Chapter One – Éire’s Devil King
The final book of the Éire’s Viking Trilogy is focused on how Tuirgeis endeavors to become the High King of Éire. Readers of the books to date will, I hope, enjoy seeing their favorite characters as well as meeting some new ones.
Hlífvanger, Nordweg, AD 841, Late Winter
“Haukr,” Tuirgeis Erlingrson called softly. “She’s asking for you.”
His son—the only child who had survived—set aside his mug of mead. Celebration of the midvinterbløt had left them little of the beverage, but on this bitter night, Tuirgeis could deny his son nothing. “All right.” Haukr tried to look like a man, the man his age proclaimed him to be, as he adjusted his tunic and felt his smooth chin for a bit of stubble to give him courage.
Tuirgeis recognized the feelings that Haukr’s movements evidenced. He remembered being a young man and having to act like an adult when he didn’t feel quite ready. At fourteen years, Haukr had seen death before. After drawing in a deep breath, the young man stepped away from the cooking fire to the end of the langhús and turned left to where Tuirgeis and Otta shared their bench-bed. Tuirgeis was proud of his son. Sure strides, a straight spine, there was no hesitation at all as he paid his final farewell to his mother.
Tuirgeis hung back, his expression shuttered as he leaned against one of the supporting posts. Here in the more private area of the house, there was only the one bench-bed that he and his wife had shared, off and on, for so many years. Food was stored here, as were his weapons and extra furs and blankets. The air was close and warm, with a small fire near his feet. He had created a new fire ring when Otta had finally taken to her bed with this last illness.
He would mourn her as was proper when she died, but part of him was relieved as well. He did not think even the noted healers from Éire would have been able to save her life, and it was as well that her pain would be over soon. Their marriage had been one of convenience, both had benefited in terms of wealth and station, and she had brought to him sons and daughters over their many years together.
“Haukr,” Otta said in her rasping way. “I give you my blessing and the rings in my fur pouch, there.”
Tuirgeis lifted his brow but said nothing. Otta’s jewelry was her own to do with as she pleased.
“These, Mother?” There was a slight clinking sound as Haukr poured several rings from the pouch. In her younger years, she had worn them with a nearly unbearable pride. Only as her illness stripped her of all but her bones and skin had she set them aside.
“These. They are for your future bride.”
Haukr darted Tuirgeis a quick, dismayed look. “Bride?”
“Not right now, son. She just wants you to keep them safe.”
“I can speak for myself,” Otta snapped, her once bright eyes dull with pain. “Learn to fight from your father. He is a good warrior. Then you will enter Valhalla with honor.”
The small fire near him flared briefly, making Haukr’s shadow loom large over his mother’s wasted body. The sight struck Tuirgeis powerfully, and he studied his son through a narrowed gaze. Was that an omen of Haukr’s future? Should he be left here, in Nordweg, and not travel to the Green Island when the fjørds were passable? Or did it instead bode well for Tuirgeis’s own plans—plans that would be easier if he had no wife to see to on the way?
Otta fell back, her body barely indenting the furs that cushioned it. Haukr remained almost rigid next to the bed, holding the bag with the rings awkwardly. “Mother?”
Her breath seemed to scrape from her throat. “So tired. Sit with me, son.”
Tuirgeis nodded his wish for his son to comply. Clearly uneasy, Haukr did as his mother wanted and sat gingerly on the edge of the bench-bed. He passed the bag from one hand to the other so the rings clinked lightly within it. Otta said nothing.
Seeing her so still on the bed reminded Tuirgeis of nothing so much as their first night together. She had only been brought to Hlífvanger the day before, to prepare for the wedding, and that had been when they had met for the first time. A pretty girl from a fruitful family, her dowry had been desirable, so Tuirgeis’s father, Erlingr, had arranged the match. As the firelight cast Otta’s face into odd shadows on her deathbed, Tuirgeis recollected the much more appealing lines she had once had. The rich red of her hair as it fell in curls over her shoulders, the round fullness of her cheeks, the strong lines of her shoulders, the curves of her young woman’s body. They had all been waiting for him that night. But her spirit, her soul, had never truly joined with his.
“Haukr, tell me the tale of Creation,” Otta demanded with a gasping breath.
After a moment, their son rose to his feet to recite. “Long ago, there was nothing. Nothing but a great chasm . . .”
Tuirgeis gripped his son briefly on the shoulder before leaving the two of them to their time together. For himself, he wanted fresh air. Otta cared more for her only surviving son than she had ever cared for her husband. She let him travel, he tried to be home for the births of their children—there had been four live births—and there had been no strife. No accusations. No questions.
He tugged his cape from the peg next to the door and draped it over his shoulders before stepping outside. There was no snow falling this night, but it lay hard and thick on the ground, crunching under his boots.
“Ahhh,” he said, his breath coming white in front of his face. He was a man who appreciated beauty, and there it was, above him to the north. “Odin, surely, these lights were one of the secrets you discovered.” No one knew what caused them. They were a gift of the gods, to light the sky in the darkest nights of winter.
