EAST OF STENVIK, WEST NORWAY
October, AD 996
Ulfar walked, and the world changed around him. With every step the colours shifted from green to yellow, from yellow to red, from red to brown. Around him, nature was dying. Every morning he watched the same pale sun rise over greying trees. He was cold when he woke and wet when he slept. He jumped when he heard a twig snap or a bird take flight. Every shadow threatened to conceal a group of King Olav’s men about to burst out of the forest with drawn swords. His ribs still hurt after the fall, but there had been no other way out of Stenvik. They’d hidden themselves among the corpses at the foot of the wall until dark, then made their way in silence to the east, past the bloody remains of Sigmar on the cross and into Stenvik Forest, over the bodies of scores of slaughtered outlaws, after King Olav’s army had charged through the ranks of the forest men, killing everything in its path.
Audun marched beside him, hardly saying a word. The blond blacksmith had regained his strength incredibly quickly after the fight on the wall. The only thing that remained was a hole in his shift, front and back, where Harald’s sword had skewered him.
Audun had died on that wall. They both knew it.
Yet there he was, marching stony-faced beside Ulfar, hammer tied to his belt. Neither of them spoke of the fey woman on the ship – beautiful, evil and serene in her last moments. Neither of them mentioned her words. Were they truly cursed to walk the earth for ever? Would they never know the peace of death? Audun refused to speak of his experience, as if talking would seal their fate and somehow make it real. Just thinking about it sent chills up and down Ulfar’s spine.
On the first night after the wall he’d fallen into an uneasy sleep, only to wake with the breath stuck in his throat and Lilia’s falling body in his mind. Audun, standing first watch, had spoken then. He’d known what was wrong, somehow. He told Ulfar she’d be with him for ever and that no matter what he did, he couldn’t make her leave and he couldn’t make her live, so he should accept it, let her into his head and let her out again. That night Ulfar wondered just how many people visited Audun in his dreams.
The sharp wind tugged at Ulfar’s ragged cloak as his feet moved of their own accord, picking a path over stones, tree branches and dead leaves. When they set out they’d gone east, then north, then further east, with the sole aim of putting the most distance possible between themselves and King Olav, ignoring everything else. They were fleeing, like animals from a fire. Like cowards from a fight. At their back was the smell of Stenvik’s corpses, burning on King Olav’s giant pyre. No doubt Geiri’s body was among them.
He searched for the sun in the sky. He looked north, then south. He looked back to where they’d come from.
Audun shuffled to a halt and glared at him. ‘What?’
Ulfar swallowed and blinked. ‘I’m going home,’ he said. ‘There’s something I need to do.’ Then he turned to the east. He felt Audun’s eyes on his back as he walked away.
STENVIK, WEST NORWAY
October, AD 996
‘Do you accept our Lord Christ as your eternal saviour?’ Finn snarled, forearms taut with tension.
Valgard sighed. ‘He can’t hear you, Finn. Lift his head up.’
The burly warrior snorted, grabbed a handful of hair and pulled the prisoner’s head out of the water trough. The bound man tried to cough and suck in air at the same time, thrashing in panic as his lungs seized up.
‘Hold him,’ Valgard said. Finn strengthened his grip and planted a knee in the small of the prone man’s back. The slim, pale healer knelt down on the floor, leaned into the prisoner’s field of vision and put a firm hand on his chest. ‘You’re not dying,’ he said. ‘You’re getting enough air to survive. Breathe,’ he added, prodding at the man’s sternum with a bony finger. ‘In… out… in… out… Good.’ The man stopped squirming and lay still on the floor. Finn shifted the knee against the prisoner’s back but did not let go of the man’s hair. ‘Now. My friend here asked you a question. Do you believe?’ The man spat, coughed and tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse wheeze. Valgard’s smile flickered for an instant. ‘Let me see if I can explain this,’ he said. ‘King Olav has told us that for a man to accept the faith he needs to be… what was it?’
‘Christened,’ Finn said.
