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AD 794, Central Norway
Prepare shields! Raise spears! Unsheathe swords! The gables of Bose the Dark's stronghold are on the horizon,' Vikar Hrutson, jaarl of Viken, shouted to his men.
'It is a serious step you take, Vikar,' Ivar said in an undertone. 'What if you are wrong? What if Bose desires peace with Viken?'
Vikar turned from where he studied the headland with its inlets and rocky islands towards Ivar, his fellow jaarl and co-leader of the felag. His dark green eyes regarded his friend and comrade. 'The time Bose is at peace is when he sleeps. The raid on Rogaland was only the beginning. He has broken the truce and declared war.'
'But will Thorkell agree?' Ivar shifted uneasily. 'It was pure good fortune we had stopped at Rogaland. My sister and her husband could never have withstood the raid alone.'
'It was a victory for the felag, for Viken.'
'It was your sword and shield that brought down Hafdan. He could have been acting alone. He sailed under his own standard.'
'Only one man could have ordered that raid and he still breathes with his lands intact.' Vikar tightened his grip on the railing, and looked towards where the dark walls of the great hall rose from the fjord. 'Bose the Dark ordered that raid, that destruction. Hafdan would never dare draw a breath, let alone attack a Viken jaarl's main hall without his express order. I warned Thorkell that Bose would strike again. It gives me no pleasure to be right.'
Ivar banged his fist against the railing. 'Thorkell should never have spared Bose. What he nearly did to Haakon was unthinkable! He should have known that Bose would not be content in the north.'
'I am not a soothsayer. I have no great insight into the king's mind. Haakon lives and thrives. Our friend is very happy with his new wife and child.' Vikar gave a slight shrug. 'Bose twists words to suit his purpose. The only thing he understands is deeds. This time, he will lose everything.'
'And Thorkellwhat will he do when he discovers that you have led a raid on Bose's stronghold?'
'He will reward me. Bose broke the truce. This time I administer the punishment.' The breeze whipped Vikar's blond hair back from his forehead. 'The battle will be long and bloody, old friend, but Thor and Tyr will be with us. Underestimate Bose at your peril. The man is a master strategist, slipperier than Loki.'
'If you say such things, I believe them.' Ivar tapped the side of his nose. 'You were once married to his daughter.'
'Thankfully it was a short alliance.' Vikar refused to think about his former wife today. Was she there with her long blonde hair, tempting curves and pig-headed temper? Or had she married again? Someone who was more willing to be Bose's lapdog? Vikar stared at the intricately carved gables. It no longer mattered. She was the symbol of all that was wrong with women, why he would never marry again.
'Is it true Bose's daughter never appeared in Thorkell's court after the divorce? And that the hall was built on the bones of wild men who will rise up and fight any invader?'
'Men at oars tell too many tales.' Vikar pushed off from the railing and strode towards the prow of the boat. There he could catch a glimpse of how his new, red sail fared in the wind. A sail fit for one of the leading jaarls in Viken, a man who had made a fortune through one single raid last summer, a man whose exploits were lauded by the skalds in the latest poems.
A low horn sounded across the water of the fjord. Their boats had been spotted. The battle would begin when he set foot on the shore.
'Exactly what are you planning, Bose the Dark, up there in your splendid hall? I cannot help but think you expected this. You longed for it.' Vikar's jaw tightened and his hand felt for his sword's hilt. 'I have ceased being the gullible warrior who married your daughter a long time ago. We will meet, and this time, this time, Bose, there will be only one victor.'
'Sails round the headland. One dragon ship, maybe more.' Sela forced her voice to remain calm as she entered her father's bedchamber.
Unlike the hall, the bedchamber was resplendent with furs and tapestries, and, in the centre, a gigantic bed where her father, Bose the Dark, lay. She winced as her father struggled to sit up right, each movement an effort with his paralysed side.
He had been such a vigorous man a few months ago. Then the affliction had struck. Cursed, some muttered in the shadowy corners of the hall. His fabled luck gone. Sela ignored such doom-mongers. Her father had suffered enough.
'Friendly?' he croaked out of the side of his mouth.
