Historical Fiction

Shield Maiden

By

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Synopsis

In a portent of strife to come, late winter weather lashes the southwest of Ireland. Rannal's sister, Gudrun, arrives on a lonely island in the Sionainne Estuary among a Viking invasion fleet commanded by the former King of the Foreigners in Munster. Ivar intends to reclaim his dominion, but his plan will trigger the rise in opposition of Ireland's first national hero, Brian Boru. The turbulent struggle between these two rivals will frame decades of subsequent history as the Imperator Scottorum rises to power.

In Part 2 of the Four Masters Trilogy the action moves from Connacht deep into Leath Moga where Gudrun searches for the truth behind her husband's disappearance. Rannal's family must protect the growing settlement in Clonmacnoise as regal ambition sweeps men and women into conflict in an elaborate conspiracy played out under the raven banner.

Silver and gold have been promised to Ivar's mercenary army, but blood and death are never far from where stolen wealth lies.

Arrival

Scattery Island, CE 976


All-pervading cloud met and merged with white-flecked water in an unbroken transition of greyness. No horizon could be seen. Even the nearshore of the mainland was obscured.

Gudrun stood, braced against the elements, looking out at a scene that was at once familiar and yet alien. The wind teased at her clothing. It carried a persistent and uncomfortable spray of brine and sleet. Waves surged and broke on the foreshore, adding their regular pulse to a symphony of discomfort.

She shivered, but not because of the cold. A flutter of anticipation rose from the pit of her stomach and briefly absorbed her mind. She bit the inside of her lip and thrust away the emergent and distracting thoughts. They were foolish. It had been too long. The trail would be dead, and the numbing despair of her loss would soon close about her once more.

The view from where she stood on the rising apron in front of the longphort was incomplete, but sufficient enough to discern most of an island blanketed in the drab hues of late winter. Away in the north, she could just make out the ruins of a Christian monastery. The shell of a small chapel sat on the flat summit of a rise, surrounded by low grasses that were being tossed into erratic motion by the breeze. A winding path connected it to what remained of the rest of the complex. The track’s irregular course passed beside a holy well, enclosed by stone walls, and the brittle finger of an immensely-tall round-tower. The monolith was otherworldly, defying time and nature to point irresistibly at the heavens. It dwarfed everything else around and loomed over the decayed carcass of an oratory wherein once were heard prayers to a god that must not have been listening.

The remote settlement had been plundered and largely destroyed decades before. She felt a sense of desolation inveigle its way into her subconscious, where it replaced the intimate memories that had briefly threatened her composure with irrational hope. 

Bleakness and isolation are the indispensable friends of those who seek out treasure. Inaccessibility creates a place apart from the influence of secular concerns for the pursuit of spiritual grace, the wealth of mind and soul. The men who lived here before had been drawn by the impulse to give; to subordinate themselves and search for the presence of something more potent than the petty struggles of their mortal existence. But that same physical quality had drawn in the darker baseness of human depravity carried on the wings of a different kind of pursuit. It was one born of avarice and nurtured by a callous disregard for those not their own. These were the forces she was a part of; the takers, the breakers and displacers that came to steal treasure to sustain temporal comfort, power and fame.

There was little natural shelter here, but the windswept exposure of the island didn’t detract from its utility as a summer raiding camp. Her rapacious countrymen had been attracted back year-in-year-out by a secure strand for their longships on its eastern shore, well protected from westerly gales and the fierce tides. Over time, permanent structures had raised their angular presence to adulterate the natural profile of the southern headland behind her. Mother nature had tried to take back what was hers in the years since the last time the reapers had barked their discordant voices of triumph into the ale soaked sky. That patient work would now need to start all over again. It had taken nearly a week of hard labour to repair the buildings, but the job was just about complete. 

“Why did the monks build in the north where they couldn’t defend themselves?”

Gudrun looked sideways at her daughter and smiled. Liv had striking features; bleached hair, piercing blue eyes and a face that, even on such a bleak day, was radiant with youth. A cloak, draped across one shoulder, partially covered finely-woven wool garments that were proof against the elements. Liv was tall and moved with effortless grace. Her appearance was a constant reminder of the husband Gudrun hadn’t seen since the last time they’d been among the Ostmenn of the west.

