To Save a Kingdom


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Single combat

To Save a Kingdom.

 Extract from chapter 1.

The main house at Buttermere was modest for a chieftain’s hall. I could see the warriors comparing it to others they had encountered in the service of jarls and kings and finding it much inferior. The platforms running the length of the hall served as seats as well as beds. They were comfortable enough with straw-filled bolsters, woven blankets and soft skins. But we struggled to fit the crew in and we had to make up more trestle tables. The walls were bare. Only the high seat pillars spoke of a more prosperous past. Ragnar’s father, Jarl Sweyn Hjaltebrand, brought them when he fled his home on the Isle of Man and they were carved with the heads of eagles and wolves. A welcoming fire burned on the hearth, servants and thralls rushed around offering ale in large horns. Pigs and lambs were slaughtered and every evening we feasted on meat and rich broth. The men enjoyed themselves and didn’t seem to mind the humble surroundings, they were looking forward to raids and plunder, not a quiet time by the fire.

And Ragnar knew he had to take them raiding soon. A chieftain must reward his crew. We had no land to give and that’s not what these young warriors had come for anyway. We were not poor, King Hakon had rewarded us with lavish gifts when we left Norway but we didn’t have enough to pay off all these men

‘If we don’t sail now,’ he said, ‘it’ll be too late and we’ll get caught up in the winter storms.’

I found it hard to accept yet another long separation but I knew he was right. The men were restless. Few of them were willing to help with the work on the farm. The servants could not brew ale quickly enough to satisfy them and they made too much use of my women. Thora was afforded the respect she was due as Ragnar’s sister, hand-fasted to Lothar but not all the crew realised that my servant Kirsten also had special status.

‘They pester me Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter. It was only when I threatened them that they left me alone.’ I caught my breath.

‘What did you threaten them with?’ She blushed.

‘A curse. I don’t often but…’

‘Dear Kirsten, you must not say anything that will make people believe you’re a seidir. It may give you power over people to begin with but then you get accused of magic and, oh Kirsten, you know as well as I do that it’s dangerous.’

‘Yes, my grandmother told me and I promise, I’m careful.’

Thora and Kirsten were safe from unwelcome attention but not so the rest of my women. I hesitated to ask Ragnar to interfere and while I hesitated things got worse.

‘Sigrid, you must come!’ Kirsten came running, angry and out of breath. ‘All these men. You must do something to stop this. There are too many of them. They have ravaged one of the girls. She’s bleeding. She’s all torn and I don’t know how I shall heal her because now that beardless Dane has dragged her off again. Please stop him.’

I followed her to the byre. From a pile of hay came the sound of a rutting male and a girl crying. I strode across and shouted:

‘Leave her alone, you brute. Can’t you see she’s had enough?’ He answered over his shoulder, still pumping, his rump moving up and down:

‘Shut up, bloody woman. A warrior’s reward.’ The air round me filled with a red mist. How dare he speak to me like that? I felt Dragonclaw slide out of her sheath and into my hand. Her sharp blade glowed in anticipation of blood.

‘No, be careful, Sigrid. He’s Ragnar’s. Don’t!’ Kirsten’s frightened voice reached me from far away. But I did hear her. Instead of skewering the miserable troll I hit him hard across the buttocks with the flat of the sword. He screamed, a high-pitched squeal, like a pig and collapsed on top of the poor girl.

Such humiliation should not be witnessed. It was his ill fortune that two of our thralls had come to see what the noise was about. Unfortunately they laughed. The man bellowed and rose, his face purple, a scar across his chin bulging. His manhood hung flaccid, exposed. I pointed to it with my sword. The thralls cheered. He tried to step away but his trousers, still round his ankles, tripped him up and he fell in an undignified heap. He reached for his sword. For that Dragonclaw claimed two of his fingers.

‘I think you have something to tell me,’ I said. ‘If you do it right, there’s no need for anyone to hear about this.’ I looked at the thralls. ‘Is there?’ One shook his head the other nodded. Both grinned. But in the next instant their smiles froze. Ragnar’s broad shoulders filled the doorway. He said nothing but his fury rolled through the byre like a storm-wave. It swept all onlookers away, leaving the two of us staring at each other over the cowering Beardless and the whimpering girl. He hooked his thumbs through his belt. But I saw his hands shaking so I got my say in first.

‘Your men must learn to respect me, Ragnar Sweinson. I have a duty to protect my women and nobody threatens me in my own home.’

‘My sworn man, Sigrid. Mine to deal with.’

‘He drew. I had to defend myself.’ He looked at the girl, bleeding, bruised and trembling. He shook his head in disgust.

‘She’s just a child,’ he said. ‘This can’t go on.’ Then he drew Bearkiller and dragged Beardless out into the yard. The man was too stunned to realise what was about to happen. His severed head was put on a pole for all to see. Justice had been done.

The execution of Beardless signalled the end of feasting and hastened the departure of Ragnar and his crew.

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