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Raven's Feast

Raven's Feast

Book excerpt

Chapter 1

The Vik, Summer, AD 935

Hakon sank to his knees before the broad trunk of a maple tree and clutched the cross that hung from his neck.

Closing eyes that stung from lack of sleep, he tried to recall a prayer he had learned in the Christian court of his foster father, King Athelstan, but it would not come. Instead, images invaded his thoughts that were neither wanted nor welcome. Images of Erik and his bloodied battle-axe. A crimson-faced Gunnar roaring as he beheaded the youth who had speared him. The glint of Ivar’s blade as it slashed Aelfwin’s neck and her life poured forth, dark and horrid, onto her killer’s hands. Quickly they came, one after the other, uninhibited; and just as quickly, Hakon’s bloodshot eyes opened to erase them.

For three days now — ever since the battle against Erik — the visions had accosted his young mind. They came in the quiet moments to torment his thoughts and steal his peace. When he rested. When he slept. When he prayed. Chilling images that varied in their horror, yet whose vividness never faltered. Fighting them was like fighting the mist.

“You curse your luck, boy.”

Hakon flinched at the sudden voice beside him, and his hand instinctively reached for the grip of his seax, but it was only Egil Woolsark, the aging leader of his household guard. He had once been a renowned warrior in the army of Hakon’s father, Harald. Now he served Hakon and was the only man in Hakon’s employ allowed to call his teenage king “boy.” He usually used the term affectionately, unless it involved the Christian God, as it did now.

Egil nodded at the cross in Hakon’s hand, the movement shifting his white strands of hair to briefly reveal his bald scalp. “The battlefield belongs to Odin, not your White Christ.”

Hakon glowered. It was a common rift between them, and he was tiring of Egil’s derision. “Save your words for the afterlife, Egil.”

Egil snorted and changed the subject. “The enemy moves.”

Hakon pushed himself to his feet. Though he’d seen only fourteen or fifteen winters — he had lost count of which — his body felt far older. The battle with his brother Erik had battered and bruised him, and the subsequent march to the coast had taxed his limbs, a reality that became even more apparent as he followed Egil through the woods toward the enemy camp.

Egil knelt at the edge of the woods and Hakon dropped down beside him. The camp lay but an arrow’s flight away, a few paces inland from a small beach. It was a crude base, home to a motley rearguard whose mission it was to protect the ships that rocked in the nearby surf. Within the camp’s protective fencing, warriors scrambled to dismantle their tents and pack their sea chests. Camp women helped gather their supplies.

Hakon eyed the enemy coldly. He felt no remorse for their impending doom. The crushing loss of Aelfwin had frozen him to such feelings. Besides, he had pushed his army hard to get to this place; he could not deny them the weapons and armor and arm-rings of the enemy warriors, for they were the spoils of victory. Nor would he let these nameless men take the ships beached on the shore, especially the one that used to belong to his father. Dreki, or Dragon, was her name. Even from this distance, Hakon could see her tall sides and sweeping prow towering over the other ships resting beside her.

“We should attack now, while all is still chaos,” growled Egil.

“Aye. Bring them forward,” Hakon responded.

Egil flashed a grin full of rotten teeth and moved off to ready the men, including Hakon’s allies, Jarls Sigurd and Tore.

Little by little, his warriors crept through the forest and fanned out on either side of Hakon, their weapons drawn but held low. No one wore helmets or metal armor for fear the sound and sheen would alert the enemy. Within the camp, the warriors were oblivious to their peril, for all were intent on leaving.

Hakon pulled his seax from its sheath and squeezed its leather grip. It had a shorter blade than his long sword, which he had named Quern-biter, and was a better weapon for the close-quarters fighting of the shield wall. Slowly he slipped his arm into the straps of his shield, wincing as his bruised forearm slid across the wood. He exhaled slowly, steeling himself for the coming bloodshed.

“Loose!” came Egil’s command from somewhere back in the trees.

Arrows arced through the morning air, seeking their prey with a wicked hiss. In the camp, three warriors crumpled to the ground. Another two grabbed at the missiles now protruding from their limbs. Screams shattered the morning calm. Seagulls scattered with angry cries.

Hakon charged from the underbrush as a second volley of arrows sent even more men to their death. Shield up and short sword ready, he sprinted, his aching body now alive with adrenaline, his battle cry joining the yells of his sword-brothers who charged beside him. Ahead of him, Hakon’s friend Toralv hacked with his axe at the twine holding the gate shut. Hakon kicked the gate open and charged into the camp, shield high, ready for the missiles he knew would come. And come they did. An arrow ricocheted off his shield rim and lodged in the turf by his feet. A spear followed, slamming into the center of his shield and sending a stab of pain across his forearm. He yanked it free and moved on.

