The sun set on another red dusk. Smoke and screams filled the air, as they often did when Gorm Ironbeard went reaving. The deck of Gorm’s longship was usually crowded, but while his men ravaged the shore it was mercifully calm on board. The ship was beached in the sand, unmoving.
Gunnar had learned to welcome such moments. He had little choice, bound to an oar as he was. He couldn’t have joined the reavers if he wanted to.
And you don’t want to, he reminded himself.
Gunnar had been a warrior, once. A reaver too. He had sacked settlements along the shores of Kriegany and Caedia in his youth. He had crossed blades with Kriegar grafwächters and Caedian knights both, and lived to tell of it.
A lifetime ago, he remembered. That was Gunnar Kjeldson, huskarl to clan Trehjelming. That was a man with a people, a purpose, a faith.
Gunnar stretched as much as his bonds would allow, wincing at the pain in his limbs. Beside him, Henrik grumbled as the movement disturbed his rest.
“Let a man sleep, Gunnar,” Henrik growled. “They’ll be done soon.”
Gunnar stilled himself.
That man is dead. As dead as Jarl Sten Red-Hair, as dead as the Trehjelming clan. The Taerbjornsen killed them all.
Many of Gunnar’s clansmen still lived. Most of them were not even kept as thralls the way Gunnar was. They had bent the knee to the Jarl of Jarls and they served in his horde. They fought alongside beasts in human form, profaned God with heretical butchery, and followed a madman down a path of ruin.
Sons and daughters of Trehjelming might still live, but the clan was dead all the same. Gunnar was lucky, in a way. He might be enslaved to a second-rate reaver like Gorm, but at least he had not sacrificed his soul.
Even so, it would have been better to die at Sten’s side. The thought was not a new one.
Gunnar had dreamed of death many times. Most of Sten’s huskarls had fallen in the fighting. Good deaths, with blades in hand, serving their clan. Gunnar had no doubt that they now dwelt in Vlarhalla, deep beneath the sea.
Only a few, like Gunnar, had survived their wounds and been taken as thralls. To live on in shame and hopelessness.
Now is your chance, Gunnar glanced up involuntarily. Gorm had left only a handful of his warriors on the longship, and all of them were watching the village where their comrades raped and pillaged. Gunnar was bound to his oar, and lacked the strength to break free.
Try anyway. Thrash and struggle until they kill you. Kick them. Bite them. Die fighting, you faithless dog.
Gunnar closed his eyes. There were five reavers on the ship. There was no chance of victory. No chance he would even manage to kill one of them. A piss-poor offering to Vlar. To die unarmed, spitting and pissing like a cornered animal. That would not be a good death. If, indeed, there is such a thing.
I would have already attempted it, if I were a braver man. Or a stupider one. Sten had always said that Gunnar was cursed with too much wit.
The deck creaked. Gunnar’s eyes flickered open. Something about the sound did not sit right. He had spend weeks onboard Gorm’s ship. He knew it well by now, and that was the sound of men climbing back aboard. But the sounds of reaving still filled the air. Who had returned so early?
He lifted his head, staring into the dusk. On the far side of the longship, several men stood. They were not Gorm’s reavers. They were not even Svards.
Middishmen. Part of Gunnar felt the urge to shout. To call a warning. Gorm’s men meant little to him. But they were still Svards. Still his kin and countrymen.
No, they are Taerbjornen’s dogs. Him and his heretic priest. Gunnar’s kept his lips tight. He watched as the men fanned out, bows and blades in hand. Three of them let fly, and by the time the surviving raiders realized what had happened the others had fallen upon them.
It was barely a fight. Gorm’s men died gurgling, and the oarbound thralls watched in numb shock. One of the men moved to attack a thrall, but another of them held up a hand.
“They are slaves,” he said in Middish. “Bound. Leave them.” His accent was wrong, not Middish at all.
A distant Kriegar clan, perhaps? No. Ruskan.
“What he said,” said another of the men. He was short, with tangled hair and a frown on his face. He held a bow in hand, arrow nocked. “Besides, we have bigger concerns ahead.” He nodded towards the village.
