Chapter 2: Raids and Reavers
Off the coast of Francia
Everyone on the northern European coast feared the longships. In the Slavic kingdoms of the southern Baltic, driven ever eastwards as they were by the German princes, the people still lived in terror of the death that came from the Cold Sea. In the rich Frankish provinces, the coastal settlements still felt the sting of the raids despite their power and wealth. Their fathers had always kept one eye on the sea, their fathers’ fathers before them. For as long as anyone could remember, death came from the waves on wings of wool and riding ships of riveted planks. Like foul birds of prey, they would swoop in and snatch their victims and fly away across the squall-lashed sea before the hunters could raise a hand against them.
The longships. For three hundred years, their wretched sails had cast a shadow over these coasts every spring and summer. And this day was no different. Six ships. Six beasts of carrion come to strip the land of its lives and riches. Violent, uncaring, unafraid of revenge. Longboats full of hard men in furs and leather and iron. Men carrying misery on the edges of their bright steel blades. Men who were, at this moment, at least in the lead boat, pissing themselves with laughter.
Ragnvald hadn’t heard the joke, but he grinned anyway as he stood at the prow of his ship Sedemonr, the Sea Demon. Why shouldn’t his men be merry? They were out on the open sea, the whale road, hunting their prey and celebrating the victory they would surely soon earn. It would be a foul leader who castigated them to sullen silence at such a time. The silence, the concentration, the discipline: these could wait for the coast where their quarry was waiting. No, for now, he let his men relax and enjoy the ride south-west, a strong north-west wind driving them down towards the unsuspecting Frankish shore.
Ragnvald was a Swedish warlord, a jarl going Viking in the tradition of his forebears, a sword Svear of the old ways. Not many still followed the old ways. Many had fallen to the temptation of easier lives: trading, farming, becoming fat off the land and its products. But enough still earned their keep the old way, with the edge of their blades and the skill of their arms. Enough to keep the fear in the people of the coast he headed towards, enough to keep the warrior skill alive in his people.
Ragnvald was a tall man with light brown hair, just starting to show a tinge of silver and swept back into a leather tie to keep his face clear in the stiff breeze. His beard was tied into tight braids. He was no longer a young man but still strong and restless, the energy of youth not quite gone from his aging body. This was his first raid in two years, the yearning for another trip balanced by the difficulty of organising a successful one in these troubled times. Single crews were no use at a time when every town and village had a watch and coastguards, where every port had small, fast boats sitting ready to hunt marauding ships.
Jarl Birkir, a stocky, dour man from the north of Svealand, with significant lands and a solid crew of fighting men, was in the next ship and also owned the one that followed it. Four of the ships were Ragnvald’s men, the best fighting men of his large dominion, two hundred men of violence and steel.
As Ragnvald stood, contentedly watching the waves, a cry from afar snatched his attention. He looked and, following an outstretched arm on the prow of the next ship, swept his eyes across the horizon to see what had caught that man’s eye. White sails, low on the horizon, were headed straight for them, just a single ship. His bearded face cracked a smile. It was time for these predators to feast.
The ship had been a fat merchant, heading out of Hamburg with a full cargo, round belly full of fine cloth and linen bound for England. It had wallowed helplessly as the sea reavers fell upon it, sails thrashing as if in horror as its crew panicked and lost control when the screaming demons swarmed up its sides and onto the deck.
The guards, such as they were, had died, and the fat merchants had been cast overboard to gurgle and struggle as their fine, heavy clothes dragged them down. The unarmed crew, young, fit, hardened sailors, had been condemned to slavery and forced at sword point to sail the ship back to the Northlands with a dozen scowling Vikings to ensure their compliance.
The ship and its cargo had made this entire raid a success already. The cargo would fetch a good price in the markets of Sweden and Norway. The ship itself would be beached and stripped of its valuable timbers and iron. A ship that size would have enough iron nails, fittings and other components to make a hundred spearheads, or a dozen swords. Iron was scarce in the north. It collected in bogs or fell from the sky, but mostly it was smuggled or stolen from the southerners who always had it in such abundance.
