by S.P.H Young
Three Chapter Sample
Copyright © Sean Young
Copyright © Sean Young
AD 793 – This year came the dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and, not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
(as translated by Rev. James
- PART 1 -
The man looked down on his son and wept. He did not look up to see if he was watched; he just allowed his tears to meander over his cheeks, his shame already too great to conceal.
The boy beneath him groped. Without his vision, he reached out, desperate for some kind of evidence of a physical world to accompany that which he heard. At his birth, the agony of the news of his blindness had been so great neither his father nor his mother – Magnus nor his wife Hild – had even named him. It had been a joyless act. He was placed in his mother’s arms, his eyelids pulled back, and the milky cloudiness revealed to all.
Despite his erratic movements, the boy did manage to find Magnus’s finger and grip it. Magnus, not wanting to hurt the child, tried to pull it away only to find he couldn’t. For a moment, he just watched. Then, when the boy let go, he stood. “Sorry,” he said, looking around. It was not to see if anybody was watching but to survey the location. Halfway up a slope and in a depression, they were beneath a tree, its branches swaying in the breeze. It was a location as good as any; Magnus had left no less than four children there before. The exposure was enough the child would die if it was weak, but if it was strong...
...it was not strong.
He made to turn, hesitated a moment longer, then stopped to look at his son a final time. When he did walk away, it was at a pace, not wanting to acknowledge the conflict within him. The boy screamed. Still groping, he sensed a presence had been lost but did not know what it was.
* * *
Back in town, Magnus lit his forge, stoked it, and began work on an adze. Imagining the strike of his hammer was that of Mjölnir, the mighty hammer of the thunder god, Thor, he beat the metal on his anvil rather than worked it. The fiery glow bought him a warmth of familiarity but also a scalding reminder of the repetition of his life. When he seethed, he did so without
noticing the sweat soaking his clothes. When he grunted, he did so without noticing the jarl’s men who had come to summon him.
They stood out of reach of his hammer, only one of them – a weather-worn man with a pointed beard and light, shoulder length hair – brave enough to endure the heat. “Magnus?” he said. “Magnus?”
Magnus continued his hammering.
He tried again. “Magnus son of Sigurd?”
Still Magnus did not stop.
The man stepped forwards, grabbed Magnus’s wrist, and stopped it at the apex of its swing. Magnus, starting, turned to look at him. The extent of his seething became apparent even to himself then. Saliva moistened his beard; sweat soaked every article of his clothes. He stared at the man like some unknown enemy. The man, letting go, stepped back.
“Blacksmith the man said. He looked as one trying to break a spell. “Worker of steel. It’s Jarl Rollo. He wants to see you.”
Magnus’s brow softened. “Jarl Rollo?” he said.
“Yes,” the man replied. “He’s asked for your presence, right away.”
Magnus looked around at the other men present. Then, standing taller, nodded. “Ok.”
* * *
They left his work and led him to the centre of the town. Around them, life continued as it would have on any day. The routine and rhythm – usually a calming force on Magnus – felt akin to a thousand broach pins being stuck into his thumb at once today. A lady emerged in the doorway of her longhouse to hold up loom-fresh cloth and view it in the sunlight. The smell of wood smoke lingered where it was yet to be carried away by the wind. In front of them, a man approached, dragging a cart behind him. Magnus’s entourage had to step aside to let him pass. They waited, listening as timber wheels clattered upon timber planks.
Once it had, they made their way towards the great hall. This building, massive in its form, held an aura such that it felt like it was bearing down on them. Constructed of wood where others were daubed, its very purpose was to project its importance – every plank and hinge a work of art in itself.
Magnus made no attempt to conceal his own awe. Looking up, his neck felt sore from his blacksmithing work, but he didn’t care. In the past, he’d heard tales told of foreign kings living in palaces sprawling out to ten, twenty, sometimes even a hundred rooms. These seemed to pale into insignificance compared to the halls of his homeland, though. Holding a sacred value not lost on him, they were the very reflection of Odin’s Valhalla in Midgard.
