Hundr grasped at a clump of weeds trying to haul himself up, but the plant tore free from the soil peppering his face with muck. He spat gritty coarse mud and cursed as his arm slipped, skinning his elbow on the riverbank scrub.
He grunted and scrambled up and over the bank’s ridge and cursed again as his foot gave way in loose gravel, almost spilling the spare arrows strapped to his back. Hundr straightened his load, fletchings banging against his head as he shuffled them securely into their quiver. He ran, heart thumping, to catch up with the rest of the ship’s crew, who loped through the undergrowth ahead. The warship Seaworm lay safe at a wide turn in a Northumbrian river behind him, an impressive vessel whose oars were manned by hardened men. Thirty warriors that ship carried from the cruel cold North down to the soft, lush greenery of Saxon springtime. Men prepared to leave their homes and risk their lives on the seas in search of reputation, glory, and silver.
The crew came together to huddle in a bracken-filled field. Hundr peered over the shoulders of the gathered warriors, breathing in the rich, earthy odour of their leather armour, the acrid smell of their sweat, and feeling the palpable sense of excitement amongst them as they waited to attack. Those men crowded to hear how their Lord would lead the raid, and they shuffled and jostled, laughed and talked in hushed voices and thumbed at the fine edges on their axes and spears. Hundr itched to own such a weapon, hungered to walk with a warrior’s pride and a shining war axe looped at his belt. He was at the back of the huddle because that was his place as bail boy, spare arrow carrier, and general dogsbody-lowest-of-the-low member of the warship Seaworm’s crew. Hundr sniffed and cuffed at his running nose. He might not be a warrior yet, but he was ablaze with the thrill. He was about to be part of his first Viking raid. After all, this was why he had left home in the first place, to become a warrior.
Hundr shouldered past two of the younger and skinnier warriors to get a better view, but they were full crew members, or Carl’s, and higher in the pecking order. A lanky warrior shoved Hundr back with his elbow.
“Piss off you, get to the back,” said Kraki Horse Face, sticking his mossy green buck teeth in Hundr’s face, daring him to challenge. Horse Face waited for two heartbeats, leering, then sniggered and turned his back. Hundr closed his eyes and imagined beating on those furry anchor stone teeth until they shattered. It had been Kraki who had named him Hundr, which meant Dog in Norse. It would do as a name, for now. They all spoke Norse, all these Danes, Svear, and Norway men. Hundr spoke Norse too, but with the Eastern clip of his homeland.
The warriors were mumbling and giggling like children as they huddled around.
“Shut up, shitworms,” said Halvdan, the bull-necked shipmaster of the Seaworm in a low growl, and then moved aside for his Lord. The Jarl, their leader, was Einar Rosti. In Norse, that meant Einar the Brawler, and he was a tall slab-faced man whose flat cold features were grim even amongst the ghastly. He wore a coat of mail, which marked him out as a Battle Lord and a successful warrior. Few could afford to have such a coat made or have the fighting skill to strip one from a defeated foe and prevent others from murdering you for it in return. The mail coat shimmered like the scales of some great beast, with hundreds of interlocking iron rings forged with skill and which could deflect a sword or axe blow.
“Here we go, let’s get in and out, boys, no messing around.” Einar’s lips curled away from his teeth as he spoke and accentuated the sheer brutality of his severe features to radiate pure violence. Hundr almost pitied the Saxons they came to raid, almost.
“Kveldsson brothers out on the flank with your bows, Horse Face and Brownlegs take the other side,” the men laughed as Ufketil Brownlegs shook his head at his nickname. He sighed and strung his bow, bending it around the back of his right leg and securing the string in its horn nook. The long braid at the back of his otherwise shaved head was swinging around as he readied his weapon.
“Make the wedge on me. We want their silver and their gold and whatever else the bastards have. Anyone gets in your way, do them quick. No fires, lads, we don’t want Saxon warriors heading us off up river. Remember, we are sea wolves and known men. Let’s get rich,” said Einar.
With a clipped roar, they set off, weapons in hand and blades thirsty for blood. Hundr remained at the back as they strode through a boggy field towards a cluster of nondescript buildings ahead. The steading was a collection of long low rendered buildings roofed with dark thatch and one larger like a barn mounted with a wooden cross. Hundr couldn’t see a wall or gate. Nothing to protect the lambs from the wolves.
