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Adventure Historical Fiction Fiction

I feel the cold now in so many more ways. The chill winter air torments my joints with spikes of pain, damp air from the endless rains attacks my back and shoulders, the ancient scar tissues pulling tight and bleeding intermittently. Who would be old? I sit now hunched by my daughter’s hearth fire, sipping warmed ale that no longer brings me joy, supping on past defeats with their bitter after-taste.

Curmudgeonly, her husband called me this morning, a moaning old man, long out of his time. Hah! He is not wrong. Once I could have wrestled him to submission, held him up high over my head in once powerful arms, and launched him across the hall. No more though. Long years at oar, sailing and raiding, too many times standing in the shield wall as friends fell around me, victim to Saxon swords and spears.

Now the chill of approaching death is in my bones, my movements are stiff and unsure, my legs ever ready to betray their burden, and to spill me onto the icy ground. Old age is an enemy even the mighty Thor was once humbled by. How can I ever hope to succeed where he did not? The years are ground into my bones, reducing my muscles to stringy meat, a cancer of the spirit that overwhelms me, eating away my memories and leaving dust and confusion in my head.

And yet, and yet, I do remember. The fjord on which our village is built still stretches magnificently out towards the open sea, framed by majestic mountains that scrape at the iron grey sky. Once, many longships moored here, many men and women gathered in my lord’s hall to plan for the summer raids, to look forward to the plunder and joy of battle in the eyes of the gods.

No more though. Like me, they have moved on, the world has turned and changed and we no longer raid. Our sweet youth has been swallowed into the throat of regret, and arrogance, and false pride. Odin has turned his back on us, and now I will never feast with my once friends and comrades in arms in the bright hall of Valhalla, never again to wield a sword in battle, looking for my chance to shine in the eyes of the Valkyries, never again to swing my axe and laugh as my shield is pounded in turn.

Once though, once we were feared throughout the world. Our ships bringing terror, the very rumour of our coming emptying settlements and leaving them bare to us for pillage. Oh, such days. You young people today, you do not know the deep love a man can have for his sword brothers and sisters, standing side by side in the shield wall as swords and axes rise and fall, screams dominating the air alongside roaring battle chants. Not for us the fear of death, for us there is only the promise of feasting in Valhalla if we fall in battle. We wept for our lost comrades, and we drunk to them in joy, knowing that Odin had gathered them to his golden hall. I also remember the fear of being crippled, the sound of piteous sobs, and the stench of blood and shit. Battles are bright only in memory.

I remember when the king came to us, Harald Hadrada himself, and spoke jewelled words about the destiny that awaited us in England. He rallied us all to follow him, a great fleet of longships, not to raid, but to conquer, like Svein of Denmark before, to take back those green and fertile lands that once had been ours. I listened like the rest, shouting out my assent to his great cause, drinking to him and the victories to come. Harald was a giant amongst us, standing tall in our stories. Not for him the golden seat of power in his hall, no. Harald strode the world, raiding and fighting in every land known to us, even serving the ridiculously rich Eastern Emperor in Constantinople as a member of his Varangian Guard. How could we fail to bring the English to their knees, and under our rule once more? It was clear to all of us that Harald was the rightful ruler of all England.

The day we sailed the sea was calm, we had drunk long into the night before, standing outside in the fading autumn warmth, looking up at the stars, and the long streak of light that seemed to hang frozen there. Thor’s hammer. That is what we shouted. It is Thor’s hammer spilling his lightning into the heavens, an unmistakeable omen of victory. But even though I shouted and jested with the rest, my heart was uneasy in my breast, and my surety compromised.

We landed our ships onto a long shingled beach. No opposition from the locals, but that was no surprise. 300 longships we came in, an army, not a raiding party. My fellow countrymen spilling across the countryside, taking what we wanted from hastily deserted farms and villages. It is hard to remember the first battle though, the puny Saxon army that tried to stand in our way at a place called Fulford. We annihilated them, killed their princes, despoiled their women. We were Viking. But the joy of victory soon soured, and the battle I do remember, in every corner of my mind, came too soon after.

Memory untangles, flowing out of my reluctant mind, recreating the scene as if it happened only today. Woodsmoke in my nostrils, campfires built high as we prepared to feast on a number of cows that had been taken the day before. These English have no idea how rich they are in their fertile lands and fat cattle, their soft wives and many children. There seems to be food everywhere here.

