The Complete

Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda

Legendary Sagas of the Northland

in English Translation

Hálfssaga og Halfsrekka The Saga of Half & his Heroes
Late 13th century Translated by Peter Tnstall
An Excerpt, telling the tale behind the
Ancient Swedish Ballad Stolt Herr Alf

10. Of King Half and Half’s Heroes
The following spring Half was twelve years old, and no one could match him for size or strength. Then he got ready to go raiding, and he had one ship, new and well-made.
In Hordaland there lived a jarl whose name was Alf the Old. His wife was Gunnlod, sister of Lord Hamund the Bold—their father was the berserk Hromund. Gunnlod and Alf had two sons and both were called Stein. The oldest was eighteen. He was then adviser to King Half. No one younger or more immature than him was to go on the expedition. In the courtyard stood a big stone. No one was to go unless they’d lifted that stone off the ground. No one who got scared was to go, or who spoke despondently, or who winced at wounds. Stein junior couldn’t go because of his age, as he was twelve years old.
Lord Hamund had two sons, one called Rook the Black and the other Rook the White. They were chosen for this expedition. Aslak was a major landowner. Egil and Erling were his sons. They were fine men. Half’s standard bearer was called Vemund. Four men from the king’s following were attached to him. Now the eleven provinces were scoured. There they found twelve men. There were the two brothers Hawk and Falcon, Styr the Strong, Dag the Dashing, Bork and Brynjolf, Bolverk, and Haki, Hring and Halfdan, Stari and Steingrim, Stuf and Gauti, Bard and Bjorn. There were twenty-three of them in all when they set out.
That first evening, as they put in to harbour, it rained heavily. Stein asked for a tent. The king answered, “Still want to live in a tent? You’re not at home now, you know.” So from then on they called him Innstein.
The next day they rowed around a headland in choppy weather. A man was standing on the headland, and he asked for passage. The king said he could stand on the rudder-post till evening. He said that was very kind of him, and that he guessed then he’d be standing at the king’s right hand. And he did just that. This man was Gunnlod’s other son, Stein the Younger. From then on, he was called Utstein: Outside Stein.
They kept lots of rules, out of exuberance and a sense of competition. One was that none of them should have a sword any longer than eighteen inches, so they would be forced to get in close. They had saxes[7] made specially for them so that the blows would be heavier. Not one of them had less then twelve times the strength of an average man. They never stole women or children on raids. They never bound a wound till a whole day had passed. No one was accepted who failed to meet these standards of strength and courage. King Half was raiding for eighteen summers. It was their custom to always lie in wait round a headland. It was another of their customs to never pitch tents or awnings on deck and never to reef a sail in a storm. They were called Half’s Heroes, and he never had more than sixty on his ship.
11. Asmund Invited King Half
King Half came home from war to own his kingdom. They had a big storm at sea. Their ship was taking water, too much to bail. Then the decision was taken to cast lots for who should go overboard, but there was no need for that, as each man volunteered to go overboard on behalf of his mate. And as they climbed over the gunwales, they said, “There’s no straw on the sea floor!”[8]
But when King Half reached Hordaland, King Asmund came to see him and did homage to him and swore oaths of allegiance and became his man, and he invited King Half to a feast together with half his warriors. But the next morning, as the king got ready and said that half his troops were to stay on the ships, Innstein said:
“We ought all of us
up from our ships
with burning brands,
best of warriors,
take fire to our foe
first while we can,
bring oblivion
to Asmund’s band.”
The king said:
“Half this host
of heroes goes
up from the sea,
I say, in peace.
To us an offer
Asmund has made,
red rings as we
would wish to have.
Innstein said:
“You don’t see all
of Asmund’s mind,
that chief conceals
deceit in his breast.
You’d set less store
in your step-father’s
(if we had our way)
word, my lord.
The king said:
“Asmund’s offered us
oaths untold,
promised peace,
pledged his friendship.
No lord well-born
would abuse a truce,
betray the trust
of a true ally.”
Innstein said:
“Odin’s fury
has fallen on you
if Asmund you trust
so absolutely.
He’ll dissemble,
hoodwink us all,
unless you keep
a look out, lord.”
The king said:
“You always twist
the talk to terror—
that king won’t betray
his treaty with us.
Gold we’ll get there
and gleaming gems,
red rings scattered
from the ruler’s hoard.”
Innstein said:
“Half, I had a dream
—pay heed to me—
fierce flame there played
upon our forces;
from that tight spot it seemed
quite tough to escape.