He ran alongside the crew, their weapons and armour jangling and clanking loudly against the quiet of the surrounding fields and pastures, their faces set for the fight to come. One day he would become a warrior, other warriors would know his name, and he would have their respect. He just needed to convince Einar he could do more than bail out the ship’s bilge. He needed a place as a Carl, a fully-fledged fighting member of the crew with an equal share of the prizes. But you didn’t just ask Einar for a place; that had to be earned.
Hundr dodged a pile of cow turd and almost slipped as his foot landed in a field divot, snapping him from his dreams of future glory. As they came closer to the buildings, the wedge got tighter with Einar at its tip. The archers fanned out running at a low crouch; arrows nocked and ready. Hundr’s heart raced as the wedge’s pace quickened before him and his walk turned to a run. Cries rang out from the buildings, intertwined with thrumming bowshots loosed by archers on the flanks. Einar bellowed, waving his axe in the air, and the crew whooped and charged. Hundr’s heart pumped in his chest, his face flush and warm with the thrill of the fight to come. He breathed out of his nose and reminded himself to keep to the back. He was unarmed, save for the two spare sheaves of arrows on his back and the three empty hemp sacks tucked under his arm. Even with those items, he could subdue a gaggle of shaven-headed Christ Priests. So, no, this was not the time for him to fight and show his skill, skill developed from a lifetime of training. Einar would not notice his abilities slaughtering these Holy men like pigs before a feast. A drengr, a warrior, didn’t build a reputation by butchering skinny unarmed priests.
Hundr quickened his pace again and followed the warriors between two buildings. In the narrow space ahead, he watched as Kraki Horse Face and one of the Kveldsson brothers slaughtered three priests in a flurry of axe blows as the Saxons cowered and screamed. Kraki flailed and swung his axe like a washerwoman beating a wet tunic against a rock, spraying bright crimson blood against the greyed and yellowing building walls. Hundr would have laughed at Kraki’s ineptness if it wasn’t so pitiful a sight. The priests were short and thin and dressed in dull, sack-like smocks and made no attempt to defend themselves. It would have been harder to kill a quick chicken or a slow pig. No glory to be had on this day, then. Hundr made his way to an open square, where Ulfketil Brownlegs burst out of the barnlike building mounted with the darkened timber cross. He was laughing, clutching a large silver plate under one arm and holding a huge candlestick aloft in the other. Hundr stopped and laughed at the joy on Brownlegs’ face. Anything Brownlegs did was amusing; even his name was funny; earned from shitting in his pants on some past voyage. However, his mirth cut short because of the sheer size of the man who had emerged lumbering from the cross-gabled hall behind Brownlegs. He was old with long silver hair, a thick white and grey peppered beard, very tall and broad in the shoulders.
“Put that bastard down,” Halvdan shouted, twenty paces away, pointing his axe at the old man. Hundr imagined that was easier said than done. The old man’s nose was twisted and bent, broken in some fight long ago, and even at this distance, Hundr could see the scarring on his face and arms, scarring that you didn’t get praying or taking coins from Saxon villagers. The enormous man lumbered over to stand in front of a tiny mouse-like priest spattered with the blood of his friends and kneeling and wailing in the square's grass whilst one of the crew threatened and jabbed him with a spear. Two crewmen dashed over with spears outstretched, but the old man did not flinch, and his hand flashed out at incredible speed, grabbing one shaft below the spear point wrenching it free. He then swayed back to avoid a thrust from the second.
“Let this man live,” the old man roared in Norse, and the entire crew stopped and stared as he hopped around, waving his arms in front of the cowering Priest. Hundr dropped the sacks and spare arrows; this at least was interesting. The raid was a disappointment, no fighting, just slaughter. But a Northman, and a huge one at that, living here with the Christ men? The Seaworm crew had butchered a gaggle of defenceless Saxon Holy Men to steal their plates and candlesticks, which was not the glorious combat Hundr had imagined the day would bring. What in Thor’s balls was a hulking, scarred-up old Viking warrior doing in this place? He could feel something, some sort of tingle at the back of his mind, just like the tingle when he first saw Jarl Einar back in Jutland. He didn’t know what that tingle meant or what to do about it, but it was something, and it was giving him a nudge to say this was a moment where something important could happen.
