or saint--which? Wicce or sancte? Even now I do not know. The gods know. Or the
one God knows. Everyone around me is sure, though no one quite agrees. Yet to
me, the only true witness to the miracles, that sureness is denied.
thought that my divine connections were lost, long before the Northmen began their
terrible assault upon our village. Of that I was certain. The magic had been stolen
from me even before I knew the true power of its fire in my veins.
he who by all rights should have sealed it away from me forever, brought it back
to me, gift and curse, to change the course of my life, the course of history.
Even after he was gone the magic stayed, weakening as the hoar
frost touched my hair and winter chilled my bones. Weakened, but not gone.
sing our story in the Sagas of two lands, rhyming from father to son, but they
only know our deeds, his and mine, not what they cost us. They cannot know the
courage those deeds required, or the fear, the hopeless uncertainty which brought
No one knows, even yet, that the world we forged between
us will last down through the ages, different because we lived it joined. But
I know. I have seen it in the fire.
Here then is the Saga, not
as it is sung, but as I would sing it.
Britta could never pity them.
Not any more. She clutched her cloak about her. The wind off the North Sea, cold
in the October dawn, struck a damp chill to her bones that echoed the hard, cold
core of her. She kept her gaze fastened to the distant band of Saxons on the gray
beach and bent again to the oars of her small boat. The creak of wood against
wood joined the cries of the gulls to pierce the rush of wind in her ears.
villagers stood expectantly beneath the stone church that loomed on the cliffs.
They must have seen her, for several of them pointed. She could not yet make out
who they were. She only knew they would be needy. There must be a hundred souls
in the village of Dunford now, and of course there were Offa's men in the faesten
up the river. Offa. The scratch of his beard, the stench of his warm breath, the
rough hands, all drenched her senses. She scraped the rough ends of the oars through
her palms and sucked in the fecund smell of salt and seaweed until she could banish
Remember the reason you come. She swallowed
deliberately. If any were truly ill today, the payment for her herb-craft might
be an iron pot for stews, for the lesser cures a new awl or a flitch of bacon.
The prosaic healing of her herbs was all the magic she would ever have, now.
water pulled against her back as the sea birds wheeled above her in the biting
air. It was less than a mile from her island refuge to the shore, but the way
was dread-long. If she had not needed what they could give, they might keep their
fluxes and their poxes and be welcome to them. But her island could not be everything
to her, though it gave her the protection of its evil name. Deofric Eoland. It
was called Devil Island because of the horns of sand that made its tiny harbor.
No god-fearing man dared set foot upon its shores. That suited her well. She only
wished she never had to leave its sanctuary.
At least the village
had been spared the fury of the Vikings. It was the faesten up the river that
protected them. Which was worse, the suffering inflicted by strangers, or that
inflicted by your own kind? When Offa came from the west, burning and pillaging,
everyone suffered, not just Britta. Still, ruled by a strong eorl like Offa and
his thegns, the east of Suthfolc had enjoyed five years of peace.
put up her oars and two of the men stepped into the surf to pull her boat into
the sand. She had tight hold of herself as she stooped to gather the small pots
of her herbs, her worts. She ordered them crisply to form a line, and ready their
Karn squinted up into the sun to
watch the snapping canvas fall. "Look to the ropes," he shouted as his men hauled
against the wind to reel in the striped sail of the dragon ship. Karn pushed his
sun-streaked hair away from his face and looked out past the ornately carved prow
to where two hundred Danish ships surged on the choppy North Sea. The signal from
the lead vessel was clear: raid the little stone church they could see on a rise
at the shore.
"Why does he send us?" Sveinn muttered. He had been
Karn's second in command since Constantinople. The hard lines of his face resolved
themselves into a frown.
Karn himself had proposed these small
raids along the shore in Anglia to discourage the Saxon thegns from leaving their
lands unprotected to join their Centish brothers to the south. But Ivar the Boneless
and his brother Halfdan, sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, sent unblooded youths on these
easy missions, not hardened warriors like Karn and his men. Karn twisted at the
leather that wrapped his wrist. "Ulf is behind this," he growled under his breath.