Ragnvald smiled broadly as his men returned to his longship. They were laughing and jesting at those who would have to return with the ship and miss the rest of the raid. To his surprise, a prisoner was bundled into the ship by his men. Ragnvald raised an eyebrow as the terrified man, a slim and weak-looking German with curly black hair, slumped to the deck at his feet.
‘What the fuck is this?’ he asked Fenrir, one of his huscarls, his elite household guard, who had brought the whimpering German aboard, while he pointed at the prisoner. ‘This doesn’t look fit to pull a plough, and it doesn’t seem to have any wealth about it. Why do I want it?’
‘He speaks our tongue,’ said Fenrir as he jumped down into the boat. ‘Well, he begged for his life in our language anyway. Thought you might be interested.’
Ragnvald regarded the mewling man in a new light. ‘Speaks our words, eh? Yes, that might be useful.’ He kicked the pathetic-looking bundle with the toe of his boot, and the man squeaked and tried to retreat across the deck. ‘You understand me, boy?’ he asked, following the prisoner. He got no reply beyond more mewling. ‘You are talking out of your arse, Fenrir. Perhaps he knows a few words, enough to beg for his life, not enough to be useful. Over the side with him.’
Fenrir shrugged and picked the man up under each arm, moved to throw him overboard.
‘No!’ the man screamed in panic. ‘It’s true! I do speak your language. I do, very well! I understand everything you say. Yes, everything.’
Fenrir dropped him to the deck again and gave Ragnvald a smug look. ‘As I said.’
‘Fine. For once you are more useful than you look.’ He grinned at his huscarl and laughed at the mock offence the smaller man returned. ‘Now, you. What is your name?’ Ragnvald frowned at the new slave and lifted the man’s chin with the haft of an axe.
‘Otto,’ the man squeaked out, eyes fixed on the length of spruce that was digging painfully into his jaw.
‘Otto, you are now my slave. You are a thin little wisp of a man, so your only value to me is turning my words into your people’s and theirs into mine. Understand?’
Otto cried out in protest, eyes swinging wildly around him, looking for a way out he knew didn’t exist.
‘If you do what I command, you will live a fine life. If you don’t… well, I only need you for your mouth. The rest of you is unnecessary.’ Otto was barely listening, his eyes wide and glazed with terror.
‘Don’t think he understands,’ said Fenrir nonchalantly.
‘Doesn’t seem that way, does it? Let’s take a finger and see if that helps him.’
Fenrir grabbed a hand and pinned it to the side of the boat, splaying the fingers and holding them down with the back of his seax.
‘No, I understand, I do. I understand!’ wailed Otto.
‘Are you sure?’ asked Ragnvald, leaning down so that his beard was almost touching the chin of the desperate man. ‘Because, if you ever become unsure, I will take fingers until you get sure again. Then, if you run out of fingers before you get sure, I will take other protruding parts until you are sure because, remember, all I need is your mouth.’
That mouth gaped in horror, and the eyes widened even further, but Otto said nothing, his voice snatched by the violence of the threat.
‘Still don’t think he gets it,’ said Fenrir.
‘He’ll learn real quick,’ said Ragnvald and brought the axe down on the side of the boat, a hair’s breadth from the outstretched fingers. Otto’s eyes rolled up, and he passed out and slumped, voiding his bowels in the bottom of the boat.
‘Bugger,’ said Ragnvald.
‘What a total streak of piss,’ said Fenrir in disgust. Do we have to keep it?’
‘He might be useful yet, when we get home. If not?’ He shrugged and turned away without another word. Fenrir knew what he meant and smiled wolfishly.