'Impossible to say. It is far too soon to see if they will lift their shields or leave them hanging.' Sela smoothed a stray strand of honey-blonde hair from her forehead, a nervous gesture from her girlhood, one she was positive he'd know. She hid her hands in the folds of her apron-dress and concentrated on the bedstead. How much dared she reveal?
'What is the lead ship's sail pattern?' Her father's eyes suddenly focused and he plucked restlessly at the furs. 'You are keeping things from me, Daughter, but I remain the master of this hall. I deserve to know the worst.'
'The sail pattern is not one I recognise.' She paused, and watched her father's face become grave. He made a small gesture with his hand, telling her to continue. 'Maybe if Hafdan were here, he would know the answer.'
'We had to find new markets for our goods. Kaupang is closed to us now.' Her father's face reddened. 'The East offers the best hope. Thorkell must allow me to feed my people. Hafdan will return and once again our coffers will cascade with gold.'
'Did I say a word? Hafdan has departed to find new markets.' Sela pressed her lips into a firm line. 'And you remain jaarl of Northern Viken.'
Her father gave his crooked smile and held out his good hand. 'I want your inheritance to overflow with wealth, Daughter, not be a silver arm-ring and a much-mended sword like mine was. It was right to send Hafdan. You will see in time.'
'Hafdan wants his own glory. He could do anything.' Sela crossed her arms, and glared at her father.
'Hafdan has ambition, but he will return.' Her father's eyes twinkled. 'I have seen how he looks at you. He has much to recommend him. Once I am gone, you must have a strong man '
'I tried marriage once, thank you.' Sela snapped her mouth shut to prevent more words from tumbling out. Her former husband had been a man of ambition as well. She had no wish to relive the memories or the bitter taste they left.
'You were younger then.' Her father waved a dismissive hand. 'Vikar Hrutson was a poor choice. He did not like to listen to my counsel. I sincerely regret that I did not see my mistake until it was far too late to prevent you getting hurt.'
'It was nearly four years ago. You weren't to know.' Sela touched her father's withered cheek. When her father had discovered the situation, he had moved swiftly, rescuing her and her unborn child, rather than letting her face the humiliation of a woman scorned.
'Four years? Sela, it is time you laid your ghosts to rest. Other men '
'I have no ghosts in my life, Father, far from it. If I remarried, who would look after you?'
'Hafdan is different.' Her father gave a crooked smile. 'He is loyal. You will see in time.'
'We have these unexpected visitors, and few men to protect the hall.'
'We shall have to be warywait and see.' Her father gestured towards the iron-bound chest. 'Send someone to dress me. My mail shirt, and the sword Thorkell gave me in happier days. I am not without pride. I want to give the ships a proper welcome, one that shows Bose the Dark remains jaarl of the north. They will not find easy pickings here.'
'Far, you cannot fight. I forbid it,' Sela said, positioning her body between her father and the chest. 'Your legs may hold you upright, but your sword arm is useless. How long do you think you would last in a fight? You would be a danger to the men.'
'Do you think you are telling me something I don't know, Daughter?' Her father attempted to move his arm and nothing happened. He set his jaw and managed with difficulty to shift it slightly. 'I am the one who has to live with it. With the arm and the face. May Odin send curses on the witch who caused this.'
'Stay here, in this chamber.' Sela caught his hand. 'Let me greet them in the correct manner. I will hide your infirmity as best I can.'
'Daughter, you are the best daughter a man could hope for,' her father said, holding out his good hand, tears forming in his eyes.
Sela straightened her back. She understood her father's wordless plea. 'I will handle our unwelcome callers, come what may.'
'I know you will.'
'Morfar, Morfar.' A blond boy rushed in, holding a bird's nest. 'See what I have found. The nest had fallen down on the ground. Thorgerd says that there will have been starlings in it.'
'Kjartan, how many times must I tell you not to burst in on your grandfather like that?' Sela looked at her son and saw his shining face fall, his deep-green eyes became less bright. Instantly she regretted her harsh words, but Kjartan had to learn the proper respect. If he was eventually to be a jaarl, he had to have proper training. But with whom?