"His influence grows," Sveinn agreed. "Perhaps Ivar has forgotten
that it was you who organized the siege that broke Rouen."
surveyed the small island between the fleet and the shore. It had good protection
for landing, with two spits of sand that arched out around a cove like horns,
much like the island they had used so effectively off Napoli. "Signal them to
put in to the island," he barked.
"The bold Brothers will not
like the delay." Sveinn watched a signal flag cut the crisp air.
must say why he sends us. Why risk our share of plunder to raid this paltry church?"
"Or the Danegeld they may pay to buy us off." Sveinn's eyes lit
"The Saxons always try to keep at bay what they
most fear." Karn braced himself against the creaking, wet wood of the deck as
the dragon changed course. "It never works for long."
don't seem to notice that," Sveinn laughed.
Karn frowned. All
that Saxon silver, plundered or paid, would not buy for him what a fourth son
was denied in Denmark, a place, land of his own. Such things had not mattered
to an unruly youth with too much fire in his blood. He had been eager to leave
his homeland. His father had been glad to see him go, having tired of helping
him out of one scrape after another. Karn had not been home in years. His parents
were probably dead. His brother farmed the land.
No, the best
he could hope for was that Danish scalds would sing his name as they told of the
brave deeds he had done in the days when he went viking. Once he thought that
would be enough. Now discontent plucked at his heart. He did not know what he
wanted. But he could not share his doubts with Sveinn. Danish warriors were not
Karn watched Ivar's ship turn for the island.
Even songs would be denied him if he missed the glory in Cent because he was sent
to raid some tiny church. Uneasiness crept over him as he stared out at the dark,
forested hump of the little island looming before the dragon prow. He might regret
questioning his orders. That they had been given at all was a bad omen. Somehow,
something had begun to go wrong.
It was a
long morning for Britta. Decoctions of bergamot for the fluxes, garlic poultices
for an infected wound. She gave endless instructions. The wounds were the worst.
Then she had to touch the flesh. But when the wrongness of the wounds called,
she could not refuse.
She came at last to Henewulf, who waited
patiently. She opened the untidy bandage on his arm and saw a ragged cut. "What
"A meat hook," he answered stolidly.
turned to her bundle for some gut and her needle. She always felt uneasy around
Henewulf. She had given him herbs once, because his Syffa was barren. It had been
a gesture only, to stop their pleadings. Syffa was too old to bear. Still, less
than three months later, Syffa was swelling and in nine months the babe was hale
and healthy. Henewulf would never believe her herbs had not produced his son.
His gratitude was a bond she never sought.
"Wicce, have you seen
my Edgar of late?" the grizzled warrior grunted as she pulled a needle through
the hairy flesh of his forearm. "He is the image of his mother."
pressed her lips together and continued to work.
"Withal he is
a brave lad and can already lift my sword." Henewulf paused to chew his lip as
the sewing continued. "You can be proud of your work, Wicce."
was not my work. I have told you that," Britta muttered.
was silent until the last knot was tied and the gut cut with Britta's prize possession,
an eight-inch hollow core knife. "Syffa agrees. She says Jesu works through you."
Britta bound the wound with a linen strip. "Think what you will,"
she said. "Now be off with you and keep the bandage clean."
rose until he towered over Britta. "You dismiss your gift, but I cannot." He gestured
to a bundle of fresh wool, too valuable a payment for her simple stitchery.
bit back her protest. If his gratitude ended in a new cloak for winter, what did
she care that it was misplaced? She turned to Wynn, holding a tiny baby that looked
like a dried berry, no longer even able to cry. Britta studied the babe's face,
as Henewulf stalked away. Her vision blurred in a familiar way. A blackness hung
around the tiny bundle. She shook her head to clear it. The presence of death
always made her gorge rise. She pushed a wisp of the red-gold hair escaping from
her braid behind one ear. "I cannot treat your babe, Wynn."
you are her hope, my hope," the distraught woman cried.
steeled herself. No herbs would cure that babe. If she tried and failed, the faith
of the village in her skills would be poisoned. "If you are Christian, go to your
new church and pray to your God to save your child, for I cannot."
have prayed until my knees are raw and still she wanes." The woman looked down
at the listless little bundle.
"Then she meets her maker soon,"
Britta said tightly. "You should prepare."