On such a night as this, little Gunna had been born. He remembered it clearly. She had been their first child. His heart still ached over her death.
A deep sigh billowed in front of him as he paced over the packed snow around the langhús. The lights in the sky showed him enough of the security of his home. He would exchange it that spring for a skipniu, perhaps. A new one.
Whom would he take with him? Who would be willing to leave Nordweg forever?
Haukr met him as he rounded the final corner to return to the entrance to their house. His shoulders were straight, but he had forgotten his cape. Tuirgeis opened his own and draped it over his son. The boy’s—young man’s—eyes were wet, but no tracks lined his beardless face. Tuirgeis ignored the cold and waited for Haukr to speak. To allow him the responsibility of reporting the weighty news.
“She’s dead, Father. I was with her when she left to breathe with the gods.”
“May she breathe deeply.”
“Father? What . . . what do I do now?”
Tuirgeis lifted his head and turned his son to point out the lights in the sky. “We praise Odin for his gifts and ask him to direct her to Helgafjell, the Holy Mountain. She left us in cold and will live there in warmth. Let us prepare her to go.”
“What then?” Haukr was trying, Tuirgeis could hear, to sound manly and firm.
He pressed an inappropriate, proud smile down inside himself. Otta had been a fair wife, but she was not truly part of his life more than to have been the mother of their children. Now she was gone, and he would be free to do what he had wanted to do for quite some time. “How would you like to come with me to Éire and help me win it for my own?”
Tuaim Rithe, AD 841, Late Spring
Agnarr buried his laughter in Aislinn’s bare throat. “Quiet. You’ll wake the children.”
She pinched him lightly on the hip before whispering, “Well, then, stop your laughing.”
It was dark in the langhús, save for the glowing of the coals banked in the fire ring. Agnarr enjoyed his wife’s responsiveness to him, and when they made love, he never forgot to thank his new God for letting her live through the births of the children their bodies made together. Before the sun crept under the door and through the shutters over the new windows, they were smiling and silent and relishing the moments—he knew there would only be moments—before the children stirred in the bench-bed they shared.
Later, as their son and daughter began shifting restlessly prior to awakening, Agnarr sat up and blew out a breath. “Wife.”
“Yes, husband?” She joined him, finding his hand with hers in the shadowy enclosure of their private area.
“We need to be ready. You need to be ready. You and the children.”
She sighed and shifted on the blankets so that she was looking directly at him. As was her habit, she continued to touch him with her fingers as she spoke. “I can fight. And you gave Dow a real knife at the Christ Mass.”
Discomfort tightened his stomach as he shook his head. “You need to be able to escape, just in case.” He knew far too well what would happen if someone found his attractive wife. Someone whom he didn’t know. Someone who would find her dark hair appealing and the tatú on her cheek mysterious and alluring. Someone who would want to take her as their leman, as he had once taken Charis.
Someone who might take his son as a slave.
Jaw tightening in anger, he shook his head again. Hard. “You know what can happen to you.” Her eyes were on his face, and he met their steady gaze. “And the children. You need to be able to get away. We should find a way to make you safe.”
He was surprised when she smiled a little. “There’s always a tunnel, you know. They don’t have one here in Tuaim Rithe, but with so many of us in this village, we could make one before the summer takes a firm hold on the land.”
He grunted. “I had forgotten about that. Yes. We should talk to the king.”
“Or Cowan,” she suggested gently.
“Ja.” His thoughts slid over the many ways in which he was understanding the impact his people made on hers. When he had done the raiding, the fear of their victims had never entered his thinking. He had dwelt only on the riches to be attained. But in the present time, Agnarr thought only of ways to keep his family safe, for not all raiders would be known to him. How could he help to keep the people of Éire from further ravages? Even thinking of it sent harsh-edged feelings of conflict rebounding within his mind and heart.
He was brought back to the basic needs of the present, however, when his son awakened.
“Ma! She’s all wet!” Dow complained as he rolled off the bed he shared with his little sister.
Aislinn laughed a little. “Well, what were you expecting, my son? That she was big like you?”
Dow’s dark hair fell into his eyes as he stomped to the fire ring and started poking at the banked coals. He had a sense about the heat and flames and making fire, though he was still quite young. Sparks flew from the darkened stick he used. Perhaps, Agnarr reflected as he handed his wife a léine to tug on over her body while he pulled on a pair of trousers, the fire helped his son to release some of the tension that boys had to deal with. Even though he was a playful lad at times, Dow could get feisty and rough when provoked.
“I never did that. I never woke up wet.”
Agnarr laughed. “Oh, son! You slept with us, don’t you remember? And many were the times you soaked through the bed furs.”
“Ma! Ma!” The baby’s cry reached them, and Aislinn moved to cross the wooden planks on the floor to retrieve her. Since she was feeding the babe, Agnarr took it upon himself to get the offending bedding off the bed and bundled near the door. Today would be a market day, and Aislinn would have much to do.
