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The Children of Midgard
Copyright © 2016 Siobhan Clark
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any
manner in any media, or transmitted by any means whatsoever,
electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, or mechanical (including
photocopy, file or video recording, internet web sites, blogs, wikis,
or any other information storage and retrieval system) without
the prior written permission of the publisher or author.
Published in England
Abela Publishing, London
First Edition, 2017
In loving memory of my father,
With special thanks to my husband and family.
The year is 961 and King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark has his gaze firmly set on the Western Kingdoms of Norway where his nephew Harald Greycloak reigns. Bluetooth has declared Greycloak as his vassal King of Norway and will claim the establishment of the Jomsvikings. In doing so he will solidify the order, building a keep for the warriors he intends to use to create a fleet of men who will rule the seas under his command.
However, the order is older than one man's claim and consists of many who have their own destinies separate from the feuding monarchs. There are men of honour and worth and there are those who seek naught but power and privilege, searching only to prosper from the misery of others. There are tales of a legendary ring and a child who is said to be the progeny of the All-Father.
The woman’s heart was pounding in her chest, her legs ached from running but she knew she could not stop; the child was hidden and safe for now. Behind her she heard heavy boots crunching on the shore; the men were fast approaching and Liv realised she could not outrun them. It was like before when they had come for her husband and her guardian and now they were deceased.
“Stop!” One of the men bellowed.
Liv froze despite her mind telling her to move, her skin gooseflesh, the cool night air pricking her senses and snapping her back into movement. They would surely catch her now but she would give nothing away, she thought. Suddenly Liv was pushed to the ground, the gravel scraped her hands and face where she skidded along the uneven surface. Two men stood either side of her heaving body and each roughly grabbed an arm. Liv stifled a cry of pain as she was hauled to her feet and the men proceeded to drag her back the way they had come.
“You will pay now!” One of the men growled in her ear.
Liv swallowed hard, she knew what these men would do, they were Jomsvikings. Mercenaries, assassins and marauders, they had their own code and were fearless in battle. They selected their warriors through combat and were feared for their notoriety. The Jarl must have paid the men well to search for her; was he to stop at nothing, she thought. She did not recognise either of the men, but that meant little. The Jomsvikings that had been sent before to dispatch her husband and guardian would be looking elsewhere. They did not give up easily once set to task.
“She had a horse…” One of the men turned to her and in the dark she could make out strong features and a dark beard. “Where is it?”
Liv swallowed, “Grani is lame. I left him in the forest.”
“Ha! Stupid woman calls her horse after the offspring of Odin’s steed? See, I told you!” The other man snorted, removing his helmet she could see a mass of wild untamed hair and a nose that had been broken and poorly set. A mouth of crooked chipped teeth grinned at his comrade, “Women always think themselves so clever but you couldn’t outrun us, could you?”
The man spat in the sand and gruffly shook Liv’s arm. The dark-haired Viking guffawed and shrugged his shoulders, “We need no lame horse, Grani or not. Walk!” He barked.
Picking up the pace, the men strode towards the grassy field that ran alongside the shoreline. In the distance Liv saw a man on horseback with a lit torch in his hand. As they approached the rider jumped to the ground and walked towards them.
“Fetch me rope to bind her hands. I’ll take her; the Jarl will want her brought swiftly. Get your horses.” His deep voice snapped the orders at the two men who set about their leader’s task without a word. Dropping Liv’s arms they stalked off to their own horses, tied to posts hammered into the earth, leaving her looking at the third man.
The leader too wore a helmet which he did not remove. Liv could not make out his features as the light of the torch danced between them; the only clue to what lay behind the battered and scratched surface of the metal was long brownish hair. It was too dark to tell the colour of his eyes and she shuddered at the coldness of him.
“Where is the boy?” He growled.
“Dead…” Liv swallowed.
“You are unharmed?” The man lowered the torch to survey her. Her dress was ripped and covered in grit and mud. Her hair, though braided had come loose and hung over her shoulder, the colour of bronze and streaked with flashes of gold from many days spent in the sunlight. He saw that her face was bleeding slightly from the grazes on her chin and cheekbone.
“Why do you care?” Liv whispered looking away to the two men who were returning with rope and a cloth sack.
“I don’t…” He spoke dryly, his eyes were fixed on the men approaching them. His hand wandered to the handle of the axe tucked into his belt, Liv saw his fingers grip the shaft and felt fear rise in her throat.
Suddenly the man swung the torch into the face of the dark bearded Viking, a howl of pain erupted from his mouth as he clutched his face and fell to the ground. The leader of the men then swung his axe, clipping the wild haired warrior on the shoulder who let out a low rasping grunt of pain. Both men staggered in the dark, groping for their own weapons and cursing their leader furiously.
Liv felt her hand being grabbed and pain shot through her fingers, roughly the Jomsviking lifted her by the waist and threw her over the back of the horse. Jumping astride the beast the man kicked it into a gallop and headed for the forest. As they rode he shouted to Liv, “Your horse?”
Righting herself into a seated position she pointed to a large fallen tree, where she had hidden Grani before attempting to flee on foot, the man pulled on the reins of his own horse and nudged it towards the tree. Behind the upturned blanket of root and earth Grani stood awaiting his master.
“Dismount!” the man barked at her. Obeying, Liv did as she was bade and landed awkwardly on the ground. Stumbling towards Grani she felt her shoulder jerked away before she could reach the reins. “We take your horse. They’ll be looking for us, I’ll leave mine here.”
Once again, the man jumped astride but this time extended a calloused hand to her. Liv withdrew, taking a step away from the Jomsviking. “Take my hand or be dragged!” He said, flatly.