‘That’s right. Christened. And this involves pouring water over the head. We thought about this and figured that the more heathen you are, the more water you will need. So we have this’ – Valgard gestured to the trough – ‘and we have you. And we’re going to keep christening you until you believe. Do you believe in our Lord Christ?’ He expected the tough-looking raider to spit and snap like the others had – either that, or accept his circumstances and lie. Some men had a bit of sense in the face of death, but among the captured raiders that hadn’t appeared to be a highly valued trait.
Neither of these things happened. Much to Valgard’s surprise, he noticed that the prisoner’s lips were quivering. The man was crying silently, mouthing something. ‘Put him down. Check the straps.’ Finn lowered the prisoner to the floor and quickly did as he was told. When he’d examined the wrist and ankle straps to his satisfaction, he nodded at Valgard. ‘Good. Would you bring us something to eat? He’s not going anywhere and you could use the rest.’
Finn lurched to his feet, favouring his right leg. ‘You staying with him?’
Valgard rose alongside the big soldier and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘I don’t think we should leave him alone. You go – I’ll be fine. You’ve made sure he’s all tied up.’ Watching the concern in the eyes of King Olav’s captain as he left the house, Valgard had to fight to suppress a smile. It had taken fewer than four days since the fall of Stenvik to bring Finn over to his side. The fact that he’d made the big warrior dependent on the mixture that soothed his aches helped. Mindful of the lessons learned from Harald’s descent into madness, he’d gone easy on the shadowroot this time.
Still, Valgard felt the last days deep in his bones. The aftermath had been hectic – much to everyone’s surprise, the king had refused to put the captured raiders to the sword. He’d extended the same mercy to the men of Stenvik, explaining to Valgard that he wanted to show all of them the way of the White Christ first. Valgard had nodded, smiled and done his best to patch up those most likely to survive – including his current visitor.
The man on the floor looked to be around forty years old, with thinning hair the colour of an autumn field. Callused rower’s hands and a broad chest suggested he’d spent his life sailing; weatherworn and salt-burned skin confirmed it. He’d probably killed a lot of people, Valgard mused. This wolf of the North Sea who now lay trussed up on the floor of Harald’s old house had most likely raped, terrorised and tortured with his group of stinking, bearded brothers, like all raiders. Apparently he’d followed someone called Thrainn, who’d been a brave and noble chieftain. But most of the brave and noble people Valgard had ever heard of shared the same trait – they were dead.
He knelt back down beside the man on the floor and waited, listening to his captive’s ragged breathing.
‘She’ll… kill me,’ the bound man whispered.
Valgard’s scalp tingled and the breath caught in his throat. Was this it? He fought hard to keep his composure. ‘Who?’ he asked.
‘She is… she is the night…’
Working carefully, Valgard eased the bound sailor up into a sitting position. Heart thumping in his chest, he chose his words carefully. ‘She was… with Skargrim, wasn’t she?’ The sailor shuddered and nodded. ‘And she would kill you.’ Again, the sailor nodded and when he tried to look around, Valgard said, ‘There’s no one here. You are safe. Five thousand of the king’s soldiers are camped around Stenvik. No one will attack us.’
This did nothing to ease the sailor’s fears. ‘She could do anything. We are all in her power.’
Fighting to control another surge of excitement, Valgard asked, ‘Who was she? Where did she come from?’
‘She raised the dead,’ the sailor muttered. ‘She was beautiful…’
‘And she came with you?’
‘Not us. Skargrim. Someone told me she murdered Ormar with his own knife. She was the magic of the north. She’ll find me. I can’t. I can’t abandon the gods. She’ll find me.’ The words tumbled out as silent tears streamed down the raider’s cheeks. ‘I can’t,’ he muttered, lapsing into silence.
After a moment’s thought, Valgard stood up and moved to his workbench. He came back with a small leather flask. ‘Here. Drink this. It’s for your throat. To make sure you breathe right.’ The prisoner gestured to his tied hands and Valgard snorted. ‘Forgive me. I’m thoughtless. Here.’ He leaned forward, touched the spout to the bound man’s lips and tilted very carefully. ‘Sip, but be careful.’
The sailor drank from the flask, sighing when Valgard took it away. ‘Thank… you,’ he managed before drifting off.
‘No. Not at all. Thank you,’ Valgard replied. He watched the sleeping man and listened to his breathing slow down. As it became more laboured, the sailor’s eyelids fluttered. The time between breaths increased. Then the man on the floor was still.