“They built long before we arrived,” she replied. “This was a holy place from way back in time. There’s supposed to be a healing spirit in the spring by the ruin.”

The wind caught and teased some strands of her own unruly dark hair that had wrestled free from a tight plat. They flicked around in front of her eyes for a second. She reached a hand up and combed them back between the stiffened sinews of her cold fingers. The errant filaments tangled, pulled and then released. She felt badly in need of some time to make herself feel clean after the voyage and subsequent hard labour, but that would have to wait.

“I thought the Christian god is believed to live above the clouds, not in a crevice underground.”

“True enough, but his priests are cunning. The Vestmenn tell stories about old beliefs from when they first came here. There were mystics among them who worshipped water in all sorts of places. I suspect the Christians adopted this island and other locations as a way of using those old mores to gain acceptance.”

Liv watched the scudding clouds for a moment. “I can see why a water god would be important to people living in a place like this!”

Gudrun grinned, feeling her cheeks slightly numb with cold. “You say that now, but I remember you happy as a skylark when we were here. It doesn’t always rain.”

Liv wrinkled her face in a pretence of straining to recall. The soft skin between her eyebrows pulled into tiny furrows in a quirk that somehow conveyed charm and comedic intent at the same time.

“I think you’re confusing your happiness with mine.”

Gudrun knew better than to argue. Contradiction was still an essential but sometimes infuriating part of Liv’s developing sense of self.

“Well, however you remember it, the point I was going to make is that the Celts who came here arrived from Iberia and much further east in the Grikksalt sea where water is rarer and more precious. So that’s probably where those ideas came from. Mind you, the inhabitants who lived here before them were even more curious.”

Liv latched onto her reference to conquered peoples.

“Ah! So the Celts are just like the Ostmenn. They came looking for something they wanted, found it, murdered the locals and settled down. They’ve no right to complain about the Danes then.”

“That’s not how the world works,” said Gudrun, “and you know it!”

“What brought them? I can’t believe it was the weather!”

“Copper and gold, most likely. I’ve heard stories about great wealth buried in the ground here.”

“Sounds like you were right about the previous lot being weird if they didn’t mine the riches under their feet.”

“That was so long ago no-one can say for sure,” replied Gudrun. “They’re referred to as the Tuatha dé Danann. Most of the stories that tell of them are confused about whether they were mortals or gods. Some folk say their leaders were driven underground by the Celts and that they still live there.”

“Like trolls?”

Gudrun laughed out loud.

“No! Not like trolls at all. More like the Aesir.”

“Maybe they’re the same, but in a different language,” ventured Liv.

“That’s a curious idea. But we’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter now anyway.”

Liv thought for a moment and then contradicted herself.

“No. Can’t be right. If it was, we’d have had to come from the same place, and I can’t see how that could be. They look so different to us.”

“Maybe to you,” replied Gudrun. “Not so much me. You look like your faðir, while I have my móðir’s hair and eyes.”

“Was she beautiful, like you?”

“Your grandfather must have thought so.” Gudrun automatically recited the explanation used since Liv was a child. “He fell for her after she’d been captured and taken to Orkney to be sold as a slave. So he paid her price and brought her into his own longhouse.” 

She’d long ago forgiven herself the lie spoken to hide Liv from the meanness of their origin. 

“Do you honestly think I still believe that story?” asked Liv. “I do have friends, you know.”

“Well, you asked about your Amma, so what am I supposed to say - that your grandfather’s a brute who brought no good and that we lived a life of misery.”

“No, just treat me like an adult and tell me the truth.”

Gudrun sighed. There was little left of the innocent and carefree bundle of joy she’d nurtured. 