Liv took a breath and stared at the dark circles of the helmet where eyes should have been, she saw nothing and wondered if this man might be some demon trying to trick her or take her for his own. She had heard tell of such mischief and had seen much in her own life to attest to the will of that other than men. Reluctantly she took his hand and felt herself being half pulled onto Grani’s back behind the body of the Jomsviking leader.
“Hold fast, we ride hard,” the man pulled her arms about his waist and kicked Grani in the sides sharply. The horse grunted and proceeded on the path.
Quickly they made their way back to the settlement where Liv had first discovered the men had caught up with her. The owner of the tavern tried in vain to help her escape unseen and she wondered what had happened to him and his wife, she had been sure she heard screaming from within the tavern's walls. The first rays of sunlight were beginning to break through the clouds covering the dawn. In the distance Liv could see a large ship moored beyond the settlement’s small harbour, littered with fishing vessels and the Chieftain’s small but sturdy skute.
Gripping the man’s waist, she felt revolted at having to hold him so closely and tightly, his rough cloak scratched at her face, aggravating the cuts from her fall. She could feel the cold hard steel of the axe, tucked into his belt, against her arm and an idea formed in her head. Quickly she slipped her hand underneath his cloak and grabbed the weapon, pulling it free she pushed with all her might on his back, shoving him forward on Grani, and jumped from the galloping horse.
The leap from Grani’s back winded her slightly, Liv struggled for breath but fought to control herself and gradually she rose to her feet and frantically searched for a route in which to run. The man had pulled Grani to a halt, turning in the saddle he spotted Liv and yanked on the reins of the beast. Grani whinnied and stamped his feet, shaking his black mane, the horse reared and bucked at the commands of his rider. Liv thanked Odin for Grani’s stubbornness and turned to run towards the grassy knoll to her right, from there she knew the forest grew thick before breaking out onto a rocky ravine. She could run there and hide, she would make her way, not stopping until she reached the most northerly point of the land and from there she would either swim or drown. She cared not; all that mattered was that the child was safe. Grasping the heavy axe in her right hand she made for the knoll.
A shout rang out from behind her and turning quickly Liv saw the man dismount Grani and start after her. He was terribly quick for being large and strong; he gained on her despite the weight of his leather armour and sword strapped to his side. Liv cursed her weary legs for not picking up the pace but she had worn them out from her earlier attempts at escape.
“Liv!” The man called.
Stopping short, Liv felt a cold shiver run down her spine. She knew that voice though how could it be, it was a voice from her past, but before her mind could recollect the man was upon her. Pushing her to the ground he loomed over her, grabbing her arm he twisted the axe from her grip and shoved her back onto the grass. The pain and harshness of his actions knocked the air from her lungs, in a moment of weakness; she raised her arm to her face to protect herself from the blow she thought was coming. Liv had taken many beatings, she refused to let this man deliver her the last but the man drew a breath and took a step back.
‘Control yourself!’ inwardly the man chastised himself. He was outraged at his roughness with the woman, he had called out her name and she had stopped, had she recognised his voice he wondered? Then the rage had taken over, ‘Can she not see we must make haste?’ his mind raced.
“Get up,” he said, as softly as he could muster, “Please.”
Liv dropped her arm and stared at the shadowy figure above her, again he offered her a hand, but refusing it she pushed herself to her feet. “Your Jarl will reward you well, twice I escaped and twice you caught me,” she said, bitterly.
“We need to get aboard that ship before the other men catch up with us.” He swung an arm and pointed to the long vessel in the bay.
Liv squinted at him, “You can reach the Jarl by foot.”
The man growled, “Start moving. I won’t ask again.”
“You didn’t ask,” Liv said and placed one foot in front of the other, slowly heading back, to the waiting Grani. Stroking the horse’s neck, she whispered softly to it before looking at the man.
The woman was causing him to feel, he did not enjoy what stirred in his chest and fighting with all his might against removing his helmet, he focused on the axe in his grip and breathed steadily.
“We can take the horse but move now,” he spoke sharply and nudged both Liv and Grani towards the bay.
“Grani? Why? He does not belong to the Jarl!” her voice was low but shook.
The man shook his head and pushed them onwards. “Keep walking.”
As they skirted the path and started along the shoreline to an outcrop of jagged rocks that stretched all the way to the ship, they steadily urged Grani finding their way with care. Liv saw the man stroke Grani’s nose gently and felt a pang of anger that he was so patient with her beast yet so full of ire for her. She tore her gaze away from him and pulled her own dark woollen cloak about her shoulders. It had been gifted to her by a farmer’s wife two seasons ago when her husband had been killed, her guardian had disappeared and Liv presumed he had been taken to the Jarl and either tortured or imprisoned somewhere. She felt sadness wash over her at the thought of the shrewd old man withering away or worse crying out in agony, until he met his end.
A group of seabirds cried out at the dawning of the amber sun rising in the sky, their calls sounded to her like the squawking of a small child, her thoughts betraying her into thinking of her charge. It had wounded her heart terribly to leave the child but she had no choice. She had to separate the child from the ring and had managed to do so but now it was her burden alone, the ring the Jarl sought was still concealed in the brooch her husband had made in the forge. So far it had remained uncovered, though it bothered Liv that the Jomsviking had not asked her for it nor had he inquired about the death of the boy.