Exhaling, Valgard thought back on when he’d first seen someone die. He hadn’t been much more than eleven summers. She was an old woman; her hacking cough had irritated him. Passing in and out of sleep, she woke up in the hut where Sven used to teach him about healing. She shouted her husband’s name, confused and frightened. Then she fell silent. Valgard had watched as she sank back on her pallet and the life just… left. He’d gone out of the hut and vomited. He was easily rattled back then: a sickly, weak boy.
Seventeen years had passed and Valgard had seen more than his share of death since then. Like birth, it tended to involve blood, slime and screaming. Like birth, it was a lot more important to the people it was happening to than the rest of the world. It was a cycle, and it would keep on repeating.
Or so he’d thought.
He replayed the moments again in his head. As much as Valgard had been intent on his own survival when King Olav’s army walked into Stenvik, he had not been able to take his eyes off Harald when the raider captain started screaming on the wall, his wife Lilia kicking and squirming in his arms. He’d watched with growing horror as Harald denounced the leaders of Stenvik, mocked King Olav and ripped through Lilia’s throat with a jagged piece of wood, sacrificing her to the old gods, throwing her to the ground like a sack of grain. Valgard was on the point of turning away when he saw Ulfar rushing the stairs and charging the sea captain, only to be beaten back by Harald’s mad fury. Ulfar stumbled and Audun strode into the fight, throwing himself on Harald’s sword to get at the furious raider.
Valgard had seen Audun die in Ulfar’s arms after Harald crumpled before him. For all the raiders’ jibes, he knew what death looked like. He’d seen the sword come out of the man’s broad back, watched the muscles seize up and felt the life leave the blacksmith’s body, like it had left countless bodies before him.
And then he’d seen the tiniest bit of movement on the wall. Audun had moved. The shock on Ulfar’s face had told the rest of the tale.
Valgard had watched Ulfar jump over the wall, holding Audun – and then the survival instinct kicked in, tore him off the spot and hurtled him along. Blind panic pushed him to his hut just in time to retrieve the cheap cross he’d secretly bought off a travelling merchant when he’d heard the rumours of King Olav’s ascendancy. Valgard threw himself to his knees and started praying in Latin, not two breaths before King Olav’s soldiers burst through the door.
Since then he’d done his best to please his new master, but he couldn’t forget what he’d seen on the wall. Audun had cheated death, and it had to be connected to the attack somehow. That, or something to do with Ulfar.
In his quest for information, Valgard had volunteered to join Finn in christening the captured raiders from the north, but most had either drowned or Finn had snapped their necks when they refused to convert. A handful had come over to King Olav’s side, but Valgard did not trust them. This was the first tangible bit of information he’d received about the mysterious presence on Skargrim’s ship; there had been a bit of talk about a small, knifewielding woman who’d been Skargrim’s boatman, but after living with raiders his entire life and spending a lot of time with Harald, Valgard discounted that as nonsense. He’d heard the stories after Audun killed Egill Jotun, but anything from the battlefield was to be taken with a pinch of salt too. No women’s bodies had been thrown on the pyre.
Well, except for Lilia’s.
Now, however, it looked like things were finally moving his way. He’d felt the truth in the sailor’s words. The man had been terrified. As sceptical as Valgard was of the old ways, the stories from the far north had always appeared to support the idea of magic, or some kind of connection with the gods. Now it fell to him to determine whether this was true or not. This was what he needed. He needed to go north – but how?
‘You must come.’ Finn’s voice shook Valgard out of his thoughts. The big soldier could move quietly when he wanted to. ‘To the longhouse.’
‘Why? What’s going on?’ Valgard said, rising slowly.
‘Hakon Jarl has replied, apparently,’ Finn said. His face did not give anything away.
Valgard raised his eyebrows. ‘Has he? Well then. Let’s go.’
Finn did not ask about the body on the floor.