The men pushed the doors open and stepped inside. The framed interior was empty. The fire at its centre burned but somehow without its welcoming glow now it had not the hum of conversation around it. They bypassed this to continue on to the back where the jarl’s quarters could be found. Here, they found the door already open for them. The jarl was sitting at a table, finishing a meal. When he noticed them, he raised a finger, indicating they should wait. Then he went back to eating. Magnus looked around. The jarl had his sword and shield hanging from the wall. Closer, at the foot of the jarl’s bed, iron riveted chests sat with their lids closed. Magnus knew these would be full of the jarl’s and his wife’s clothes – garments of red, blue, green, and white; the finest in town. Towards the back, there was a person sitting in the shadows. Magnus couldn’t make out who they were yet, but they looked small – a child, probably.
The jarl finished his meal and pushed his plate away. Wiping his mouth, he indicated for Magnus to sit opposite. Magnus obeyed but with his eyes averted – he looked up only to find the chair.
“I saw your wife today,” the jarl began. “I saw your wife, but your son was not with her. Now, other men tell me he was with you, travelling south in the early hours of the morning. I must ask: if he is not with you now and he is not with your wife, then where is he?”
Magnus stared at the wall. He did not want to speak but knew he had to. “Do not shame me Rollo,” he said. “Not more than I have already shamed myself.”
The jarl winced. Picking up his cup, he drank from it, then pushed it across the table for Magnus to drink from. Magnus ignored it.
“Look, all I want to know is this: why didn’t you come and speak to me?” He folded his arms across his chest. “You’re one of my oldest and truest friends, responsible as much for my holding my position as I am. You know I would not have denied you. Did you not think it was perhaps time for repayment?”
Magnus opened his mouth to speak only to find he couldn’t. “I...”
“You what?” the jarl said to cut across him. “You didn’t want to? Gods! From you of all people I hope that isn’t true.”
Magnus felt his heart slide into his stomach. Rollo was his jarl, yes, but he was also his friend. He needed to give him some kind of explanation, even if he feared what he may think of it. “It was Hild,” he said. “She said no. I asked but her desire was that we bring a child into the world knowing we’d done it on our own – just me, her, and the will of the gods. That boy... well, I do not think his will is the will of the gods. He just... changes things. If we’re to be blessed with a healthy child, it should be the gods’ decision. Not some...skald ...or seer...or whatever he is.”
The jarl glared at him. “What he is,” he said, “is a gift from the gods. Have you not considered how it may have been their will to bring him here, Magnus? When the gods bless you with a gift, you should not clear your nose at them...and do not speak as if you know the will of the gods; you do not.”
Magnus bowed his head.
The jarl raised a finger. Through the doorway, someone joined them. They stood next to Magnus and lowered something into his arms. When they left, Magnus looked down. It was his son, wrapped in blankets.
“I believe this is yours,” the jarl said, allowing Magnus a moment to take in what he saw. Turning, he then looked to the corner. A person stood where Magnus had earlier observed someone lurking in the shadows. He could now see they were indeed a child – a boy, in fact.
“Listen to me. It’s time to do what should have been done months ago. I need you to sit and I need you to listen. You can do that for me, can’t you, Magnus?” He looked over his shoulder and called out. “Boy!”
The boy came to stand next to the table. Magnus, eyes wide, looked him up and down. His clothes looked finer than those of any other person in the town except the jarl – a sure sign of the favour he held with his master.
The jarl stood up. “The boy will look after you. I have already told him what to do.” He began to walk away only to
stop and look back. “I have just one request: I want you to name him after me. You can do that, can’t you, Magnus?” He nodded, indicating there was only one acceptable answer to this question, then he left the room.
The boy sat where the jarl had and placed his hands on the table in front of him. He leaned forwards as he spoke. “Listen,” he said, “I want to tell you a tale – a tale of Rollo son of Magnus. A great man – a great man of many deeds.”
The Lost Vikings - The Viking City That Disappeared (article
printed in The Herald, August 5th)
It seems more like the plot to a mystery novel than a new finding from the pages of history: a lost Viking town has now been found on the shores of Norway thirty miles from the city of Bergen. Today, however, in a dig described as the find of a decade, a new excavation is underway of what is believed to be just that.