The sound of water flowing in the narrow river by which many of us had set up tents, flows still in my memory. The day was bright with unfulfilled promise, and Harald was readying us to march south, deep into England, to find its little king and to kill him. Trouble was, he found us first, and he turned out to be not so little. We heard them before we saw them, the harsh braying of war horns, the strike of sword against shield, they marched out of the morning mist and into the sunlight, grim and fell in their purpose. So many of them.

Had we not destroyed their Northern army? Where did this great warband come from? How had they found us? But found us they had. Battle was assured. Yet we were Viking, not some rabble to run at the fear of the sword song and the axe call. We were the wolves of the sea, fearless and unbeatable. So we thought.

They fought like demons, pushing forward again and again. We had formed a shield wall in front of the river, confident of repelling them at first, but slowly realising as they pressured us, and more and more of our men began to fall, we could not hold. A huge Saxon in front of me used a great woodman’s axe to snag the top-edge of my shield to pull it downwards, his sword brother eagerly awaiting the chance to thrust into my face. I released my hold on the shield and snatched up my axe. My sword swept out, followed by the axe and both men fell back, the big man with a mortal would across his throat, the smaller gashed above his eye. I could feel the battle begin to turn around me. The ebb and flow of the fight changing as we were pushed backwards.

I didn’t see who broke first, but suddenly we were all running back towards the camp, over the narrow bridge for the lucky ones, through the deep, fast flowing river for the rest. Men reformed the shield wall once we were through, but too few, too few. Many men kept on running back towards the beach. On the narrow bridge, one tall warrior caught my eye, and I stopped to stare, mesmerised by him. In his hands an axe that dwarfed the one I had fought earlier, and he was bellowing at the Englishmen, calling them to fall against his blade, to feed their blood to the gods.

He was magnificent, the English could only come at him two abreast across the bridge and he swung his axe with deadly grace, in great circles that cut the life from all who came at him. I believed he must be a god, or god inspired, for no-one could stand against him. Men stopped their own struggles to turn and watch him, a single man defying an entire army, tireless and relentless. And we could see, the attacks against him were becoming fewer and far less reckless. Their swordcraft was as nothing against the deadly song of his axe as it swept through the air and cut men’s lives from their bodies.

It felt like hours that we watched him, but really it can only have been minutes. Time is strange in a battle, in expands and contracts in odd ways. I shouted desperately to him, for I had seen Englishmen in the water, coming towards him from below, but too late. A spear thrust up from the gap beneath him and entered his groin with stunning force. For a moment he still stood, a breathless, timeless moment, before he fell, and they came again.

I ran with the rest then. All thought of battle and victory gone, just a blind panic to get away and back to the ships. I made it, thrusting my way out into the choppy water, sword and axe long lost, and hauled myself over the side. Oars had already swept out and the ship was lurching away from the shore, even though it was only half filled. I lifted my head to look back at the receding beach, to the slaughter that was taking place there. Someone handed me a skin of water, quietly saying that Hardrada was dead. The dream of victory was over.

Only 24 ships of the 300 that arrived came back to the Norwegian fjords. The power of the once invincible Norse was broken. We were broken. I was broken. Tears stream down my face as I think of that day, and the dreams that were lost. Now I am an echo of the warrior that once was, my people are an echo of what we were, and soon the sounds will cease. Who will remember us, I wonder, who will mourn the passing of the Viking?

Ends

February 05, 2021 17:22

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4 comments

Autumn Shah
21:11 Feb 15, 2021

LOVE this! You've done a great job setting the mood as well as telling a compelling story of a pivotal historical moment.

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David Francis
22:43 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you. Your feedback is most appreciated

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Palak Shah
15:41 Feb 14, 2021

The way that you have presented your ideas with the use of the imagery at the start and throughout and your vocabulary makes this story phenomenal. Well done !!!! Can you please read my story and share some feedback. It would be appreciated a lot. Thank you :))

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David Francis
20:53 Feb 14, 2021

Thank you. Language is clearly an important tool in the writer’s crafting, and I always try to paint pictures in the reader’s mind both physically and emotionally. Glad you liked.

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