When they entered the longhouse, Jorn was already there, sitting to the right of King Olav. It was very faint, but Valgard still heard Finn’s snort of displeasure. The longhouse wasn’t anything like as great as it had been in Sigurd’s time. War trophies had been ripped off the wall, along with weapons and shields. In their place was a big, broad cross that the king had ordered built out of broken weapons, to signify how faith overcame war, apparently. It caught and broke the rays of the sun. Valgard couldn’t help but think that a handful of Harald’s men would have turned the components of that cross back into tools of pain and death in an instant.
The king spotted them and gestured to the dais. They walked past an old farmer, sixty if he was a day, clad in muddy rags and clutching a sack that looked heavy. He was flanked by two watchmen as he shivered in the cold air. King Olav paid him no mind; the rough and discoloured woollen sack had all his attention.
‘Sit, Finn,’ the king commanded, gesturing to his left. Valgard took a seat by the wall. King Olav nodded very briefly to acknowledge his presence. Then he turned to the old man. ‘You bring a message from Hakon,’ he said.
‘Y-yes,’ the farmer stuttered.
‘That’s what the riders said,’ the old farmer mumbled. His voice trembled and he did not dare look the king in the eye. Judging by the sound of King Olav’s voice, Valgard thought that was probably a good idea.
‘So riders came from the north and brought you this,’ Jorn said. Sitting on the king’s right, the self-proclaimed Prince of the Dales looked altogether too pleased with himself. A lucky strike against the Viking Thrainn in what was supposed to be the Stenvik raiders’ last stand had given him some notoriety among the men; turning on Sigurd had not worked against him as much as Valgard had thought it would. Always well dressed and groomed, Jorn looked at home as the king’s right-hand man. He pressed the old farmer. ‘Why didn’t you tell them to bring the whole message themselves?’
‘They… they threatened me, my lord,’ the old man muttered. ‘They told me to take it to… the king… or I’d be on a spike.’
‘Very well,’ King Olav interrupted. ‘What’s in the sack?’
The old farmer shuddered, swallowed twice and drew a deep breath. Then he grabbed the bottom corners of the sack and tipped its contents out onto the floor.
Two rag piles landed with a thud.
‘Oh, the—’ Finn muttered before he bit his lip.
Jorn stared dumbly at the rags. ‘Is that… his—?’ The messenger’s left hand had been cut off, as had his right foot. The farmer shook the sack. Another two bundles tumbled out and clattered onto the floor.
‘The men said… they said Hakon Jarl says you can come up to Trondheim and collect the rest any time you want.’
Like Jorn and Finn, Valgard held his breath. The tense silence was broken when King Olav smashed a mailed fist on the armrest of the high chair. ‘Why won’t he listen?’ he growled. ‘I bring peace. I bring prosperity. I bring a better life for him and his stinking herd of miserable sheep!’
‘The northern lords haven never been famous for caring much about their flock, my King,’ Jorn said. ‘Hakon Jarl has always been a hard master. I don’t think he would like to be ruled by anyone else.’ After a brief pause, he added, ‘It is a shame that he doesn’t understand what is best for him and his people. We’ll show him who rules next summer. Or next spring, even. Before he expects it.’
‘I’ll make him understand,’ King Olav snarled. ‘I can’t run the country while I wait for him to assemble an army.’
Valgard’s face felt hot and his heart hammered in his chest. The chance was here, right now. He cleared his throat. ‘Then why wait for spring?’
He barely managed to stand his ground when King Olav turned towards him. ‘What do you mean?’ Fury was burning in the king’s eyes.
‘Hakon is a savage, we all know it. He has been ruling the north for longer than I can remember, and he is by all accounts a strong chieftain.’
Jorn frowned. ‘Why are you telling us this? We know—’
‘But where do you fit into Hakon’s world, your Majesty? What are you to him?’ Valgard continued, addressing the king and ignoring the dirty look from Jorn. ‘An upstart? One of many challengers? Someone to be squashed? Or someone to be feared?’
‘More than five thousand men follow me. And the word of Christ,’ King Olav said.
‘And why do you think he had your messenger killed?’ Valgard said. The longhouse was suddenly very silent. ‘You knew he wouldn’t step aside. He certainly knows it. He also knows that autumn is here and winter is on its way. So he gambles. He decides to send a statement of his strength, to taunt you and eliminate the one man who could have told you what his forces are really like. While you stew down here, he gathers strength. Word will get around that he defied you; when winter clears, his stinking herd of miserable sheep may have grown significantly.’
