Chapter One, Éire’s Viking
Miss our Ostmen? Here’s how they return…
Text from Éire’s Viking © 2013 by Sandi Layne
Wexford, AD 834 Early Summer
In many ways it was so eerily familiar that he wanted to pinch his sword arm to make sure it was not an oft-repeated dream. The lapping of the shallow water against the hull of the skipniu as Erik anchored it into place, the muted coughs and bracing words exchanged, the green smell that reached his nose. All of it tugged at him, making him remember the first time he had been here, when he had come with Tuirgeis on their first raid. He could almost hear the noise of a small village, see the trees near the easily-subdued home of the monks. He had met a woman who had captivated him with her pale skin and bright spirit, convincing him that his wyrd was tied to the land that bore her.
His name was Agnarr Halvardson, and he would not be denied the Green Island this year.
Tuirgeis was in the longship to Agnarr’s right. His influence had been growing of late, but Agnarr knew the older man was restless. He wanted more than he was finding in Nordweg. Agnarr didn’t blame him; he wanted more himself. This trip, if Thor willed it, would be his last.
Adjusting his helm—a newly forged one, with a slight point to the top— he hefted his father’s sword, Mjøllnir. “Let’s go.” Bracing himself on the wood of the skipniu, he leapt into the shallows with a two-footed splash.
The others followed, and Agnarr was privately amused to hear the requests for reassurance that others made to Erik. Called Erik the Hard- Headed even yet, the younger man had been on a few raids since his first and had grown in stature and strength.
Agnarr hadn’t been able to raid so far from home for quite some time, but he remembered how weighted down his feet felt in the water, even in the oiled leather of his boots, as he waded to reach the stony beach ahead. He could feel pebbles roll under him, making him more aware of his own balance as well as the weight of his sword.
Two men emerged from the trees not far from the shore. “Heill, Agnarr!”
Lifting his sword a little in acknowledgment, Agnarr caught Tuirgeis’s eye before calling, “Snorri!” After battling with Vigaldr so many years ago, Snorri had lost his lower left arm and hadn’t been able to wield a blade or spear, so he had learned to do other things to benefit the village, beyond farming and herding goats. On subsequent raids, he had become a scout, able to investigate routes to travel overland as smaller villages began to withdraw inland.
The battle-scarred veteran relaxed as groups of Ostmen came to hear what he would have to say. Agnarr could only imagine the tension of being almost alone in a strange land, finding the richest villages while remaining unseen. Well, Snorri’s time alone was over.
Tuirgeis stepped through the thronged men. He made a clear path through multi-colored tunics and leather belts, around axe-handles strapped to a couple of backs. Spear-holders stepped aside for his long strides. “Men. This will be a different raid than we have undertaken before.”
“Will there be treasure?”
Tuirgeis flashed a grin, his teeth remarkably even. “Yes. But no slaves on this journey. We’ll be finding what we can carry and sending it back to the boats. We will join them in a place that Agnarr Halvardson and I—”
“And I!” Erik interjected with a grin.
Agnarr cuffed him, but lightly. Tuirgeis almost smiled before continuing. “And Erik the Hard-Headed, ja. We have been there. Each of the skipniu will be piloted back to that place. We move north.” Clapping Snorri firmly on the back, he said, “He will guide us.”
Snorri nodded, his spine straightening as he inhaled. Agnarr could imagine that it might be unusual for him to speak to a large group of men. After clearing his throat, the scout said, “There is good forest cover here. More trees than in Nordweg, so hiding ourselves shouldn’t be a problem. There is game, too, so we won’t be hungry.” Agnarr felt hope rise within him. These signs of plenty had to be good omens for his future. “The nearest village has carts, so we can carry what we find with ease.” Snorri’s angular features spread into a grin. “It is as if the gods readied this land for us this season.”
“Good,” Agnarr said. He turned to the others, though he didn’t move from his position off to one side of the gathering. The men turned to him, leather brushing leather, as early sunshine bounced off weapons and helms. “Remember that the men with the partially shaven heads, who dress in the long robes, aren’t always bad at fighting. Many of them are, but they can do damage with their staffs. Where they honor their Man-God is where they keep most of their treasure. They believe they fight for the honor of their god, so they can be fierce.”
Tuirgeis raised his free hand. “You will heed Snorri and his directions. Any who do not will feel the flat of my blade. Understood?”
Snorri tugged the sleeve of his companion. “Listen to Bjørg, too. He has been with me all this season. He is a navigator and knows the skies.”
Directions were then given, in case any member of their group became lost. “Walk to the east, find the ocean, and then move north along the shore,” Bjørg instructed. “If the pilots are still at sea, they will never be too far to miss your signal fire. They will light one of their own in the northern bay.”
“You’re holding back?”
Screams split the heavy mist of morning as the Ostmen pushed through the wooden gates of the small village. They had skirted through the fields while three men crept up a gentle slope to get fresh meat. These islanders had sheep and pigs. The pigs were less particular in their eating habits, but the sheep were more docile. On a longship, that was of greatest importance.