Hearing a Norse voice among the screaming Saxons put an end to the slaughter. Most of the pitiful monks were dead or had fled, save for the big old Viking and the Christ Priest he had tried to protect. Those two sat in the open monastery square whilst the crew was busy gathering anything they could find of value and making a pile of loot near a withered Sycamore tree. It was Hundr’s task to put the smaller items into the sacks he had carried from the ship, and the crew would take the larger items. Hundr picked up a cloak pin that had gone green and mottled with age, and he couldn’t tell what animal its maker had attempted to craft. It looked like a disfigured cow, and he couldn’t imagine anyone wearing it, never mind paying silver for it, which about summed up the raid on Northumbria so far. He worked slowly, placing the paltry trinkets into the rough spun sacks whilst craning his neck to listen to Einar and Halvdan, who whispered only ten paces away. Unfortunately, he couldn’t pick out all of their words. Still, the gist of it was that Halvdan wanted to kill both prisoners, which wasn’t a surprise because Halvdan wanted to kill anything that moved. Einar, however, appeared curious about the old warrior. Halvdan shook his head and followed Einar as he crossed the open square where the prisoners knelt unguarded. When Kraki offered to guard the prisoners, Halvdan laughed.
“Guard them against what?”
Which was fair. They could try to flee if they wished but wouldn’t get far before a pitiless Northman introduced skull to iron. Hundr stuffed a yellowed horn cup into a sack, left the loot, and then skirted around the edges of the grass square, stopping to lean on a poplar tree within earshot of Einar and the prisoners. He wanted to hear greybeard’s story and see if Halvdan got his wish and would send the two miserable captives to the afterlife.
“You can understand us?” Einar barked at the old man.
“You are a Dane?”
“I was once.”
“How long have you been here with the Christ men?”
“Maybe six summers, but it’s ten summers since I was on the Whale Road.”
“What is your name, greybeard?” said Einar.
“Your father’s name?”
“Very well, Sten Rognvaldsson, what are you doing here, and how did you get here?”
“It’s hard to talk,” said Sten, rubbing at his throat, “some water or ale for me and the good brother here.”
“Soil scrabbling bastard,” Halvdan said and cracked Sten across the head with the butt of his spear.
That was brave, brave, or stupid.
“I need to piss. If you want to live, think of something valuable to tell us when I return.” Einar said, sighing and strode off with Halvdan to inspect the loot pile; Einar then disappeared behind a building to piss.
The old Dane was a warrior, a big man crisscrossed with scars. He still wasn’t sure why but Hundr sensed an opportunity here. He still had that tingle nagging him, that same sense as when it feels like someone is watching or following you. Unnerving but also useless if not acted upon. Hundr pushed himself off the tree and took a few steps towards the prisoners.
“How does a spear Dane find his way here, old one?”
“Who says I’m a spear Dane?” replied Sten giving him a sideways look. Hundr pointed at Sten’s left hand, where half of his little finger was missing, and then at the scars on his forearms and his twisted nose.
“You didn’t get those pulling cabbages or milking cows,” Hundr said, smiling.
“You haven’t seen the cows here, lad.”
“We’re taking no prisoners, friend. So if you have anything you can use to keep yourself alive, now is the time to talk. Halvdan back there would love nothing more than to cut off your head and use your beard as an arse wipe.”
“You’re no Dane, and you’ve no weapons laddie, are you a slave?” Sten asked. Hundr bristled and pushed his shoulders back. Some cheek on this old dog.
“I am from the East and am no slave, grandfather. Have you anything of value before we send you to Hel to be a nithing wandering like a beggar until Ragnarök?” Hel was the afterlife for people who didn’t die a warrior’s death, to wander as a nithing wraith for eternity. It was a warrior’s worst nightmare to die this way, and Hundr hoped to get some sort of reaction out of the big bastard with the threat of eternal damnation. After all, what could be worse than that? There must be something about this old warrior. What was the use of all this neck tingling if Halvdan buried his spear in the old goat’s gullet? Sten looked at the quivering priest next to him and then down at the puddle of piss the little man had made. Sten sighed and shook his head.
“Maybe I have something, boy. I know these Saxon lands, and I have my name. That name and my deeds of long ago have some value, I dare say. I know the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok would be happy to see Sten Sleggya again. Much time has passed, but if they live, I’d say the sons of my old friend have some name and reputation wherever Northmen sail. For was it not I who taught Ubba to wrestle and Sigurd Snake Eye the cuts of the sword.” Sten straightened his back and lifted his chin.
Hundr realised he was staring open-mouthed, so he closed his teeth and feigned indifference, which was hard. Ragnar Lothbrok was the greatest of all Viking warriors and revered across the North for his exploits, he and died years ago, and his sons were famed Sea Kings. So, the tingling had been worthwhile after all.
“Run along, lad and tell your master who you have stumbled across and let him come talk to me.”