King Olav watched Valgard intently. ‘So—?’
‘Take it. Take his challenge – but take it now.’
Jorn nearly jumped out of his seat. ‘That’s foolish! You could never—’
‘Stop.’ King Olav’s calm voice cut Jorn off. ‘Listen. You should listen more.’ The Prince of the Dales slumped back in his seat, and the king sat in silence for a little while. When he spoke again, he sounded almost curious. ‘Go north in autumn, you say.’ His words were directed to Valgard, but he looked to the sky. ‘I will… think about this. Leave us.’
Valgard followed Finn towards the door. The look on Jorn’s face as they left was not lost on him.
‘A-a-and then what?’ Runar said.
‘He just sat there. Didn’t say a word. Then he got up and went over to his little prayer table with the Bible, knelt down and started mumbling. He kept looking up at the roof. After a while I just left. I don’t think he noticed,’ Jorn snapped, whittling at a stick.
‘Th-this does not sound good,’ Runar said. He paced in the hut they’d been forced to share. Five thousand men were squeezed together in and around Stenvik, growing more hungry and restless by the day. ‘But we n-need to th-think about this. There may be opportunities.’ Outside, someone saluted as they passed by but got no reply.
‘But when? When do we do something? Anything?’ The knife bit into the stick and sent wood chips flying into a growing pile at Jorn’s feet. ‘I’m sick and tired of playing nice. Poisoning the food didn’t work, and—’
‘W-w-wrong,’ Runar stammered. ‘Poisoning the food worked just f-f-f-fine. Little f-food for them-m, n-n-n—’ Runar took several deep breaths to get the words out. ‘No b-blame for us,’ he added, smiling. ‘A-and we m-move when the moment comes. You’ll know,’ he added. ‘Y-you’ll know.’
‘This doesn’t feel very heroic,’ Jorn grumbled. ‘I’m not doing anything. The men will not think I’m doing—’
‘Th-th-that’s good, th-th-though. Because right now, K-King Olav is making a m-mistake. Or at least he’s thinking about it.’
Jorn sighed and rose. The house they’d been given was wooden, well made but simple, with only a few trophies mounted on the walls. They’d cleared out the dresses and a strange collection of leather bottles and had found a chest under the bed containing an impressive assortment of blades, axes and meanlooking spearheads – killing tools. They had kept these for themselves.
‘You forgot that there’s also less food for us,’ he grumbled.
Runar shrugged. ‘That’s no problem. You were s-s-starting to get fat anyway.’ He grinned. ‘Now all w-we need to do is w-wait until he decides how to m-mess this up.’
There was a knock on the door.
‘Who’s there?’ Jorn asked.
‘The king requests your presence,’ a boy’s voice piped up. ‘Wall. Now. Both of you,’ he added.
Runar smiled again, winked at Jorn and motioned towards the door.
They found King Olav standing above the north gate, looking out. In front of him, Stenvik Forest was a wall of red, yellow and brown, with only occasional dabs of green.
‘I have sought guidance on the matter. We will send a delegation to Hakon Jarl.’
‘A delegation, my lord?’ said Jorn. ‘But Hakon will—’
King Olav turned and looked at them. His smile was cold. ‘Jorn, you are a loyal servant and Christ commends you for your work. But you speak too much and too quickly. Like I said: listen more. We are going north to talk to the jarl. Our delegation will number three thousand men.’
Jorn took a few breaths to compose himself and digest the information. ‘As you wish, your Majesty. Who do you want with you, and who are you leaving behind?’
‘I will take you both with me. Finn will stay behind, command in Stenvik and speak with my authority.’ King Olav turned again, and Jorn risked a quick look at Runar. He got a grin and a wink in return.
‘Very good,’ Jorn hazarded. ‘Which men will you take?’
‘I want at least eight hundred archers, eight hundred foot, pike and as much experienced horse as we can carry. The rest is at your discretion. You’ve got a head for this.’
‘Thank you, your Majesty,’ Jorn replied.
‘That is all.’
‘Yes. Yes, thank you,’ Jorn said. Runar was already moving towards the stairs.