What meaning, majesty,
do you make of that dream?”
The king said:
“I’ll give a gilt helm
to each gallant hero,
to those bold fellows
who follow me.
That will flash
like fire over
the lord’s warband,
lighting their heads.
Innstein said:
“I dreamed again,
a dreadful scene:
it seemed that shoulders
shone with flame.
I’ve a feeling, sire,
that’s not a good sign.
Any idea
what this dream might mean?”
The king said:
“Chain-links will chime
on chief’s retainers,
on king’s men clinking
cascades the mail.
That will shine
on shoulders brightly,
of royal comrades
quite like fire.”
Innstein said:
“I dreamed again,
a third dream also,
that we took a dive
in deep water.
It’s got to imply
some great deceit.
What meaning, sire,
do you see in this dream.”
The king said:
“What’s it to me?
I’ve heard all I want,
now fasten your mouth,
it means just nothing.
Enough of this nonsense!
Not a word now
of your dreams and drivel
from this day forth.”
Innstein said:
“Listen up, you two Rooks,
in the ranks of the king,
and heed these words
of warning, Utstein.
Up from the strand
let’s stride together.
The words of our king
we won’t blame for that.”
Utstein said:
“We’ll let the warlord,
our warrior king,
lead with daring
our expeditions.
Let’s chance it, brother,
to please the chief,
risk our bodies
for a brave master.”
Innstein said:
“The ruler’s relied
while roaming abroad,
our lord many times,
on my loyal counsel.
Now though it seems
there’s nothing I can say—
the king won’t listen
since we came this way.”
12. King Asmund’s Treachery
King Half went up to Asmund’s hall with one half of his warriors. There was a multitude of people there. The banquet was bountiful and the drink so strong that Half’s Heroes were soon fast asleep. King Asmund and his men set fire to the hall.
And the first of the Heroes to wake saw that the hall was nearly full of smoke. He said, “Seems a bit smoky round our hawks[9] now.” Then he lay down and went back to sleep.
And another one woke up and he saw that the hall was burning, and he said, “I suppose the wax’ll be dripping off our blades now.”[10] That one lay back down.
And then King Half woke up. He got up and roused the men and told them to arm themselves. They charged at the wall then, so that the clasps on the corner-beams came loose.
And Innstein said:
“Smoke’s to the hawks
in the hall of the king,
and wax from saxes
it seems will drip.
High time to deal out
dear treasures and gold,
hurry helms to share
among Half’s Heroes.
Wake, Half, I urge -
no want of warmth,
of fires kindled,
Rise ring-sharing king
rise to vengeance:
for a plotting parent
it’s pay back time.
Ram now the planks,
push on the walls.
The props splinter,
split finally in two.
The fame won’t fail
while folk live, ever,
of the day Half’s Heroes
dined with this duke.
With hard blows we’ll go
and give up never.
The chief’s champions
must charge with short-swords.
On themselves they’ll bear
bloody sores,
our foes, before
we’re finished battling.
Look lively, lads,
leap out the fire,
dodge cinders gentlemen
just like your prince.
No man’s likely
to live for ever -
I doubt he’ll dread
to die, our leader.”
13. The Fall of King Half
So it is said that Half and his Heroes got out of the fire and that Half fell before overwhelming odds together with his men. Innstein said, when the king had fallen:
“Here I saw armed-men
all follow one,
(king’s kin he was)
keen as each other.
We’ll meet in one piece
when we part from here.
I’ve little more liking
for life than death.”
Then the rest of the Heroes joint the fight, those who’d stayed with the ships. There fell a great many of Half’s Heroes. The battle dragged on till nightfall, before Innstein fell. Innstein said:
“Rook has fallen
by the feet of our leader,
defending to the last
his liege-lord staunchly.
With Odin we’ve
one bone to pick–
that he snatched victory
from such a king.
I’ve been at sea
eighteen summers,
a bold boss I served,
stained shaft with blood.
Another lord
I’ll never find
more gallant in war,
nor grow old now.
So here Innstein
sinks to the ground,
lays himself down
by his leader’s head.
In latter times
at the telling of sagas,
they’ll hear of how
King Half died laughing.”
14. Of Utstein and Rook the Black
Gunnlod went in the night among the slain to look for her sons. She found Innstein dead, but Utstein was wounded, though barely alive, and likewise Bard and Bjorn. She put them on a cart and brought them to a cottage and healed them in secret and sent them south then to Sweden. Bjorn and Bard went to see King Solvi, Half’s uncle on his mother’s side, but Utstein went to Denmark to King Eystein, his kinsman.
Rook the Black had many grave wounds. In the night, he walked from the battle field till he found a humble cotter whose name was Skogkarl. There he stayed, and his wounds were bandaged. The cotter smuggled him north to Sogn to Lord Geirmund, his father’s brother. There he was healed in secret and in the autumn he went to Oppland and east to Gautland. He made it to King Haki in Scania and stayed the winter with him.