“Grand words, old one, but all I see is a grizzled old farmer sat in a pool of piss with his boyfriend. I should kill you now with my eating knife and have done with it,” Hundr said, smiling. “But I will get the Jarl and let him decide.” Hundr was about to walk away, but he held back. What if the old turd was a great man and had, in fact, sailed with Ragnar and knew the Ragnarsson’s? Then maybe Sten could be a means to an end. What if Sten could be a way to get close to the proper warriors of reputation, the real known men? What if he, Hundr, could fight alongside Ivar the Boneless himself, the most famous son of Ragnar Lothbrok and the Champion of the Northmen? Then he would have made it. Hundr imagined himself sailing home in his own warship, showing his father and his crusty old weapons master what he had become, showing them all that he had become greater than any of them ever believed possible.
“If I save your life, can you get me an audience with the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok?” Hundr asked. Sten touched at the bruise on his head where Halvdan had struck him. He spat into the piss-soaked grass and looked Hundr straight in the eye.
“Beware young pup, that way lies blood, death, treachery and deceit, axe and sword. But If they’re alive, I daresay I can grant you an audience. If that’s what you want.”
This was good timing because Einar had finished his piss and was striding across the square, flanked by Halvdan. The stocky, thick-necked shipmaster had left his spear with the loot and now brandished a short hafted axe whose head was too large for war and was more likely used by the Saxons for trimming tree branches for the fire. Halvdan swung the thing as he marched.
“Sten Grey Beard, do you have anything of value to share with us before Halvdan here sends you to Hel?” said Einar.
Hundr took a step towards Einar and was about to speak when Halvdan reached out and pressed the top of his axe haft into Hundr’s chest, pushing him backwards.
“Make yourself useful, boy, find a cart and start loading,” said Halvdan. Hundr took a breath and tried not to panic as Halvdan’s eyebrows turned into a frown, creasing his forehead.
“Lord Einar, I believe this man...” Hundr said. Einar tilted his head and fixed Hundr with a puzzled stare, tucking his hands into the top of his brynjar, the shining mail coat which protected him from neck to knee.
“What are you doing here bastard, piss off, away with you,” said Halvdan, interrupting as Hundr made to speak again.
“Lord Einar, I have spoken to this man and I..” Hundr didn’t get to finish as Einar nodded at Halvdan, who took a step towards Hundr with his axe outstretched. Hundr, without pause, darted to his left and then forwards, grabbing the Halvdan’s thick meaty wrist and twitching the axe from it. Hundr spun it backwards in his grip, and now it was he who pushed Halvdan’s chest with the axe head. Men nearby shouted and grabbed for their weapons. Halvdan’s face looked beyond anger. His cheeks were blood red, and his eyes bulged as though they would pop from his skull. Einar just glared. That may have been a mistake. He had acted on reflex rather than thought.
“I did not ask for this, Lord,” said Hundr, “I tried to talk, to tell you, but Halvdan, he….”
“Out with it, boy or I’ll take your head,” said Einar, placing a hand on Halvdan’s chest to stop him from charging at Hundr like a maddened bull.
“This man is Sten Sleggya, and he says he fought alongside Ragnar Lothbrok and knows the sons of Ragnar. He also knows these lands; he can be of help to us, to you, Lord,” said Hundr. Halvdan and Einar looked at each other. Einar scratched at his beard and chewed at his bottom lip.
“As your last gamble to cling on to your shit, miserable and dishonourable life,” said Einar, “you claim you are Sten Sleggya, known wherever Vikings sail, Champion of Ragnar Lothbrok? First over the wall at the siege of Paris, killer of Ketil the Black, Jarl Thorgrim Redbeard, and so on?”
“My name’s Sten, and once men called me Sleggya,” Sten said.
Hundr stared at Einar and then at Sten. The old goat was a hero. Hundr had known there was something about him. Halvdan sprang forward and snatched the axe out of Hundr’s hand, turned at the hip, and slammed its blade into the piss-soaked Christ Priest’s forehead. The thick blade thudded like a cleaver into meat, and as the priest’s skull cracked open, blood and bone pieces sprayed across those closest, and Hundr flinched as he felt the warmth of it slapping his face. He scratched at his cheek, trying to wipe the Priests’ brains off, and watched as Halvdan put a foot on the priest’s chest and yanked at the axe. It took three heaves to pull it free. The burly shipmaster grinned as he coiled for another blow, and Hundr stepped forwards, raising his arms.
