War King - Historical Viking Adventure
Across the field, the sons of Erik and their vast army drew closer. They clearly outnumbered Hakon's men, though by just how much was still unclear. Hakon crossed himself, cast his eyes to the sky for a brief prayer, and for the briefest of moments wondered whether God concerned Himself with skirmishes like this or whether the pagan supplications mumbled by his warriors drowned out his own prayers.
“About two to one, I'd guess,” stated Toralv, interrupting Hakon's thoughts.
“Even odds, then,” quipped Bjarke, who stood nearby with a mild grin on his face.
Hakon smiled through his beard. Behind them several of the other men chuckled as well, which was good — they would need their spirits this day.
“Come,” Hakon said to Toralv. “Let us meet our foe and get the measure of them.”
Toralv hefted his axe and followed his king. Neither man spoke, though each studied the advancing line closely. Like Hakon's army, they were broken into loose groups, each with a chieftain who marched at its head. Two banners flapped over the center group. One displayed the mark of Tyr on a light blue field; the other, a black axe on a red field. The mark of Bloodaxe.
The leader of the middle group raised his left hand and the army halted. Hakon and Toralv stopped and waited.
“Do you think Avaldsnes has already fallen?” asked Toralv suddenly.
It was a question Hakon had been considering for some time, but now he was more certain of the answer. “If Avaldsnes was theirs, they would be standing on its walls, not marching out here in the open. No, Avaldsnes yet stands.”
The leader of each group — four men in all — stepped from the enemy lines and strode toward Hakon and his champion. Hakon's mind tried and failed to reconcile the image of the boys who had left the North so long ago with the warriors who now approached him. They were men now. Gods of war in their glinting chain mail and leather breeks. None wore helmets yet, affording Hakon time to take in their features as they came closer.
The oldest, Gamle, walked a pace ahead of the others. He had become a bear of a man, his confident bearing so much like his father's. Unlike Erik, he had hair the color of chestnut, which was pulled back from his square face into a long braid. Above a well-groomed beard that hung to his chest, light, alert eyes regarded Hakon.
To his left strode a thinner, shorter man with raven-black hair and ice-blue eyes that darted left and right. Guthorm. The last time Hakon had seen him, his mother had been clutching his shoulders to keep him from protecting his brother Gamle from Toralv. To Gamle's right walked a scowling, heavyset man with ruddy cheeks and hair as red as his father's. His nose had been broken at some point and sat bulbous and bent in the middle of his round face. And to his right walked another man, this one also red-haired, but with a pale, freckled face and round, watchful eyes that put Hakon in mind of Egbert. Of the four, he seemed to be the only one scanning the enemy lines.
Erik's brood came to a halt ten paces from Hakon and eyed their uncle malignantly. The heavy man spat into the grass. Hakon ignored the gesture. “I am glad you have come, Uncle,” called Gamle, though there was no welcome in his face.
“Long ago,” Hakon said to them, “your father took the High Seat of this realm after murdering those of his brothers that he could. Ragnvald. Bjorn. Olav. Sigfrid. Did your father ever speak their names to you?”
Erik's brood stood mute.
“I thought not,” said Hakon. “But you should know that after I defeated your father, my counselors begged me to kill him as he had killed his brothers. I refused. They urged me also to kill your mother and the lot of you. I refused again. Do you wish to know why? Because I wanted the kin killing to end.” Hakon raked his eyes across the faces of his nephews. Judging from their dour expressions, none seemed to care much for his words. Hakon plowed ahead anyway. “My counselors knew you would come again. That Erik would poison your thoughts with words of hatred, despite having been given the chance at making a new life and a new kingdom elsewhere. In my heart, I knew too that you would come, but every day, I hoped you would not. Not because I feared you, but because I did not want to kill you.”
Gamle snorted. “Fine words, Uncle. But it does not change what happened. You took what was our father's, and we have come to take it back. You also took something from me.” He lifted his gnarled right hand. “I have dreamed of repaying you both since that foul day.”
On the morning of Erik's departure from the North, Hakon had secured Erik's oath never to return by threatening to kill Gamle one stab at a time. Erik had capitulated after the first stab, which had ruined Gamle's hand.
“I should have taken both of your hands when I had the chance,” Toralv called.
Gamle turned to the giant. “Today you shall have the chance, Toralv.”
Hakon interrupted them, drawing the conversation back to his nephews. “So tell me, Gamle, should you be lucky enough to take back what you believe to be yours, who among you will rule? You are but seeds from your father's kin-killing loins. If I had to guess, I would say the lot of you will be fighting each other before my corpse has grown cold. Either that, or the Danes to whom you whore yourselves will take it from you as soon as you have done the dirty work of killing me.”
“Enough of this banter, brother,” the black-haired Guthorm cut in. “It is a waste of time.”
Hakon turned his sharp gaze on the man. “Guthorm, is it?”
The man nodded.
“Tell me. Is the mind behind those blue eyes as short on intelligence as it is on patience? Will you not give your brother enough time to count my men, just as my champion counts yours?”
Gamle chortled and Guthorm flushed. Hakon made a mental note of the exchange as his eyes shifted to the handsome redhead.
“You must be Ragnfred?” Hakon asked the man.
“That is Ragnfred,” the young man said, indicating the thicker fellow with the broken nose.
“I am Harald.”
Hakon shrugged, feigning indifference. “It will not matter to the worms.”
The thickset Ragnfred spat toward Hakon again. “I will paint the grass red with your blood, Uncle.”
Hakon turned his gaze on him. “I see you have inherited your father's temper, Ragnfred. Have you also inherited his battle prowess? Come, Toralv. We have heard enough. If these men fight like they speak, we have nothing to fear.” Hakon turned his back on his nephews.