Liv reasoned that the man was naught but a hunter, he had his prey, what need was there for questions, he had been taken on to find her and he had completed his task; there was no more to do than deliver her to the Jarl. Liv looked again at the man, the daylight gave her better sight to try and recognise him. He stood tall, broad shouldered and strong, his hair was the colour of soft brown leather from beneath his helmet. He wore no rings on his fingers but she saw a gold band around his wrist and wondered if he wore it as a sign of wealth or fealty. His clothes though worn were of good quality and she thought him to be proud of appearance, he was certainly stern, terse and hard. She saw nothing that revealed any more about the man except that his axe was indeed a fine weapon and the sword now slung across his back was heavy and inscribed with runes. She saw the rune for Odin and Thor, a bitter taste filled her mouth that he honoured the same Gods as she did, that was where their similarity ended.
They stopped a few feet from the side of the ship and the Jomsviking turned to her, “When we board look no one in the eye, speak to no one, I will tell the captain you are mute and deaf so no man seeks to bother you. Cause me issue and you will be sorry.” His words were commanding and unapologetic, he barely looked her in the eye instead darting his glance from the shoreline to the ship, where a man was waving them to come forward.
“You won’t bind my hands?” Liv whispered, facing away from the crewman. He appeared small upon the deck of the large vessel.
Liv stood fast, “Why not?” Her eyes narrowed and tried to pull the eyes of the man towards her, “Is this your ship?”
“You are mute!” He snapped and pulled Grani forward, Liv followed, knowing there was little else she could do.
The crew member dropped a plank for them to climb aboard; the Jomsviking then led Grani to the hold, the crewman stood with his hands on his hips staring at Liv. Before the man could utter a word, the Jomsviking reappeared and roughly pulled Liv to a chest on the deck of the vessel and pointed at her to sit. He still wore his helmet and cloak and in the better light Liv thought she caught a glimpse of pale blue eyes. She frowned slightly.
“We are to set sail,” he said, looking out over the horizon, gazing at the sky, he nodded at the favourable morning and unstrapped the belt from around his waist. Dropping his cloak, he motioned for Liv to shuffle off the chest and sit on the deck. Into the sea chest he placed the cloak and sword, rolling up the arms of his tunic he removed his helmet but turned away from Liv before she could see his face. Striding to the side of the ship he dipped the helmet into the water and poured the contents over his head. Leaning his forearms on the wood, he paused to collect his thoughts, before replacing the helmet and returning to the woman trying to peek at him beneath her lashes with curiosity. He realised he could not wear the armour for the entire voyage.
“You will avert your gaze at all times, I’ve told them you are a thrall, so look at the ground, never at me and never make eye contact with the others, understand?” As he spoke he untied the straps holding the leather armour to his chest, the cuffs about his wrists remained, though he twisted them and flexed his fingers, “I don’t like giving orders twice so obey, Liv.”
He watched as the woman nodded and looked at her hands, carefully he removed his helmet and tossed it into the chest. Liv did not glance up at him or move at all, it struck him that she was being utterly compliant, he felt rotten inside to be so terse with her. It was not how it was meant to be, he thought, but at this time he could not reveal himself, though he doubted very much when at last she knew who he was, she would even care. She had betrayed their oath and it had meant everything to him, suddenly it irked him hugely that she had not known immediately who he was, how could it be she had forgotten him so swiftly?
Liv sighed, the man was intolerable, and she suspected, untrustworthy, he would not answer her questions. She knew full well that the Jarl’s lands were easily reached by foot, there was no need to set sail and there was little need to bring Grani with them. She loved her horse but was prepared to abandon him to the settlement, it was the way of things in her life, she could not hold on to anything that attached her to places or people for the loss of her husband and guardian had taught her that well. Liv resigned herself to silence, she would do as the man asked, she would be mute and deaf and compliant for soon enough the only sound to fill her ears would be that of her own screaming, when at last the Jarl had her.
Sleep eluded Liv, as the ship made for open waters, though her mind and body ached dreadfully from exhaustion. Men had gathered on deck and taken their positions at the oars, the Jomsviking had instructed her to sit near the prow where his back faced her. She thought it odd he would do this as she might easily have escaped over the side of the ship but she also saw the man at the rudder was watching her, Liv suspected the Jomsviking had made this man aware she was his captive.
Massaging her temples, against the dull throb that had invaded her senses, Liv sighed heavily. Her task had taken its toll, the constant evasion of the Jarl’s men and the danger she encountered being a woman on the run with a child had meant many sleepless nights, since her guardian had disappeared she was without counsel. For two years she had only her wits and guile to have gotten her and the boy this far and now she was captured. Her husband’s cleverness in concealing the ring within the brooch on her cloak gave Liv hope but realising the men thought she was a thrall she tugged it from her shoulder and concealed it under her dress.
The touch of the jewel ignited a sensation of burning in her chest; she stifled a cough and watched as the Jomsviking turned his head slightly as she cleared her throat. She hated the weight of the ring, it had been draining her steadily over the last few months as the boy grew, Liv knew the time was coming when he would wear it and forever his fate would be sealed, she hoped it did not cause him as much anguish as it had her.
Liv looked at her hands and felt ashamed at the grime and muck under her fingernails, her dress was tattered and torn and she knew not what her scratched and dirt smeared face looked like in the light of the new day. Smoothing her hands over her hair she felt the sea air had already tangled it; Liv grimaced a small smile to think she was safe enough from any man on the ship given what she must look like. It occurred to her that this was the first time in a long time she had cared, always she had kept her dress simple and her hair tied back, it had to be that she faded into the crowds.
Her guardian had told her to be careful making eye contact and survey each gathering with a view that her and the boys’ killer was there. Thinking back to the day when she had agreed to watch over her charge, sent a stabbing pain of regret through her. Liv had wished for a very different life but the boy's mother had to be protected and they had failed when she died; then the boy had to be watched over as he was the last of his line, that was six years ago.