Later that day, the small fleet pulled into sight of the coast. Ragnvald knew which town he wanted to raid. They had seen it several years ago on the way past, a mid-sized coastal town, protected on the land by a wall and from the sea by broad mud flats and impassable marsh. The only weak point was the channel leading to the harbour. The harbour had a guard boat and a small sea wall, but not enough to keep his six ships out. Or so he hoped. It was not possible to permanently guard every town for years on end against three hundred trained warriors coming with no warning. Or so he hoped.
The ships dropped their sails, men hauling in the yards of thick material and dumping the wrapped sail and boom into the bottom of the boat. Half the men slid oars out into the cold water, and the other half started putting on their war gear. Maille byrnies or thick woollen shirts went over their tunics; thick felt hats or iron helmets went on their heads. Those men with swords strapped the scabbards to their belts; those with axes tucked them away close to hand. Spears were stacked next to the benches, and the two halves of the crew swapped. When the ships reached the dock, every man would be ready to leap into a fight from the benches in a moment.
The jokes and the laughter were stilled now. The pre-battle quiet was upon them. It was not total silence – it never was. Some men muttered nervously to themselves, others invoked their favoured god and some reassured each other or pointed out good omens. Every man in the boat was afraid. Only a fool could not be afraid in the long wait before the battle song started, and no fools lived long in Ragnvald’s crew, his hird of seasoned warriors.
‘Steady now,’ Ragnvald called to the helmsman and rowers. They were rowing steadily, speed building as they came into view of the harbour. They would be seen at any moment – perhaps they had already been. Perhaps unseen men in that town were rushing into their own armour, shouting orders and gathering weapons to repel them. Perhaps they were already at the sea wall, spears gripped in trembling fingers, waiting for the terror that swept down the channel in six snarling, beast-prowed ships.
The sea demon head, snarling and spitting painted wooden fire, was carved into the prow next to Ragnvald, its mad white eyes ever looking forward, seething with rage at whatever enemy was put in front of it, striking terror into their hearts. Or that was the idea anyway. Ragnvald thought it looked more comical than fearsome, but that errant thought was swept away by the tolling of a bell from the town, still half a mile ahead of them.
‘We are seen. They will be coming for us, lads. Let’s not disappoint them. Not too fast,’ he said as he grinned and looked down at his men. ‘Save some breath for the killing.’
One of the men, Sebbi, an experienced man and one of Ragnvald’s ten huscarls, started up a chant, as was his habit when the ships were going into battle, each line sung out between strokes. They all knew it well. It was hardly the work of a skald, a skilled song weaver, but the familiar words and the defiant energy it brought them lifted the whole crew, took their minds off the fear and suspense, got the battle rage boiling.
Here we come
The oars were crashing into the water, beating it into white froth. Backs strained as the oars pulled through the water.
Thor, Lord of Thunder
Hear our fury
See our rage
Here we come
The hull was humming beneath Ragnvald’s feet now.
Odin, Spear Master
Guide our arms
Watch our shields
Here we come
Each chant was building in volume, men working themselves up into a nerve-driven fury.
Ran, Queen of Waves
Speed our journey
Here we come
The shore was only a hundred paces away. Ragnvald could see men running to and fro along the wall behind, others milling on the docks in apparent confusion.
Men of Svealand
Gird your wrath
Wear it round you
Here we come
The chant was building into a crescendo now, the dock only a dozen strokes away.
Shield of courage
Spear of vengeance
Sword of wrath
Here we come
Ragnvald snarled, gripping his axe. His sword Bjóðr –‘Giver’ – was sheathed at his side, safe from the lashing salt spray. It would stay there, waiting, until he was safely ashore. The crew burned their lungs with the strain of the rowing and the volume of their battle song.
Foemen, face us!
See our steel
We are death
Here we are!
The crew was roaring now, the chant done and lost in a crashing wave of noise that washed over the waiting townsfolk and reverberated back at the oncoming ships. All six crews were screaming themselves hoarse as they shipped their oars and picked up their shields and weapons, leaving the momentum of the boats to carry them into the docks.