"Weave me one of the
old spells," the woman beseeched, plucking at Britta's sleeve.
shook her head. She hadn't believed in salvation for a long time. "My prayers
no longer reach the gods, or the one God." She turned away as the tears welled
into the woman's bloodshot eyes. "You will have other babes." A wail rose behind
The sun declared it was mid-morning as she covered her tiny
pots with leather and tied them with string. The others had left the beach without
another word. Just what she wanted. She heaved her hoard into her boat and pushed
it out into the water. Once past the waves, the nose climbed the swells. Britta
ground her fists into the small of her back and caught her breath, feeling older
than her twenty years. The smell of the sea rose up in all its salty fecundity
around her. Her eyes followed the gulls as they wheeled in tantalizing circles
on the updrafts.
Something had changed. She felt dizzy and distant
from herself. On the shore she saw Wynn, still sitting on a giant log washed up
last winter, rocking her bundle and weeping.
The babe is dead,
Britta thought. I felt it go. Once I would have gone to Wynn, to hold her as she
wept until I could take the tiny body from her and we could bury it on the cliffs
above the beach together. But that was before Offa and his men ripped her magic
from her, before the world revealed itself for what it was. She calmed her breathing,
pressing down the old rage and the fear. Now she dared not let in another's pain
lest it remind her of her own and sap her will to barter with the world at all.
Her vision blurred. It must be the wind stinging her eyes.
filled her lungs with sea air and bent to her oars. The dark hump of the island
danced on the waves. It was only a mile from shore. Suddenly, it seemed a long
Britta threw open the door of the
small single-room house to let out the smell of smoke hanging in the rafters.
The huge black dog that slept at the foot of her bed box rose and stretched as
she opened the wicker shutters to the light. Fenris, the Wolf Who Would Devour
the World, she thought wryly, or at least an entire rabbit last night, bones and
all. Your fierce looks go very well with my island.
did not act fierce. He nosed at her hand and leaped about her. She unbuckled her
girdle, woven in geometric patterns of red, deep green and ochre, from about her
waist. The trefoil silver broaches at her shoulders had been her mother's. She
unfastened them from her shoulders and pulled her grass-green tunic over her head.
She undid the tiny leather buckles at her wrists that kept the sleeves of her
white linen shift tight. Then she unwrapped the many loops of thin leather from
her ankles and balanced against Fenris to remove her worn leather shoes. She laid
out her soap, an antler comb, a fresh shift, eager to bathe after coming back
from the land.
First, she grabbed a hunk of bread and cut a bit
of cheese from the wheel hanging high on the wall, out of a dog's reach. With
a cup of water from the bucket by the door, her fast was simply broken. The cheese
she shared with Fenris. He sniffed it fastidiously before he took it.
can thank that poor rabbit for your manners, my fine friend," she scolded him
Clad only in her shift, she started across the meadow.
After she came to the island she had scrubbed her skin raw every day, as though
she could ever feel clean again. Now, the ritual had become a comfort. After her
bath there was much to do. It was an auspicious day for gathering certain herbs.
Coltsfoot in the clay by the spring, garlic in the sandy soil under the south
cliff where it was sunny, comfrey in the shady forest loam and marigolds. The
island was blessed with mushrooms and kelp, sea salt, yarrow and tiny pink valerian
flowers all the summer long.
Fenris darted into the clearing,
capering about the lathe she used to carve her cups and bowls, in front of the
woodpile got by the sweat of her brow. Simple work could soothe your soul. If
she had learned anything by living alone for so long, it was that. How long had
it beenfive turns of the season? Regret had become like a pebble grown shiny
with rubbing until it was beautiful, separate entirely from the rough lump of
the original. She rubbed the pebble again, felt the stab of rue, different now,
She followed the rivulet to the shady pool overlooking
the east beach. Before she soiled it with soap, she stared into the water. At
first he could see only her reflection, her mother's green eyes, her father's
red hair and his light dusting of freckles over her nose. She was a confusion
of Saxon and Celt, of her mother's belief in magic and her father's devout faith.
Both and neither.
Abruptly, she stirred the water. Her reflection
shimmered away into a thousand shards of light. Underneath a fan of precious stime
appeared, waving gently in the shadowy depths. Britta breathed deep and quoted
the Nine-Herb Charm her mother taught her to increase the potency.
herb is called Stime, it grew on a stone,
It resists poison. It fights pain.
