Oxfordshire, early November 1002 AD
Treachery gains more purchase on the imagination when people are at war. The fateful year 1000 had come and the wretched, ever-worsening state of the world provided manifest evidence to support the view that the Last Days were in progress. Venerable bishops added their voices to those of wandering scoundrels who intoned the End of Days: ‘War shall come upon war, tribulation upon tribulation, famine upon famine, nation upon nation and yet the bridegroom does not come.’
In these circumstances England found itself beset by Viking attacks for twenty and more years, failing to resist incursions, its kingship paralysed by poor leadership and treachery.
Aethelred II wore the crown, enthroned as a boy king since his supporters murdered his half-brother, Edward the Martyr. Little wonder that sea raiders swarmed to England for rich pickings.
Betrayal! Surely the vilest such act is to murder hostages bound by a sacred oath of protection. That fate might have been mine at the beginning of November 1002. Back then, I was a mere boy of nine, weak and trembling. I know it’s difficult to imagine as I stand in manhood before you with iron-hard muscles tempered in battle. Many a warrior has quailed and fallen like a felled oak under the mighty blows of my battle-axe.
Let me take you through the events of many years ago. With treason rife you never knew who you could trust, but the ignoble vice can work both ways. So it was that a Saxon thegn who, betraying his lord, came to Eilaf, my brother, to warn us of Aethelred’s infamy. He advised of the imminent edict to eradicate Danes from the land. The politics behind this decision meant nothing to us in our youthful naivety but we understood the warning that men with sharp blades were coming to slay the King’s hostages.
Eilaf, four winters my senior, came to our bedchamber, his long blond hair combed down and plaited like a maid. Thus he appeared to my sleepy eyes, dressed in woman’s garb.
“Ulf! wake up!” he shook me and the agitation on his face snapped me out of drowsiness.
“Hush! Make haste and dress. They are coming to slay us.”
My brother seized me by the arm to haul me, stumbling, out of bed.
“Dress! And be quick.”
Ignoring my frantic questions as I tugged on my tunic, breeches, belt and shoes, I managed to gain Eilaf’s attention only when I confessed my fear.
“Remember,” he hissed, “you are the son of Thorgils Sprakalägg; courage is in your blood.”
That was the point; I did not wish to study my blood pooling on the floor before me.
“This way!” ordered my quick-thinking brother, “They mustn’t find us here.”
If I am alive today, it is thanks to Eilaf. At nine winters of age, I was as near defenceless as a babe. He led on by candlelight into a large chamber. There, he took me to a wicker linen chest, and made me clamber inside before lowering the lid.
“Keep as silent as a night owl!” he whispered, but I needed no telling. “Stay there until I come for you! Do not move!”
I watched him sway across the room, imitating a girl’s gait, in the dim light cast by the smoky wall-mounted tapers. My forefinger bored at the willow weave of the linen chest to widen a gap sufficient to let me keep an eye on the door and the space between it and me. I recall being warm and cosy, the folded sheets and coverings made a comfortable bed. The thick air induced sleep and, barely awake, I began to slip back towards slumber.
My somnolence did not last long before voices jerked me to alertness. A fearsome bristling figure with a sword brandished in one hand, and the other clasped around the wrist of a servant girl, strode into the room. I needed the toilet but knew I dared not move.
“Let me go!” cried the servant.
I knew the voice, my heart thumped twice as fast. It was no maid but my brother, Eilaf.
“Do not play me for a fool child,” the gruff voice of the intruder terrified me, “you know what can happen to a pretty little bauble like you, don’t you?”
He hauled Eilaf to him, pressed his body into his dress and planted a kiss on his lips. Eilaf struggled like a wildcat but the man only laughed and said, “Now, sweetness, you take me to your mistress, Gunnhild, and you need fear no more. Understand?”
“Release the child!”
My eye switched to the door where, in shadow, stood the noble figure of our distant cousin who, had she survived, would also one day have become my aunt by marriage. The swishing of her gown as she passed my hiding place remains in my memory. The horror of the moment lingers too. Although I was young, I had the certainty that the beautiful Gunnhild was walking to her death. I saw Eilaf race out of the room, heard the groan of Gunnhild, saw her sway and stagger before collapsing on the floor. A crimson lake formed around her body, flowing from a gaping gash in her throat. I can describe no more because tears blurred my vision and terror seized my galloping heart. I had to rely on my hearing.