They moved across the longship quickly, hopping down and jogged towards the burning and the screams. Gunnar saw more figures emerge from the river, joining them. At least a dozen men in total. Though Gorm has twice as many in the village. From behind Gunnar saw that all of them wore matching cloaks. Dark in the low light, brown or black, with a silver-white U-shape emblazoned in the center.
“Who are they?” asked Henrik. “Middish knights?”
The strangers moved together, methodical in their approach. Ahead, Gunnar saw one of Gorm’s reavers stumble out of a fishing hut. He carried a heavily laden sack in one hand, and with his other he dragged a half-naked woman by her hair. He paused when he saw the strangers, but before he could call out a warning several arrows sprouted from his chest and throat. He crumpled to the ground.
“I’m not sure,” Gunnar said. “But I don’t think so.”
The strangers disappeared into the village. Gunnar closed his eyes, listening carefully. The sounds of reaving did not change much at first. But he noticed small shifts. A shout instead of a scream. The scrape and clang of metal on metal. Then more and more, until the shouts and warnings and cries of “Middish!” and “Enemy!” resounded in the night. The clash of battle was unmistakable after that.
It went on for a few moments, then faded abruptly.
Gunnar opened his eyes. He saw a small group of men rushing out of the village, their feet heavy in the sandy shore. They were reavers, most of them moved as if they were wounded, and there were only seven of them.
Seven. There are twenty of us thralls. Gunnar’s heart sang. His time at the oar was ending tonight. One way or another.
“The Middish didn’t make it,” Henrik observed. “But they must have fought well.”
“I’m not so sure,” Gunnar said. He nodded at the men approaching the ship. “They’re moving pretty fast.”
Gorm was at the lead. He held sword and shield in hand almost as an afterthought as he sprinted for his ship. His long gray beard whipped behind him.
There. Gunnar spotted the Middish—Not just Middish. Mercenaries, maybe?—emerging from the village. Some of them were running after the Svards, while others moved into the open and readied their bows. One of them held a torch in hand, and he waved it towards the black waters of the river.
A few arrows fell upon the backs of the fleeing reavers. One of them went down, but the other six made it to the longship. They scrambled over the side of the ship.
“Hans, Vikke,” Gorm snarled. “Take a few thralls and push us off!”
The two men he’d named exchanged nervous looks. They grabbed the cords of a few of the oarbound—meek Middish thralls, not Gunnar or any of the other northerners that might resist—and dragged them along. They went over the side of the ship that was furthest from the advancing Middish and began shoving the ship through the sand. Back into the river.
“They’re not chasing very fast,” Henrik noticed, watching the Middish.
He was right. Even the Middish that had not stopped to shoot their bows were barely jogging. They had barely crossed half the distance when the longship began to hit the water.
“They know something we don’t,” Gunnar said.
“Stop!” called one of Gorm’s reavers. He stood near the bow, staring into the gloomy night. “All stop!”
Gunnar looked over, squinting to see. Gorm and everyone else on board did the same.
That looks about right.
A huge ship rose out of the gloom ahead of them. It was a Middish or Ruskan vessel, ugly and misshapen, bobbing on the surface of the water like a dead man. A trading vessel, not a warship, of that much Gunnar was certain. It was slower than a Svardic longship, poorer built, and overstuffed with loot. In any other situation, such a sight would be a treat. A floating treasure chest to ransack.
But it’s more than double the size of us. Triple, even, Gunnar thought. Northern craftsmanship will do us little good against simple weight. If we crash into it, our ship will be the one that gives.
The men pushing the ship stopped. Gorm’s longship listed, nose in the water, but enough of it still rested on the shore that it wasn’t going anywhere.
Hans and Vikke began clambering back into the ship. Hans made it, but Vikke was halfway over when he was suddenly yanked back and fell out of sight. His scream of surprise was cut short. He gurgled and wheezed. Then he fell silent.
“To me!” Gorm snarled.
The four remaining men converged around their shipmaster, weapons drawn. One of them was limping, another had blood pouring down his brow. Hans had lost his shield. They made their stand in the center of the longship.