When they reached the ground, Runar turned towards him. His eyes positively sparkled. ‘W-we n-n-n-need to talk!’ he stuttered.
Jorn simply gestured towards the hut.
Once they’d closed the door, Runar bounded around the cabin. ‘Perfect. Perfect!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’ve already got the men from the Dales on your side. I’ve t-talked to some of the boys from the southeast – some of them could be swayed. Skeggi, B-b-botolf and his brother Ingimar might all cross over, and I think that would make up a good four hundred at the least. Now all we n-n-need to do is get them on the right boats. Put K-king Olav in a boat with us, thirty of our men, boat gets lost and the king finally gets to meet his precious m-m-maker.’ Runar grinned from ear to ear.
Jorn frowned. ‘Keep your voice down. I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all. It sounds stupid to me, and King Olav isn’t stupid.’
‘Even s-smart people make mistakes,’ Runar said, still grinning. ‘Sometimes they don’t know they’re m-making them until it’s too late.’
Valgard shuddered and pressed harder into the chair. It was starting to feel like King Olav’s longhouse would never be warm. They’d been in the middle of converting another raider to the good side when the boy had come to summon them. The man had not been… cooperative. Yet another soul which would not be joining Christ in heaven. He couldn’t help but think that the way this was going, the other side would be having one bastard of a war party.
King Olav gestured for them to approach. ‘I have consulted with higher powers. You were right yesterday, Valgard. We should strike, and strike now. Waiting is the wrong thing to do. So we’ll take three thousand men up north. Finn, you will stay behind and control this town in my stead. Valgard, you will stay with him to negotiate with the men of Stenvik. You’re one of them; they will trust you.’
Valgard had to fight to keep the panic off his face. He hadn’t been able to go back to his hut after yesterday’s meeting. Instead he’d walked the town, treading paths he’d stopped walking since the battle, allowing his mind to wander and listening to the sounds of the town, the voices in the huts. He’d almost been able to taste it; in his mind he had been on his way to the mysterious north to seek the source of the magic. To find the power. And now it was all being taken away. He had to think of something, fast. ‘Erm, your Majesty, I am not sure they’ll trust me too much. They will not forgive me for abandoning the old gods.’
‘Do you fear them?’ The king looked mildly curious.
‘I am not a warrior,’ Valgard said. ‘I have lived in this town all my life, endured their taunts – they hated me because I couldn’t fight, they despised me because I knew things they didn’t, and now they fear me because I believe in the one true God. I do not doubt that if you were to leave me here, some of them might seize the opportunity to do me harm.’
‘Finn will be with you, as my voice. I’ve known and believed among the savages, and with Finn by my side no harm has yet befallen me. You will be his advisor. He will be acting chieftain of Stenvik.’
Finn coughed, swallowed and coughed again. ‘If… if that is your wish, your Majesty—’
‘It is. I can trust you, Finn, and Valgard can make sure the influence of Sigurd and Sven does not confuse the men. Now go – there is much that needs to be done.’
There is indeed, Valgard thought as he walked out. There is indeed.
‘What do you want?’ The guard posted outside Sigurd and Sven’s house was big, ugly and determined. Valgard thought he’d probably been put in front of their cabin because he’d be very hard to move out of the way. A large, hand-made crucifix hung on a cord around the big oaf’s neck.
Valgard made the sign of the cross and bowed his head. ‘Glory to God, amen.’ The guard mumbled something indistinct in return. ‘I am here to check on the health of our… guests.’ The guard stared dully at him and did not move a hair’s breadth. ‘Finn said I should look them over.’ Still no movement. ‘If they were to fall ill, King Olav would get very angry.’
The guard inched away from the door.
‘Thank you,’ Valgard said. The guard ignored him and stared straight ahead. The door was reinforced; the bar across it was at least half Valgard’s weight. After struggling with it for a while, Valgard managed to shift the bar just enough to send it crashing to the ground. The guard spared him a contemptuous glance but did not move a finger. Biting back a curse, Valgard sent him a smile instead and opened the door as far as he could.
The inside of the hut was dark and dusty. Sigurd sat with his back against the far wall; Sven was getting to his feet. He had been allowed a pouch of herbs to treat his wounds, but he looked naked without a blade. Valgard stepped towards his foster-father and helped him up. He glanced towards Sigurd; Sven shook his head.
