Ostfold, Fall, AD 954
The old man was tied to a flame-blackened post. His matted gray beard rested on his chest and his legs were splayed out before his body. He leaned forward so that only his arms, which were pulled behind him and tied to the post at the wrists, held him upright. To Hakon, he looked as dead as the corpses lying around him.
“He lives,” called Toralv, Hakon’s champion, who knelt his massive frame by the man’s side, feeling his old neck for a pulse. Hakon exhaled loudly with relief. This was the fourth razed settlement they had found along the Ostfold coast. A survivor had been left in each of the other villages in a similar manner, but this old bugger was the first they had discovered alive. Now, hopefully, they could learn more about the raiders who had laid waste to this stretch of coastline.
“He will wish he had died when he awakens to this,” commented Ottar, who was the head of Hakon’s hird, or household guard. And he was right, for there was nothing left in the seaside settlement save for smoke and ash and bloated corpses on which an army of flies feasted. Ottar was the nephew of Hakon’s longtime friend Egil, who had held his same position before him. Ottar had joined Hakon’s service when he was not much older than Hakon, himself a whiskerless teen at the time. Now, deep grooves lined the commander’s hawk-like face and forehead, highlighting the keenness of the eyes that studied the destruction.
“Untie him,” called Hakon to his champion as he ran a dirty hand through his sandy hair. “And give him some water.”
Hakon need not have wasted his breath, for Toralv was already pulling his knife from its sheath. They had known each other so long, the one knew what the other would say long before he said it. Toralv cut the man’s bindings and gently laid him on his back, cradling his old head in his muscled arm so that he could pour some water over the man’s chafed lips.
“A silver coin says he dies before nightfall,” wagered Bjarke, who rested his thick forearms on the head of his long axe. He was a thick man with a mane of wheat-colored hair that encircled his round head. Among Hakon’s hird, only Toralv was taller.
“I’ll take that wager,” said the smaller man next to him. Garth was his name. He was a good man, but a better scout, whose red hair, big ears, and small, dark eyes often put Hakon in mind of a harvest mouse. And like a mouse, something on him was always moving. Busy fingers. A tapping foot. Active eyes. At the moment, it was his head, which swiveled on his neck as he took in the grisly scene around him. “This man is lucky. The birds have made a right feast of the others, but there’s not a peck on him. Aye, I’ll take that wager.”
“Have some respect,” growled Ottar, “and make yourselves useful. Bjarke, search inland for survivors. Garth,” he called to the harvest mouse. “Take some of the others and check the corpses and dwellings. See if there is anything here left to claim.”
“Mayhap you will find the silver coin you will owe me,” Bjarke quipped as he hefted his axe onto his shoulder and moved out. His friends, Bard and Asmund, went with him, looking like gods of war in their byrnies and helms, which gleamed in the pale autumn sunlight. They had also been with Hakon a long time, and had profited handsomely in his service. But they deserved it. They all did. Those in Hakon’s hird were the finest of the fine when it came to warcraft and, to Hakon’s mind, deserved the every ounce of riches they wore.
“You mean the one I will be adding to your lost wager?” Garth called after him.
Bjarke waved away the back talk with a grunt and weaved through the wreckage in the direction of the tree line. Garth headed in the opposite direction, using his foot to poke at the corpses while batting at the angry flies that swarmed about him.
“Danes, do you think?” asked Ottar.
Hakon shrugged as his blue eyes swept over the smoke-shrouded bodies. “Danes. Swedes. Some bold sea king trying to make a reputation for himself. Only God knows. Hopefully now, we shall find out,” he said with a nod toward the ailing old man.
“Whoever they are, they grow bolder,” his nephew, Gudrod, said as he sleeved beads of sweat from his high forehead. Long ago, he’d been a thin man with wiry muscles and a shrewd face; but summers of wealth and peace had rounded his cheeks and softened his body. He wore a patch of cloth over his left eye to cover the wound he had received in a battle many summers before, so that it was with his right eye that he now appraised Hakon.
The renewed attacks could not have come at a worse time. For Gudrod’s cousin, Trygvi, who ruled this area and who relished a good fight, had tired of the peace that had graced his realm these past summers and had just sailed west in search of adventure.
“Your cousin has picked a poor time to raid in the West,” remarked Hakon, giving voice to his sour thoughts.