Agnarr held in his wince as he saw a roof catch fire. “Their blood is hotter and Erik deserves the opportunity to lead.”
His own leader rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. “You haven’t wanted to go raiding for some time. I thought perhaps you’d lost your stomach for it.”
A memory slid through his mind of the first time he had come to doubt what he was doing; it had been in his own village of Balestrand.
A crash sounded within the nearest building, startling him back to the present, and Tuirgeis compelled him to move toward the village. Reluctance dragging at his feet, Agnarr did so. He could not confess to his leader what had changed within him, that day Vigaldr had sought to overcome Balestrand years before. “No,” he lied. “We need the plunder. It’s been a while, though, since I’ve come so far. I notice you did not lead the way in, either.”
Tuirgeis shook his head. “The One-Eyed believed his wyrd is meant to be faced here today.”
With an affirmative sound, Agnarr moved through the broken gate to the village and entered the chaos. The villagers here were not monks. Not weak men who thought that talking in their melodic tongue to their Man-God would protect them. These were men Agnarr would have known if they spoke Norse. Men of the land, though they wore knee-length, skirted tunics or what he could only call a half-tunic, belted at the hips. Broad-chested, some of them, but all of them were fighting. Smoke, dry and smelling of dirt and rushes, floated overhead. The clash of metal on metal sometimes louder than the shouts of fighting men, sometimes buried under other sounds.
Agnarr’s blood did not heat at the noise of combat. The men in his command were doing well and he himself still felt that odd, reluctant detachment.
“Agnarr! Look!” Erik the One-Eyed—so called to distinguish him from the Hard-Headed—held up a handful of shining gold. “There is more!”
A grinding roar caught Agnarr’s full attention as it rolled up from his left. A hairy-chested man with a long mustache rushed to him, upraised arms wielding a stout club.
It was instinct. With his father’s sword still at the ready, Agnarr spun, blade coming up at an angle to meet the downswing of the islander’s club. Gone were the sounds and smells of the village. His sight narrowed to just the man and the club. Though he had not been raiding in a few years, his battle training had never faltered. His arms jarred on impact, but his elbows were stiff and ready, muscles tight, wrists firm to keep his weapon cutting upward.
The momentum of his movement lodged his blade into the club—he noticed immediately, and a flare of fear heated his neck. Still, he was trained where the other man was not, and when his attacker paused, staring at the club with the sword blade lodged in it, Agnarr tugged hard and the islander’s weapon flew from his hand. Agnarr dropped his sword from his right fist, frustration bursting from his lips in a grunt.
The islander threw himself bodily at Agnarr. “Aiieee!”
With a quick twist of his torso, Agnarr countered the attack with his elbow. He felt his opponent’s jaw give way. The islander’s scream climbed in pitch and volume with his pain as he hit the dust at their feet. To keep the man from getting up, Agnarr stomped heavily on his shin. He was not wounded fatally, but this was one man who would not be rising to the attack again that day.
Satisfied, Agnarr bent to pick up his sword, dislodging it from the cudgel as he stepped over the bodies of the fallen.
Cluina Mor Maedhog
“Take charge of the treasure,” Tuirgeis commanded Agnarr, his tone subdued. “You’re the only one of us not wounded.”
Agnarr acknowledged this with a nod. He had been fortunate over the past several days. Three villages had been raided and wagons had been filled with the bounty they would use in trade with the Moors, as well as with their own people. Food could be purchased, more animals bought and fed, and metals for weapons could be found. “I can get the men to the boats. I’ll want Snorri to come as guide, though. It’s been long years since I’ve come this way.”
Years . . . He remembered confronting Geirmundr Kingson and Eir. By his god’s hammer, the woman had thrown herself between two naked blades! Not something he would forget in his lifetime. Neither would he forget the fierce desire to prove himself to his men with the successful recovery of the one woman who had ultimately assaulted his heart. Who had understood him well enough to take her revenge in a potent manner.
“You deserve a wife who has never wanted your blood,” she had said, her voice cool and decisive.
She hadn’t known that his desire for her was even more keen because she had wanted his blood.
“Snorri!” He beckoned with one arm and the scout said something to Bjørg before running slowly toward Agnarr. He explained their next task and Snorri ran off again to collect a sack of items he claimed for his own. Agnarr collected a sack of his own treasure and then gathered a few other men who would be helping with the transportation of the rest of it.
There had been quite a bit, and Agnarr mentally made lists as three wheeled carts were presented and their contents checked. Jewels and good metal that could be reworked at home by the smiths. Bread and meat, too. There were also some sheep that would need butchering, though some might make the trip to Nordweg to strengthen the herds there. Ari, one of the wounded, came from a fine family of shepherds. He was on his first raid this summer and his head was topped with hair so blond as to be white. “Heiler!”
“Heill!” Agnarr responded. “How many head do we have?” he asked, with a jerk of his thumb to where their captured livestock were milling, feeding on the long, green grasses.
“Fifty. I can guard so many.”
“Good. Do you need to make a staff?”
Ari laughed, throwing his head back in the light of the day. “I have a spear!”