Suddenly the wind picked up and the Viking manning the rudder shouted at the men to pull in the oars and raise the sail. They did as they were commanded and returning to their wooden chests they took the opportunity to rest. The Jomsviking ignored the men and walked over to Liv with a skin, averting her eyes she felt the skin drop into her lap.
“Drink,” he ordered. Liv took a sip of the stale water and felt her chest loosen a little. “You are ill?” The man asked, startled Liv opened her mouth before clamping it shut and shook her head quickly.
“Good. My name is Gorm, look at my hands, should you need to ask for me use this hand signal.” The man splayed his fingers in a wavering motion simulating the flight of a bird. “The men here all use this method when we fight… oft we cannot risk being heard. I will be watching… always.”
Nodding her head, Liv darted her gaze back to the wooden planks of the deck, she heard the man sigh and rub his face with his rough hands. She felt the skin lifted from her lap as he took a drink himself, “You’re not what I expected,” Gorm said, almost sadly. “I thought there would be more fight in you, mayhap it’s all but gone, no matter…”
Liv restrained herself from looking up at the man and instead turned away from him, angry that he made judgements about her, ‘What right does he have?’ her mind screamed, ‘What I have had to do!’ Instantly Liv chastised herself, anger and grief from the tiredness she felt was overriding her usually measured mind, she would not let her captor rile her, she focused on the boy’s face the last time she held him. Tears pricked her eyes at the memory of their last words; she had promised to return to him after hiding the ring but now all he could do was wait.
Liv felt a dark ire surging within her, vowing silently that she would escape and return to the boy she channelled all her energy into forming a plan. She would not feel the Jarl’s wrath yet; she would fight with every ounce of her being. The ring meant nothing to her; it was Liv’s belief that the boy was powerful in his own right, it was naught but the greed of men that had forged the item to signify its wearers command.
Gorm looked at the woman he knew as Liv, his words had stung her and he berated himself for being so petty, it was true he had expected her to fight harder. She could have hit him with the axe whilst on the back of Grani but she did not, she submitted to his demands whilst on the ship and had uttered not one word. She looked tired and pale but still as beautiful as when they were young, as a Jomsviking he had seen what a hard life could do to a pretty face and was glad Liv had been saved from that but he wondered angrily how often she might have used that pretty smile to evade capture.
“You had a man?” he asked all too gruffly, he saw her nod hesitantly still turned away. “He is dead?” he pressed, and he saw her nod. “Then you are alone?”
Liv let out a breath and swallowed, wondering why he questioned her now and felt frustration tangle her thoughts. What was his interest and why had he not asked about the ring? Defiantly she raised her head and stood, stumbling slightly, as her legs were unprepared for the movement of the ship.
“Sit!” Gorm growled, clasping a hand on her forearm. “Eyes down.”
Liv stood firm and turned her body to gaze out over the sea, “Take your hand off me,” she whispered.
Gorm dropped her arm as if it was aflame and stiffened; a smile crept over his mouth as he leant in to whisper in her ear, “So you are not yet beaten? Good…but do not defy me again.” With a heavy hand he pushed against her shoulder forcing Liv to be seated once again on the deck.
Watching the back of the Jomsviking Gorm walk away, Liv speared daggers into his flesh, with her mind’s eye, she watched as he paused as though feeling her anger but shook it off and continued to his sea chest. Liv realised they were sailing away from the Jarl’s territory heading north but where was still as of yet unclear. She thought of her homeland briefly but fought against recalling any memories, for what good could it possibly do her to look into the past again, and closing her eyes Liv allowed sleep to wash over her tired body.
When she awoke it was nightfall, the men were engaged in drinking from skins talking and playing dice games, the deck was lit by a few lamps and the sky was clear, with a round full moon shining down on the ship. The waters had stilled and there was no movement, the sail had been taken down and the anchor weighed, Liv stretched and peered over the side of the vessel seeing nothing but water on the horizon. Looking back to the men she saw Gorm standing with his back to her talking with the man who had been at the rudder, they appeared deep in conversation. Gorm nodded and Liv cast her gaze downwards quickly when he turned in her direction, and expecting him to walk over to her with more harsh words, Liv tensed and awaited his arrival but it did not come; instead Gorm sent another smaller man to her with a small bowl of dried fish and a cup of water.
Accepting the meal Liv nodded, fixing her eyes on the food. Chewing each mouthful slowly, she relished the salted fish and savoured the water even though it had taken on a staleness. She had not eaten since the tavern in the settlement and then it had been a weak broth interrupted by the arrival of the Jomsvikings. When she had finished the meal Liv rested her head against the cool wood behind her, pulling her cloak about her shoulders she felt night air fresh on her tired skin, sleep threatened her once more.
Her slumber was interrupted by the shouts of men, opening her eyes she saw two of the crew fighting surrounded by men who were slapping their thighs and laughing, the fight dispersed as quickly as it started and Liv saw it had been over a game of dice. Why men wasted their wealth on such things was a mystery to her.
She could not guess how long she had been sleeping but felt the weight of another blanket over her limbs, looking down, Liv saw that Gorm’s cloak had been laid over her. Biting her lip she frowned at the gesture; why would he care to think of her comfort, Liv resigned herself to thinking that he wanted as good a reward as possible from the Jarl and should her health devalue her in any way it would cost the man. What good would she be to the Jarl if she were too sick or weak to interrogate, she thought.