This is the herb that strove with the worm:
This has power against poison,
power against infection,
This has power against the foe who fares through
Slowly she eased her hand into the chilly water. Just
in case, she also used the words her father gave her. "Release to me, in the name
of He Who Gave His Life for Us All, your healing gift," she commanded and tore
it from its rocky nest. Then she stripped off her shift and stepped into the cold
water. Fenris barked from the edge of the pool and raced off into the bracken.
Britta washed as quickly as she could. Nakedness always made her
feel vulnerable. She rubbed the lump of harsh soap over her breasts, too heavy
for her slight figure, then heaved herself up to sit on the rock wall she had
built to create the pool. As she soaped her hair, she glanced down at the cove
Four dreaded dragon ships floated below her. Vikings! Her
heart stuttered. She was close enough to see the dragons' fierce expressions,
the intricate geometric carving on the prows of each sleek ship. Their curves
were sinuous evil, fast and supple in the water. They rocked gently now at anchor,
bright shields in many colors lining their sides, their striped sails furled.
Barbarian beasts strode the decks. Metal glinted in leather and fur. Had they
seen her? She slipped back into the water, covering her breasts. They could have
come ashore! Her mind darted about until it fastened upon Fenris.
the gods! Even now, he might be capering up to greet those scourges from the North.
He would find only a spear or an ax for his trouble. And the presence of a dog
on a supposedly deserted island might send them looking for its owner.
she whispered fiercely. He would never hear her. If he did, then her voice might
reach other ears as well. Frantically, she looked about, but her boon companion
was nowhere to be seen. There was only the soughing of wind in the oaks and the
communal chattering of starlings. She grabbed her shift and pulled it over her
dripping body as she rose from the pool. She had never felt so naked. "Fenris,"
she called, a little louder.
From bush to bush she crept, crouching
and calling softly. Now, from behind a clump of guelder rose, she could see almost
a dozen of the brutes standing just under the jutting rocks she called the teeth
of Fafnir, the Serpent Who Circled the World. She had never seen actual Vikings.
Some were dressed in chain mail with pointed leather helmets whose metal nosepieces
made them look like strange and terrifying animals. Huge men they were, with blond
hair or light brown. Several carried round shields, painted in yellow and black,
and axes or swords. One wielded a huge hammer. They were ready for war.
her, she heard the skittering of leaves behind her. She whirled, expecting Vikings.
But Fenris came loping down the hill, oblivious to danger. She knelt with open
arms. He threw himself at her, all tongue and the smell of warm fur.
she sobbed and buried her face in his coat. They would meet their fate together.
Slowly she began thinking again. This little island could not
be the Vikings' destination. She scanned the horizon and saw, faint and small,
hundreds of the dreaded ships, a flotilla of destruction. The village was not
worth so many ships. She got up, drawn to know more.
wooded slope she zigzagged, pulling Fenris with her, her fingers buried in his
fur. She worked around to where she could see the intruders but still use the
undergrowth of the oak wood for cover. Three Vikings stood and one knelt, talking
earnestly while the others, like an honor guard, circled them at a respectful
distance. Her glance roved quickly over two grizzled warriors whose sword hilts
glinted with jeweled bosses and the one with a white-blond beard and drooping
mustaches who squatted to draw in the sand. It came to rest on the profile of
the only Viking who didn't wear a helmet. He was taller than the others, powerfully
built. A long mane of unruly hair streaked with blond framed his face and his
sandy beard was close-cropped.
Fenris caught the scent of the
intruders and barked a sharp challenge. Britta started and squeezed his muzzle
as he struggled to break free. Had the Vikings heard? The big one turned up to
the woods above the rocks where she and Fenris hid. Britta ducked her head, but
she could not tear her eyes away. His face was angular and hard, just as she imagined
a Viking's face would be. But even from here she could see his soft, full lips.
What was a Viking doing with lips like those? The contrast was fascinating. He
scowled as he searched the shadows with slitted eyes.
see them! Then the kneeling man claimed his attention. He turned back to the circle.
Faintly, she could hear his angry voice, a deep rumble of authority. Intensity
shone in his face. She could practically feel the vitality radiating from him.