But so did he. “I have the planting,” he told his family as they hastily fed themselves. “And then I’ll try to meet with Cowan and the king. Dow? You come with me today. You can help with the farming, as you’re getting tall.”
Dow wasn’t the only young child helping with weeding and tending to the plants that would feed them in the coming year. As his mother tended her herb garden, so Dow learned to tend the fields, alongside his father and the others of the rath. For Agnarr, it was a mixed blessing. He relished the sheer simplicity of tending crops to feed his family to a degree he had not anticipated. But still, he longed for the edge of tension that living his former life had brought to him.
“Yes, son?” The final row had been tended in their plot, and he stretched into the sun, his muscles protesting in a way that made him wince and smile ruefully into the sky.
His black-haired son stretched likewise, his face contorting into what was, Agnarr imagined, an imitation of his father. “Can we fight now?”
Halvard would be proud, Agnarr thought with a grin. Bending, he scooped up his son in one arm, his hoe in the other, and paced carefully around other growing plots. “Yes. Let’s hurry back home, get our weapons, and go at it before your mother catches us.” He never would have imagined that being a father would make him feel as a boy again, but it did.
In their langhús, he kept his weapons on an unused bench-bed. Dow, of course, did the same, using the same bed. Agnarr had a small wooden sword made for his son while he himself used a larger version for these play-practice times. When they practiced in the village, other boys sometimes joined them, but today it would be father and son only.
“Don’t forget your shield, Da’!”
With a grin, Agnarr grabbed his smaller shield as Dow copied him. “Now we run, lad.”
Leading the way, Agnarr pretended to run. Behind him, he knew, Dow was doing his best with his short strides. Beyond the herb garden was a line of trees, but in between was a clear area, beaten down with repeated use. Agnarr ran his son around the small space before coming to rest in the middle of it. He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders, memories flooding his thoughts. “My father took my brothers and me to practice fighting just like this,” he told Dow.
“And you have two brothers,” Dow said between heavy breaths as he got his wind back. “Will I have two brothers someday, Da’?”
Agnarr honored Arknell in his thoughts and wondered briefly how Bjørn was doing in Nordweg. “It is possible, ja. Enough talk. Show me what you remember. Attack.”
South of Tuaim Rithe, AD 841, Early Summer
“But it’s bad luck to pass a fearnóg,” Ide objected, her hand held up as if to ward off an evil spirit.
Charis shook her head and lifted one of the unique, rounded leaves of the black alder. “No, it’s not. It’s got good bark, and if you want to learn healing, you need to learn about it.” She shifted her feet in the marshy soil north of an Bhanna, or the White River, hearing faint squishing sounds. Black alder was most common around rivers and lakes. “We peel the bark like this,” she said, using the tip of her knife to start a strip, “and put it in your pouch.”
Ide hesitated, tugging at a lock of bright red hair. “You’re sure it won’t bring back luck?”
Frustration simmered under Charis’s skin, making her muscles tighten so that she gripped the hilt of her knife with almost a white-knuckled force. “Look at me. I’ve been preparing it for a long time. Do I look like I’ve been cursed?”
Discontentment shifted places with a resentful wonder in Ide’s green eyes. “No, Charis. You’ve not aged a day since first I met you, years ago.”
Charis snorted. “Nor am I likely to,” she muttered. “So know that you’ll come to no harm, Ide. Now we take the bark and then boil it for quite a while. I’ll show you what to look for when we’re back in the rath. Take your knife and gather from every other tree. Not every tree, though. The trees need the bark, too.”
She left Ide to it, taking her own gathering basket nearer to the shores of Lough Neagh. Tuaim Rithe was in an ideal location in terms of water. Though still leery of bodies of water, Charis never forgot that they bore life, and that was precious to her. The water crept gently up the slope with careful fingers, as if knowing she was hesitant to approach such a large amount of it. When there was a stiff wind, the waves furled whitely, rows upon rows of them. Just then, however, there was peace and calm.
She stared out over the lough, about to bend down to dig the roots from the rushes there, when a stirring within her kept her upright. There, to the northwest, something moved above the water. A small flock of grebes were nearby, their stuttering caws high pitched and active before they splashed out of the water. Scowling at them, she focused again on the distant object and, with a sudden start, she realized she knew exactly what it was.
“Cowan . . .” Her whisper traveled no farther than her own ear. They shouldn’t be coming this way. The Northmen came by sea, not through a lake. Of course, there would be tributaries, but surely . . .
“Ide? We have to go. Right now. Back to the rath.”
The younger woman ran to her, her feet slipping on the muddy grass near the water. “What is it, Charis?”
Pointing, Charis didn’t have to say a word. Ide knew.
“Northmen. From the Danes? King . . . King Horik?” The names were familiar now, after seasons of stories and preparations. All color drained from her face, leaving freckles to stand in sharp relief.
“I don’t know,” Charis said, backing away while keeping an eye on the longship that was growing closer every few moments. “But the men must ready themselves. As I must.”
She wondered, as they hurried back to the safety of the village, if the one safety tunnel was yet deep enough to hide all the children of Tuaim Rithe.