GODS OF WAR – KING’S BANE BOOK TWO

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Here is the opening chapter of my latest work.

Har the Hard-gripper,

Hrolf the bowman,

good men of noble lineage,

who never flee.

I wake you not for wine

nor for women’s mysteries;

rather I wake you for the hard game of war.

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.

ONE

The Jute shuffled forward as the line moved on. Ahead, yet another man turned his face aside to gush yellow bile onto the grassy hillside as they drew ever closer to the blood letting. The fool behind him was still repeating the same plea to his lord, over and over, and Garulf’s face twisted into a snarl as he turned and snapped out through gritted teeth. ‘Your lord can’t help you now. If you don’t stop that, I will gut you myself.’

Vacant eyes moved to focus on him for an instant as the man’s mind came back from his thoughts, and although the voice came in a whisper, they still carried weight as they asked the age-old question: ‘Why us?’

Garulf shrugged, irritated by the man’s weakness. ‘Because we are here and the gods willed it. There is no need to bother them now, they have already decided our wyrd is to die here.’ Despite the grimness of the situation he surprised himself as a snort of amusement escaped into the cool morning air. He recognised the man from the muster, he was the one with the strange name. ‘You can ask this lord yourself in a short while, Thomas.’

The man was idly fingering a silver pendant between his thumb and forefinger, and Garulf saw to his surprise that it was not the hammer of the thunder god as he had expected, but the equal-armed cross of the Christ. His new-found charge flinched as the staccato thrum made by thousands of English spears on shields redoubled in intensity, rising and falling in time.

Clack…clack-clack…clack.

Clack…clack-clack…clack.

His neighbour hung on his every word, and Garulf’s antagonism evaporated as he realised that the distraction was helping him to cope with his own impending death. He forced a smile, despite the terror he felt at the goings on up ahead as he nodded down at the trinket. ‘My cousin went to Cent. Is that where you got that?’

The man pulled a thin smile and pressed the pendant to his lips, grateful for the distraction as he answered with enthusiasm. ‘I was born there, as was my father. My family settled in Cent when Hengest was king.’ He gave a snort of irony. ‘I only returned to Juteland to arrange a wife for my son. It looks as if he will have to find one for himself.’ Thomas continued as the English spearmen chivvied the prisoners along with the points of their weapons, grateful for the unexpected chance of a last conversation. ‘Where did your kinsman settle? I may know him.’

Garulf shrugged. ‘Who knows, we never saw nor heard from him again. Either he got lucky and found a patch of land to work or the Britons got him.’ He paused and forced a watery smile; ‘or the Saxons, or the Franks or the Engles. There are always plenty of folk willing to stick a spear into a man without kin nearby, nor a lord to back him up.’ He looked about and shook his head. ‘Not that it’s done us much good!’

The crack of a whip cut through their conversation as the driver of a team of oxen huckled his charges away. The Jutish pair looked across as the big wheels began to turn and the cart pitched and rolled down the slope. Thomas chewed his lip as they watched it go. ‘How many is that now? Where do you think they are taking them?’

Garulf shrugged as the next wagon was hauled into place, and he flicked a look along the line as he made a quick calculation. Each cart  held about a score or so of the bloody husks which had so recently been living, breathing men, and his body gave an involuntary shudder as he realised that the gore soaked planking before him would very soon contain his own. Thomas was repeating his question, and Garulf shook his head to clear the thought as he replied. ‘I don’t know Tom, but it can’t be far or they would not be able to reuse the same wagons.’

‘And the horses, earlier?’ Thomas added fearfully. ‘What in God’s name are they doing?’

Garulf thought back to the time of the first sacrifices. The stallions taken from the king and his horse thegns after the fighting at The Crossing had been led to the brow of the hill as the first glimmer of light had drawn a line on the eastern horizon. Their worst fears had soon been realised as the guda, ash white and antlered, had left the great hall to perform their rituals. Soon the side of the hill had been thick with gore, slick with blood, as entrails as thick as ship’s hawser washed knee deep across the grass. He gave a sad shrug as he attempted to answer his friend’s question. ‘We are being sacrificed to the gods, does it matter why? Perhaps they intend returning to Juteland to lay waste to the North. We just saw King Osea and his leading men killed before us, who is left to stop them?’

Thomas persevered. ‘So why sacrifice us? We are nothing to your gods.’

Garulf surprised himself as a chuckle escaped his lips, despite the horror of their surroundings. ‘The gods have a hearty appetite, Thomas.’

The conversation was becoming gloomy and their future was already short and grim. He moved on quickly. ‘You said that they were my gods just then, and you wear that cross at your neck. So this lord you were asking to help you was the Christ lord that the southerners worship, not your natural lord?’

The ghost of a smile flickered onto the Jute’s face at the mention of the name, and he answered with pride and confidence. ‘There is only one lord, Garulf, and his name is Iesus.’

