Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2015
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
Ragnar's Spirit brought them. It was the sword touched by Odin himself which drew them. It was always the sword. They might have said it was for other things: our land, our iron, our sheep, our women but the real reason was always the sword. We knew this for the ones who came were always either Danes or Norse. The legend of the sword touched by the Gods pulled them towards the land in the hills and the waters. It brought them to my land. And when they came, they came to kill. For the sword they sought was wielded by a warrior renowned from Miklagård to Lundenwic.
Haaken blamed himself for it was he who had begun the songs. He had made them up to celebrate my success and to honour me. They were told in every Viking home whether Dane or Norse. He thought his stories drew them. His most famous saga was of the sword touched by the gods and the warrior who could not be killed whilst he wielded it. It was all nonsense; I could be killed as easily as any man... if my enemy was good enough. So far the spirits, the gods and the Weird Sisters had watched over me and I prayed each night that they would continue to do so. I did not fear to die. I would go to Valhalla and see my old comrades and Ragnar the old man who had trained me. My fear was for my people. We had come to this land which was Valhalla on earth and we had yet to make it secure. When it was secure then I would go to meet my wife and the others in the Other Place.
Each day when I strapped on the sword I both cursed it and kissed it. It was a curse and it was a blessing. It attracted enemies who wished to rip it from my dead hands but it protected my people. It was a fine line which separated those emotions. As I watched my son, Arturus, grow I feared for him. Would he have the burden to bear when I was gone or would some other Viking wield the mighty sword? Such things were out of my hands. The Norns, the Weird Sisters who wove our destinies, would decide such things.
One thing was certain the young warriors, Jarls and Princes would keep coming to Cyninges-tūn to try to take my sword from me and I would have to fight every day to stop them. Such was the life I had made for myself; such was the life of Jarl Dragon Heart and his sword, Ragnar's Spirit. It was my destiny and a warrior was a fool if he thought he could hide from his own destiny.
Each time I touched it I remembered those who had died because of the sword. Beorn Three Fingers had suffered the blood eagle and he had been one of the handful who had followed me from Mann. His friend Snorri had smiled, "He will not mind. We have another Bjorn, Bjorn the Scout and he can do what Beorn did. I am certain that, in Valhalla, he will watch Bjorn with great interest."
It was the end of Gói. We had had the first fine day of the year and I noticed that the birds were beginning to nest. There was a touch of spring in the air. Arturus was now a man and spent more time with the warriors in the warrior hall than in my hall. Since my wife had died it was big and it was empty. I rattled around within it. Apart from Aiden and my slaves I lived like a hermit. It was lonely. I decided to ask Arturus to go hunting with me. I might be the jarl and rule Cyninges-tūn but I still felt foolish having to make an excuse to have some company. The first spring like day seemed a good excuse to me.
I went to the warrior hall where each of my Ulfheonar was busy. Some were repairing or replacing leather straps. Some were carving. One or two were playing dice or nine men's Morris. Arturus was sharpening his seax.
"Arturus, should we go hunting today? I have a desire for wild boar."
He was now almost as tall as I was and he was broader. That was his mother's influence. Her brother had been a broad, stocky warrior. Half of my blood came from the old people, the Britons, and the other half from a Saxon who had forced himself upon my mother. I had not one drop of Norse blood in my veins but I was a Viking. Old Olaf had once told me that being a Viking was a state of mind. He accepted me as one and that was good enough for me.
"Aye father. A good idea."
Haaken and Cnut, my two oldest friends, laid down the scabbards they were decorating. "Should we come, Dragon Heart?"
I shook my head, "No Haaken. You need to spend more time with your family."
He looked disappointed. In truth I was being selfish. I wanted Arturus all to myself. I felt a little guilty, I knew that Haaken's children were at the clinging stage and he desperately wanted an excuse to be out. "Perhaps later in the week. We may not even find any wild boar today. Call today a scouting expedition to prepare for a bigger hunt."
He brightened a little. "Then I will tell my wife that the Dragon Heart needs Haaken to go hunting later in the week."
I shook my head as I left the hall. That was not what I had said. My oldest friend was fierce and courageous when it came to war but he was a mouse when it came to his wife. Since he had married he had shown me a different side to the rock that would not budge in a shield wall but would quake if his wife gave him a hard look. If I did not know better I would have said he was afraid of the shrew.