For the rest of the night she fought to stay awake, when dawn broke through the clouds that had gathered in the sky she folded the cloak and placed it beside her. The crew rose at first light breaking their fast and waiting for their Captain’s orders. Gorm did not approach her nor did any of the other men and Liv sat silently praying for an opportunity to present itself. She must escape she thought. Suddenly a rough hand yanked her to her knees, a scowl bore down on her and from the knotted fair hair and beard Liv knew it was not Gorm, her arm felt like it was in a vice and despite her efforts she could not pull away from the man.
“He says you’re a slave? Don’t look like any I’ve ever seen!” the man clenched his fingers around Liv’s arm, watching with a grin as she winced in pain. “Speak!”
Liv shook her head and shakily pointed to her throat, if this was a test sent by Gorm she would not fail. She kept her eyes down daring only small sideward glances at the features belonging to the harsh voice. Puzzled the man furrowed his brow and looked at her before swinging a glance around the deck, Gorm was not in sight. Roughly he dragged Liv towards the hold, none of the crewmen looked up from their tasks, panic rose in Liv’s throat as she realised Gorm’s lie was the perfect opportunity for a man such as this, thrall status offered women no protection. Trying to steady her breathing, Liv thought of her small dagger in her boot that the Viking had not checked for and thanked the Gods. The man’s pace quickened as he reached the plank leading down to the hold, Liv could smell the odour from the animals and prayed Grani was safe and that he might stamp his hoof into the man’s head given half a chance. The grip on her arm loosened as she was swung around to meet face of her attacker.
“Since you can’t speak, you can’t shout for Gorm,” the words slithered from his mouth as his lips pulled into a twisted grin.
The man raised a hand hitting Liv on the jaw, her head buzzed with the force from the blow and she staggered back, nausea overwhelmed her as she sank to her knees. Straining to keep upright, she fell onto the wooden decking, landing hard on her injured face and forcing her eyes open, she looked up at the figure before her, blurring into many shapes. As it loomed over her in a squatting position it pulled at her hair, then just as Liv prepared for another blow, a second figure appeared behind the man. The bearded figure turned, but it was too late the second man had raised his fist and smashed Liv’s attacker repeatedly in the face. Rolling onto her side Liv felt the hold spinning, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, as strong hands lifted her shoulders and a voice whispered in her ear, “Liv? Speak!” Gorm’s tone was hushed but filled with anguish; he was enraged that Freki had attempted to take Liv when Gorm had strictly forbidden the men to go near her.
The darkness of the hold prevented Gorm from seeing how injured Liv was, he cursed his earlier attitude towards her, lifting her over his shoulder he climbed back onto the deck and laid her in the spot he had ordered her to remain. Her jaw appeared unbroken though a dark purple bruise was beginning to work its way across her face; Freki must have caught her ear as a thin droplet of blood trickled from within. Looking about the deck, Gorm glared at the men who had done nothing to stop their comrade from his intentions. Cursing his plan to call her a thrall Gorm dragged his hand over his mouth, before swearing loudly, balling his fist and punching the wood of the deck.
Slowly Liv stirred and strained to open her eyes. She knew she was no longer in the hold but pain throbbed in her left ear, her jaw ached and there was a taste of blood in her mouth but using her tongue to trace her teeth she found none broken or missing. Swallowing she pushed back on her elbows and attempted to sit but the spinning sensation swept over her once more and she felt a hand gently pushing her down.
“Please rest. We’ll depart the ship by evening, nod if you understand,” Gorm spoke as softly as he could. He watched as she nodded, her eyes struggling to focus, he wished he had never told her to avert her gaze from him, he longed for nothing more than those green opal eyes to look at him with an assurance all would be well. “I’ll seek out a healer if you have not yet recovered.”
Liv shook her head and winced at the pain, she could not allow a healer to look at her, they would surely wish to inspect the rest of her body for injury and she could not allow that to happen. Groaning she raised her hand to the blurred figure before her and rested a palm on his forearm.
Gorm started at the touch of her hand; pulling back he reached for his cloak neatly folded into a square and tucked it behind her head, he waited for a moment until she appeared to have slipped into unconsciousness and stalked toward the hold.
Freki still lay in a bloody mess on the floor; the crewman had dragged his knees up to his chest both hands cupping the smashed nose on his face.
“You knocked out my teeth and broke my nose!” he spat.
“You were warned not to touch her!” Gorm roared.
“She’s naught but a thrall! What difference would it make?” Freki whined, grimacing at the pain radiating his face, his eyes began to water as blood and drool dripped from his chin.
Gorm bent down and grabbed fistfuls of the man's tunic, dragging him to his feet, “You injured her, she’s my property, you will pay one way or another,” he growled into the man's face.
Freki squinted at the rage in Gorm’s eyes, gulping he cursed himself for going against the wishes of the Jomsviking, this man was not to be trifled with. Though he had never heard of Gorm, he recognised the hardness of character and from thescarred face and hands Freki guessed this man had seen many a battle. This did not bode well for himself, he thought.
“I have coin in my chest,” Freki stammered.
“Get it. If you so much as glance at her before we reach the township, I’ll break the rest of your teeth and your jaw!” Gorm released his grip and watched the man stagger across the ramp and out into the morning light. “What am I doing?” he sighed. Dragging his fingers through his hair he felt weary, and angry at himself for not having kept both eyes on Liv. Taking a deep breath he followed Freki onto the deck.
Suddenly a shout for the men to man the oars arose and Gorm shook off the fury tightening his chest, taking his seat, he watched as Freki approached and tossed a bag of silver to him, before slinking back to his own chest. The captain at the rudder raised an eyebrow but Gorm was in no mood to explain and darkened his gaze with a frown until shrugging his shoulders, the captain roared for the men to drop their oars and pull.
It was still morning, the sky was grey, rain was on the horizon and not a breath of wind could be felt, Liv dreamt of her past as a youth, of a kindness she had known and the face of one she had loved. When next she awoke the day had turned to early evening and a misting of rain had dampened her clothes, swallowing back the pain, Liv felt tears well in her eyes as she relived the memory of her dream. Rolling onto her side, she struggled to regain her balance as she rose to her feet unsteadily, lurching towards the rail, she felt her knees buckle but a pair of strong arms caught her before she fell.
“Raise your hood,” Gorm said, “We have reached the township. Let me lift you onto Grani and rest until I say.” Liv nodded and covered her face with her hood, she felt Gorm lift her over his shoulder before he took the reins of Grani and led them over the side of the ship. Slowly Gorm placed one foot in the stirrup and patiently helped Liv into the saddle; satisfied that she would not fall, he nudged Grani to move forward.
“Gorm!” A voice rang out from the ship, turning Gorm saw the captain and stopped in his tracks.
“Wait!” The captain bounded along the deck, leaping over the side of the ship now moored in the harbour, “The woman she is well?”
“I think she needs a healer,” Gorm replied warily.
“Best be on your way and quick, you have a man here?” Ragnar asked.
“Yes why?” Gorm asked with growing concern.
“Freki is still smarting from your beating, one of the men told me he plans to get his coin back from you, now I know you can take care of yourself but your cargo says otherwise,” Ragnar jerked his head of wiry red hair towards Liv. The captain had pale blue eyes that saw through many a guise and he figured this woman to be no thrall, no matter how convincing Gorm’s story was. “With the Jarl’s men on your back you don’t need the likes of Freki doing the same.”
Liv stiffened as her ears picked up on the conversation between the two men, could she have heard the captain correctly she wondered? Her heart started to beat rapidly in her chest; if this man had caught her for what purpose could it be if not to return her to the Jarl?
“Quiet, Ragnar,” Gorm hissed, darting his gaze around the men loitering on and about the ship, “I thank you but we will be well. I am to meet with my man now and we depart the township in the morn…Freki is no threat and I doubt the Jarl has knowledge of what has happened yet. Can I trust you to say nothing if they should come looking?”
“What would I say?” Ragnar shrugged, “That some Viking came aboard with a battered wench? Happens all the time, mayhap you are some trader selling a thrall at market and my men change often, Freki does not sail with me again.”
Gorm nodded and lifted Freki’s coin sack from his belt tossing it over to the captain. Ragnar caught the sack with both hands and feeling the weight, nodded and winked at Gorm before turning and walking back onto the ship.
“Come Grani,” Gorm pulled on the reins and started back along the path.
From beneath the heavy hood of her cloak Liv found the courage to sneak a look at the man guiding her horse, his own hood was down and he did not wear his helmet. As he pulled on the reins he turned his head this way and that, searching the crowd and Liv saw a strong square jaw bristled with short hair, his nose was straight, a series of small scars scattered over his jaw and neck as if some claw had attacked him and left its mark. Her vision blurred and she could not join the features into one image. She could see no more but as Liv fought against the pain in her head she saw Gorm raise his hand and heard a shout from someone in the distance.
The township of Gulafjord was bustling, the harbourside strained against the swell of bodies pulling their carts and wares strung over shoulders; Dag weaved in and out of the crowd, along the quayside littered with small vessels and larger ships. His humour was high this evening, he had secured them lodging on the outskirts of town where no one would think to look should Gorm have made any new enemies on the way and Dag reasoned that it was entirely possible given the task at hand.
King Harald Greycloak, grandson of Harald Fairhair, hailed from Sygnafylki and the region had prospered in his reign, in a few day’s time Jarls would convene for the Thing debating over taxes and the concerns of their people. Harald Greycloak was the son of Eric Bloodaxe who had been next in line despite the many sons of Fairhair battling for rights to the throne.
Upon the death of his father Greycloak and his brothers allied their forces with that of his grandfather fighting many battles and being the eldest son Greycloak held most of the power he and his brothers gained after the defeat of King Haakon of Norway. Greycloak had been born into a dynasty at war with themselves, though now he had been proclaimed vassal King of western Norway by his uncle, Harald Bluetooth of Denmark.
Recently there had been talk within the ranks, grumblings that Bluetooth was offering land and ships if the Jomsvikings were to swear allegiance to him and though their code of conduct forbade dissent, there were many who bit back at the rumours that Bluetooth had proclaimed the order as being his creation but in truth, the Jomsvikings were older than this. The one thing that was agreed upon amongst the men, was the need for a larger citadel for the order of the Jomsvikings, currently they held residence in the great tower on the shores of a lake laden with crafts of many sizes and descriptions. To grow in number and power they had to lay claim to a larger more dominating fortress, which had been promised by Bluetooth.
Many ships had arrived during the course of the day, Dag watched as the cargos containing fine silks and cloths, spices and exotic foodstuffs were unloaded. Some ships carried fine looking steeds of the like the Arab men favoured, some carried slaves for the market which had stuck in Dag’s throat, he neither appreciated nor respected the slave status. Who could allow themselves to be treated so unkindly, he often wondered, it was not a life and better the person sold into it ended it swiftly. Men shouted to one another preparing for trade in the township and organising meeting places to drink and eat, some were drawn to the women milling around the carts and storehouses looking for their own business. As dusk began to fall, Dag saw lamps being lit and the harbour took on a murkier tone, deals could be made with those who avoided the light of day, coin exchanging from hand to hand for passage onto ships leaving in the morning.
Dag had known Gorm since their enlistment in the Jomsvikings, the two men were similar in their skills and prowess but very different in demeanour, where Gorm was serious and reserved in temperament, Dag was loud and brash seeking the joke in every situation and enjoying the mischief he could inflict on his comrades. This had been the case at least until Gorm had approached him some weeks ago, after a messenger had sought him out and Dag hoped that the woman Gorm was after was worth the trouble that would soon be on their tails. In his mind, no woman ever was worth the trouble, he took maids, servants, whores; and whoever else smiled or batted an eyelash his way, no female had yet to convince him to settle down and in truth, why should he? So far with the Jomsvikings he had amassed his own wealth, which he had carefully divided before this expedition, none having to pay for a woman’s upkeep. He fought many a battle and won his right to die well and enter the halls of Valhalla, what need did he have of a mortal wife when the riches of the afterlife would be much sweeter.
A roving eye drew Dag’s attention to a comely woman struggling with a sack, he watched for a moment with an amused grin as she tried time and again to lift the load over her shoulder, puffing she swept a hand across her brow and caught his gaze. Tucking his thumbs into the leather of his belt about his tunic Dag swaggered towards the woman, “How come you find yourself here with such a load?” he smiled.
The woman tilted her head catching the glint in the man’s eye, warily she looked him up and down and from his dark hair and rugged features she could tell he was no fisherman or farmer, she saw instantly he was a warrior and drew a breath, “My husband waits for me over there,” she replied meekly.
Dag threw a look over his shoulder, as he turned he knew she would catch a glimpse of his heavy sword strung across his back, “Really? And he leaves you here to struggle?”
“Uh… ja, I’ll be on my way,” the woman blushed.
“Sure I can’t offer you a hand?” Dag dazzled the woman with his straight even smile, she blushed further, he thought, this was again far too easy, he knew she had no husband here or anywhere. Catching her give him a sideways glance, he saw the bright blue of her eyes and the sharpness of her small features, lifting the sack he threw it over his shoulder with ease and offered the woman an arm, “Where to?” he smiled.
“You are a Viking?”She asked.
“Of a kind.”Dag laughed.
“What kind?”She persisted nervously.
“The paid for and don’t ask questions kind.” He grinned.
“Thank you for your help but…”
Dag rolled his eyes and rubbed his chin. “No need to fear me woman, I offer help. Now where to?”
“The tavern.” The woman pointed to a wooden feasting hall sitting amid a group of outbuildings some feet from where they stood, “I didn’t have far to go really,” she smiled and pulled her cloak tighter around her dress. “We don’t see many such as yourself here.”
“Am I so different?” he smirked.
“Ja, you look like you’ve seen many a fight, the raiders and traders have that look too but you’re different, your weapons for a start. The sword is larger than any I’ve seen and you have daggers all along your belt.”
“You see much and talk much too, tell me is there aught to keep the words falling from your mouth?” Dag laughed and winked at the young woman, enjoying the small smile spread over her lips.
Dag noted she wore the garb of a serving wench and wondered if she worked the rooms as well. Her face did not wear the look of a whore, but still, it made little difference to him. Gesturing for the woman to walk, he darted his eyes amongst the figures of the crowd, in the distance he saw a tall man in a dark cloak pulling a horse alongside, dropping the woman’s sack he raised a hand and shouted at Gorm.
The woman sank to her knees by the sack and gathered the vegetables that rolled from its opening. “Nei, nei!” she cried.
“My apologies!” Dag laughed and helped her gather the roots and saw the sack also contained dried meat.
“Gods above he will tar my hide!” She shot a worried look towards the tavern and then to Dag.
“Who will?” Dag stood and looked about him for a sign of an angry man.
“My brother, he owns the tavern, I’ve already cost him and now the food is covered in muck. Pray I wash it off afore he sees.” She raised her head briefly and stuffed the contents into the sack before struggling to lift the load once more.
“Your brother?” Dag took the sack and the arm of the woman before quickening his pace, standing outside the door of the tavern he glanced inside, “Is he there?”
“No. I best be gone, thank you and well… no thanks at all!”
“Hah!” Dag laughed out loud before catching the woman’s arm as she disappeared over the doorway. “Your name?”
“Gytha. Why?” she asked crossly.
“Mayhap I return this evening and spend a coin or two?” said Dag.
“As you wish but… this place is trouble, it may be best you stay away.” Nervously the woman looked away before wrestling her arm free, leaving Dag’s sight.
Shrugging Dag turned about and set off towards the spot he had seen Gorm approaching from, absently he felt a little anger towards the brother of the young woman, the man obviously intimidated her, Dag was not fond of the ways men could do this to women but he knew her not and resolved to let the matter rest in his mind until he saw her next and if he saw her again. There was every chance Gorm would want them to remain completely hidden from sight until the morn.
Noticing Dag making his way towards them it had not escaped Gorm’s attention he had been speaking with a woman, Gorm sighed and wondered if his friend ever kept his mind on anything else. He was pleased to see his friend though and knew Dag would have made the arrangements they had spoken of before he left. He had told Dag as much as he dared to, he knew his friend suspected there was much more to the tale, there had been little time to discuss the legend and the Jarl’s obsession with the ring.
The legend he had known of ever since he was a child, sitting around the fire pit in the hall of his people listening to their Seer, had found its way to ears of men. All who heard tell about the ring or had glimpsed upon it craved it, apart from Gorm. It sickened him that greed could destroy a person and he could not understand why Liv had given up her life to protect it. He knew not where on her person she had concealed it and cared not, he had to deliver her to one man who could set the matter to rest, as far as Gorm was concerned the ring had to be destroyed.
“Gorm!” Dag laughed and slapped the man on the back, looking at the woman on the back of the horse, he raised an eyebrow, “She is ill?”
“Ja, some fool attacked her on the ship, we may have need of a healer.”
“Mmm, mayhap. I have lodging for us, best we make haste, the owner of the house will be gone for days. When we arrive I’ll look for a healing woman.” Dag darted a look at the woman as she moaned quietly, slightly hunching her shoulders she sat weakly on the back of the horse.
“Best we move,” said Gorm.
Liv struggled to keep herself upright; she heard a man talking with the Jomsviking and furrowed her brow painfully as she tried to remember the conversation he’d shared with the ship's captain. Where were they going, why had the man taken her and who was this new voice she could hear? The two men clearly knew one another and their tone was friendly but urgent. Peering from beneath her hood she saw the new figure walking with Gorm, he had long hair the colour of freshly upturned earth and she saw a strong face as he glanced over his shoulder at her, his beard was dark but short as if he had neglected to shave his whiskers for a few days. He smiled at her and she saw a spark in his eyes, she recognised the charm he exuded and sighed warily. He also wore a heavy sword on his back, his clothing was practical but well made, in the dusk and lamplight the blade glinted causing her to shiver.
“Your woman peeks from beneath her hood. All will be well…” Dag murmured leaning towards his friend.
“She was told to keep her gaze down!” Gorm growled but felt a little tension lift from his shoulders, that curiosity was awakening her.
“What woman can do as she’s told?” Dag grinned, “and why down?”
Gorm scowled at his friend as they made their way from the harbour and started along a track skirting away from the township. The crowd thinned and became the odd group of men wearily carrying sacks and pulling carts or staggering fools who had spent or lost their coin heading back to their ship to rest their broken heads.
“She doesn’t know, and keep your voice low. This way?” Gorm jerked his head to the path before them and Dag nodded.
“We are some paces from the house,” Dag lowered his tone, “Why have you said naught?”
“There was no time to explain,” Gorm muttered.
“What explanation would be needed when she saw your face?” his friend asked, frowning.
“She has not recognised my voice, mayhap she has forgotten me altogether, would be no bad thing now,” he said.
Dag grunted and peered back at Liv, “Bothersome woman, you save her skin and say nothing? Mayhap your pride is wounded Gorm?”
“Humph, ja I think it so. How many years have passed since you saw her last?” Dag asked quietly.
Gorm tightened his grip on the reins, “Over six years.”
“And you think she would know you by voice? In that time you have changed much, you are an older man now, even I would sound different to my mother’s ears were she still living.” Dag pointed to a small wooden structure nestled between a crop of stables and store houses. “Here, isn’t much to look at but will suffice for now. Tis’ warm and clean and dry, there is food. Do you want me to look for a healer?”
Gorm looked at the ramshackle buildings, they were in need of repair but would indeed do for the duration of their stay, straightening his back he shook his head, “Nei, you take her inside, I’ll look for a healer.” Gorm handed Grani’s reins to Dag and walked towards one of the larger square buildings where a little smoke was drifting from the turf roof. The light misting of rain that had fallen during the day had dried and the path was firm beneath his feet. “Dag?” Gorm called back to his friend.
“Ja?” Dag raised his head slightly, his hand still stroking the horse’s nose.
“Keep your hands to yourself!”
Dag roared with laughter, it was good that his friend saw fit to shed his grimness and jest with him, he would indeed keep his hands to himself, if the woman still meant anything at all to Gorm.
Reaching up he pulled Liv from Grani’s back and carried her into the small house, once inside Dag laid her on the long table by the small fire pit and lit a lamp, pulling a bench aside he drew back her hood and saw she was staring at him wide eyed. The woman’s face was scratched and bruised, Dag whistled at the markings, wincing as he realised the blow from the man Gorm had spoken of must indeed have been heavy and lifting a hand he gently tilted her chin to further expose the bruising.
“Are you still in pain?” he asked.
“Some,” Liv rasped.
“Gorm has gone for a healer,” Dag said, folding his arms across his chest.
“I don’t need one,” she stated firmly, “what does he plan for me?”
“Not for your concern right now,” he smiled and looked at her green opal eyes, they were shaped like the sleek felines in the harems he had visited in the southlands, her lashes were dark and she looked something other than Norse. Her hair was of a bronze hue rather than the golden shades of his women; he enquired, “Where are you from?”
“Nowhere,” Liv struggled to sit and shuffled from the table to the bench across from Dag, “why am I allowed to see yourface?” Holding her head in her hands she balanced her elbows on the edge of the wooden table.
“Best you and Gorm speak about that. Besides is this not a fine face to look upon?” Dag chuckled slightly to himself, “I’ll fetch you a drink.”
Crossing the small room Dag lifted a clay pitcher and a wooden cup from a shelf, pouring the water, Liv licked her lips and drank greedily enjoying the crispness of the fresh liquid, filling the cup for a second time Dag watched as the woman looked up at him and thanked him with her eyes as she drank. ‘Gods above,’ he thought, ‘what a fool Gorm is being!’
“Thank you,” Liv said.
Dag nodded but suddenly the door swung open and a large figure filled the entrance, Liv immediately looked down, Dag stared first at his friend and then to the woman who had averted her eyes. “Give me strength!” he muttered.
“There is no healer nearby,” Gorm grunted, walking over to the table, he lifted the pitcher and drank. With a jealous look, he glared at Dag and then to the woman, “I see she is much recovered anyway,” he growled.