Garulf chuckled again. He was glad that Thunor had sent this fool to take his mind off the end that the norns had planned for them. They were edging closer to the bloodletting and the stench was becoming overpowering. His breath was coming in rapid, shallow snorts as he tried to shut out the sour odour of loosened bladders and bowels from his final moments on Middle-earth. It made conversation difficult but he carried on regardless, intrigued despite himself. He was a farmer, of middling stock. He had answered the war horn and fought for Jarl Heorogar when the English attacked, but there was to be no place in Woden’s hall for the likes of him, nor his kin. No great cry of recognition would resound as he strode to take his seat at the family bench, feasting among his great ancestors as they whet their swords and awaited the last great battle of wyrd. That was reserved for his betters, men like Heorogar and the Engle who had tossed him the gallon of ale the night before as he stood penned in with the others. Like sheep on market day he snorted in disgust. Like he was doing him a great favour, the bastard. He had heard tales of the strange God, and pressed his new friend for more. ‘A man once told me that your God welcomes all men into his kingdom, kings, jarls and common folk alike.’ Garulf chuckled at the absurdity of the idea but, to his surprise, he found that a small part of him wished it to be true. He had always been a devout follower of the hammer god, but even the sacrifice of his only milk cow had failed to prevent the sheep being wiped out by the scrapie. They had lost the bairn, his only son, thinking themselves lucky that the little waif had been the only one to succumb to the man cull they had come to call the hunger summer.

Thomas inhaled deeply, his chest swelling with pride. Garulf could sense the man strengthen as he thought of his God and the sight impressed him. ‘It’s true,’ he replied firmly. ‘The Lord welcomes all those who turn to him. Noble or base, we are all his children.’

Garulf grimaced as a new smell, far worse than the smell of soiled clothing and puke reached his nostrils. A memory of blood month, the annual slaughter of livestock in autumn came, and a shudder ran through him as he recalled the sights and throat clawing odours as hot offal and guts slid steaming to the ground. A spark of hope kindled within the Jute and he pressed Thomas again. ‘And there is no work there and all men are equals in the eye of your God?’ he continued, hardly daring to hope that the absurdity could be true. Thomas smiled in reply, and Garulf recognised in it the action of a man whose fears had been driven away by the strength of his devotion.

Caught up in their conversation Garulf had not noticed that they were still shuffling forward, and he flinched as a blood chilling scream pierced the air only feet away. He glanced down the slope of the hill to his right, to the place where the pitiful cries of those whose courage had deserted them at the last carried up to haunt the column. Hacked about the legs and arms by the English warriors, they had been left to suffer their agonies as a warning to others that escape was not only impossible, their deaths would be long drawn out, humiliating and painful. The very worst of deaths, the death of a nithing.

A dove grey cloud slid from the face of the sun, bathing the ghastly scene in its soft spring light as Garulf seized on this unexpected glimpse of salvation. Reaching out to pluck at his new friend’s sleeve, the words had left his lips before he was aware that they were even there. ‘You say that the Christ takes all, however base. Will he take me?’

Thomas’ eyes widened in surprise, but he quickly slipped the leather thong over his head and draped the small cross of silver around Garulf’s neck as strong arms gripped his friend and began to tug him away.

‘Do you repent your sins and open your heart to the lord?’ he cried.

Garulf opened his mouth to reply, but the breath was forced from him as he was swung to face the priests. Before him the sacrificial stone was slick with gore and rough hands gripped his shoulders, forcing him to his knees in the slime. Up close, the English guda looked even more terrifying than they had from distance. One in particular, tall and slim beneath a circlet of stag horns, his hide-clad body a mass of runic charms, stood to one side, his face a mask of undisguised joy.

As the priest moved before him and began to raise a long blade, the thrum of English ash shafts on shields increased to a crescendo. Garulf’s mind swam but a strong voice cut through, its urgent tone setting it apart from the din. ‘Turn your face to the lord, Garulf. Ask his forgiveness for your sins; call his name and enter his kingdom.’

Garulf fumbled for the cross, clenching it tightly as his bladder loosened and he started to shake. The voice of Thomas came again, and the Jute dimly recognised that his friend was reciting from the Christian God-spell as English war horns blared.

‘Ure Fæder, þu eart on heofonum…’ 

Garulf raised his chin, his cry cut short as steel flashed in the dawn.

*

‘What you got?’ Osbeorn tried to sound lackadaisical but nobody was fooled.

Octa shrugged, playing along with the game: ‘Sausage.’

‘Where did you get it, Oct’?’

Octa took a bite and closed his eyes as he savoured the taste: ‘The Barley Mow.’

Osbeorn tried to remain calm but he licked his lips instinctively and his eyes widened for a heartbeat, giving him away. The Barley Mow made the best sausage in Sleyswic, firm and meaty with a hint of crow garlic, harvested over the winter from beneath the hedgerows which grew out back. ‘You got any more?’

Octa took another bite as Eofer forced down a snigger. Laughter danced behind the eyes of his troop and, although Osbeorn knew that he was being played like a straw whistle, it was a small price to pay for the chance of a bite of one of Ena’s finest. Finally he cracked. He had to ask, the longing dripping from every word. ‘Give us a bit.’