'Sela, Sela, he is only three. Time enough for ceremony later.' Her father patted the side of his bed. 'Kjartan, come here and greet your grandfather properly.'
'You were never like that with Erik or me.'
'Grandchildren are different. You will understand in time, Sela.'
'Mor, I want to show Morfar my bird's nest.' Kjartan held out a jumble of sticks and mud. He wore a serious expression on his face. 'I found it by the barns. I'm a good warrior. Someday I'll be great like Morfar, and like my father.'
'Your face is dirty and you have torn the knee of your trousers. Even great warriors wash their faces before they greet their jaarl,' Sela said with a smile as Kjartan immediately started to scrub his cheeks with his filthy hands. Her heart expanded. She had never thought that she could love one scrap of humanity so much.
'Thorgerd says a dragon ship is coming. My father's?'
'Kjartan, show your grandfather the nest.' Sela spoke around a sudden lump in her throat. She looked down at the blond tousled curls and the trusting dark-green eyes, eyes that reminded her every day of who Kjartan's father was and of the humiliation she had suffered at his hands. A great warrior like his fatherwhere had that notion come from? But she refused to destroy his illusions. Life would do that soon enough.
She bit her lip. If the ships were from Thorkell, her father with his infirmity was not the only one who would have to remain hidden. Her son would have to as well. Vikar remained an integral part of the court, Asa's chief confidant if the rumours that reached this far north were true. And she had every reason to believe them.
Kjartan advanced towards his grandfather, holding out the nest and chattering away. The two took great pleasure in each other. A pleasure that could be easily destroyed. Under Viken law and custom, her son belonged to his father. She had been married when Kjartan was conceived, but she'd refused to give him up, to turn him over to someone who had little concept of the notion of love and devotion. How could she permit that to happen to her only child?
Her eyes met her father's slate grey ones. He gave a slight nod and held out his good hand.
'Come here, Kjartan, you can keep me company for a while. We can recite some of the sagas together.'
'Will you tell me about Loki and the tricks he played? I like that god.'
Sela listened to her father's gravelly voice begin to solemnly recite a story. Kjartan would be safe with her father, and she would be able to see about defending the hall.
'Far,' she said softly.
He raised his eyes, paused in the story.
'If there is any problem, you know what to do. Promise me, the hut in the woods '
'I know, Sela. You have other things to think about besides me. I am not so feeble that I cannot look after one small boy. Send Una to me if you wish. Your former nurse can do something besides warm her bones by the fire for a change.'
'Yes, Thorgerd can look after the women. She is sensible. Una and her tales make the women nervous.'
He cleared his throat as Kjartan drew closer to the bed. 'Now, if you will excuse us, the gods are in a rather tight spot and Loki needs to rescue them.'
She gave one last backwards glance. Grey hair next to blond, engrossed in the tale of Loki's mischief. Then she walked away, walked toward her responsibilities.
'My lady, it was as you suspected, the men in the dragon boats are armed, armed to the teeth,' Gorm, her father's aged steward said, coming to stand beside Sela where she watched the dragon ships' final approach. 'See how the sunlight glints off their shields and swords.'
'They are not coming for a social call, Gorm.' Sela fingered the hilt of the sword. For a time at her father's encouragement, she had played at swords, enjoying the thrill of mock combat, something the dainty Asa had declared as unfeminine when Sela had arrived at court. The occasional echo of mocking laughter and barbs about the overgrown clumsy women from the north still haunted her dreams. Now, her former skill might have some use. 'Neither are they coming with a proclamation demanding my father to return to Kaupang. Those days have gone.'
'It is a sad state of affairs, my lady.'
'If we stand our ground here ' Sela gestured about her ' and do not advance towards the shore, they may not even disembark. Raiders want easy pickings, not fierce fights. My father's hall is famously impregnable. It will be a bold man who tries. My father's saga is'
'Your father sets a great store by his saga my lady, but I was there and I find it hard to believe.'
'It is not you who needs to believe, but our unwelcome callers.'
Sela kept her eyes trained on the shore. Except for the lapping of the water against the dragon ships as they drew ever closer, there appeared a sort of hush as if even the birds and animals knew that something was about to happen.