We went without helmets and armour. You needed to hear and smell when you were hunting and the armour and the helmet would get in the way. I took my sword because I always did. I doubted that I would need it although I had once used it to slay a wild boar which came upon us unobserved. The most important weapons we would take would be our boar spears and our bows. My seax would come in handy when we had to gut the animal we slew. We had arrows which Bagsecgson our smith had made especially for boars. They had heads which were both longer and narrower than our normal hunting arrows. We believed that they penetrated further. Arturus and I were good archers and we would aim for the eye or the heart. The new arrows would, hopefully, kill instantly. A wounded wild boar was very hard to kill. It was like trying to bring down a berserker; they never knew when they were finished.
We took three ponies and Arturus' old dog, Wolf. He had had him since before Arturus had gained the name Wolf Killer. That had been the day my son had become Ulfheonar.
"Where shall we hunt today then, my son?"
"It was your idea." I smiled and shrugged, "Cnut said that there were signs of wild pigs at Tarn Haugh."
"And there are some oaks near there. We will see if my old friend is correct."
The Tarns were less than two miles from our home. We could be there and back in half a day if we were successful. We had a choice of routes. We could drop down to the side of the Water or we could make our way through the forest. The forest route would be easier on the ponies and we took that path.
I had words I needed to say to my son but I knew not how to begin them. I could have used his sister, Kara, for she understood how to put ideas into words. Had my wife, Erika, been alive then it would have been easy. She would have taken him to one side and he would have understood. She had a way about her that I did not have. She had been taken from me so that I had to be father and mother to my son. It was not easy. I had always found that the best way to get something difficult over with was to tackle it head on. I used that approach.
"Time is passing, my son. It is time you took a wife."
He gave me a sudden look of surprise. "Why now? I am still a young man."
"Look at Haaken. He is my age and yet he has children who are barely three summers old. That is because he delayed in finding a wife and having children. You and Kara mean more to me than anything. I would have you experience the same joy."
He looked suddenly sad, "I would, father, and last year, before Yule, there was a girl from the other side of the Water..."
"No, you do not understand. She was one of the ones who died of the coughing sickness last winter. She was one that Kara could not save."
He nodded, "She knows my heart father and she said that it was
. The spirits have told her that I will find a wife and soon. We both need to be patient. I promise you grandchildren."
My wife, Erika, was amongst the spirits and she spoke to Kara all the time. She had come to me, too, once to save my life. I relaxed. This was good. If the spirits and Kara had foreseen a son then I would soon be a grandfather. I felt a warmth within and a smile returned to my face.
I noticed that the wind was blowing into our faces. A north wind oft times brought bad weather. I hoped this was not a false spring. We needed to go trading and raiding soon and bad weather would prevent that. We were just coming out of the trees and I halted the ponies.
"We had better string the bows. We do not want to be surprised by an animal. If we see one we must strike quickly."
As we dismounted he laughed, "I think you taught me that eight summers ago. I have hunted before, father."
"I forget. Perhaps I am becoming like Olaf the Toothless and as forgetful."
"You have many years to go before you are as lost as he was at the end."
We took our bows from the spare pony. I took the opportunity of untying my boar spear. I still remembered the wild beast launching itself at me. This time I would be ready. It was hard to fit the string to the bow. That was a good sign. It showed that the bow was still powerful. I took an arrow and nocked it just to test the pull.
At that moment Wolf growled. Arturus did not need telling that there was danger. My bow and nocked arrow were levelled in an instant as was that of Arturus. We were saved by the fact that Wolf warned us and we were in the shelter of our ponies. A small warband suddenly emerged from the bushes where they had been hiding. They were less than fifty paces from us. Had the north wind not been blowing then Wolf might not have smelled them.
. Even as I pulled back on the bow I counted them. There were twelve of them. Only one had any armour on but they all had a shield. We had none. I also saw that they were Danes. The leader, who wore a half face helmet, had a double handed war axe. It was important to know your enemies so that you could deal with the most dangerous.
There was little point in wasting arrows on the armoured warrior and I loosed my first arrow at the warrior to his right. He was thrown back by the force of the arrow plunging into his chest. It was a boar arrow and would have gone straight through him. Arturus was loosing as fast as I was. My second arrow was nocked and released when they were twenty paces from us. My third when they were ten paces. There were three men pierced by my arrows and three by Arturus. We had halved our enemies. The slope had slowed them down. I grabbed the boar spear as Wolf leapt at one of them.
The leader was a big man and his lightly armoured men beat him to us. I held spear two handed and thrust it into the chest of the first warrior while whipping the end around to the right and the other warriors. It struck two of the Danes who tumbled down the hill and took the legs from the leader. I saw that we had felled seven of them. Not all were dead but it left the big Dane and four others. We had a spare boar spear each and I threw the one I held. It was not a perfect throw but it struck a warrior on the thigh and he fell screaming and pouring blood from the wound. He held it tightly to staunch the bleeding.