“The truth is more complicated. All I know is that, if any magic still exists in this land, your Amma carried it in her veins. She was a high-born princess from a kingdom to the east of here. Her people lived close to the Ostmenn settlement at Dyflinn during a time when relations were strained - too close by half. Her fate was the same as hundreds of others. She was uncommonly beautiful, though, and not just on the surface. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see the radiance in her face and hear the song in her voice, but even more I feel the lightness and warmth of her spirit. Your grandfather may have taken her, but he fell under her spell, and that’s the only reason we are free now.”

“It’s not fair, what happens to some people,” said Liv.

“No, but you are here because of it, so how can I complain. It’s the fate that was written for us. All we can do is make what we can with the life we’ve been given.”

“Christians say all men are created equal in the eyes of God. Surely that means slavery is a crime for them.”

“Christians say a lot of things!” replied Gudrun. “But that doesn’t stop them killing each other - whether they’re Northmen, Ostmenn or native Vestmenn. Besides, when your Amma was taken, Christianity was hardly known in Orkney.”

“Probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I bet most converts are just paying lip-service.”

“I’m sure you’re right to some extent,” said Gudrun. “Though you shouldn’t forget that it’s quite possible to make a conscious choice to believe in something new, but rather more difficult to put aside all you’ve grown up with.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Belief in a god or gods can change, but the history of a people, their narratives and ways of living will always be in the background. Every tribe has its unique lore and in it you can find a lot of wisdom if you care to look hard enough. Some stories are pure fantasy, though, such as the one that describes the monster rumoured to live around here. They say the priest who built the monastery banished it to dwell in the sea, from where it now preys on anyone who tries to come here bearing malicious intent.”

Liv scoffed.

“We’d better watch out for the Kraken then. Worse still, maybe this is the home of Jörmungandr, and we’re about to stir it into signalling the start of the final battle, Ragnarök!”

Gudrun laughed again.

“You’re so funny! Christian priests are powerful, but they just influence the imagination of their followers. They can’t control the fate of the world. There’s no monster, leastways not one that isn’t human, of that I’m sure. No woman was ever allowed to step ashore after the monks built the monastery, so maybe the mythical creature was just a metaphor for male weakness.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“And so I should,” replied Gudrun. “You’ve got your whole life ahead in which to become cynical about men, and how they control everything but understand so little.”

“How come you know so much about all this?” asked Liv. 

Gudrun looked at her daughter, wondering how to respond. 

Then Liv realised what her question had implied and clarified herself. “I mean about this place, not men!”

“Thank goodness for that! I was beginning to wonder.”

Liv rolled her eyes in a half-sheepish, half-impatient apology.

“There are two things for you to bear in mind,” said Gudrun. “Firstly, when you go to a new land, it’s sensible to understand what’s important to the people who already live in it. We were here for three summers, which is long enough to learn. Secondly, your parents are usually better informed than you are, so listening to their stories is a good idea. The winter nights were long in Orkney when I was growing up. Your Amma had many tales to tell and a captive audience of two, just Ragnvaldr and me.”

“I’d like to have had a brother or sister,” said Liv.

The comment hurt Gudrun more than she could admit. It made her sad for both Liv and herself.

“It’s been a lonely road for us, but at least we have each other.”

“I don’t remember much about being here, but you’re right,” admitted Liv. “I did like it.” She made a sad face. “I miss those times, but mostly I miss faðir.” 

“You and me both,” replied Gudrun. 

“Do you think we’ll find out what happened to him?”

“That is why we’re here. Love and hope are strange comforts to a sore heart. Somehow, I think I’d know if he’d died. Anyway, we can’t give up now. We’re too close.”

“What will happen if we find him?” asked Liv. “Would we have to leave the farm?”

“Hope not. It isn’t like the longhouse in Orkney, but it’s home. We’ve worked hard for it. There aren’t many opportunities for freed slaves. The land is small, but the soil is fertile, and the tenants are loyal.”

“You mean most of them,” replied Liv, grizzling a bit. “I don’t know why you had to bring Njal along. He’s an endless misery with his complaints.”

Gudrun saw the disdain on Liv’s face.

“Come on! Axel can’t row the longship by himself. Njal has the strength of two men, even if his mind is weak, and we had to leave some of the best men behind so the crops would get planted if we didn’t get back in time.”