“Wait,” he shouted, “Lord Einar, I claim the right of combat. I vouch for this man and ask for a place on your crew. Any man who disputes that is a liar and a turd, and I will fight them,” It was a desperate chance, and his words sounded stupid, but Hundr felt sure that this was his time. He swallowed hard at the thickening ball in his throat. Hundr had bailed the filthy bilge of the Seaworm from Jutland to Northumbria and kept himself quiet, kept his ambitions to himself. He had to trust his instincts. This was the moment. He looked at Sten, who had one hand on his mangled and dead priest friend, and stared wide-eyed at Halvdan.
“You little shit, you can have some too,” growled Halvdan, taking a step towards Hundr with his wood axe dripping gore onto the grass. But Einar held up his hand, and Halvdan paused.
“So, you claim the laws of the drengr, boy?” asked Einar. Hundr knew from listening through the long nights onboard the Seaworm that Einar prided himself on being a drengr, a warrior. A drengr followed drengskapr, the warrior’s way. They had brought Hundr up in the ways of the drengr, his weapons master, and his lore master, both keen to instil drengskapr in the young warriors and the path to Odin’s hall Valhalla. He knew the drengr laws, and so he knew Einar would let him fight a Holmgang, a fight within a square of hazel rods. The Holmgang was the root of all law for Northmen, for why would the Gods allow a liar to win a fight? The winner of the duel within the square had the right in any dispute.
“Yes, Lord,” said Hundr. “I will fight for Sten because of his exploits of old and because he knows this land and can be of help to us. But also for myself. If I win and prove myself in the Holmgang square, I will have a place on your crew and swear myself to you, Lord.”
“And if you lose?” asked Einar frowning.
“If I lose, then my life and his are forfeit. That’s the law.”
“You have no rights here, shit weasel, Einar let’s just do them both and get back to the ship,” said Halvdan, losing whatever fragment of patience he still possessed.
Hundr swallowed, trying to choke down the burning fear which had kindled in his belly and now travelled up to his head. It was screaming at him to run, make for the trees beyond the buildings and flee from Halvdan’s bloody brain coated axe blade. He hadn’t come all this way to run; he had come to be a warrior, and a drengr did not run. It seemed to take an age as Einar scratched at his beard and thumbed the blade of his axe in its belt loop. Hundr noticed the crew had gathered around, and he could see Kraki Horse Face grinning over Einar’s shoulder.
“Do him Halvdan,” said Kraki. Some of the crew mumbled agreement. Finally, Einar shook his head and spat.
“You can fight, boy. If you win, I’ll give you an oar, and grandfather here can live. If you lose, then Halvdan will send you to both to Niflheim,”
“Lord...” growled Halvdan, but Einar shook his head.
“We follow the Laws of the drengr in my crew. He can fight. If he’s the balls to do that, then he deserves an oar. Who will fight the pup? He can’t fight Halvdan being only a bail boy. Who will fight him?”
A grizzled warrior in a leather breastplate stretched over an enormous stomach, and striped trews gave a loud laugh and planted his spear in the ground.
“Toki will fight the pup. Let's at least have a laugh whilst stuck in this shit hole,” he shouted, and the crew cheered and banged weapons on shields. Hundr had shared a bench with Toki on the Seaworm, and he had been good company, and Hundr liked him. Why him, why hadn’t Kraki put himself forward, the useless turd?
“Toki fights the bail boy, make the square. Let’s get this done fast and get gone,” said Einar, and he stalked off towards the loot pile again. Hundr turned to Sten with a grin, but as he moved, Halvdan punched him in the ribs and yanked him up by his hair as he doubled over. Then, as his head rose, the shipmaster head-butted him on the corner of his eye, making his vision explode with white flashes, and pulled him towards him.
“I’ll have you, boy. Make a fool of me, would you? I’ll have your stinking scalp if Toki doesn’t kill you first,” he hissed and pushed Hundr to the ground.
Hundr rolled and came up to a crouch, but Halvdan had gone. He shuffled backwards to sit next to Sten, touching one hand to his eye and feeling blood there, and another to his ribs shot through with lancing pain.
“What do you think you’re doing gambling for my life, pup?” said Sten, glaring.
“Saving it, greybeard.”
“Do you know how to fight?” asked Sten, and Hundr shrugged.
“We are about to find out,” he said, trying to seem confident, but he was aware of how alone he was and how vulnerable. He was one man, new to this world of Viking adventurers, with no friends among the crew. Hundr had left his home to seek his way in the world of warriors, and now his fate stood on a knife-edge. All that stood between him and an axe blade in the skull was Jarl Einar’s steadfast adherence to drengskapr, the way of the warrior. Even if he won the Holmgang, Halvdan and the rest of the crew might cut him down anyway and leave him here to rot with the butchered Christ Priests.