Alongside, another ship was going to reach the dock just before Ragnvald. Ragnvald saw Jarl Birkir in the prow, helmetless, waving his long axe at the waiting locals and screaming curses at them. The ship hit the dock, and Birkir leaped from the prow, scything his axe at the terrified defenders who scuttled back out of range, allowing room for the rest of the crew to begin pouring onto the dock behind their wild jarl.
Ragnvald was so engrossed watching that he almost lost his footing as his own ship hit the dock. He gathered himself and leaped down onto the empty stretch of planking, hearing his men following, and started running down the dock towards the melee that had gathered nearer the shore.
The town guard had finally found enough courage to stand and were desperately fending off Birkir’s crew at the gap in the sea wall that led to the docks. The crumbling wall was only five feet high and didn’t even have a gate. Rusted hinges showed where one used to stand, the salt air and crashing storm waves having hewn it off long ago. How the town would rue not having replaced it.
Ragnvald looked around for a way past that chaotic crush and saw that the wall on the right was barely defended and cracks and ledges covered the uneven stonework. He turned along the dock that ran along the face of the wall and found a good spot.
‘Up!’ he roared at the men who followed him. He wasted no time and launched himself at the wall, gaining the top after a single bound from a ledge halfway up, his tough leather shoes finding ample purchase on the rough, weathered stone. He was vulnerable at the top as he stood, but the only man facing him on the raised path behind the wall was a terrified boy in ill-fitting maille armour, who simply dropped his old spear and ran.
A wave of snarling, armoured Northmen poured over the wall behind him as he surveyed the scene. Beyond the wall was a broad path, ten paces across, that ran down the whole front of the harbour along the sea wall. Behind that were buildings, storage sheds and fish-drying racks. To his left, down the path, a crowd of perhaps fifty armed men were pushing and shoving at the entrance to the docks, the sound of that fight still roaring in his ears. To the right, there was the sound of shouting and running men from deeper in the town.
For a moment, he couldn’t decide if he should run left and attack the defenders of the dock gate or right and intercept the oncoming but unseen enemy. At the dock gates, he could see a bloodied axe rise and fall into the crowd, a high scream cutting through the rest of the sounds of combat. Then a Norse helmet appeared in the throng, then another, and the whole mass of defenders visibly quivered and retreated a step as the huscarls and axemen of Birkir’s crews pushed through the gate in a fury of chopping axes and stabbing swords. The best armoured men, the most experienced, the hardened edge of the Norse warband, were cutting through the hapless guardsmen. Birkir didn’t need his help.
‘Shield wall!’ he roared, pointing his sword to the right where the sound of running men was growing louder. His men stretched out across the road, those with helmets, maille and short axes and swords going to the front two ranks. Men with spears and long axes filled the third and fourth ranks. The shields of the front rank crashed together to form a single solid wall of wood topped with peering eyes, steel weapons and iron helmets.
Not a moment too soon either. A large force of well armed and armoured men appeared from a path between two buildings and hastily formed into a mass opposite them, over a hundred, perhaps even three times his own number.
The enemy held their shields together in a makeshift wall of their own and nervously watched the silent Norse, a slab of foreboding enemies blocking them from the massacre of their comrades, who were being torn apart as their defence of the dock gate failed.
‘Forward!’ shouted Ragnvald from his place in the second rank. Sebbi was on his left, long hair flowing from the back of his helmet. Fenrir was on his right, Leif beyond him and others behind him. The huscarls formed a block in the second and third ranks where the best warriors always stood. The front rank was filled with younger men, eager to prove themselves in battle, willing to stand the risk of being at the front of the wall.