 “Do you ever stop thinking about what might happen if things don’t work out?”

Gudrun shrugged. “That’s my job. You’re too young to understand. We wouldn’t be in this mess if I’d thought more clearly years ago.”

“I suppose the murdered priests might have lived longer if they’d done the same.”

“I’m not sure,” replied Gudrun. “Some things are so unexpected you can’t plan for them. Besides, they probably thought their god or the sea monster would protect them.”

Liv shrugged and abruptly changed the subject. 

“Have we finished digging and building for the halfbreed princelings yet? There’s not much more we can do except embroider their shit buckets. If Ivar doesn’t get his royal backside here soon, the Vestmenn will have had time to work out what’s going on.” Her face screwed up in frustration. “I can’t believe we’ve come back here to help those idiots.”

Gudrun looked out beyond the end of the island. Her gaze wandered toward where the low line of the coast would have been on a better day. No vessels had approached, so there was a chance that their arrival had gone unnoticed. They’d certainly been left alone. But then who was likely to mount an attack on a fleet of a hundred longships bearing two thousand mercenaries and as many again camp followers? 

She still found it strange that the Vestmenn didn’t have ships like theirs. She’d grown up thinking how the sea connected people and offered strength to those who commanded it. Here, people always seemed preoccupied with their lands, and the tribal struggles to defend them. It was almost as though they’d forgotten how they’d arrived by sea in the first place.

“You should be more careful about what you say,” she replied. “The Uí Ímair have eyes and ears everywhere. But yes, we’re near enough through. I’m unhappy about the camp, but there’s not much to be done about that. We got the short straw. All the same, I should have expected that and Lord Ulf seems happy enough not to be mixed in with the Danes from Mann.”

She owed much to Ulf. He had raided and fought alongside her brother and won favour with the Earl. His reward had been beyond price, a stretch of land on the Cotentin Peninsula in Frankia that was rich in climate and soils. It was a strategic possession, lying in the heart of Danish territory, and it needed an exceptional talent to keep it secure. Ulf Iron Knee was that man, and he trod deftly along a tight-rope stretched between diplomacy and strength of arms.

The beach was a perfect place for the longships, and their ranks were an impressive sight, most pulled up in a long line. Sadly, the excellence of the landing was not matched by the quality of the camp ground. The strip of land given over to their tents, sandwiched between the shore and a swamp behind, was narrow and congested. There was a defined pecking order in terms of position. Her eyes strayed to the far end where she picked out a cluster of A-frame shelters next to her longship. A few of the crew were busy with routine tasks. Smoke from a fire lifted in fits and starts and blew out to sea across the deck of her prized possession. 

She looked down at the callouses on her hands. It had been hard work reinstating the decayed longhouses and reinvesting the defensive ditch, but it could have been worse. Ivar and his predecessors had pillaged the monastery of its precious timbers to build their structures. Most were still in place. They’d put a lot of effort into re-roofing the more significant buildings. Walls had been renewed with clay and straw to create habitable spaces for the so-called ‘King of the Foreigners’ and his entourage. The meeting hall wasn’t anywhere near the equal of the one she remembered in the settlement at Luimneach, but it would suffice. It perched above the rocky foreshore, right at the end of the island, and was big enough to accommodate all who needed to hear the word of the law.

“I expect it won’t be long before he arrives,” said Gudrun. “Then we’ll find out what he’s planning. Knowing the way things have turned out makes me think we’ll be first in, while our cousins stay warm and dry in the longphort waiting for the weather to improve.”

“Better that than stay sitting around in this place!” Liv turned at the sound of footsteps approaching behind and then plucked at Gudrun’s arm. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Speaking of our unworthy masters…!”

Gudrun glanced around, and her heart sank. She saw a group of well-dressed men approaching. Their bearing and cleanliness was evidence of status and attitude.