“Shield wall!” Hakon yelled at his men.

With practiced skill, his front rank came together beside him, overlapping their shields with his. To his right stood Egil. To his left, the young giant Toralv. Behind them, the second rank brought its shields up and readied itself. Jarl Sigurd’s men fanned out to his right. Tore’s line moved left. Before them, the enemy rallied around their leader, a brute of a man who carried only a sword and shield and wore neither armor nor helm. They too formed a shield wall, though in the face of Hakon’s army, it looked pathetically small. Still, they did not lack in courage. They pounded their weapons on the shield rims and urged the attackers to come and die on their blades.

“Forward!” Hakon yelled.

His men advanced, their shields locked and weapons ready to strike. The enemy took a step backward, retreating with surprising order. The camp women scattered like rats in a burning hall. Some made for the ships. Others for the safety of the trees. Hakon’s army ignored them, concentrating instead on the threat aligned before them.

“Faster!” implored Hakon. He could not let them reach their ships. His ships.

Hakon’s warriors began to jog, doing their best to keep their shields even. The enemy continued their retreat. A few of their less seasoned warriors broke ranks and ran for the ships. The leader bellowed for the others to hold the line. He was not a man afraid to die, for despite the overwhelming numbers coming at him, he kept his men focused and ready.

The lines met with a thunderous clash that echoed across the beach. Hakon stared at the youthful face of the warrior before him. After the battle, he would remember that there had been fear in the boy’s eyes, but in the heat of battle such things didn’t register — all that mattered was surviving. And so Hakon stabbed over his shield rim at that face. His blade struck something, though just what he could not tell, for all was chaos and jostling. He pulled his seax back just as a spear point slid past his shoulder. An axe blade followed, hooking the top of his shield. Hakon pulled back sharply, yanking the axe-wielder forward and off balance. Egil sliced his blade across the warrior’s thigh. As the man faltered, Toralv hacked into his neck and the warrior dropped dead at Hakon’s feet.

Hakon stepped over the body, locked his shield with Toralv’s again, and continued pressing forward. Beside him, Egil roared as he brought his sword down on a man’s exposed head, splitting his skull.

A cheer rose suddenly, and Hakon ventured a glance about. The enemy leader had fallen, and so too had his standard. The enemy shield wall crumbled and men broke ranks and ran. Hakon’s army pursued them, slicing the hapless cowards in the back as they reached the shore or tried to climb aboard the ships. Around the standard a pocket of warriors fought on, but they too soon fell under the relentless blades of their assailants. Hakon’s army swarmed the ships, attacking the women and the few men who tried to protect them, for the battle frenzy was upon them now and nothing would stop them until their anger and lust were slaked.

Hakon watched for a moment, then turned his back to the scene. Behind him rose the screams of the dying and the molested. He closed his mind to it, wanting only to cleanse himself of the blood that clung to his skin and breathe deeply of air not fouled by death.

Tossing his battered shield aside, he knelt on the pebbled strand beside the sea and dipped his hands into the cold water. He scrubbed the dirt and gore from his face and the youthful whiskers that now grew from his jaw, realizing distantly that for the first time, he hadn’t vomited after a battle. Though whether that counted as maturity or callousness, he couldn’t tell, nor did he wish to know.

Washed and refreshed, he stared at his reflection rippling on the ocean’s surface, at the icy eyes, long nose, and wheat-colored tresses. Men said he carried the looks of his late father, King Harald. Whether there was any truth in that, Hakon didn’t know, for he had only known his father as an old man, long after his signature “fairhair” had gone white and his eyes rheumy with age.

Calmer now, Hakon gazed at the ships. When he found the one he sought, he approached her reverently, ignoring the corpses draped over her gunwales and floating in the surf beside her hull. Dragon was named for the serpent head that adorned the bow-post in battle and for the long, sloping lines of her oaken hull. She could seat thirty-four oarsmen per side, with room for more in the fore and aft decks. It was one of the greatest ships the North had ever seen, and now it was his. Hakon waded into the surf and ran his hand over the carvings that decorated her lines — serpentine designs that depicted the life and adventures of Hakon’s celebrated father.

 “It is good to see you again, my old friend,” Hakon whispered, remembering with a pang of nostalgia all the times his father had sailed off in her to some distant land or battle, leaving Hakon alone with the hope that one day he too might follow his father’s path. And now she was his. He smiled at that thought, but his gladness was short-lived, for someone coughed behind him. Hakon turned to see Egil standing on the strand, the crimson feculence of battle spattering his white beard and namesake woolen shirt, or woolsark.