Suspicions were raised in February when a copy of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript was found within the archives of the British Museum. Quickly dismissed as a miscopy of a much older source manuscript, it wasn’t until a fringe team of three historians from the UK noticed similarities to already known manuscripts that it was taken more seriously. What did this manuscript have that others did not? Well, references to landmarks used to pinpoint the town’s location.
“The revelation was exciting,” said excavation leader Gustav Hagen. “Other lost Viking settlements have been known about for nearly as long as the Norse men, women and children who once lived in them ceased their occupancy all those centuries ago. What’s so interesting about this one, however, is that it’s right here on the shores of mainland Norway. Many of us didn’t believe it would exist at all.”
Eleanor Lindholm, one of the historians working on the manuscript and known for her more outlandish theories, believes there is more mystery to the town than just its location. “Now we’re here, the location seems not much of a conundrum at all. Not when you consider the findings. All items needed for Viking life – combs, bedding, jewellery – were left, and each of them remain as they would have if the plan was to return to them later. It’s like the occupants just vanished after fire destroyed the place.”
The excavation is expected to continue until July next year.
To: 'Eleanor Lindholm'
From: 'David Henderson'
Subject: Your article in the Herald
Just saw your little article in the Herald. You got quoted! Nice job. We should catch-up soon.
* * *
To: 'David Henderson'
From: 'Eleanor Lindholm'
Subject: Your article in the Herald
Yeah, sorry about that. I wanted to come to you but it's kind of out of my hands now. Did you see what they put? They literally didn't print half of what I said. And they described my ideas as 'outlandish'. What's so fringe about reading text and believing what you find there?
* * *
To: 'Eleanor Lindholm'
From: 'David Henderson'
Subject: Your article in the Herald
I wouldn't take it personally. The writer probably only had limited space. It may even have been cut down by the editor. Perhaps it's just as well; you've managed a good half of what you set out to do. You found the lost town! Everyone said it could never exist, but it does! Enjoy it for a bit.
* * *
To: 'David Henderson'
From: 'Eleanor Lindholm'
Subject: Your article in the Herald
No! You know I could never do that. The manuscripts say the town was destroyed by monsters and that's what I'm going to show. Why else would it just be abandoned after the fire?
Thora clawed her fingernails across the mud streaks running up her skirt in a futile attempt to remove them. As she made stride after giant stride up the steep bank, her feet slid, unbalancing her and making her come down on her hands and knees. She was close to the top now. The two boys she’d been chasing were already there, lying flat as they peered over the bank’s crest.
She’d chased them since town. Upon hearing the words ‘do you want to see?’ she’d run with enthusiasm, all energy expended to keep up. They’d led her across small bridges, over streams, through woodlands, and now, at the end of their journey, to this clear-cut where most of the timber felled had been used to make the ships waiting for her father and the other men in the fjord. Bare earthed and muddy from recent rain, puddles rippled sunlight as drops of water fell from discarded branches.
Thora reached the top and went down onto her stomach. Sliding herself forwards, she allowed her eyes to be drawn towards that which the two boys were tracking in the distance. For a moment, all she could see was the treeline where felling had ceased just a few months before. Then, once she’d decided it was perhaps not an animal they were looking for but something different, she spotted it.
It was a boy, she could see. Or, at least, a person the height of a boy. He wandered back and forth, his outline becoming clearer then more concealed as he passed in and out of tree cover. His hair was a well grown scramble of blonde knots, tousled and matted. Sitting as much on top of his head as it did on the sides, it bobbed back and forth as he picked items up off the ground.
“See, I told ya,” one boy said to the other. “His whole town was killed but with him they just couldn’t get the job done. I heard they kept taking off limbs – a hand, a foot, a leg – but each time whatever it was they’d taken just kept growing back. Eventually, they went for a tongue. That stayed gone.”