The Middish hopped over the rail with ease. One, two, three, four, on and on until there were thirteen figures in total. Some were short, some were tall. Most were clad in mail, but one man was girded as a lord or a champion, in heavy plate. He held a longsword in his hands, and its blade gleamed bloody red.
“Please surrender,” the man said in Middish. It was the one that had stayed the hand of another earlier. The Ruskan.
“Fuck!” Gorm snarled in Middish. In Svardic, he said “Be ready! Kill that one first, he is the leader.”
“Do you speak Middish?” asked the man in plate. “Or perhaps Ruskan?” He said this in the appropriate tongue.
Gunnar’s Ruskan was much worse than his Middish, but Gorm could barely speak either of them. His eyes darted wildly between the many enemies that stood guard around them.
“He does not,” Gunnar spoke up from where he sat, speaking Middish.. Henrik recoiled when all eyes turned to the two of them.
“Ah. That is unfortunate,” said the Ruskan.
“Slave!” Gorm said. “What are you saying? Do not betray us, or you will be damned!”
“My soul is already damned, if your priest is right,” Gunnar replied. “They want you to surrender, Gorm.”
Gorm licked his lips. “What terms?”
Gunnar glanced at the Ruskan. “He asks what terms.”
“Aleksandr…” one of the other Middish spoke up. He was the short one, who had held a bow earlier. Now he held a small, narrow-bladed sword. “They raped and slaughtered quite a few people back there.”
“Da,” said the Ruskan. Aleksandr. “The terms will be captivity on our ship, until we reach the first keep in Caedia. If they are truly repentant, I will ask that they are shown mercy.”
Gunnar laughed. Gorm didn’t like the sound of that. “What are they saying?” he snapped at Gunnar.
Gunnar ignored him. It felt good to do so. “They will not be repentant. Aleksandr, is it?”
The Ruskan frowned. “Da. Yes.”
“Ja,” Gunnar completed the sequence of affirmatives. “I am Gunnar, son of Kjeld. That is Gorm Járnskegg. He will not repent. He will not hold to any oath he swears you. He will gut you in your sleep if you give him a chance. He will rape your family and piss on their corpses.”
“I see,” Aleksandr said. He looked disappointed.
“Thrall!” Gorm snarled in the Svardic tongue. “What are you saying to them? Tell me!”
“He betrays us,” said Hans. “I’ll shut him up.” He took three steps towards Gunnar, raising his axe.
There was a low thrumming sound, and an arrow burst through the apple of Hans’s throat. Gunnar saw that one of the smaller figures, hugging the edge of the longship, held some kind of bow-like mechanism. A crossbow. It must be, but it’s smaller than any I’ve heard of. Gunnar thought. The figure cranked back the small crossbow’s cord and loaded another bolt.
“I think that I’m the only reason they haven’t killed you all already,” Gunnar said in his native tongue.
“Please, thrall,” Gorm said. Bloody spittle flecked his beard. He must’ve taken a wound after all.
“Please… what?” Gunnar asked.
“Gunnar…” murmured Henrik beside him. “Is this wise?”
“Please. Tell him we want terms. We will do as he says, go along quietly. Once their guard is down, we can take their ship together. You could be a warrior again! All of you!” Gorm looked around at the other thralls. Six of them were Middish, taken on the coast, but the others were Svards or Kriegars that had upset the wrong person. Been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Or refused to kneel.
“Gunnar…” Henrik said.
“I am not your thrall, Gorm,” Gunnar said. “You did not win me in battle. Do you even know where I come from?”
Gorm stared at him blankly. “The Jarl of Jarls…”
“Yes, the Taerbjornsen gave me to you. Gave me to you. I am not his to give. And by God’s deep I am not yours.”
Gunnar looked to Aleksandr. The Ruskan was obviously no fool, and he could tell that whatever was being said was not a calm exchange of information.
“He asked for terms again,” Gunnar said. “Then he told us that we must wait until you let down your guard so that we can kill all of you and take your ship.”