Here was a man capable of anything. Exactly, she told herself. He was Viking,
capable of any barbaric act.
The crouching warrior with the drooping
blond mustaches said something that sounded sympathetic. The giant shoved his
sword into the sand and nodded as he growled assent. The crouching one rose as
well and turned away. Only Britta saw his sneering smile. The longhaired giant
grew silent and grim. The party broke quickly and returned to the waiting ships.
Britta clutched Fenris to her and watched as the sinister, sleek
galleys left, except the one where the longhaired Viking strode the deck. A square-ish
cargo vessel joined his ship, sailing in as the fleet in the distance moved south.
The cargo ship proclaimed the Vikings' plan to pillage. Squat and evil, it rode
low in the water, born down with cattle and crates.
puzzled. One raiding ship could take the village, but not challenge Offa's men
in the faesten less than a mile up the river. It would be a slaughter when Offa
and his crew came charging down upon these three score Vikings. The invaders must
not know about the faesten.
But before Offa's men could mobilize,
these Vikings would do their worst to the village by the beach. For a moment,
she considered a dash in her boat to warn the villagers, but the thought of her
tiny vessel encountering the Viking ship on the open sea made her shudder. Besides,
what did she owe the village? They had not helped her in her time of need.
looped her girdle around Fenris' neck and pulled him down the path leading back
to her house by way of the north beach, looking behind her at every third step.
That was how she saw the Viking ship round the point of the island, its giant
striped sail belled out with the wind, the oarsmen pulling fast toward shore.
She dashed across the stony strand, dragging Fenris, and flung herself behind
some hulking boulders. Had they seen her? The suspense froze her heart as surely
as the Ice Giants from the Old Religion. Though she was close enough to hear their
shouted war songs and see their fierce faces as they pulled to the oars, the Vikings
slid by swiftly without a glance toward shore. The longhaired Viking stood in
the prow, his cloak whipped by the wind. That must be what a Norse god looked
like, she thought, through her fear.
But he wasn't a god. He was
a dead man. Offa would see to that. And first the village would face the scourge
of the Northmen.
Karn paced the deck of the
dragon ship in a dark fury. Ulf had done his work well. Sveinn put a steadying
hand on Karn's shoulder. Karn broke his stride and looked into his old friend's
eyes. They were smiling.
"Aye," Sveinn chuckled. "It is a prize
not worth us."
"Did you hear him?" Karn muttered. "He said he
understood why we would not want to try and take the church! What could I do but
prove our valor?"
"It will soon be done, and we will be speeding
south to join the others," Sveinn said.
Karn turned away as two
of his men came near to tie off one rope of the sail. He did not want others to
hear his anger. He worked his way through the bustle to the prow and Sveinn followed.
"Ulf dared to reassure me that the church is unprotected, and easily taken!" Karn
could still hear his sympathetic condescension. He kicked a coiled rope fiercely
out of his path, then abruptly leaned against the rail above it to steady himself.
"Well," Sveinn temporized, "he would know."
had been through this way with a small scouting party early in the year. Slowly,
Karn breathed himself to calm, then clapped his friend on the back and smiled
ruefully. "Such thoughts are fruitless old women. They will bear no issue." He
looked to the sails as men gathered them in. "Lay your backs into the oars, brothers,"
he yelled as he strode down the deck of the ship.
The dragon leapt
ahead like a living animal, unfurling a green wake behind it. Only the shush of
the water and the creak of the great oars broke their silence as they bore down
upon the village. Karn fingered Hemglad, Mail-biter, carved with interlacing serpents
on the hilt and inlaid with carbuncles at their eyes. This would not be a true
battle. Still, Hemglad would sing the blood song today as it had sung so well
on the Frankish shore this summer. Around him Danish eyes began to gleam in anticipation.
Even so small a challenge raised their blood.
On the shore, several
villagers pointed toward the advancing predator in horror, then scattered to warn
their kith. Karn broke into a battle chant and the men took it up, their voices
echoing over the waves.
He bellowed the order to reverse the oars.
The shallow-bellied dragon lurched to a halt just outside the surf line. Karn
turned his head up and gave a battle cry. His men's answering shout rumbled into
the salt air of the autumn noon. Then the Danir were over the side in a hail of
limbs. Burdened with iron, they slogged through the surf. Now they were most vulnerable.