Octa looked at the gnawed remains and pulled a face. ‘It’s my last one mate.’ Finally he relented with a sigh and tossed the thing across. Osbeorn’s look of triumph was quickly replaced by a mask of horror as the sausage sailed high through the air. Despite a desperate lunge, it spun end-over-end to land in the waters of the Sley with a pathetic plop. Osbeorn looked back at his hearth mate, but the pain and disbelief on his features changed to a wry smile and an uttered curse as he saw that most of his troop had produced sausages of their own and were happily munching away.

Eofer laughed along with the others as his duguth ducked into a shower of the things, and he made his way aft to the steering platform as Osbeorn’s voice came down the ship: ‘Ho bloody ho. What funny bastards you lot are!’

The eorle’s smile was cut short as another roar rose into the air above the nearby hillside, and he exchanged a look with the scipthegn and pulled a pained smile, all the humour of the moment lost in an instant. ‘There are not many people laughing in Sleyswic this morning,’ he said with a frown.

Eadward shrugged. ‘If you had spent the best part of your life chasing away Jutish raiders from Harrow you would not be so concerned Eofer. Think on it,’ he added, awestruck. ‘To sacrifice a king to the gods; that’s powerful spell-work.’

The snake ship coasted down the great inland waterway with gentle strokes of the oars, each pull carrying her and the men who crewed her a pace further from the mayhem at the burh. A chill wind gusted in from the West, and a shaft of sunlight broke through as the blanket of grey which had shrouded the town since dawn finally cleared away. Even at this distance the banks of the Sley were lined with ships, and the crews stood and watched as the snaca swept by, hearty cheers and cries for gods-luck rolling across the icy waters as the proud men aboard grinned like cats and waved in return.

Eofer turned away and forced his mind to other things as the clatter of weapons on lime wood boards grew fainter, and he reflected with pride on his send off that morning. Despite the duties of the day, King Eomær had shown him honour by coming to the dockside in person. Attended by his own father, Wonred, and the latest member of the king’s bodyguard his own brother Wulf, Eomær had wished them well and told the gathering of his confidence in them as the crew had visibly swelled with pride. Now they were off to bait the Danes, and the thegn recalled his final instructions as they moved slowly towards the waters of The Belts: ‘Burn the East, Eofer,’ the king had said as the flames of war shone in his eyes. ‘Move among the Danes like a wildcat, draw their army away from the landing grounds and we shall repay them a hundredfold for their depredations in our own lands.’

The sun peeped through as they cleared the empty wharfs and ruined buildings of Theodford, and the wind veered to the South. Eadward ordered the sail unfurled and smiles lit faces as the spar was sweated aloft and the great sheet billowed. Within the hour they were through the bay, and the prow bucked like a warhorse at the gallop as the water beneath the hull turned from dove grey to slate and the ship made the sea, breasted the first of the waves and ploughed on.

A gaggle of masts came on from the North, the mantle of gulls screeching at the masthead betraying their purpose, and soon they were up on the bæcbord beam. A snake ship like their own, the wave darkened hull lined by grinning faces edged across from its charges, and Eofer watched as Eadward hung from the backstay, his cloak whipping away to the North as he hailed his fellow scipthegn at the stern: ‘Good catch?’

The man made an o with his hands, cupping them to his mouth as he cried above the wind and the squarking of the seabirds. ‘The boys are knee deep in Herring; little silver darlings!’

Eadward laughed. ‘Smoke us a few for our return.’

A grin and a wave and they were past, the tall stern posts drawing apart as the unknown steersman returned to his charge. Eofer looked across at the little fleet as they made their way home with what, he realised suddenly, may very well be their final catch in these waters. A few had already moved to the head of the Sley, ready to begin the overland trek to the River Trene. More would follow as the Sley emptied of snake ships, and Eofer gave a snort as he thought of the reeve at Old Ford and his men, labouring to move a war fleet one way and then back again with a bevy of smaller craft. Eadmund had got his wish, the king had responded to the raids along The Oxen Way the previous year with the greatest ship army ever seen in northern seas, and he recalled with pride that he had played a part in that decision.

His own men were hailing their countrymen and Eofer glanced outboard. The fishermen had taken a break from fish gutting, their bloody knives glinting as they lined the little ships to wave the warriors on their way. Tough men, their weatherbeaten faces almost indistinguishable from the long sealskin smocks and caps which marked them out to other men, even from a hundred paces. Eofer had always marvelled at their skill, harvesters of the trackless wastes. Each and every haul was the result of generations of accumulated experience and knowledge, know-how gained at a heavy cost in silver and lives as the little boats reaped the shoals on the prow-plain.

As the little fleet moved away the Hwælspere cleared the shallows, and Eadward’s steersman drew the big steering oar to his chest, hauling her head around to the south-west as a silvered spray swept the deck. A hush had descended on the crew and Eofer saw that they had gathered amidships and were staring aft. Turning to follow their gaze, the thegn looked beyond the stubby grove of masts. The little boats were already hull down as the sea grew choppy, lines of spindrift snaking away to the North, and he watched in silence as the necklace of dunes which lined the shore were swallowed by the gloom. He exchanged a look with Eadward at his side. Their homeland was behind them. Only the gods of war would know whether they would lay their eyes upon it again.

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