‘I’m trying,’ Valgard muttered under his breath, ‘but there’s no reasoning with the king. He’s out of his mind. Jesus this, Jesus that.’
‘Could you get us some weapons? We’d happily—’
Valgard grabbed the old man’s wrist with strength he didn’t know he had. ‘No,’ he hissed. The look of surprise on Sven’s face was rewarding. ‘You’re not cutting your way out of this. There are five thousand men out there.’
‘We’ve seen worse,’ Sven said.
Valgard released his grip. ‘I know, Father. I’ve heard the stories. But I think patience is the best way forward now. Just… allow things to happen. Give me a couple more days. I’ve talked to the men. They’re behind you. We just need to find the right moment.’ He glanced towards the door and the guard outside it. ‘I’m not supposed to give you this. King Olav wants to control what you eat so he can keep you weak.’ Valgard reached into the folds of his tunic, produced a leather bottle and handed it to Sven. ‘For both of you.’
‘Thank you, son,’ Sven said. His expression was difficult to read.
‘You’re welcome, Father,’ Valgard replied. The breath caught in his throat. ‘I must go – I have things to do. His Majesty doesn’t like to wait.’
Sven glanced towards Sigurd and for the first time since Valgard stepped through the door he saw a twinkle in the old rogue’s eye. ‘Tell me about it,’ he muttered.
Valgard’s smile lasted until he’d turned his back. When he left the hut, the guard was waiting, holding the bar.
King Olav sat down in the high chair, then stood up again. Unable to find a comfortable position, he continued walking around the longhouse and touching the silver cross hanging around his neck. ‘How many ships do we have?’
‘Sixty,’ Jorn said. ‘Sixty ready to sail, needing only minimal repairs.’
‘Sixty. How many benches?’
‘Mostly twenty-seaters, up to thirty-six.’
‘And have you decided who we’re taking?’
‘We’ve drawn up a list,’ Jorn said, gesturing to Runar.
‘Very good,’ King Olav said. ‘What of the grain stores?’
Runar consulted a slate of wood with carved notches. ‘W-we have th-thirty sacks of grain left, forty head of s-smoked lamb… Th-they managed to treat what Sigurd had slaughtered and s-save most of it… herbs for soup, sixty sacks of turnip—’
‘Take what you think you’ll need,’ King Olav said. ‘You’ve proved valuable, Runar. I do not doubt that you provide a lot of ideas for Jorn. We start the fitting tomorrow morning. We sail as soon as we can.’
‘Th-thank you, your M-m-mah—’
A dismissive wave of King Olav’s hand stopped Runar in his tracks. ‘That’s enough. Go. Do what you need to. I have things to do.’
Jorn and Runar rose quietly and left the longhouse. When they’d gone, King Olav walked over to the makeshift altar and knelt.
‘Father,’ he muttered, ‘Father, tell me that this is right. I will risk the deaths of hundreds of my men, Norse warriors who have learned to love you and Jesus Christ. Give me some sign that you value your servant.’
A stillness filled the longhouse. Outside, the autumn light faded as afternoon turned to evening. The door to the longhouse opened slowly and Finn entered with Valgard close behind. After a short while, the big warrior cleared his throat.
King Olav rose without a word. He moved to the dais and motioned for them to approach.
‘I’m glad you are here, Finn. We need to talk about your reign as chieftain of Stenvik.’ He smiled. ‘No need to look so worried, my friend. It will all work very well. Valgard will counsel you and make sure you don’t step on any toes.’
Valgard cleared his throat. ‘If I may, your Majesty. There is one thing I must mention to you. It is very important. I think that you should be careful—’
One of King Olav’s guards burst in. ‘My King! My King!’
‘You will salute!’ Finn shouted. ‘What do you want?’
‘It’s… it’s Sven and Sigurd! The guard just told me to come and fetch you!’
‘What?’ the king snapped.
‘They’re not breathing!’
* * *
Errata: The first version of this post incorrectly identified the novel as “Blood Will Flow” – many apologies to the author for this error!
Also on CR: Interview with Snorri Kristjansson