Thora looked at the boy who was talking. He was a mucky child with two overly large front teeth and blonde, ear-length hair. The teeth would not have looked so out of place if it wasn’t for his insistence on showing them in a perpetual sneer. More disgusting was the muck and the smell it brought. Dating to far earlier than their sprint and scramble up the bank, it appeared in faint but frequent patches. Thora could see where it was embedded into the grains of his skin.
She turned one side of her mouth up in disgust. “Give off!”
The boy started. Rolling onto his side, he stared at her. “What?” he said. He took a moment to look her up and down. “Who are you?”
Thora shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, does it?” She pointed to the other boy. “You need to say sorry to your friend. If I or my brother ever told such a stupid story, our mother would make sure neither of us ever said anything like it again. Hands and legs growing back! Haven’t you seen warriors with missing fingers? Hands and legs can’t grow back!”
The boy scratched his scalp. It took him a moment to comprehend what she was saying, but then he smiled at his own cleverness. “Oh, and you’re an expert on what warriors can and can’t do, are you?” He looked to the other boy for approval.
Thora rolled her eyes. “No, of course not. But I don’t have to be, do I? The story is obviously stupid.”
The boy snapped his gaze back at her. Breathing out audibly, it was only once he’d regained his composure that he spoke again. It was with a voice Thora was sure he was making artificially deeper. “Well, if you’d been here when we first arrived,” he said, “which you weren’t, I note, ’cause you weren’t invited, then you’d have heard me say the boy’s a freak. Word is the king didn’t like the stories he’d been telling and so decided to find a way to make them stop – stories of the king losing his kingship and stuff like that. Problem was, his stories had a habit of coming true. I heard he’s the son of a witch; she, like the rest of his town, no doubt dead now.” He looked at his grubby hands. “Best thing too, if you ask me. If his magic was for his stories to come true, then we’re all better off if he no longer has a tongue with which to tell them. He let his eyes wander around casually then moved them to fall back on Thora. “You going to disagree with the king?”
She thought about it a moment then shook her head. “No,” she said. “But still, I don’t think your story has no lies in it.” She nodded to agree with herself. “You’ve at least added a few things. Hasn’t your mother ever told you not to do that?”
The boy narrowed his eyes. He began to seethe. Then, paradoxically, he smiled. It looked sincere at first, but then, with his brow dipped, it was through gritted teeth. “What if she doesn’t?” he asked. The sound of his voice was as a knife severing rope. “What if she knows not to?”
“What if she knows that if she does, it would be bad for her?” He looked Thora up and down again. “You see, the women in my family know their place. My mother knows that if she tries to punish me or my brothers, my father would beat her. He’s taught us to come up with worse punishments for other women and girls too; ones you’ll learn all about if you don’t shut-up.”
Thora felt the urge to move back. She didn’t quite understand why yet, but she felt a knot of revulsion in the pit of her stomach. She was a pretty girl. Her hair was a light red, coming down to just below her shoulder. Her build was slender and sinuous. That which she hated most about herself – the orange freckles on her face and arms (believing these made her look perpetually dirty) – were, in truth, the very thing adding feature to her soft face. They framed her deep, round eyes. Alone these proved her less than shining opinion of herself wrong.
She did move back. She was fairly sure he was lying; it was illegal for a husband to beat his wife without good reason, so it would be foolish for one of his sons to so freely announce he did it. There was something about the way he spoke his words, though.
The boy flicked his hand, “Actually, if you want the truth, I don’t think you’re my type anyway. My brother, Yngvar, he likes girls your age. He’s always telling me how he hopes they’ll need putting in their place so he can be the one to do it. You’re just his type, too. How ’bout I go and tell him about you?” He turned to the boy behind him. “Come on, Gudrun. Let’s ditch this one. I already can’t stand her stench, even if my brother would quite like it.”
He stood with little of the care for hiding he’d shown before and brushed himself off. The other boy, looking up in confusion at their abandonment of stealth, followed suit. They walked a few paces, then the boy who’d been speaking stopped, turned, and showed his wicked smile a final time. “Yes,” he said. “I think I will tell him.” His teeth looked sharp. “He’ll like that, and if I get him in a really good mood, he’ll let me watch.”
He turned and descended the bank.
