A Viking Holmganga.

Holmganga; Sigrid is tried by single combat.

‘I challenge!’ shouted Kjeld. Several women screamed, some men protested but others cheered. ‘I nominate as my champion Philipe the Galician.’ He pointed to the swarthy man who had challenged me over the pitch. ‘He will fight any champion appointed by Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter.’ It took less than a heartbeat before Thorfinn stood on one side of me and Anlaf on the other. I shook my head:

‘I don’t need a champion. I fight my own battles. I am ready.’ Thorfinn and Anlaf breathed a ‘no’ in unison. But the crowd cheered and suddenly the cat-calls were for Kjeld.

‘A woman warrior, no wonder you need someone else to fight for you, Kjeld.’

‘Maybe you should ask your wife to help.’

Kjeld turned red and scowling put his hand to his sword. He turned to Philipe the Galician but the man had accepted the championship and could not withdraw without loss of honour. He ignored the scorn from especially the women in the crowd and fixed me with a stare so full of hatred I felt it like a blow. As far as I knew our paths had never crossed but he looked at me as if the norns had woven our destinies together with a strong and treacherous thread.

‘For the sake of Odin and his ravens,’ said Thorfinn, ‘Sigrid, let me fight for you. If you get hurt I will have to answer to Ragnar as well as to your children.’

‘What’s the matter, Thorfinn? Don’t you trust in my innocence or is it my sword-skill you doubt?’

‘No, no, of course not, but… ahem, how can…’ But I had him cornered. Neither he nor Anlaf could argue without insulting either me or the gods. And how could I appoint a champion to risk life and limb for me when both I and the gods knew that I had lied deliberately. But the gods also knew why I had lied. Trying to secure life and livelihood for my son carried no insult to them. I had to trust Odin the Deceiver, the Teller of Tales, the Shape Shifter to find my cause worthy of his support. I wore the symbol of Thor’s hammer round my neck. He had protected me in past battles. I knew I asked a lot of my gods, maybe this time I asked too much and I can’t deny I trembled with fear.

 

I changed into breeches and a light tunic. I let my hair hang loose as I did in battle and put my helmet on. Dragonclaw sat easy in her scabbard. It was many moons since she had tasted blood and she seemed to hum with eagerness. I was far from confident but took some deep breaths and chided myself that I had survived worse battles. Even so my knees were weak and my heartbeat like a drum in my chest.

  

The square for the holmganga was measured out. Mord Lambason stood in the middle.

‘This will be a battle to first blood,’ he said,’ the Law does not require a death to prove guilt in this case.’ I was surprised but had no objection. The Galician grunted to acknowledge that he had understood. He kissed the silver cross he wore around his neck and nodded that he was ready. His looks indicated that he’d rather have fought to the death and I decided it would be as well to be on my guard while we were still in the square and perhaps after that as well. I raised my Mjolner amulet to the sky in supplication to Thor. Then I looked carefully at the ground and took my stance. I felt calm now, too calm. I looked at my opponent. I had no quarrel with him, no anger against him. I needed the battle fury to fire me up and want to destroy him. I sought out Kjeld’s hateful smirk. I thought how he had threatened Kveldulf’s life and that memory sent the icy stab of hatred into my heart. As Philipe the Galician walked towards me with raised sword I knew of nothing but the desire to drive Dragonclaw through his chest.

He came straight for me and I began side-stepping. We circled each other, sword in one hand knife in the other. He was thick-set, but his heavy build was deceptive, he was light on his feet and fast. I was still not back to full strength from the hardships of my journey and a doubt crept into my mind whether I would be able to keep up the swift ducking and twisting I usually relied on. Doubt is the warrior’s worst enemy, my father would say as he taught me how to use my light frame to advantage against heavier opponents. I swirled round and forced the Galician to turn and side-step. He was sweating but his breathing was controlled. We circled some more, testing each other’s alertness with occasional sword-thrusts. The onlookers became impatient and taunts and encouragement flew through the air.

The Galician made the first move. He raised his sword and let it fall. It swung past my left shoulder as I read him and leaped aside. He staggered but regained his balance and faced me to deflect my blade.

‘Well done!’ I called. ’Who taught you to fight, your grandmother?’ He scowled and said something in a tongue I didn’t recognise. His breathing sounded more laboured. But so was mine. The taunt seemed to affect him. He glared at me. I smiled and called out again:

‘Slow as an ox looking for its balls.’ I danced past him and forced him to twist and turn. I managed a laugh. Our audience cheered.

‘You die!’ he roared and charged with his sword raised. Dragonclaw met his blade as it came down and with a roll of my wrist I deflected his stroke. He’d learnt his lesson and kept his balance. We drew apart and circled each other again.

‘Get on with it!’ someone shouted from the side-line. He was joined by other voices taunting and jeering.

Neither of us took any notice. We locked eyes and again I saw the hatred burning in his. I feinted a blow to his right. When he raised his sword to parry, I quickly withdrew and stepped aside and tried to thrust Dragonclaw into his side under his raised sword-arm. But he was too fast and again swung round to face me with his sword held high ready to strike. I stepped back. The ground gave way under my foot. A treacherous rock rolled from under my foot. I stumbled. I cried out. Reaching for support I dropped Dragonclaw. With terrible certainty I knew that I had challenged the gods and taken on one fight too many.

‘Thor! Odin!’ I called to my gods. The spectators fell quiet and my voice echoed in the silence. My nails scratched the ground reaching for Dragonclaw. It was the Galician’s turn to smile. His sword came down towards me with the full force of his hatred. I rolled over and he missed me by a hair’s breath. Meeting no resistance his sword followed through the stroke. It hit the rock that had tripped me. There was a crash. Sparks cascaded like flashes of lightning as his blade broke in two. The Galician stumbled and fell. It was a moment’s work to stick my knife in his exposed shoulder. There was neither jubilation nor anger among the people watching, just the astonished murmur of men and women in awe of what they had witnessed.

The rock was Thor’s own work. It must have been. The god had reminded me that I was in the wrong but he stood by me and broke the blade of my enemy. The Galician was pulled to his feet by two of Mord’s men. They held on to him but there was no need. He stood frozen, staring at the stump of his weapon. This happens sometimes in battles when an unlucky warrior carries a bad sword sold to him cheap or robbed from an unknown source. But a contest is different. A fighter will borrow a good sword if he knows his is not strong. Philipe the Galician had felt confidence in his blade. He did not react when Mord declared me the winner and urged him to accept defeat. Mord extended his hand to help me up. I heard Kjeld shouting about foul play and being told to hold his peace. The trial was over. Once the Galician and Kjeld had withdrawn the cheering broke forth like a waterfall unfrozen in spring. I was surrounded by well-wishers and, choked with relief, accepted their praise and congratulations. Odin the Lawgiver and Thor the god of battle had spoken.

 

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