, take Earl Hakon unawares.
In a short time therefore the Jomsviking fleet was ready, and sixty warships sailed away toward Norway. No sooner did they reach Earl Hakon's realms than they began to plunder and burn along the coast. But while they gained booty, they lost time. For Hakon, hearing of their doings, at once split a war-arrow and sent it all over his realm.
It was in this way that Hakon heard that the Jomsvikings were in his land. In one village the Vikings had, as they thought, killed all the inhabitants. But unknown to them a man had escaped with the loss of his hand, and hastening to the shore he sailed away in a light boat in search of the earl.
Hakon was at dinner when the fugitive stood before him.
"Art thou sure that thou didst see the Jomsvikings?" asked Hakon, when he had listened to the man's tidings.
For answer, the peasant stretched out the arm from which the hand had been sundered, saying, "Here is the token that the Jomsvikings are in the land."
It was then that Hakon sent the war-arrow throughout the land and speedily gathered together a great force. Eirik, one of his sons, also collected troops, but though the preparations for war went on apace, the Jomsvikings heard nothing of them, and still thought that they would take Earl Hakon by surprise.
At length the Vikings sailed into a harbour about twenty miles north of a town called Stad. As they were in want of food some of the band landed, and marched to the nearest village. Here they slaughtered the men who could bear arms, burned the houses, and gathering together all the cattle they could find, drove it before them toward the shore.
On the way to their ships, however, they met a peasant who said to them, "Ye are not doing like true warriors, to be driving cows and calves down to the strand, while ye should be giving chase to the bear, since ye are come near to the bear's den." By the bear the peasant meant Earl Hakon, as the Vikings well knew.
"What says the man?" they all cried together; "can he tell us about Earl Hakon?"
"Yesternight he lay inside the island that you can see yonder," said the peasant; "and you can slay him when you like, for he is waiting for his men."
"Thou shalt have all this cattle," cried one of the Vikings, "if thou wilt show us the way to the jarl."
Then the peasant went on board the Vikings' boat, and they hastened to Sigvald to tell him that the earl lay in a bay but a little way off.
The Jomsvikings armed themselves as if they were going to meet a large army, which the peasant said was unnecessary, as the earl had but few ships and men.
But no sooner had the Jomsvikings come within sight of the bay than they knew that the peasant had deceived them. Before them lay more than three hundred war-ships.
When the peasant saw that his trick was discovered he jumped overboard, hoping to swim to shore. But one of the Vikings flung a spear after him, and the peasant sank and was seen no more.
Now though the Vikings had fewer ships than Earl Hakon, they were larger and higher, and Sigvald hoped that this would help them to gain the victory.
Slowly the fleets drew together and a fierce battle began. At first Hakon's men fell in great numbers, for the Jomsvikings fought with all their wonted strength. So many spears also were aimed at Hakon himself that his armour was split asunder and he threw it aside.
When the earl saw that the battle was going against him, he called his sons together and said, "I dislike to fight against these men, for I believe that none are their equals, and I see that it will fare ill with us unless we hit upon some plan. Stay here with the host and I will go ashore and see what can be done."
Then the jarl went into the depths of a forest, and, sinking on his knees, he prayed to the goddess Thorgerd. But when no answer came to his cry, Hakon thought she was angry, and to appease her wrath he sacrificed many precious things to her. Yet still the goddess hid her face.
In his despair Hakon then promised to offer human sacrifices, but no sign was given to him that his offering would be accepted.
"Thou shalt have my son, my youngest son Erling!" cried the king, and then at length, so it seemed to Hakon, Thorgerd was satisfied. He therefore gave his son, who was but seven years old, to his thrall, and bade him offer the child as a sacrifice to the goddess.
Then Hakon went back to his ships, and lo! as the battle raged, the sky began to grow dark though it was but noon, and a storm arose and a heavy shower of hail fell. The hail was driven by the wind in the faces of the Vikings, and flashes of lightning blinded them and loud peals of thunder made them afraid. But a short time before the warriors had flung aside their garments because of the heat; now the cold was so intense that they could scarce hold their weapons.
While the storm raged, Hakon praised the gods and encouraged his men to fight more fiercely. Then, as the battle went against them, the Jomsvikings saw in the clouds a Troll or fiend. In each finger the Troll held an arrow, which, as it seemed to them, always hit and killed a man.
Sigvald saw that his men were growing fearful, and he, too, felt that the gods were against them. "It seems to me," he said, "that it is not men whom we have to fight to-day but fiends, and it requires some manliness to go boldly against them."
But now the storm abated, and once more the Vikings began to conquer. Then the earl cried again to Thorgerd, saying that now he deserved victory, for he had sacrificed to her his youngest son.
Then once more the storm-cloud crept over the sky and a terrific storm of hail beat upon the Vikings, and now they saw, not in the clouds, but in Hakon's ship, two Trolls, and they were speeding arrows among the enemies of Hakon.
Even Sigvald, the renowned leader of the Jomsvikings, could not stand before these unknown powers. He called to his men to flee, for, said he, "we did not vow to fight against fiends, but against men."
But though Sigvald sailed away with thirty-five ships, there were some of his men who scorned to flee even from fiends. Twenty-five ships stayed behind to continue the fight.
The Viking Bui was commander of one of these. His ship was boarded by Hakon's men, whereupon he took one of his treasure-chests in either hand and jumped into the sea. As he jumped he cried, "Overboard, all Bui's men," and neither he nor those who followed him were ever seen again.
Before the day was ended, Sigvald's brother had also sailed away with twenty-four boats, so that there was left but one boat out of all the Jomsvikings' fleet. It was commanded by the Viking Vagn.
Earl Hakon sent his son Erik to board this boat, and after a brave fight it was captured, for Vagn's men were stiff and weary with their wounds, and could scarce wield their battle-axes or spears.
With thirty-six of his men Vagn was taken prisoner and brought to land, and thus Earl Hakon had defeated the famous Vikings of Jomsborg. The victory was due, as Hakon at least believed, to the aid of the goddess Thorgerd.
When the weapons and other booty which they had taken had been divided among the men, Earl Hakon and his chiefs sat down in their warbooths and appointed a man named Thorkel to behead the prisoners.
Eighteen were beheaded ere the headsman came to Vagn. Now, as he had a dislike to this brave Viking, Thorkel rushed at him, holding his sword in both hands. But Vagn threw himself suddenly at Thorkel's feet, whereupon the headsman tripped over him. In a moment Vagn was on his feet, Thorkel's sword in his hand, and before any one could stop him he had slain his enemy.
Then Earl Eirik, Hakon's son, who loved brave men, said, "Vagn, wilt thou accept life?"
"That I will," said the bold Viking, "if thou give it to all of us who are still alive."
"Loose the prisoners!" cried the young earl, and it was done. Thus of the famous band of Jomsvikings twelve yet lived to do many a valiant deed in days to come.