Ragnvald smiled wickedly at the thought of the coming battle with men such as these beside him. His men were more than a match for the citizens of any fat Frankish town. He always had ten huscarls. Some lords had more, some less, but Ragnvald always had ten, the cream of his warriors, honoured men who would fight at his side in battle, could be entrusted with small groups to command and who would sleep, eat and drink in his own hall when they were in Uppsala. When a huscarl died or grew old and hung up his shield over his door with honour, one man would be selected to replace him, and so there would be ten again.
Bjóðr was in his hand now, patterned steel shining brightly in the spring noon sun. It had been his father’s sword, a sword that had given death to many warriors over many seasons, and now he would use it to give death to his enemy. Now he raised it in his fist and pumped it with a shout, giving the order to advance. The Viking shield wall stamped forward on the hard-packed earth, warriors snarling and shouting curses and insults at their enemy, straining to get their weapons into the enemy ranks but maintaining the line of the wall. Anyone who broke the first rank to charge would never be trusted to stand in it again. A wall with holes in it, as every Norseman learned when he trained for battle, is a shitty wall. Norsemen don’t waste complicated words on simple concepts.
The enemy wall was pretty shitty by that standard. It had gaps, holes and a great kink in the middle where a few men were shrinking away from the oncoming Svearmen. Some of the shields were different types and sizes; some men in the front had spears and others had swords; some had no helmets. Some were old or terrified and clearly not fighters; others were steady-looking soldiers. But a skjaldborg is only as strong as the weakest man, and the Norse front rank was filled with hard men, Vikings of the old ways. Killers.
The Viking wall hit the ragged line of defenders with a sickening crash and simply consumed it. Axes flashed over the line at the heads and shoulders of those who did not hold their shields high enough. Swords stabbed up at those who held their shields too high. Spears licked out to catch the unprotected faces of those in the second rank who were gawping at the oncoming violence. A dozen defenders fell in the first clash, and their wall degenerated into a mass of desperate and wounded men fighting for their lives, all cohesion lost, with men giving way or dying before they could re-form the wall. Ragnvald felt the man in front of him stagger back and heard his cry as an unseen spear punched through the Norseman’s thick woollen shirt, even as his killer was cut down. But he was one of only two Norse that fell in those moments of unleashed violence, as the discipline and experience of the Vikings made them wolves among sheep.
Into the mass of terrified men, a new horror arrived. Over the wall on the enemy’s left, a new wave of screaming demons appeared and jumped down into the flank of the townsfolk’s compressed ranks, spreading terror and death. Another of Ragnvald’s ship’s crews had arrived.
Ragnvald felt the pressure at his front ease as the enemy died or tried to face the new threat, and he smiled. ‘Break!’ he shouted, giving the signal that all his men loved to hear. The wall dissolved and charged, each man rushing into the enemy mass in a fury of violence that shocked the already demoralised enemy to the point of failure. The hammer strike of the Norse warriors, contrasted with the anvil of the skjaldborg. One moment there was a fight, and the next, Ragnvald was chasing a herd of broken and fleeing men. Sebbi howled with glee and lunged forward, putting his spear into the side of a man who was trying to turn and flee. Fenrir surged past the dying man and ducked a desperate sword swing, putting his axe into the back of the knee of his opponent as he passed, splitting the leg and bringing his opponent down with a piercing scream, quickly silenced by the man that followed. Ragnvald followed his huscarls as they ran forward, seeking their next victims.
There was no mercy as the Vikings surged through the town. Anyone with a weapon or armour was killed. Anyone the right age to carry them was killed. Anyone who got in the way was killed. Most of the town’s population had fled into the fields and woods outside the walls; those who stayed died or hid from the victorious, rampaging raiders.
Ragnvald and most of his crew headed for the stone church, the tallest building in the town and the one they knew would hold the greatest riches. As they broke down the door, a clutch of terrified citizens and priests screamed and tried to retreat from them, cowering into the corners. A single-armed man yelled in outrage and terror and then died with a choking cry as Fenrir rammed his sword into his guts.