But the villagers only ran shrieking in disarray. Several dashed back up the gorge
formed by the river. Karn and his men splashed into the surf and toiled through
the sand up the beach.
"Into the village," Karn yelled. "And you
five," here he pointed to Sveinn and several around him, "To the church with me
before they hide the chalices." As he made his way through the village, he hacked
casually at any crossing his path. A boy of perhaps fourteen with a pitchfork
was not quick enough and fell with a startled look to Karn's sword.
the bell in the church's small tower began to toll in a sonorous rhythm. Was the
hamlet rich enough to boast a bell? That boded well for silver altarpieces. The
tolling almost drowned the shrieks and screams around them. But its warning was
A knot of about ten Saxon men had stopped for sword
and shield. "Make quick work of it," he shouted to his five. The Saxons held swords
or axes, some of weapon quality. Indeed, several had hardened leather breastplates
and greaves. Why did this village have warriors in it? With a collective cry,
the Northmen rushed upon them and the Saxons were soon lying in their own blood.
Karn spun to lead the attack on the church.
The wooden doors were
bolted shut, the windows high and narrow slits in the flint tower. From its sling
at his side he swung up his ax. Great splinters of wood from the doors showered
around his thundering blows. "It is I, Karn, son of Gunnar, who demands entrance,"
he whispered to himself, but it was not a whisper. He was shouting. The bell drenched
all with reverberating sound. At last the door revealed its bolt. Karn shoved
in his sword and lifted the latch.
In the beam of light from the
burst door, Karn saw the altar, two gleaming golden candlesticks, a gilt and jeweled
cross. Yes, Thor! Someone had endowed this church very well, for all it was small.
Karn strode forward, panting, Hemglad quiet in his hand. "Stop that bell," he
ordered. In the shadowy bell tower to the left the priest heaved on the bell rope.
Karn turned to the altar and swept the cross and the gold candlesticks
into his cloak. As Karn turned, he saw Sveinn bearing down on the priest. The
priest left off pulling the rope, though the tolling still continued overhead.
Slowly, the priest smiled and fingered the beads about his neck, hung with the
symbol of his sacrificed god. He smiled as though he knew some secret the Danir
did not. Karn saw Sveinn's anger at that smile spurt within him like the sea through
a blowhole in the rocks. A scream of rage tore through his throat.
Karn yelled. But it was too late. Sveinn clove the priest's shoulder to his breastbone,
raising a bloody fountain that splattered the stones of the tower. Slowly, the
cleric toppled to the side. His smile never faltered. Karn took a ragged breath
and strode over to stand behind Sveinn, who still shook with his anger and the
thrill of death. "Why kill the priest? He was no threat." Killing one who served
the gods, even a strange god, always seemed an unnecessary risk. Karn bent and
tore the beads of amber and jet from the bloody wreck of the body. "So much for
the strength of your god, priest." The echo of the bell hung in the still air.
"And so much for your smile," Sveinn growled and spat on the stone
of the floor.
Outside the dim quiet of the church, Karn and his
five chosen gushed down the small rise into the village once more, through fallen
villagers, noisy chickens and squealing pigs. Several houses were well aflame.
His men chased survivors through the roiling smoke. Danir were everywhere, going
through the larger halls for tapestries or hacking armbands and bracelets from
the fallen. He did not expect much from a village such as this, but then, there
had been ten men with weapons. That many weapons in a village this size made him
There was another form of wealth here as well. Already
some women were being dragged, screaming, into one of the animal pens. The Danir
would take whatever men had not been slaughtered, too. There was a brisk market
for northern slaves in the lands around the sea far to the south, as well as at
home in Denmark. Those in the village who were slaves already would simply change
masters and learn a new language.
"Take the swine and chickens
to the ship," Karn shouted as he strode through the smoke. Some moved to do his
bidding, but most were gathering plunder, their shields and helmets discarded.
Sveinn had now cornered a comely wench by one of the larger halls and pierced
her standing; her wails and struggles ignored. At home, if she had been a virgin,
deflowering her was punished by death. Here there were no rules except those made
by the strong.