“What do you mean to do with yon needle, my bonny?” the murderer asked. “It would be a shame to skewer a lovely Saxon maid with my trusty blade. You are a spirited wench, I’ll give you that. Come, you can lead me to the bedchamber of the Danish whelps.”
I could not bring myself to look at the grisly sight on the floor so when my brother led away the killer, I closed my eyes tightly. Eilaf must have returned with a hand-seax to try to save Gunnhild but how could he? A boy of thirteen winters against a Saxon warrior armed with a sword? Eilaf at that age possessed all the courage he would later display in warfare. Realising he was too late to help Gunnhild, he used his wits to overcome adversity. He led the slaughterer to our bedchamber, which, of course, was empty.
“Ah, the birds have flown!”
He flung Eilaf on the bed and my brother feared the worst, but the man did not wish to satisfy his lust.
“I must seek out the Danish whelps...” and with that he left my trembling brother to curl up on the bed. He waited, listening and fearing the return of the brute, but it never happened. Instead, he told me, the night dragged on until the first light of morning, when a scream averted him of the finding of poor Gunnhild. From my refuge, I saw the servant find the body. Her shriek assailed my eardrums as she was but three paces from my hiding place. Soon, the room was full of people. Among them I saw the lord of the hall, a thegn whose name I never learned. I remember him railing against everyone and against fate itself that he had been placed in the position of failing to protect his noble hostage, the sister of the Danish King, Sweyn Forkbeard. Hearing his ranting, I knew he feared the wrath of King Aethelred, but because of my youth, I was confused. Why would the King be angry if he himself had sent the killer?
They took the body to a chapel and servants mopped the floor. It seemed forever before Eilaf, dressed in his own clothes, came for me. When the room was empty but for us, he opened the chest and helped me out. My legs buckled from stiffness and lack of movement but soon, after rubbing them, I was able to walk.
“Come, Ulf, we must flee this place. We cannot stay here.”
“But he...the...the killer, he’s gone.”
“They’ll be back. Their work is but half done.”
I needed no more convincing. So we sneaked out of the hall that had been our home for the last two years.
“Are we going back to Sweden?”
“When we can obtain passage. For now, we must make our way to those who can help us.”
“And where are they?”
“In a town near here, called Oxford. Come on!”
“Think of saving your life first and of filling your stomach later, little brother.”
“I’m not little!”
“No, you’re a mighty Viking warrior!”
I flushed with anger and my frightened eyes stared around the great hall where our furtive creeping had brought us. I think it was then that I decided to repay the Saxons for the murder of Gunnhild and for causing the ursine grip of fear that threatened to crush the last of my resolve. We slunk in the shadows of the dim hall along the wall towards the doorway. The acrid smell of charred logs from the hearth pricked at my nose and I stifled a sneeze.
“Hush!” Eilaf whispered.
When no-one could see us, he slipped out of the hall and I followed as fast as I could. Eilaf tugged me down behind a water trough.
“Until we get to Oxford, we must keep out of sight and treat everyone as enemies, right?”
What I remember most of the march to Oxford was the gnawing at my stomach. I let Eilaf take control. He was older and wiser than me and I’d always looked up to him. To give him his due, he had thought of everything. He took money from Gunnhild’s room and found a woodland stream on our way to the town. The fresh water went some way to making me feel better. I did not complain during our tiring journey, for Eilaf had enough worries, I understood that much.
When we strolled into the town I felt all eyes upon me and, warned by Eilaf to consider the Saxons as enemies, I felt as though all the world threatened us. I need not have worried. News of the King’s edict would not arrive for another two days. Eilaf observed everything and everybody carefully until he heard two men speaking our language. Not Swedish but near enough, sufficient to understand and be understood. These two were Danes and Eilaf learned from them where in town we might eat in Danish company. At last, my stomach was satisfied and we had found lodgings. Gunnhild’s purse proved to be well stocked with silver coins so we had no worries for our bodily needs.
It was clear to Eilaf that we were not out of peril. To me, all that mattered was that I was warm and fed but I did recognise the need to find a way back home to mother and father. Eilaf set about the task of seeking passage. It was not straightforward because our presence among the Danish artisans of Oxford had elicited much curiosity.