Why do they always hide in the church? It’s the one place we always search. Idiots! Go hide in the shit pits and you would be fine. His ironic thought was interrupted by an old man in the robes of a priest who tottered towards him, yelling and swinging a large, ornate cross as a weapon. Ragnvald caught the cross in one hand, wincing at the weight of the blow, and calmly ran his sword through the old man’s chest. The priest’s eyes widened in shock, and he dropped to his knees, cries of pure horror coming from those huddled against the back wall of the church.
Ragnvald withdrew his sword and dropped the dying priest casually on the steps leading up to the altar. The altar itself was bare, he noted with a grimace. ‘Where is that new slave, the one who speaks our words?’
Fenrir went to the back of the group and pulled the slim man to the front, dumping him to the floor in front of Ragnvald.
‘Ask these people where the riches are.’
‘What?’ Otto gasped, recoiling in horror from the spreading pool of blood emanating from the now-dead priest.
Ragnvald snarled and grabbed a handful of Otto’s hair. ‘Ask them where the church’s riches are. All churches have riches. If they give them to me, they live. If you don’t ask them, you remember what I said I would do.’
‘But these are people sheltering in the house of God! That man you killed is a priest – have you no shame?’ Otto’s horror overcame his fear for a moment.
Ragnvald nodded at Fenrir, and the huscarl stepped forwardgrabbed Otto’s hand in a grip of iron and separated his fingers, holding the hand out for Ragnvald. ‘No, I have no shame. This is not my god, and this is no longer your hand. Believe me, I will have no shame a long time after you have no fingers.’
He grabbed the proffered finger and sliced it off with a single pass of the base of his sword.
Otto struggled and wailed again, but the grip on his arm was resolute.
Ragnvald placed his sword against the second finger. ‘Ask them.’
Otto turned his head to the cowering people and stammered out a string of unintelligible words. One of the still-living priests shook his head and pointed out of the door.
Otto turned his wide, bloodshot eyes to Ragnvald. ‘They aren’t here. The other priests fled with the silver.’
Ragnvald glared at the huddled mass, thinking for a moment as disappointment gripped him. ‘I don’t believe them. There are three priests here. Are you telling me there were others enough in this one church to flee carrying all its riches?’
‘I… I don’t know,’ spluttered Otto, still vainly wrestling for control of his arm.
‘I’m not asking you, idiot. I’m asking them. You ask them. That’s your job, or do you need another reminder?’
Otto turned again to the priests and gabbled more of their strange language. Ragnvald was surveying the group and saw that, at the back, one priest was silent, pressed against the wall and looking nervous while the other one was at the front of the crowd, trying to protect the worshippers.
Otto turned again to him and shook his head. ‘They say the same thing. Please, the treasures are gone!’
‘Fenrir, take this useless shit away.’ He let go of the sobbing slave and stood up, eyes on the priest at the back. ‘You see how the priests are trying to protect their people? I have always found this with priests. They put themselves between what they seek to protect and me.’
‘What of it?’ replied Fenrir.
‘That priest at the back – what is he protecting?’
Fenrir’s eyes narrowed, and his mouth twisted into a smile. He strode forward, clearing the terrified people out of his way with the flat of his sword. The priest in the corner paled and started to wave his hands in front of him as if to ward the Viking off.
Fenrir swung at the man, his sword cutting right through an outstretched arm and deep into the priest’s face. The man gurgled and thrashed as Fenrir flung him aside into the lap of an old woman who seemed not to be aware of what was happening around her.
Under where the priest had been crouched, an area of the floor was exposed, but nothing else was there. Fenrir looked at it in confusion. Bare stone walls met wooden floorboards with no indication of a hiding place. Ragnvald stepped past with a sigh – Fenrir really was nothing more than a killer – and he dug his sword between the floorboards and levered one up. It popped up with no resistance, and the next ones too. Five boards came up before the hiding place beneath the floor was fully exposed.