Aleksandr bowed his head in a silent moment. Then he raised it, looking straight at Gorm. He tightened his grip on his sword. The men around him raised their weapons.
“Traitor!” Gorm screeched.
It was over in just a few moments. Aleksandr cut down Gorm himself. The gray-bearded old raider died spitting and snarling. His men took apart the other three. The Svards fought back, but even so it was something closer to butchery than battle.
“They died bravely, at least,” Henrik said. “They will find their way to Vlarhalla.”
They died like feral dogs, Gunnar thought. I hope they roam the earth as hungry ghosts for ten generations.
It took a little while for Aleksandr’s men to cut the oarbound free. The Middish were sobbing with relief. The Svards and Kriegars were more stone faced. They eyed the stranger warily, wondering what was in store for them.
Most of the strangers left the ship to return to the village, no doubt looking for survivors. A young Middishman took aside those of the thralls that were his kinsmen to speak with them. Aleksandr and the short man stood before the rest, Gunnar included.
“Gunnar, right? You are the only one that speaks Middish?” Aleksandr asked.
“Ja,” Gunnar said. “Yes. Henrik knows a few words, I think. But only a few.”
He nodded at Henrik, who looked at Aleksandr with an expression that seemed half a smile and half a grimace.
“Ja,” Henrik said. “I speaks little. No fast. Uh, simple only, ja?”
“Enlightening,” muttered the short man.
“Very well. Then we will speak to you, and you can translate for the others?”
“Ja,” Gunnar said. He gestured to the three Kriegars. “They are not from Svarden, though. They are from Kriegany.”
“Ah. And do you speak Kriegar as well?”
Gunnar shrugged. “Ja.”
“You speak a lot of tongues for a northern savage,” said the short man. He spoke without apparent rancor.
“Savage? I was a huskarl,” Gunnar explained. At Aleksandr’s blank expression, he clarified. “A house man, sworn to a jarl. Not unlike your knights or druzhniks.”
The short man didn’t seem to like that much. “Heard of hoose girls, yeah,” he said. To Aleksandr, he expounded. “That’s what we faced in Yerevan.” Aleksandr gave a curt nod, and the short man looked back to Gunnar. “You’re a Svardic warrior, then.”
“So you’ve done your share of raiding.”
There was little point in denying it. Gunnar nodded. “I did. Along the coasts of Rusk, Kriegany and Caedia. It is good to speak the language. Makes things easier.”
Aleksandr furrowed his brow at that. “If that is so, why did they have you tied to an oar? Did you anger your bayard? Your jarl?”
“No,” Gunnar said. “My jarl is dead. Slain by the Taerbjornsen.”
That much they seemed to recognize. Gunnar had begun to wonder if they would even know the name. The short one muttered one word.
“Ja,” Gunnar said. “Exactly. You are familiar, then?”
“We’ve heard a few things,” he said. “But I thought… the way I heard it is that when he wins a holmgang he brings their warriors into his army. Is that right?”
“Ja,” Gunnar said, swallowing. “He does.”
“Yet here you are,” said Aleksandr. “Why?”
Gunnar gritted his teeth. “I did not kneel,” he said.
The short man looked skeptical, but Aleksandr accepted this with a stern nod. “I see. And these others, it is the same?”
“A few,” Gunnar said. “Though in truth, most were taken as thralls already. When Taerbjornsen takes a clan, he takes their thralls as well.”
“You may tell them that we do not intend to harm them, or keep them as slaves,” Aleksandr said. “One way or another, after tonight they will be free.”
Gunnar translated, and saw his kinsmen relax at the news. He wondered if Aleksandr saw the change. He knew that Svards were seen as stoic by outsiders, but then again so were Ruskans.
“They are relieved,” Gunnar said.
“Good,” said Aleksandr. “If any wish to go now, they may. We will not stop them. But considering that this land is being raided by Svards…”
“We would not be welcome,” Gunnar said.
Aleksandr tilted his head in a single nod. “Da, this is my thinking. Is better if you all follow us. At least for a little while. Our first stop is to be a port in Caedia. A place called Torva, on the river. Just a few days away, I believe. We can speak to the Caedians there, let them know you are freed slaves and not enemy warriors.”
