Raven's Feast - Historical Viking Adventure
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. 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.