For this reason, a man named Haldor, a tall, shaggy-bearded, stern-looking fellow sought us out at our inn. He claimed to be the elder or headman of the Danes in Oxford.
“Tell me how you come to be here in Oxford. Who are you exactly?” His suspicious eyes roamed over the two of us. Our fine clothes marked us out as superior to the common folk. At first, I left the talking to my brother.
“We are Eilaf and Ulf Thorgilsson. We were held by King Aethelred as hostages. They came in the night and slew Gunnhild.”
“What? They slew King Sweyn’s sister?”
“Ay,” we nodded together.
Haldor looked from one to the other of us, “And you saw the murder?”
I nodded again.
“By Odin, the oath-breakers will pay for this in blood and fire!”
Eilaf caught Haldor’s eye as he rose to leave.
“What is it?”
“The informant who saved us told me that King Aethelred has issued a decree that all Danes must be eradicated from the land. I thought I’d better warn you.” The greybeard laid a hand on Eilaf’s shoulder, “Did he, by Thor? My people will be grateful to you. ‘A man who is forewarned is forearmed’ ” he quoted. “I will send a man to you who may help find you a ship. For now, my thanks, we will meet again.”
But we never did. They killed him.
Oxford, November 13 1002 AD
The man Haldor sent to the inn with information about a ship told Eilaf that to cross straight to Sweden was impossible. We would have to sail to Denmark first and thence travel onward to our homeland. I liked this bluff Dane, named Niels. He toiled as a leather worker for a business run by his wife-brother. Seeing Eilaf carried a hand-seax thrust behind his belt without a sheath, he measured the blade with his thumb from joint to nail and promised to make him one.
“I’ll bring you something too, young man,” he said with a grin, while he ruffled my hair.
Niels’s gift turned out to be a pouch for my belt. Well crafted with neat stitching, it bore a stylised raven’s head on the flap. I use it to this day, although it bears signs of age. Inside, within one of the three compartments, nestled a silver coin. I made to hand the money to Niels who shook his head and said, “You know, Ulf, it’s tradition to place a coin in any purse, pouch or bag gifted. So it’s yours. Spend it well.”
Niels would accompany us downriver to where his cousin, taking a rest between trading trips to Denmark, had a boat moored. His ship lay tied up at a wharf a couple of hours from Oxford, where the River Thames flowed more deeply. Maybe we could sail with him on his next voyage.
The three of us were setting off when a short, bandy-legged man with a deep voice called after Niels to halt. His expression revealed his uncontrollable anxiety and his speech became undecipherable as he gabbled some kind of warning. From Niels’s reaction, something terribly amiss had occurred.
“Boys,” he said, turning to us, “I cannot depart now. My sister and her husband are in danger. The Saxons wield arms and are slaughtering our people. Stay here inside the inn and if anyone comes, hide! I must go to help my family. Wait in your room for me and do not set foot outside.”
I did not want to leave Niels and dashed after him but he snapped at me that he had enough to worry about without having to protect me too. He cuffed me around the ear and sent me packing. With reluctance and a sense of foreboding, I went back to the tavern where Eilaf berated me for my foolishness.
Inside the inn, the first sounds of trouble drifted through our open window. The clash of steel soon outdid the angry, frightened shouts, running feet, barking dogs and women’s screams. Fighting had broken out nearby. Curious, we peered out, on our hands and knees, taking care not to be seen by anyone from below. Not that any action happened in our street except for people hurrying past, clutching weapons – cudgels, pitchforks or metal bars.
No way for us to know what they intended, or where they were heading.
“What shall we do?” I asked my brother.
“But we can’t stay here forever. What if Niels doesn’t come back?”
“He will,” Eilaf’s certainty reassured me. I think at that age I would have believed anything my brother said.
So, it came as no surprise to me when Niels returned. His blond hair was matted with dried blood and his pale green tunic spattered with crimson stains.
“Are you hurt?” Eilaf enquired.
“My head’s thumping, but I’ve been lucky.”
Something ominous about his tone made me fearful, and I’ll never forget the haunted look in his eyes.
Eilaf hushed me with a shake of his head when I opened my mouth to ask questions. Only then did I notice Niels bore an axe hanging from his belt.
“We’d best be on our way,” the leather-worker said. “Let’s see if the innkeeper will sell us some food for the road. We’ve only two hours to cover but with these troubles...” He seemed reluctant to complete his thought.