“Stay quiet,” she urged, as she recognised Ivar’s eldest son, Olaf, flanked by his bodyguards. He was near enough the twin of Dubcenn, the middle son, but a total contrast in physical appearance to Harald, the youngest. Whether by nature or nurture, they each shared in their father’s undeserved sense of superiority. The iron-bound system of social rank was deeply flawed. It protected the few, regardless of cost. The yolk of their rule had sat uncomfortably during her time in Luimneach. She was nauseated in their company, but there was no point in fighting other people’s battles. 

The tenor of his opening words was predictable. 

“I see you’ve got time for taking in the view!”

Olaf was tall and immaculately groomed. A thick beard hung from his chin. It elongated his face and made his prominent nose look like a beak. Its bushy appearance was in contrast to the swept-back and bunched locks that seemed to emphasis his heavy brow.

When she didn’t rise to the bait, he offered a further provocation. “We’re not paying you to stand idle.”

Gudrun absorbed the jibe and suppressed a momentary temptation to respond in kind. They weren’t actually being paid, and it was plain that there was no money in the coffers yet. The expedition might well have to pay for itself. 

“Our tasks are complete, my lord,” she replied. “I was simply trying to gauge whether we have the encampment and defence set out correctly.”

“That’s not your job. You can leave it to those who understand better.”

She bit back another comment, fuelled by her observation that the causeway across the ditch was too broad.

“Yes, my lord,” she said, acknowledging his authority, if not his wisdom. 

“I’m told you lived in these parts before.”

“For a time. You may recall that my husband was the shipwright loaned to you from Orkney.”

“Ah yes, Torsten the Peg-leg.” He looked her up and down. “You could have done better by the look of you.”

Her growing irritation got the better of her.

“I see no-one here of his quality. Unless of course, you mean my Lord Ulf who, I grant you, comes close.”

 “Ah! I see why finer men must have turned you down,” replied Olaf. “Fair of face, but ugly of tongue. That explains why you are here selling your poor worth for a crust of bread.”

“You are wasting both our time, my lord,” she replied. “Surely you had a purpose in seeking me out?”

Olaf’s face tightened. 

“Unless you desire to take passage back the way you came with no reward, I suggest you modify your tone. I have an urgent errand. You command your own ship and, as a former slave, must understand the finer workings of a kitchen, so I can think of no-one better to go and do it. I was told you know these waters, yes?”

“I do,” she replied.

“Then it’s time you used your knowledge and went to Luimneach. We need food and ale. If my father arrives and there’s nothing on his table, there will be hell to pay. Take my brother Harald and two of the transports. Be back in the morning, or be prepared to answer for your idleness.”

She felt rather than saw Liv wrestling with her temper, and said a prayer for her patience. Despite the unwelcome tone, this was the chance she wanted. It would have been easier receiving the instruction from Iron Knee, who had a stronger stomach for Danish arrogance, but that wasn’t material. What was important was to swallow her pride and use the opportunity to begin to trace what had happened eight interminable years before. 

Her lips curled into a genuine smile. “Yes, of course, my lord. I know the town well, and we can go immediately.” 

She looked down to gauge the state of the tide. It was nearly low water, but her ship was light and could be launched easily. She pointed to her left.

“Those two knarr out in the bay are ones we brought. I know the crew well. May I take them?”

“Do whatever you want. That’s Iron Knee’s concern. Don’t bother me with the details.”

“Thank you. I have one further suggestion, though. The town stores will be depleted at this time of year, so it may not be possible to return tomorrow with all the supplies we need. If it suits, I can send back what there is, and arrange for emissaries to ride south to Lord Donovan’s ráth at Bhru Rí for the balance.”

She was surprised by the aggressive tone of Olaf’s response.

“You’ll do no such thing. Harald will go there to meet my brother-in-law. If he thinks it is warranted, you may stay and return with him after he has received assurance that the Uí Fidgenti are mustering their support. My father will be here in a matter of days, so I suggest you don’t waste time unnecessarily. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Olaf turned away from them and stalked off. It wasn’t long before he started to berate a group of men set the task of digging out a midden close to the foreshore.

Liv made a face at his back, tight-lipped with anger.