Thora watched them both go. At first, all she could think was, What in Midgard could he mean by ‘worse punishments’? Then, once she’d caught a whiff of the back of him, she thought, How many baths has he missed to smell like that? She forgot that she too was pretty much lying in filth. It was only once they were out of sight that she realised and tried to remove the mud streaks a second time.
It didn’t work. Soaked-in and now drying, they clung to her skirt as tenaciously as ever. She was unfazed. Turning back, she scanned the tree-line, more concerned with finding the boy again. He’d gone. Or, at least, she thought he had. All she could see now were branches, pine needles, and muddy puddles. If he was still near, he’d...
She breathed in and hugged the ground. Face in the dirt, she panted. Not only had he been there but he’d been looking at her. Had he known they’d been watching him all along? Lifting her head so only her brow and eyes showed, she
looked a second time. As before, he was staring, but now she found him waving also. She stared back. Why would he be waving? she wondered. It occurred to her then how ridiculous the story the boy had been telling must have been. If the boy’s friendly, why would anyone want him dead?
She waved back. His actions, although unexpected, seemed to confirm her thoughts; he went back to his task, bending over and picking items up off the ground again. Shrugging, she showed her palms to no one in particular, then caught her balance and stood. Brushing her skirt down a final time, she nodded.
She made her way down the mound half stepping, half sliding. By the time she was at the bottom, she was running. It took longer than she’d expected to slow herself. When she stopped, she was only five paces away from him.
“Hello,” she said.
The boy kept his attention on his task.
She waited. “My name’s Thora. What’s yours?”
Still he continued.
She felt her cheeks flush. If the tongue part of the story was true, she’d just asked him to do the very thing he cannot. She felt a prized idiot. “Sorry.”
To her surprise, he stopped then.
He raised his hand and waved.
She went to speak on only to stop herself. She was always being told she was being insensitive – asking questions that would upset or embarrass people. Mostly it was her brother who said it; he was the one who seemed to pay her the most attention. She decided this would be ok, though. “Um, those boys,” she said, “– the ones I was with up there – they said...well, they said you have no tongue. Is it true?”
The boy opened his mouth to show her the empty space within. Mostly it was in shadow, but she thought she could see what looked like a stump at the base of where his tongue should be. It made her shiver.
“Oh! Um...well...” She thought about it again then decided this would be ok, too. “How did you lose it?”
He turned and, for a moment, Thora thought he’d set about his task again. It was only when he crouched that she moved herself to see what he was doing. He was using a stick to scratch lines in the mud. It was box shapes at first. But then, with triangle shapes over them, she could see they were longhouses. In profile but arranged like a map, they made up a town. When he was finished, he looked up, pointed to his creation, then pointed to his chest.
Home, she thought without effort. She smiled at her cleverness. “That’s your home?”
He nodded a second time.
He turned then to the drawing again and began scratching more shapes. This time it was of stick figures surrounding the town. They were carrying shields and either spears, axes, or, on the odd occasion, even swords.
“Warriors?” she said, making another guess.
He nodded again.
This time, when he set about scratching on a third occasion, it was to draw flames over the buildings. Once he was finished with those, he moved to a new patch of dirt and started a fresh drawing. In this picture, stick figures were lying on the ground. A warrior, in the middle, stood over a shorter figure. It was pointing a knife at its mouth. Thora guessed this must be the time when he lost his tongue.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking around and seeing a nearby stump. Walking over to it, she jumped up to sit. “You know, sometimes I feel like I have no tongue too.” She said these words whilst looking into the distance. “Well, as good as; Mother and Father never listen to me. Halfdan does, but only when Father gives him time. Halfdan says it’s because Father is so engrossed in trying to become king that he has no time for us. Mother just doesn’t care, or that’s what Halfdan says. He’s pretty sure she only had us to give Father sons.”
She looked around. There was no one else around. She had an idea. The boy could be her friend, couldn’t he? He would listen. “Wait, I know, why don’t I help you with your work? You’re collecting firewood, right? Into piles? I can do that, and my dress is already mucky.” Getting down, she picked up the nearest stick she could find and dropped it onto the nearest pile. Once she was certain it would stay there, she set about finding another.
