A Viking Raid

I moved from tree to tree, staying out of sight. The noise was abating and it became possible to separate out individual sounds. My mother's voice, strong and commanding soared above the grunts of men making extreme efforts. But I could not hear my father anywhere. As I came closer to the farm I came across dead and wounded. Old Ulf, the story-teller, lay sprawled on the ground, his eyes dull below half-closed lids. An armed stranger lay draped across a tree-stump, his blood running thick and red into the grass. Ketil, the brown-eyed thrall I had played with as a child, was choking on his blood, his chest cut open, his hands digging furrows in the mossy ground. Next to him lay his enemy, pinned to the ground with Ketil's pitchfork. I took it all in, the smell of torn human flesh, the sight of life ebbing away. All the time I kept moving towards where those alive were still fighting. I crawled under the fence and slid underneath the floor of the grain-store. Hidden behind one of the props I could, at last, see the yard.

With his back to me, my father knelt on the ground, a deep wound in his right shoulder, the arm lifeless and his open hand resting on the ground next to his battle-axe. A warrior stood on either side of him. One of them rested his sword on my father's neck. I pressed my hands over my face. My stomach heaved and bitter bile gushed into my throat. I forced myself to look again. My mother, blood-stained and dishevelled, was pushed forward and a warrior wrenched a sword from her hand. She was led up to a tall, blonde man who wore a fine mail-shirt and an ornate helmet with a pattern glinting of gold. She said something to him. He looked closely at her face and then he bowed. Her captor let go of her arm and stepped back. She remained standing by the chieftain but her eyes were fixed on my father.

            There were dead and injured scattered across the yard. Inside a circle of onlookers two men were fighting. One of them was Jarl Swein Hjaltebrand. His mail-shirt had been slashed open in several places and he was bleeding from many wounds. He struggled for breath and staggered with fatigue. His shield lay discarded on the ground and he used both hands to swing his sword. The Jarl stumbled and had to put the tip of his sword on the ground to steady himself. His opponent laughed. The onlookers shouted out, some in terror, some in triumph as the uneven fight came to an end and the Jarl was pinned to the ground by his grinning enemy. 

The chieftain left my mother's side and stepped up to the Jarl.

‘Hjaltebrand, you are a traitor and will meet with a traitor's death. Tell me where your son is hiding and I will make your end swift and painless.’

I couldn't hear the Jarl's reply over the moans and cries of the injured and bereaved. The chieftain nodded to two of his men and they carried the Jarl across the yard to the water trough. The Jarl cried out:

‘My sword! Hakon in Odin’s name let me die with my sword in my hand!’ The men looked at the chieftain who shook his head. They immersed Jarl Swein’s head in the water and held him down until his legs stopped kicking and his arms hung limp. The lifeless body was dumped at the feet of the chieftain. The horde of invaders cheered. My mother didn't flinch even though the Jarl's hand came to rest on her foot. Her face was as pale as moonlight and her eyes were still on my father.

The chieftain then turned to my father, who was pulled into a standing position by his two guards. I saw his trousers were soaked in blood and he didn’t put any weight on his left leg. Someone gave him his axe and he used it to lean on.

‘You harboured a traitor, Kveldulf  Arnvidson. You met the son of your king with force. What happened to your sworn loyalty, brother-in-law?’ The chieftain’s voice was both angry and mocking when he said ‘brother-in-law. Then my father’s voice cut through:

‘You do me an injustice, Hakon. Swein was my brother-in-arms. He made a mistake. He never meant treachery to your father or to you, Hakon. I asked for parley but you attacked without hearing our pleas.’

‘There's no negotiating with traitors. Your duty belongs to your king first, did you forget that? You still wear his ring on your arm. Do you mock him, Kveldulf, as well as betray him?’

The chieftain nodded to his house-karl. My father was still shaking his head when the long sword made a mighty arch through the air and cut it from his body. I saw my father's head roll across the dirt and come to rest on its side against the wooden walkway. I saw the jet of blood pulsating from his neck. I saw the legs buckle and the twitching body fall to the ground his hand still holding his battle-axe. There was a hush, then a wave of muffled voices and amidst them a scream, a long, wailing noise rising and rising, higher and higher. Someone pulled me out from my hiding-place and slapped my face. The screaming stopped, everything stopped.






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