“Do you not find it strange that raiders should come now, after so many years of quiet? It is as if they knew Trygvi was gone,” Gudrod said with a suggestive lift of his brow.
The thought jolted Hakon, for it suggested something larger than a series of random attacks was at play. “How long has Trygvi been gone?” Hakon asked.
“Not long, lord. Mayhap half a moon,” Gudrod said, then swatted in annoyance at the flies attracted to his sweating face. “Damn flies.”
Hakon grunted. “Long enough for word of his absence to spread.”
“Aye,” Gudrod confirmed. “Word often travels quicker than man.”
“Lord!” called Garth, drawing Hakon’s mind from Gudrod’s troubling suggestion.
Hakon and Gudrod picked their way through the carnage and stopped by the hirdman, who was now kneeling beside a partially burned shield, running his finger over a painted black rune that stretched from the shield’s top rim to its bottom. Garth’s eyes shifted from Gudrod to Hakon, then back to Gudrod. “Have you ever seen the like?”
Gudrod scratched his beard. “No. Never,” Gudrod said.
“Do you know anything of this rune? Or its design on a shield?” asked Hakon.
Gudrod shook his head. “It is the rune of the one-handed god, Tyr. But beyond that, I know not what it could mean. I will ask the traders in Kaupang. Mayhap they have seen the like before.”
Gudrod ruled the only trading town in the North, Kaupang, which lay north and west of their current location. For the right price, a man could find all he needed in the town, including information.
“Do so,” Hakon commanded.
The search revealed no more clues, so Hakon ordered his warriors to burn the villagers’ bodies. Their bloated carcasses were filling the air with stench, and the birds were returning to the scene. He could not leave them for the animals and the maggots to devour.
The warriors dug a shallow ditch in the center of the settlement, which they then lined with logs. These they covered with fish oil before placing the bodies onto the wood. Hakon ran his eyes over the dead. There were eighteen in all. Most were old, though some infants also lay in the grave. All had been brutally killed. Butchered, then burned by the flames that engulfed the settlement’s structures. The young and healthy had been captured and carried off to a grim future of thralldom. Though he had seen such atrocities too many times to count, he had never grown accustomed to the wickedness and injustice of it all. It was a cruel fate indeed for these villagers, and one they certainly did not deserve.
Ottar touched a flaming brand to the oil-slick fuel, which responded instantly to the heat. Fire snaked across the logs and the bodies while the warriors looked on silently. Grimly. Some clutched the amulets at their necks. Others spat in the turf to show their ire. Hakon said a silent prayer for their souls, then turned from the flames and stalked to his ship.
The old man’s haunting scream shattered the still night. Hakon’s men sat with a start and grabbed their weapons, the hair on their arms standing straight −− that is, until they realized it was just the old man, at which point they grumbled. They had brought the man on board and wrapped him in furs to keep him warm, and these he now threw off as he sat up and peered about him with a face full of fear and confusion.
“Balls,” Bjarke grumbled as he put his head back down.
Near him, a smile stretched across Garth’s face. “I will collect my coin in the morning, Bjarke.”
Hakon approached the old man. “Peace,” he said. “You are among friends now.”
“Who are you?” the man croaked. His lips had split, so that he spoke with a mumbling dullness devoid of annunciation.
Hakon offered him a skin full of ale. “I am King Hakon, and these are my men. We saw the smoke from your settlement and came to investigate. We found you there.”
The man’s fear evaporated, replaced instead by a mask of grief. “My settlement,” he croaked, the ale in his hand forgotten. “It is gone,” he mumbled.
Hakon kept his eyes on the man, knowing that many of the people in that settlement had been his friends and his kin. He could see that truth in the old man’s eyes. “It is gone,” he confirmed gently. “I am sorry.”
The man drank then, and Hakon could see his hand shaking. When he finished his swig, he looked back at Hakon and narrowed his eyes under his gray brows. “They left me alive so that I might tell my rescuers what I saw.”
“And what did you see?” Hakon asked.
He looked at the crew, then back at Hakon. It was clear in the way he swallowed and cast his eyes about that it troubled him to say it, but he knew he must. “They told me that their father is dead, and that they have returned to take back what was once his.”
Hakon stared at the man for a long moment, trying to untangle the riddle of his answer. “Who has died?”
Hakon did not try to hide his shock, nor did his men, who had heard the old man’s words and sat up to hear more. “Bloodaxe? Dead?” Hakon muttered. “When? Where?”