Karn himself was in no mood to prolong his visit
here with rapine. He looked around. He did not like this village. It had to do
with the bell tolling out over the countryside and too many men with weapons.
It had to do with Ulf's condescension.
Karn felt his gut recoil.
Something was wrong here. "Get to the Dragon," he shouted, over the din. They
needed the safety of their ship. Several looked up and nodded, but most were oblivious.
They were scattered around the village. Too scattered. Karn pushed Sveinn off
his wench. "Gather up the men, Sveinn," Karn hissed. "Now!"
did not wait to see his order obeyed. He strode across the village, kicking men
off wenches, pushing others down toward the beach. How had he let his men dissolve
into so much disorder? Complacency, he thought grimly.
movement above him. His gaze jerked up to the cliffs around the village. Hordes
of Saxon warriors, well armed, plunged down the sheer side of the ravine. Outnumbered
three or four to one, Karn guessed. "Look up!" he shouted even as he spun to check
the way back to the beach. The Saxons were before him. They streamed down to close
So be it. Karn picked up a discarded shield and drew
out Hemglad, Mail-biter. A scream of impending victory rose from Saxon throats
as the first skittered to the floor of the gorge. Now his band would find the
honorable struggle against insurmountable odds all Norsemen craved. His good fortune
suffused him, but he knew he must steady his men as they first saw the odds.
sing!" he shouted, settling his shield. "Tonight we are victorious against all
odds, or we toast the gods in Valhalla." Around the village, Danir scrambled for
their weapons as the Saxons closed in. "Form your squares," he yelled above the
din. "Work down to the boats."
Where they could band together
the Danir stood their ground, shields facing outward, swords and axes spiking
out, like some strange prickly beast. But those who were late coming out of the
huts or had strayed too far afield were already being overwhelmed by the Saxons.
Karn stepped forward as the first Saxon reached him. It was a
young hothead, his beard hardly full. Karn cut him down with a single blow. The
impact shuddered up his sword-arm. Harald and a son of Vair struggled in to stand
beside him, trying to form the square. A second Saxon landed a blow across his
shield. Karn stuck his sword up under his arm to pierce his heart. Another square
formed around Sveinn off to his left.
Karn sliced about him now
in a confusion of parry and thrust. Hemglad grew slippery with bright blood. He
felt someone there. Another of the Vairsson brothers stepped up to a place in
the square. He had not had time to find a shield. Without it, he would not last
Saxons rained upon the Danir. The Vairsson fell quickly.
In the gap he left, a Saxon sword found Karn's sword-arm shoulder before he could
cut its owner down. He paid no attention to the blood seeping over the dull metal
of his mail shirt, but he knew that soon Hemglad would grow heavy. He slashed
about him and struggled east toward the beach. If any Danir were standing at the
end of the day they would be standing on their ship.
In the melee,
Karn's senses shrank to the smell of sweat and blood, the clang of metal on metal,
the grunts of effort, the screams of triumph and pain. Dust and smoke rose around
him like a fog made opaque by the sun. He scrambled and pushed and shoved his
sword forward, sweat rolling into his eyes. Time meant nothing. He had always
fought. He would always fight.
At some point, his sword arm flagged.
He felt the odds against survival rise. So he did the unthinkable without even
thinking. He let Hemglad fall. With one movement he switched his shield to his
left hand and swung his ax up from its sling into his right, just in time to hack
at the head of an enemy. Now he would do, at least for a while.
band of Northmen around him yelled his name as they struck at their foes, but
their progress toward the beach was bought with blood. One of the square fell
to his knees and looked on, startled, as his life spurted out where his arm had
been. When no new jarl stepped into place, Karn knew their numbers had dwindled.
He looked for Sveinn's square and could not see it. The enemy pressed around him
thickly. He felt metal gore his hip and hacked off the hand that held it.
labored for breath. Still he wielded the great ax with the might of his father,
the might of his gods, in his arm. He felt the man at his back waiver and fall.
He put up his shield and turned his head. It was Harald. He killed a Saxon from
his knees, his sword thrusting up under his foe's shield. Karn reached back with
his ax still in hand to drag him up. As he turned, he felt a great blow to his
head. From a distance, he heard his helmet crack, felt his knees turn to water.
It was the same black water into which he was falling, and there were no Valkyrie
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