“Then what? They become serfs for a Middish lord?” Gunnar scoffed.
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Free men, and not so far from border with Kriegany. Perhaps some of them walk north, towards home. Or… this ship is unclaimed, we can bring it with us to Torva. Perhaps some of you claim it, and row home instead. Is no real difference to me… I only wish to make sure there is no misunderstanding with the Caedians, who might mistake them for raiders.”
And he wants to make sure none of us decide to be raiders. Gunnar nodded. “I will tell them your suggestions. I think they will agree.”
“Good,” was all the big Ruskan said.
It was a good deal. The promise of the longship, and a path home, appealed to nearly all of them. Even the Kriegars liked that prospect more than the thought of walking home across the Caedian low country in the north.
Gunnar overheard the Middish thralls talking as well. A few of them opted to get off the ship immediately, and venture into the village. The fires had died down, and it was obvious there were still many survivors moving about in the ruins of their home. Perhaps they would welcome the help.
“Well?” Aleksandr asked, eyeing Gunnar and the others. “Have they decided?”
“Ja. We will go with you. They will take the longship once we reach Torva,” Gunnar said.
Aleksandr’s eyebrow twitched. He noticed,Gunnar thought. He is much more clever than he looks.
“They will take the longship?” Aleksandr asked. “Not you?”
Gunnar frowned. He stepped forward, stood over Gorm’s corpse. His blood had pooled on the deck, and it was sticky beneath Gunnar’s bare feet. He reached down and wrapped his hands around the grip of Gorm’s sword.
It was a good Svardic blade. Hard iron, with a short crossguard and a grip that snugly cradled his hand. The pommel was an oblong piece of bronze etched with Vlar’s tentacles.
Gunnar closed his eyes. It had been many months since he last held a sword. Not since his Jarl was slain and he was taken, forced onto one of the Taerbjornsen’s ships. He had not been sure he ever would feel iron in his hand again.
Gunnar opened his eyes. Aleksandr and several of his men were watching him warily, hands on their own weapons. Gunnar smiled at them. “Ja,” he said. “They will take the longship, back home. I have unfinished business with the Taerbjornsen, and with his heretic priest.”
Aleksandr visibly relaxed. “Ah,” he said. “I see. You wish to fight them?”
“Your own countrymen?” asked one of Aleksandr’s men. A sturdy man in mail, whose boyish face was not much hardened by a sparse beard.
Gunnar spat on Gorm’s bloody corpse. “Those that follow Taerbjornsen or Hakon are no kin of mine.” He pointed at Aleksandr. “You, Ruskan. Aleksandr. You lead these men.”
“You lead them to fight Taerbjornsen’s horde, ja? A mercenary band, to hire on in Caedia?”
“That is the plan,” Aleskandr said. He smiled. “We are called Steelshod. Are you thinking you would join us?”
Steelshod? Gunnar pondered the name. He was no fool—he had seen the rippled steel blades carried by Aleksandr and the short man. But that was all. Nevertheless, he nodded.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” asked one of Aleksandr’s men. A tall, lean man with a short mop of brown hair.
“Aleksandr knows what he’s doing, Whip,” countered the short man.
He is Aleksandr’s second, Gunnar decided. He does not think highly of Svards, but he seems quite loyal.
“Steelshod will continue to do as we have done so far, Dylan,” Aleksandr said to the tall man. “Give second chances. New beginnings, to men that want them. Da, Gunnar son of Kjeld. If you wish to join us in our fight against the Svards, we will have you.”
Gunnar allowed himself a wide smile. I will be a warrior again, Gorm, he thought. But on my terms, not yours.
“There is just one thing you must do,” Aleksandr said. “Is a small thing, but… let us call it a tradition, in Steelshod.”
Gunnar nodded, not breaking his grin. “Alright. What is it?”
Aleksandr smiled back. He raised his steel longsword into a high guard, and stepped forward.
“Defend yourself,” he said, and the sword came whistling down.