“See?” she said. “Easy.” She didn’t even look up to see if he approved. “We’ll be done in no time.”
It smells of the sea, Halfdan thought. It may be the most powerful town in the Kingdom – it may even be the most regal – but like all coastal towns, it smells of the fjord in which it lays.
He remembered back to when he was a boy. It had been smaller then; more intimate. King Rangvald’s rule had lasted as long as he could remember, yet still it had retained a quaintness. It could not have lasted, of course; a king’s hometown was meant to speak of wealth – with time, its streets were meant to become well drained where they were once muddy, its residents were meant to wear the finest textiles traded or raided from the known world, and its wealth, growing as the king’s grew, was meant to cause it to swell and bloat. In its advanced state, this town was now residence to more men carrying swords than Halfdan had ever seen.
Many would not be local, he knew. Word was, the king was planning something special this year. As the first raiding season where so many had come together in four years, the King was ensuring the continued absence of unrest amongst the jarls. If successful, he would bring them wealth. If unsuccessful...well...
He walked with his head down. His father, walking beside him, had been vocalising his plans since they’d arrived.
“Yes,” he said. “Can you not see? They await theKing’s successor. Every one of them asks the question of who will be next. It will be me, Halfdan – it will be me and they all know it. And don’t forget that will mean you too, of course. ‘My son and his will rule for a thousand years’ – that is what the völva told me.”
Halfdan looked up with a brief glance. His father was a tall man. Or, at least, used to be. In his advanced age, he’d developed a hunch so great it made him not much taller than any other person. Pushing his head forwards and his nose out, his now greying locks framed his time worn face like a doorway into age.
A man carrying a sword caught Halfdan’s eye. Changing direction, he walked in front of him. Halfdan acted as fast as his reflexes would allow but had to slow and turn lest he trip. Stumbling, he only just stayed up.
“Just as I thought,” his father said once Halfdan had regained his composure. “Defiance – it is a sure sign I am both feared and respected.” He nodded his satisfaction.
They turned a corner and made their way to the great hall. At its entrance, they found two warriors – one tall and one short – standing guard on either side of the door. Both held a shield and a spear. Halfdan’s father held himself taller than his usual hunch as he announced them in what Halfdan privately called his important voice. “Jarl Olaf,” he said “And this is my son, Halfdan.”
The taller of the two men on guard nodded. He opened one of the double doors and stepped inside. Halfdan and his father turned to watch the street, saying not a word to each other as they waited. Then, when the man reappeared and jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, they followed.
The air felt warm. At the back, raised on a platform, there were two large seats. One, Halfdan knew, would be for the king – the high seat. The other was smaller. This would be for the king’s wife – the queen. The king was stood at the foot of them both, talking to someone. As Halfdan and his father approached, he slapped his hand on the arm of this visitor and laughed.
The king spotted them and smiled. “Olaf!” he said. “My friend!”
“Rangvald!” Halfdan’s father said. He opened his arms.
The king matched him. They embraced. When they broke it off, he put his hand on Halfdan’s father’s shoulder, gave it a brief shake, then looked him up and down. Wearing a patch on his right eye and with once blonde but now greying hair – like Halfdan’s father – Halfdan had always thought he looked like Odin. As a boy, it had been a disconcerting thought.
The king’s eye fell upon him then. “And Halfdan,” he said. “You have grown into a fine man, I see.”
Halfdan smiled and nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
Still smiling, the king then turned, climbed his platform, and sat in his chair. There was no trepidation on the part of Halfdan’s father when he followed to sit on the queen’s. If Halfdan had not been trying to keep his expressions to polite smiles and stoic indifference, he would have cringed then. He wasn’t sure if onlookers would see it as an act of defiance, or, being a woman’s seat, shamefully argr.
“So, my friend,” the king said, “how was your journey?”
Halfdan’s father nodded. “Not without its difficulties,” he said. He paused for effect. Then, allowing his smile to widen, “But Thorstein – my boat builder – he has been teaching his skills to his son. I must say, the boy now surpasses him even in the most intricate work. Come and see the vessels when you can, Rangvald; they’re beautiful. The dragon heads are so finely crafted I thought they were real when they were presented to me.”