At length, the carts, men, sheep, and Agnarr set out to the east, where they expected the pilots and longships to be waiting near a place Agnarr could indeed remember. Snorri led the way and Agnarr brought up the rear of their group, his watchful focus on the trees that surrounded them. The sheep went willingly enough as Ari herded them forward.
Choosing to hunt to preserve the livestock, the six men made it to the southern bank of an enormous lake by nightfall. Waves lapped gently on the shore as the sheep hurried to drink. “Keep your weapons hidden,” Agnarr advised the men. “We’ll be taken for local shepherds if no one sees the glint of metal.” Though the sky was dark, the moon could rise at any time—he was no navigator—and he knew it would be better if he and his men did their best to appear as harmless shepherds in the countryside.
Without questioning, the men stripped down to tunics and boots, it being warm for trews, as they had walked all day.
While they waited, Agnarr kept watch. Villages were spread out along the visible banks of the broad lake. None too close—Snorri had chosen this spot well—but Agnarr had not lived to lead this group by being incautious. They planned to drink and then find an empty hill where they could rest and cook game and have a hot meal that night. Shepherds did so, so a fire would not be seen as suspicious. That they had three carts covered in cloth and old clothes was suspicious, but Snorri said he knew of a place where they could hide the carts in the trees and take turns keeping watch.
Agnarr did not imagine he would get a great deal of sleep until the boats had left the coast. As to his future, he put thoughts of how to establish himself here aside. Surely, Tuirgeis wouldn’t begrudge him a few sheep— perhaps a breeding pair—along with his share of the treasure.
“No, we can’t go that way,” Agnarr said, shaking his head as Snorri was describing the next section of their planned journey. It would be almost the last leg of it, too. This section and then the one just before the boats, near Eir’s ruined village. He knew the region. The trees were bigger, maybe, but the hills were still the same and he could see the walls to the village where she was.
It was too tempting. And too dangerous.
“The warriors are strong there. And they know me. Do you remember Tuirgeis’s freedman? Geirmundr Kingson?”
“The berserker?” Snorri asked in a hushed voice. “He is here? And your kvinn medisin? The one that saved my life?”
“They were in that village there. His father is king here. I tell you, we must find a different way.”
Fear of the berserker evidently persuaded Snorri. “Cover your head then, Agnarr. And hide Mjøllnir under a cloak.”
Stiffening, Agnarr refused. Walk so near to those who could slay him without his weapon? “Né.”
Snorri ground his teeth together. “Agnarr Halvardson. If it is so that the berserker yet lives, will he be more like to recognize you standing bareheaded and warlike with a naked blade, or if you walked with Ari, holding a staff and calling after sheep?”
He didn’t like it, but Agnarr agreed Snorri spoke sense. Skirting the edges of the obvious territory that belonged to the village, Agnarr found himself looking often that way, wondering if Eir were yet among the living. She had wed the berserker, she had said. She was Kingson’s wife—but she might have been his.
Well, it had been long years. Perhaps Geirmundr had gone home to his fathers. Not Eir; she had not been entirely natural. But that wasn’t what he remembered of her. He remembered her eyes when she had to rub the herb on his skin to see if he would be unlucky with it. And he remembered when she served him his tea on the last night she was in Balestrand. Tea that he still, to this day, was unsure about. Was it to have killed him or just make him ill?
They were passing through the woods toward the end of the day. He saw the stout stone walls of the place where the monks had been—those men who had had a great deal of treasure. The men with him were under orders, though, not to gather more plunder. They were to take what they had and make it to the skipniu. It was a calm and peaceful walk, all things considered. The odor of the sheep soothed the forest creatures, Ari remarked.
“That’s why they’re not running from us. It’s a—”
Snorri interrupted with a sharp, two-note whistle. It was a signal for possible trouble.
Agnarr felt his muscles tighten. There was no time to retrieve his sword from where he’d hidden it, so he would only have the stout staff in his hands if there was indeed a need to fight. Around his legs, the sheep started to make a fretful baaa sound, distracting him. They were also beginning to move aimlessly under the trees as a light rain began.
The stave was not his weapon of choice. Proficient with a spear, Agnarr excelled with an axe and sword—neither of which were at hand as the first bare-chested islanders emerged from the shadows to his left. Inhaling quickly, deeply, Agnarr tossed off the short cloak and hood he wore and gripped the heavy staff with two hands. Part of him was studying the islanders. Because they had been so close to Eir and Geirmundr Kingson—
The word was in Norse. The speaker was Kingson the berserker.
Just as Agnarr realized that he somehow had indeed met with someone he actually knew, the other men in the treasure-guard shouted and went on the attack.
Agnarr held up one hand. “No! Wait!”
A young man, barely more than a boy it seemed to Agnarr, shot forward with a spear braced in his hands. Agnarr brought his own staff up but was hit by a sheep just behind his knee and he tumbled, hitting his head.
The pain was sharp and disorienting. Still, he tried to grip the shepherd staff to ward off the boy when the lad thrust the butt of his spear at his forehead.
“Na, Paddy, na!”
Agnarr registered the “no” word—he had heard it often—but that was all. With a bright flare of pain, his world went dark.