“Pig’s breath!” Her words were quiet enough not to be heard. “He needs to watch himself, or the mighty prince might find a bucket of offal in his bed!”

Gudrun issued the rebuke that the comment deserved but was amused, and it showed.

“Men with a poor reputation often resort to bullying. I heard he ran like a dog with the rest of his brood when they were beaten in battle at Sulcoit.”

“Is that true?”

“It’s well-known, though I don’t know the detail. The Vestmann had a smaller army but played Ivar for a fool. The man who’s now King at Cashel and rules all in the south-west has a half-brother, Brian, who has a fierce reputation. They are both lords of the Dal gCais; the tribe that lives north of here. Ivar tried to suppress them, but never extinguished the flame of rebellion. He just made them stronger, like a blacksmith forging steel.”

“How come Ivar survived?”

“They had fast horses and some longships waiting in Luimneach. Brian was so angry when he found them gone that he had the town burned. I guess he knew they’d lost their chance once Ivar managed to get back here. He needn’t have worried, though. Ivar decided to go raiding in Wales the next year. That’s territory claimed by his cousin, Magnus of Mann. When Magnus found out, he sent a hundred longships here and carted Ivar off to St Patraic’s Isle, where he’s been ever since.”

She was quiet for a moment, thinking back to when they’d left her husband before all this had happened. The hurt never went away. What a folly their mission had been. A favour by one king to another, lending rare skills to strengthen a new settlement. That favour would never be returned nor even now acknowledged, as Olaf had demonstrated.  

Go and show them what we can do,” her father had said, “but mind that you come back again. I don’t want to be responsible for losing the best shipwright in Orkney.” 

But that is precisely what had happened. Gudrun blamed herself, but she also blamed her father. Halvor Thorfinssen was a cousin to and close ally of Earl Sigurd. He delighted in playing the role of spy-master; he still did. He’d dreamt up the idea for Torsten to come to Luimneach from Orkney so that they had eyes on the ground. It was all a game. Northmen from Orkney and the Isles and Ostmenn hailing from Denmark vying for power in the west but never openly at war. 

That fateful year, Torsten had agreed to her going back to make their routine report without him. He’d said he had to stay and oversee the laying of a new keel. The timing was appalling, and they should have known. At least she’d had the sense to bring Liv. Two weeks later, the Battle of Sulcoit was lost, Luimneach destroyed, and Torsten had disappeared.  

 She’d never been able to return to search for him. Leastways, not until now. She had become estranged from her father but knew fine well that her being here now was his doing. 

“Don’t think about it,” said Liv. A glassy distant look of preoccupation had crept over Gudrun’s face. “If faðir is here, we’ll find him.”

“And Ivar will do what Ivar will do,” she replied. “We just need to make sure we don’t help him too much!”

“From what I’ve seen of his sons, he won’t need or want any help from us. They’re more than capable of organising their own cock-fight.”

“Yes, but I feel bad for Lord Ulf and our people,” said Gudrun. “We’re stuck serving two masters, and he has his honour to protect as well.”

“There’s no honour lost in watching a tribe bring on its own destruction through stupidity,” said Liv.

“You don’t understand how these things work. Men are different. They follow hidebound rules of logic that can’t adapt to circumstances. If we’re drawn into the conflict, he’ll not be able to withdraw, even if it looks like the chiefs of the Uí Ímair have left their brains at home. All this,” she swept her hand around, “must be paid for.”

“You worry too much. If Ulf can keep us safe in Normandy, surrounded by the descendants of the great Rollo, he’ll find a way to let these carrion-eaters drown in their own blood.”

“And if not, what are you going to do about it?”

“We’ll have discovered faðir by then, and we can find a new place to live, even if we need to fight for it!”

“What a nice thought!” said Gudrun. “You must sleep with such pleasant dreams.”



About the author

Martin Bird was born in the Wirral near Chester in the North West of England in 1960. He trained as a professional engineer and worked in the electricity industry for thirty years. He travelled extensively for work before taking up residence in New Zealand where he now writes for pleasure. view profile

Published on February 14, 2021

100000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction