“We eat well this night, my friends. Three full nets of plump, slithering cod and suckling pig too.”
Audun shed his wolf skin cloak and leather tunic, then vaulted over the rail of the boat to land with a splash in the waist-deep foam. Two more of his Viking warriors deposited their clothing on the deck before following him into the sea. Others tossed ropes to them from the deck of the vessel and the three in the water heaved the craft into the shallows. Once the bow scraped on the sand, they tied the boat to a large rock on the beach and then all but one of the men leapt into the now knee-deep surf to wade ashore.
The warrior remaining on board tossed Audun’s clothes to him and he donned them again. Those who had helped him in the water did likewise as the Viking on the boat hauled the first bucket of still twitching fish to the prow and passed it down to waiting hands below. Six more pails of glittering, silver-scaled cod were unloaded, followed by the two young wild boars they had spotted grazing in a meadow up the coast and been quick enough to spear from the sea. Fresh meat was rare enough, and winter all too fast in coming. Today’s good fortune would see their village well fed for the next few weeks. Audun offered up his thanks to Ull, god of the hunt, then for good measure acknowledged the contribution doubtless made by Njord, god of the sea and of fish. He may be the most powerful chieftain on this remote Viking settlement off the Scottish coast, but Audun was never a man to risk offending the gods. You never knew when their intervention might be required.
“Load up the cart. If we hurry we can be back and warming our feet by our own fire pits not much after nightfall.”
The Nordic hunters hurried to do their chief’s bidding, dragging a wagon from the shade of the trees that fringed the small cove. They had left it there when they set sail shortly after dawn, in the hope that they would have just such a need for the aid of sturdy wheels to haul their catch the two miles inland to their settlement. They had no horse. They would drag the cart themselves, three of them at a time and take turns.
Soon the fish and young pigs were safely loaded and in high spirits they started the final slog for home.
They had travelled no more than a quarter of a mile when a flash of light to his left caught Audun’s eye. He paused, narrowed his eyes to squint into the setting sun. There, he saw it again. A quick burst of bright light, there for a moment and then it was gone.
“What was that?”
“What?” Steinn, his cousin and the warrior generally regarded as Audun’s deputy stood at his side, his hand shading his eyes as he peered into the gathering gloom. “I saw nothing.”
“Look again. A light, down there, by those rocks.”
“The caverns? No one would be down there, especially now. It will be high tide in less than an hour and the beach will be cut off. Anyone foolish enough to be caught out will drown.”
“Well, someone is. Look.” Audun pointed to the figure of a man, the dark shape barely discernible against the glowering blackness of the rocks. “There. See? He knows we’ve seen him and he’s trying to hide. See how he’s crouching in the mouth of the cave and hoping the shadows will conceal him?”
“Who the fuck is that…?” breathed Steinn.
Audun shrugged. “I mean to find out. All but two men come with me.” He scanned the group surrounding him. “Arne, Ivar, you two wait here at the top of the cliffs and guard the wagon. Make sure you have ropes ready in case you need to haul us up in a hurry to escape the high tide. I’m not fancying a watery grave tonight, not with such a feast awaiting us at home. The rest of you, follow me.” He drew his huge sword and set off down the perilous cliff path at a run. He did not look back to make sure his men were at his heels. He had no need.
The only way to reach the caverns was either by way of the path he was now descending, or from the sea. Audun intended to ensure that whoever had seen fit to arrive unbidden and uninvited on his island stronghold did not avail themselves of the path to reach safety.
As he approached the beach he could see no boat. He could, however, make out two more figures crouching close to the first. Hardly an invading force, but if these strangers came in peace, why did they seek to conceal their presence?
Audun had a bad feeling about this. He invoked the aid of Thor, god of battles as well as Tyr, god of war as he stood, his feet planted firmly on the damp shores of the island he called home, ready to defend what was his.
“Show yourselves,” he bellowed.
The shadows pressed against the hard granite did not move.
“Do you think us blind? We have seen you. Come out and be ready to give a good account of your presence here.”
Still the shadows remained motionless. Audun’s patience withered. He stepped forward, flanked by his men.
He got to almost within a sword’s length of the unwelcome visitors when they struck. The three emerged from the somewhat dubious shelter of the rocks to rush at the approaching Vikings. In the scant seconds it took, Audun registered that their foes carried no swords, just stubby sticks, which they brandished with a level of menace that seemed to him utterly inappropriate given that they faced the tender mercies of hard, cold steel. He grinned. This would be easy enough, even without Thor to aid him.
“Yield, and we will allow you to live.” Audun pointed the tip of his sword at the breast of the man closest to him, noting that the warrior was strangely attired. His clothing was all black, and hugged the man’s form snugly, as though fashioned to his exact shape. The fabrics, though dull in hue, appeared fine enough. All three wore close-fitting caps that concealed their hair, and knee-high shiny boots. The one who appeared to be their leader held an even stubbier black stick in his left hand, which he pointed at Audun’s face.
What the…? Without warning, bright light erupted from the end of the short stick. This must be the light he had seen flashing earlier, but now the beam was sustained, and its brilliance dazzled Audun momentarily. He took a step back.
The man brandishing the light spoke, though in a tongue unknown to Audun. His words were harsh, his manner threatening as though to warn the Norse chief off. Audun was having none of that. This was his island, his beach. His fucking caves. This had gone on long enough and Audun was fucking sick of that light in his eyes. He took a two-handed grip on his sword and bent his knees to assume the battle stance that always served him well. On either side his men did likewise.
The three before them actually smiled as the Vikings readied themselves to attack, as though the prospect of becoming impaled on three feet of finely honed steel was cause for amusement.
Fucking bastards. They would regret the day they decided to intrude on the peace and quiet of his territory. He and his people had worked hard to build their settlement, to grow their few crops and rear enough livestock to see them through the unrelenting winter. No one was about to take any of that from them. A Viking would defend what was his. Audun swung his sword.
Audun stood a good head taller than the man before him and by rights that first blow should have taken his arm off at the elbow. Somehow the slippery little turd sidestepped and the stroke went wide. The other two also came forward, their pathetic little sticks in their hands. They jabbed at the Vikings, who roared their derision at this unlikely threat.
“Last chance, cur,” growled Audun and he moved in to put an end to this idiocy.
The sound was deafening, a wall of noise that hit him in the chest and carried him backwards to land, gasping, in the surf. Audun lay there, eyes wide, the pain excruciating. His sword was no longer in his hand, he knew not where it might be and could not have lifted it in any case. He was weak as a newborn kitten, tired, powerless. As though in a dream—or rather a waking nightmare—he tested the source of his agony with his fingertips and felt the familiar stickiness of blood. He smelt it too, the metallic tang filling his mouth, his nose, his throat.
The startled, horrified faces of his men swirled above him, spiralling against the purples and indigos of the nearly night sky, their shouts carried away on the roar of the waves. Or was that the rush of his own blood he could hear reverberating in his ears? Confused, disoriented, Audun strained his neck to peer down at his chest. He watched with detached curiosity as the blood bloomed and spread, covering his hand, staining his cloak, spilling into the shallow waves that lapped his chilled and near lifeless body.
They have killed me. Tell Eira… He allowed his head to drop back and the words died in his throat as his world went from grey to black.
Two years later
“Have you considered my offer? I shall not wait forever, Eira.”
She turned her head to regard the tall man who had approached soundlessly from behind. Steinn now crouched beside her, his eyes at the same level as hers. His gaze was warm, but held a glint of determination. She perceived that look all too often of late and feared she could not delay much longer. She had no intention of accepting his offer of marriage, but knew her refusal would cause offence. Steinn was affable enough when he had his own way, but he would make an implacable enemy.
Eira’s future in this village would not be an easy one were she to refuse to wed the new chief, but she did not care for the man. Not in the least.
“‘Tis now almost two years since Audun was called to Valhalla where he will dwell for eternity, in glory, with the gods. Do you not hear the sagas recited by the skald?” Steinn gestured to the poet now ensconced in pride of place at the centre of the circle, the bard’s voice raised as he regaled the assembled villagers with tales of their mighty leader who had died in battle defending their home. This feast was in Audun’s honour, to celebrate his elevation to the status of a mighty god who would protect their people for all time.
Steinn continued, his voice dripping with pride as though Audun’s great deeds were actually his own. “He tells of Audun, his wisdom, his courage, and the favour he won with the gods themselves which moved them to claim him as their own. They blessed him with a mighty iron steed which roars louder than a thousand wolves and the power to hurl bolts of lightning from his fingers. Our noble chief cheated death itself to find immortality but those of us who were close to him know that he was ever a generous leader and he would not wish you to live out your life alone. You need a man, Eira, a protector. I am now chief here, appointed by Audun himself as his successor, and you can once more be bride to the Jarl. We could be wed within the month, before the end of the summer.”
Eira shook her head. “It is still too soon. I cannot—”
“Two years, Eira. More than enough time to mourn. I know you loved Audun. We all did, but the future beckons. We must all make adjustments…”
Steinn continued to extol the virtues of a marriage between Eira and himself, but Eira had already ceased to listen. It was impossible; she would not marry again though Steinn was wrong about her reasons. He might know that, had he bothered to take the time to ask her how she felt rather than telling her what was in her heart.
She was not at all certain that she had loved Audun. She’d cared for him, certainly. She had respected him, and liked him well enough, she supposed, most of the time. Perhaps, eventually, she might have come to love her tall, handsome husband as a wife should, but their marriage had lasted less than six weeks before he was cruelly slain by invaders not two miles from where she now sat. They had been promised to one another since childhood and she could not recall a time when she had envisaged her future without Audun, son of Bodil, Jarl of Audunsborg at its heart. Even so, he had always intimidated her. She had seen him but a handful of times before they had wed, but his presence was a constant in her life. She’d feared him, though he had never hurt her. Well, apart from the time just a sennight after they were wed when he had laid her across his lap and spanked her for returning to their longhouse after dark, against his express instructions. She had sobbed and apologised, but he had taken his belt to her even so and she had not sat with ease for three days. She had not crossed him since, and their union had been harmonious enough, she supposed.
Certainly, her husband had been an exciting lover, and from the whispering among the other women in their village she knew this was something to cherish. Steinn might be equally skilled, though she doubted it and harboured no desire to find out. She harboured no desire to do anything at all, truth be told. And she had heard enough from Steinn.
“Excuse me.” Eira got to her feet and shook out her skirt. “I must check that the bread ovens are hot enough.”
“What? But—” He rose with her.
“I will be back soon. Please, do not disturb your meal on my account.” She bowed to the chief and sidestepped neatly to evade his hand as he reached for her. “Yngvild, more ale for the Jarl, if you please…”
As the thrall dashed forward to replenish Steinn’s mug, Eira used the opportunity to make her exit. She hurried to the longhouse she now shared with her mother and sisters since she had left the chief’s house to make it available for Steinn’s use and slammed the door behind her. Even as the sound reverberated around the cottage she knew it would not be long before Steinn pursued her here. The Jarl was nothing if not determined and he would hound her until he had his answer.
Eira grabbed her cloak and wrapped it about her shoulders, then secured it with an ornate gold brooch. The pin had been a gift from her father to celebrate her wedding and was one of her most valuable and treasured possessions. She slipped from the longhouse and skirted the low building, peeping back around the corner in time to see Steinn approaching. She had escaped only just in time.
Keeping to the shadows, she made her way between the close-packed longhouses until she reached the edge of the settlement, then Eira marched briskly away from the village. She heard Steinn calling her, his voice taking on a distinctly angry timbre as he realised she had given him the slip. Eira knew there would be a reckoning, but she did not look back. She would have to deal with Steinn eventually, but not tonight.
She had not set out intending to go to the beach where Audun met his end, but her feet found that path anyway. She reached the cliff path and peered over the edge at the sandy cove below. The tide was just starting to go out, revealing the rocks and caves where the raiders who killed her husband had lurked. Eira picked her way carefully down the path, then strode over the damp sand to stand on the very spot where Audun had fallen.
The story was well known to her; she could recite it almost as if she had herself been present. Steinn and the others had returned to their settlement, Audunsborg, and told of the battle. Audun had confronted the invaders, had challenged them but they spoke in a tongue none of the Vikings understood. They had the appearance of mere men, but had been evil gods, the deities of their enemies. One of them had hurled fire from a mighty weapon and Audun had fallen, bleeding, dying. The horrified Vikings had dragged their slain leader away, laid him at the foot of the cliff in readiness to carry his body back for burial with all Viking honour. But first, they must fight off those who would slay them too. They left Audun and returned to the beach to defend themselves against the attackers.
But before their very eyes Audun had burst from the mouth of the cave mounted upon a massive iron steed. According to Steinn, their slain leader had become transformed into a powerful and vengeful god. He was accompanied by Thor himself, also riding a mighty warhorse of gleaming steel. The two gods had defeated the invaders, driving them back into the caves while the Viking warriors could only watch and marvel. The thunderous sound made by the massive steeds shook the earth beneath their feet. The beasts breathed fire, the scent of them filling the Norsemen’s nostrils as the roar filled their ears. They watched, in awe, until all was again quiet. In hushed, stunned silence the Vikings crept forward. They followed the gods into the caves, their eyes wide, their legs shaking beneath them, but found the caverns to be empty.
Audun’s body was no longer at the foot of the cliff where they had left him. Nothing remained of their lost leader, nothing but the legend of Audun the Magnificent, which would be told and retold for ever.
Eira peered into the cave and tried to imagine the scene as described by Steinn and the others. They had all given a similar account; she had no cause to doubt their narrative. She supposed she should be grateful that her husband had been called to such greatness, but she felt nothing. She was empty, bereft, at a loss. If anything, she was angry at Audun for sacrificing his life so easily. He should have lived. He should have been here still, with her. That was the plan, not this… this… solitary, lonely madness.
Exasperated, she swung around to make her way back to the cliff path. It was time to tell Steinn that she would not marry him. She would not marry again, not ever. Husbands were too bloody transitory for her liking.
The fading sun caught something partially buried in the sand. Her eye was drawn to the brief glitter and she crouched to scrape away the grains that had almost concealed the object. The item was made of smooth metal, round, hollow, less than the length of her finger. She knelt in the wet sand and turned it over in the palm of her hand but could not fathom what it might be. She slipped it in the small pouch that hung from her belt, intending to ask the blacksmith later. Even if he did not know the function of the piece, he would be able to tell her about how it was made and perhaps by whom. She made to rise, but spotted something else peeking from beneath the damp sand. This time when she dug with her fingers she revealed a bracelet, silver in colour though she did not believe it to be made of that metal. It was too… shiny. The wrist band was fashioned of many small links, and bore a wider, disc-like portion upon which were inscribed markings. She had no notion what the inscription might mean, but the piece was pretty enough. She slipped it onto her wrist but it was far too big. She shoved it further, onto her upper arm, intending to seek out the owner when she returned to Audunborg. Someone would no doubt wish to claim such an attractive and unusual adornment.
The light was failing as she started back up the cliff path. She picked her way with even more care than she had employed on her descent but found the going hard even so. Recent rain had made the stones slippery, and several became dislodged as she climbed.
Eira did not know what caused her to slip. One moment she was feeling her cautious way up the narrow path, then the next she was flailing for a handhold as her feet shot out from under her. She knew a moment of heart-stopping panic as she grabbed at empty air, then she was falling. The blow to her head as she crashed into the rocks left her momentarily reeling, then senseless. By the time she landed in a crumpled heap on the sand she was beyond pain.