Halfdan raised an eyebrow. He was surprised to hear his father begin with such a boast. It had only been a week prior he’d threatened to banish Thorstein and his son for allowing the boy to be involved at all. He’d been worried the work would not have the desired prestige amongst his fellow jarls.
“Aye, I will,” the king said, “but all in good time. Now we must prepare. Tell me, have you bought your wife and daughter with you? How are they?”
“Both are also well,” Halfdan’s father said, “Thora grows up fast and seems intent on destroying every piece of clothing she owns. She will excel as the wife to some great jarl one day. And your wife and daughter?”
The king nodded. “Good,” he said. “Good.”
Halfdan’s father shuffled. He’d looked reluctant to go on. But then, scratching his cheek, he spoke with a feigned confidence. “Actually, I hear you’ve been reluctant to leave them of late, despite your busyness, that is – busyness beyond just planning for these raids. In fact, I hear your men have been no stranger to the affairs of battle. If I’m not mistaken, you relieved a jarl of his position and his karls 4 and thralls 5 of their lives? All but one, I hear.”
The king’s gaze sharpened. He shot it over to look at Halfdan’s father. “And what of it?”
Halfdan’s father savoured the moment. He inspected the back of his hand. “Well, you have to admit, it is interesting. That’s why so many people are talking about it. It’s just not as would usually be expected.” One side of his mouth was turned up in a smirk. “You had an entire town killed and bought only a single child back to make your slave. Why? Superstition? I do not believe a great king such as King Rangvald can find work for only one more slave.”
The king shook his head. He got out of his seat and turned to face Halfdan’s father. “No, it’s not that. It was what the boy was doing. He was wandering from town to town, making wild prophecies in the guise of stories. Jarl Rollo only took him in because some of the stories came true. Everyone should understand there’s a risk to asking someone to tell tales of a king’s fall, even if they aren’t really prophecies. I had to stop him; I had to make an example of them all.”
Halfdan became aware of someone stepping forwards to stand alongside him then. When he looked out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a tall, heavy set man with a scarred face, curly black hair, and a bushy beard. Gyrd, he thought – the king’s most favoured warrior. He’d known well of him when he’d been a boy. Always watching and with a stare strong enough to pierce even your soul, he acted essentially as the kings missing eye. For Halfdan, having him so close now dug up memories of childhood transgressions and their subsequent punishments. He tried not to show that his muscles were tensing.
“You and I have known each other for a long time,” the king went on. “It was you who fought by my side to make me jarl all those years ago, and it is you who has supported me as king until now. All those battles and neither of us fell. We came close, of course, but every time the gods spared us. Why? Did they have some other purpose for us in mind? Now, here is my question: do you think either of us will really see Valhalla? As young men we would, of course, but that was a long time ago. When my ships sail this season, it will be without me. When your ships sail, they will be without you. There’s no denying we would do little good if we did go. We are old, Olaf. We may have had the favour of the gods once, but the gods can be fickle. They may just as easily decide we are no longer worthy of them and deny us. And if we are not worthy, what then? What chance will we have to redeem ourselves? None, I tell you. Not unless you are jarl and I am king?”
Halfdan’s father shook his head. “My King, I think it would be foolish for you to think you will not see Val...”
The king grabbed his arm. “No, Olaf,” he said. “You do not understand.” His eye was wide, his arms shaking. “It is not that I do not think I can achieve it; it is that I do not think anyone will let me. They all want my blood. That is what I mean. Every one of them sniffs. Even if I bring them wealth, they still want my position. Like hungry dogs, they snap. They just cannot justify biting yet.” He wiped his brow. “Have you ever tried living knowing everyone is waiting for you to fail? Have you ever tried living knowing everyone is doing everything they can to make it happen? Even those who once possessed the completeness of my trust are now my enemies.” He started to shake.
Gyrd moved again. Taking another step forwards, he touched the kings arm and smiled. “My King,” he said, “there are others who seek an audience with you. We must continue to greet our guests.”