“It is done,” Egil said simply. Behind him, the warriors were beginning to strip the enemy dead of their weapons and possessions.

Hakon nodded. “See that the booty is shared equally, and our dead and wounded cared for,” he said. “Then fetch the jarls. We have much to discuss.” Egil nodded and turned to leave. “And Egil,” Hakon called, “wash yourself.”

 

Later that morning, Hakon sat with his war leaders, Jarls Sigurd and Tore, his nephews Gudrod and Trygvi, and Egil. Before them crackled a small fire, for though daylight now brightened the beach, the sun had failed to break through the clouds.

“Today was a great victory!” Sigurd began in his usual boisterous manner. His thick build and auburn mane reminded Hakon of a bear. He ruled a land far to the north called Trondelag, a land Hakon’s father had given to Sigurd’s father. He was also one of Hakon’s closest advisors and the man responsible for bringing Hakon back to the North from Engla-lond to fight Erik. “We should give a sacrifice of thanks to the gods, eh, Hakon?” He winked at his Christian gibe, but Hakon was in no mood for such jests and did not rise to the goading. Nearby, the gulls had gathered their own army and meticulously pecked and tore their way through the corpses. The sight and sound of it sickened Hakon.

Trygvi scratched at the lice in the depths of his unruly brown hair. “That was no great victory, Sigurd. That was but a skirmish in comparison to the battle with Erik.” He studied his nails for a moment, then flicked something into the fire.

“It was merely a joke,” Sigurd explained, shaking his head at Trygvi’s thick-headedness.

Trygvi was the son of Hakon’s older half-brother Olav, a brash man who had died for underestimating Erik. Sadly, Trygvi had inherited Olav’s propensity to act before thinking, a trait that made him a formidable fighter in the shield wall but not very sensible. What Trygvi said, however, was true: the battle with Hakon’s brother, Erik Bloodaxe, and his army of Westerners and Danes had been bitter. Erik’s larger force had fought uphill and had eventually broken the shield wall of Hakon’s smaller army. Only the late arrival of Jarl Tore and his men had changed the momentum of the fight and crushed the enemy’s will.

Hakon looked in Jarl Tore’s direction. He, like Sigurd, Gudrod, and Trygvi, was kin. His wife was Hakon’s older half-sister Alov, making him Hakon’s brother-in-law, which was a strange thing to contemplate, given their difference in age. The past week had been hard on everyone, but especially on Tore, who was no longer a young man and whose tangled gray hair, slumped shoulders, and red-rimmed eyes revealed the strain of two battles in so short a time. Tore caught Hakon’s eye and smiled tiredly, stretching the thick scar on his neck, a wound he’d received winters ago that still kept him from speaking, save for well-chosen words, and had earned him the byname “the Silent.”

“Battle or skirmish, it doesn’t matter,” Hakon interjected. “What matters is that we did well today. But there is still much to do. Today we have taken my brother’s ships. Now we take his wealth.”

Those in the group looked at each other. “What do you propose?” Egil asked as he studied a silver bracelet that had been part of the plunder.

“I propose that we take back Kaupang at Skiringssal.” The comment drew all eyes to Hakon.

Long ago Hakon’s grandfather, Halfdan the Black, had erected a massive hall in the Vestfold, close to the burial mounds of his forefathers. He called the structure Skiringssal, or the “Shining Hall.” At some point a marketplace, or kaupang, had sprung up on the shore of an inlet near the hall. It was the closest thing the North had to a trading town, though it was far smaller than Hedeby in the land of the Danes, or Birka to the east. Bjorn the Chapman, another of Hakon’s half-brothers and the father of Gudrod, eventually inherited the land and the hall and built the marketplace into a small town.

Ever jealous of the town’s wealth, Erik Bloodaxe killed Bjorn when he came to power and placed a Dane named Ragnvald over the land. Ragnvald’s father was a Dane of some import in Jutland, with ties to the Danish king, Gorm. Men had questioned the appointment at first, but it had proven to be one of Erik’s wisest moves. It repaired relations with the Danes and brought more Danish traders to the town, which in turn put more gold in Erik’s coffers.

Hakon looked at Gudrod and Trygvi. “It is time to retake the land your fathers ruled.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” Gudrod said, speaking for both of them. Of Hakon’s two nephews, he was the slighter man, with a long, thin frame and straight blond hair he often wore in a ponytail. Now it hung straight about his face, covering the wound on his forehead he’d received in the battle with Erik. Like Trygvi, he was older than Hakon, but unlike Trygvi, he was far more clever and industrious.

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