The man nodded. “I know only that he is dead. Nothing more.”
With effort, Hakon regained his wits and raised his hands for silence, for the old man’s words had sparked disquiet among his crew. “What was the name of the man who told you this? Did he give his name?”
“Aye. He said his name was Gamle Eriksson, lord. That is who told me this news.”
Hakon knew what this man’s answer would be, but it still hit him like a punch to the gut. Long ago, Hakon had captured his half-brother, Erik Bloodaxe, who had then been king. At the time, his men had urged him to kill Erik and his family, and end the feud that was sure to come. Hakon had not and, instead, had driven them from the realm. He had been tired of fighting and tired of killing. And would not raise his sword to his kin. It was a mistake that Hakon long knew would return to haunt him.
And now, it seemed, that time had come.
Avaldsnes, Rogaland, Spring, AD 957
Hakon woke with a start. He had been dreaming, and like so many of his dreams of late, it had turned against him. An attacker had come to his bedchamber, a bloody sword in hand, ready to strike. Hakon had scrambled in the darkness, tried to rise, but his feet tangled in the bedding, and the villain’s sword came down.
Hakon’s gaze shifted to the closed door, the very same through which the attacker of his dream had just come. The light of the dying hearth fire in the great hall seeped beneath it and into the room, casting a soft light on the oaken walls and the blade-sheath that leaned, point down, against the bedframe near Hakon’s head.
Slowly, he slid from under the bearskin and sat on the edge of his bed. As he worked the stiffness from his muscles, he became aware of the sounds and smells of early morning: the faint scent of beeswax candles that had long since surrendered to the night air; the stale stench of the previous night’s feast; the snores of his hirdmen in the great hall; the fragrance of his mistress Gyda, who lay curled under the bearskin beside him.
Pulling on clothes, he crept from the room, past his slumbering warriors, and out into the receding darkness. The night sentries mumbled a greeting to their lord as Hakon passed through the north gate of the palisade surrounding his hall and worked his way down a well-worn path to one of two burial mounds that sat like warts on the top of the nearby hill. No one knew for sure to whom the mounds belonged, though the skalds liked to say they covered the remains of the first owner of the estate −− a king named Augvald −− and his son.
Winter had not yet released its purchase on the land, and the frost-covered grass glistened and crunched as Hakon climbed the mound and sat. The king gazed out at the waking world with blue eyes that watered from the air’s chill. Below him, the waters of his bay quivered in the gentle breeze and lapped against the two warships tied to his dock. Beyond the bay, the Karmsund Strait stretched north and south toward the sea like a dark vein. And beyond the water, east, stretched the rolling hills and pastures and waterways of Rogaland, the fylke to which Hakon’s estate at Avaldsnes belonged. It was only a fraction of the realm he controlled −− a realm that now reached from the snow-mantled fylke of Halogaland far to the north, to the rocky tip of Agder in the south, to the forested border of the Uplands far to the east. All of it was under his control or the control of his oath-sworn jarls, most of who were his kin.
He rewarded the jarls richly for their fealty, and in exchange, they fought vigorously to keep peace in the realm. But peace was never constant so long as men sought fame and silver and land. It mattered not that Hakon had restored trust in the laws that his brother Erik had spurned or that, in recent years, he had built a system for coastal defenses to protect his people. Raiders still came to his shores. Men still stole and murdered each other. And feuds raged on. It was the way of things, he knew. Yet, the strife left in its wake an older king with streaks of gray in his sandy hair, scars on his body, and lines of worry etched on his face.
Time brought with it more than just physical strife. It brought hard memories of people and places that cut just as deeply as any blade. Memories such as Hakon’s childhood love, Aelfwin, who long ago had sacrificed herself for the sake of Hakon’s army. Memories of his long dead foster-father, King Athelstan, who had raised him as a Christian in Engla-lond and was the first to plant the seeds of kingship and legacy in Hakon’s youthful mind. Memories of his kinsman and counselor, Jarl Tore the Silent, with his damaged throat and his big heart that had just stopped beating his chest not one moon before. A man whose life he would soon celebrate on the northern island of Frei. Memories of his half-brother Erik, with his wild orange curls and mighty axe and brood of sons −− sons who even now terrorized the Northern seas, gaining wealth and power and men, and who would eventually bring their death to Hakon’s realm in full force. Hakon wiped the sleep from his face with a calloused hand and the memories vanished.