The king started. For a moment, when he turned, he only stared. Then, once he’d realised where he was again, he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Sorry, Gyrd. My apologies.” He turned back to Halfdan’s father and forced a smile. “And my apologies to you also, my old friend. I should not put my troubles on you. I wish we could have had time to talk about more agreeable things.”
Halfdan’s father smiled, too. Nodding, he stood. “It’s no trouble. There will be plenty of time before the raids start.” And with that, he stepped off the platform.
Halfdan left with him. As they departed, he looked back over his shoulder. He could see Gyrd encouraging the king back into his chair. If there were any words spoken between them, he could not hear them. There seemed to be a more intuitive communication, though. If nothing else, Halfdan did agree with his father’s assessment that the king’s time would
soon be over. It seemed inevitable.
They stepped outside. The temperature had fallen again. Halfdan needed something to cool him after witnessing the king’s unease, anyway, so he didn’t mind. He kept his head down and his senses focused.
“See, my son?” his father said. “What did I say? We should act soon.” He chuckled to himself.
Halfdan cringed then went back to ignoring him. There was a sinking feeling in his stomach. If the end of the king’s time was coming, maybe there was a possibility his father was the first to see it. If that was the case, how long before someone came at him with a blade to remove a rival?
Weaving in and out of the crowd, they made their way back to the boat.
Knute felt his face collide with the timber of the dim hut. He tried to turn but the hands of the men were upon him. They grabbed his arms, twisted them. One of them got up into his face.
“Not laughing now, are ya?”
Knute forced a smile.“Says who?” he asked, sticking out his tongue.
The man’s expression dropped. Staring, Knute could see he was trying to clear them of the vision he was seeing. Knute should be defeated, not defiant. They’d beaten him blue yet still he was standing. Knute knew he would be wondering how. He stuck out his tongue again.
He pulled it back when the man closed his hand. The man, twisting his hips, was throwing his fist forward. Knute bent over double as it struck him. Then, coughing, he nearly went down again. He shook his head.
“Swine piss,” the man said. His fingers clawed skin as he grabbed Knute’s shoulders to pull him back up. One of them – the index finger of his right hand – stayed out to wave in front of Knute’s face. “No running this time. No running at all. We’ll just kill ya there and then if you do. And don’t think we’ll wait for an audience either. We’ll get started, cutting you bit by bit just ’cause you put us to the trouble.”
Knute smiled once more only this time whilst laughing as well. He considered spitting only to decide against it; he still felt too dehydrated.
The man bent down to retrieve chains. There was a smirk on his face. Once he began lifting them, it disappeared. The shackles, clinking, fell apart in his hands. They made a thud sound as they hit the floor.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
The man glared at him. “Oh, think it’s funny?”
Knute shrugged. “Well, they are kinda pointless, aren’t they? I’d be out of them in no time – I was before.”
The man struck him in the abdomen a second time. This time, Knute did go down.
“C’mon,” a third man said. He was standing nearby, his arms across his chest. “Let’s just get to the feast. We’ll send the blacksmith in to sort this. He’s the one who can. And besides, there’ll be someone on the door. I’m hungry.”
“Yeah,” the first man said.
They left and closed the door behind them. Knute, waiting until they were gone, moved up to one of the cracks in the walls and looked out. The sun was getting low now. Soon, the great hall would be full and the mead flowing. He’d wanted to be there. If there was ever going to be an opportunity to get the child, tonight would have been it.
Oh well, nothing to be done now.
He laid down and closed his eyes. Every inch of his body ached. It was the running and climbing that did it. They’d used dogs, too. He never had a chance when they used dogs. They could smell you like horse shit and never wanted to let go. They drew a lot of blood, too.
He tried to sleep. If he was going to escape, he knew it wouldn’t be tonight. Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow? For now, just concentrate on regaining your strength.
He wrapped his arms around himself and rubbed those areas where bruises weren’t coming out. Feeling his hairs stand on end, he shivered.
A shirt, maybe? And some shoes. I’d get a lot further if I could just get hold of a shirt and some shoes.