I hefted my second spear as a cautious warrior holding his shield and short sword circled me. He was trying to make me present my side to his leader who was now rushing towards me. I feinted with the spear at the man's eyes. He pulled the shield up instinctively and I rammed the point at the shield with such force that he fell backwards. I knew that the axe was being swung even as I turned. Arturus had his sword out and was occupied. The Dane was mine. I swung the haft of the spear horizontally and it smacked into the belly of the Dane. Although he was armoured it was a powerful blow and it winded him. I reversed it and, while he was still recovering, thrust the wicked head at him. He was no boar but it penetrated his armour and began to enter his body. I saw him wince and he swung his axe to shatter the spear in two and then he pulled the broken head from his side and hurled it me.
I drew Ragnar's Spirit. I saw his face crease in a grin of triumph. "You are the one they call Dragon Heart. You are the one with the sword which was meant to be mine. I will not kill you. I shall make you a blood eagle!"
I knew his type. They liked to frighten you with threats and words. I preferred to remain silent and use my sword to do my talking. My advantage was my speed and my weakness was his armour. Ignoring the sounds of combat behind me I lunged forward to use the tip of the sword. My enemy had to swing; he had an axe. I had a choice of strikes. He did not try to deflect the blow. He ignored it and brought the axe down to split me in two. Even as my sword scored a line through the metal links I was hurling myself forward to follow the blade. The axe was so close that it almost shaved my kyrtle.
My dive rolled me down the hill up which the Dane had just come. An unfriendly rock arrested my fall and I felt a rib crack as I struck it. I jumped to my feet. It was much easier to stand quickly without mail and I raced uphill. My enemy had seen my fall and in it saw victory. He ran down towards me. That was a fatal mistake. He was in armour and he came at me too quickly. I saw the axe swinging and I stepped towards him and under the axe. I ripped Ragnar's Spirit across his middle. My earlier blow had severed some of the links and now the edge ripped open more. The sword went into his padding and his momentum helped it to tear into his stomach. I was knocked to the side but I held my hilt still and the sword continued to open him up as he tumbled beyond me to land in a heap at the bottom of the hill.
I walked down the hill with my sword ready for any threat. He lay on his back and I could see his entrails lying in a trail following his fall. He was alive. His helmet had fallen from his head and I could see that he was a young man; little older than Arturus. He gripped his axe still but that was for his passage to the Other World and not to strike me.
His eyes opened. "They were right. You are a powerful warrior." He laughed and coughed up blood at the same time. "We waited for seven days to catch you alone and without armour and still you defeated us. I will have a good tale to tell when I am in Valhalla."
"What is your name, Dane?"
"I am Elli the Mighty." He closed his eyes in pain and then opened them. "And I was felled by Ragnar's Spirit. It is a good death. I..." And then he died.
I turned to trudge up the hill. My ribs were sending shafts of pain with each step. I had not heard combat while I had been talking to the giant and I saw a bloodied Arturus half way down the hill. He stood over one of the wounded warriors. There was anger on his face. "Wolf is dead! He died protecting me! I will make this one pay."
"Wait, my son. Use your head and not your heart. We need to find out where they came from. He will die but first we ask questions."
He sighed and nodded. "You are jarl and you are right." He gave a nod of his head. "I have much to learn."
The warrior was little more than a youth. Elli the Mighty had been young too. I glanced at the youth who stared defiantly at us. He was the one whom I had hit in the thigh. His life blood was slipping slowly away. He had not long for this world and I had to question him quickly.
"Elli the Mighty died well, warrior."
He nodded. "We came for glory and he has it now. End my life and let me follow him in death as I did in life. Give me my sword."
I picked up the seax. It was a poorly made weapon. It looked brittle. Had he used it then it would probably have shattered at the first blow. I held it by the blade. "First I want to know where you came from and are you alone?"
He dropped his hand. "I will not betray my chief."
"You cannot betray him now for he is in the Other World. If you want to join him then answer me. Your wound is slowly killing you. Soon the darkness will enfold you and you will find yourself staring at Hel and not Elli."
His eyes widened in terror. He was too young to have gone a-Viking. I glanced up the hill and noted that they were all young. This had been a band of young warriors on their first adventure. They had been ill led. Elli might have been Mighty but he was not Elli the Clever. You did not take such a young band without an experienced warrior to give advice. I saw that their weapons were all of the poorest quality and their shields badly constructed. Many leaders, such as Elli, wanted to reap rewards without learning their trade. It had cost eleven young men their lives.