Ragnvald smiled broadly. This is a rich church.
Ragnvald was walking back down towards the docks with his men when he found Jarl Birkir. The man was bleeding freely from a wound on the side of his head, but he appeared not to notice. He beamed broadly when he saw Ragnvald and swept his arms wide to embrace him.
‘Ha, brother! What a day! By the gods, I have missed this.’ He fell into step with Ragnvald, glancing back at the heavily laden men who followed. ‘Thor’s balls, you did well. Some great lord’s hall?’
Ragnvald smiled at the shorter man. ‘You have never raided a Christian town before?’
‘No, just Danes, or more recently the tribes along the shore of the Cold Sea. In fact, I’ve not raided for six years, not since my feud with Jarl Forkir ended. Damn, I missed having excuses to go raiding.’
‘Well,’ Ragnvald said with a smug smile, ‘the key thing to understand about Christians is they keep all their wealth in their churches. Most of it anyway.’
‘In their churches?’ Birkir said, looking around them down the narrow streets of the town. ‘How do you know which ones are the churches?’
‘Simple. They are the biggest, and they are full of bald men who dress like women.’
Birkir looked at him in pure disbelief and then roared with laughter. ‘What a fine load of horse bollocks that is, Ragnvald.’
‘No, I am serious. That is the truth.’
‘Fine. If you want to keep your secrets but I am no spring mare who would believe such amusing nonsense. My men have plenty of loot, and I don’t envy you your success. This was your raid. You keep your loot and your secrets.’ He thumped Ragnvald on the back.
Ragnvald laughed with him and protested. ‘Birkir, really, it is the truth. Go up the hill and see for yourself. In any case, you will have a share of the church treasure for your help with this raid.
Birkir grinned from ear to ear and turned to those of his men who followed him. ‘You hear that, lads? Jarl Ragnvald will share his treasure with us!’ His men gave a heartfelt cheer and shouted out their thanks.
‘And I will share my food and mead with you, Jarl Ragnvald, if you ever come to visit my hall.’
‘And I would be honoured to visit your home. We will arrange it.’
How the gods laugh at the intentions of men.
‘But now I say we leave this husk of a town behind us before someone comes to take it from us.’
‘You think its wealth is done? I submit to your greater experience,’ said Birkir, still beaming from the generous promise of wealth shared.
‘On the subject of greater experience, perhaps you should wear a helmet next time. It helps when someone tries to make a hole in your head.’ Ragnvald ribbed the shorter man gently.
‘Bah, this scratch? It’s nothing. Didn’t know it was there until the blood was pissing into my eye.’
Ragnvald shrugged. ‘Your choice.’
‘I don’t like helmets. Make my head hurt. Anyway, I have a reputation now. Putting one on will make me look bad.’
Ragnvald suppressed a laugh as he looked at the dishevelled and slightly rotund northern jarl, clotting blood caking his hair and beard on one side of his head, a slice the length of a finger in his scalp. ‘I don’t think you could look any worse.’ He dodged away as Birkir aimed a hearty punch at his ribs, receiving only a glancing blow.
‘Careful now, Ragnvald. Wouldn’t want me to embarrass you in front of your men.’ His smile betrayed the lack of heat in his words. ‘Wouldn’t want us to end up fighting, eh?’
The two men chatted and laughed away the nervous energy of the fighting as they walked back to their ships with their crews, oblivious to the fate their actions had brought.
In the desecrated church in that devastated town, lying dead with one arm severed, was the nephew and personal chaplain of Pope Paschal II. The pope had sent him on a goodwill tour of the German clergy to quietly muster support for his beloved pontiff during the period of conflict between Church and State in the Holy Roman Empire.
Paschal never had children, his brother was long dead, and he had looked on his loyal young chaplain as his own son. Europe would shake from the scale of his rage and the depth of his revenge.
Ragnvald had started a fire that would threaten to consume his world.