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Viking Blades

2018 500 Seiten

Leseprobe

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Jonas Herlin

Viking Blades

A  novel

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NOTHING CAN STOP THIS Viking fleet - except the battle of two brothers for leadership.

The longboat fleet of the Viking leader Grimr Skullsplitter is located on the Rhine in the middle of the Frankish empire, when he dies of his wounds after a battle.

It is clear to his son Olav that he will now take over the leadership of the fleet. But his brother Thorbrand also seizes power. Suddenly the Northmen are divided into two camps and cannot agree on a common course of action while an army of the Franks approaches. What began as a profitable adventure ends in a massive battle. He brings glory to one, death to the other.

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Copyright

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JONAS HERLIN IS A PEN-NAME OF ALFRED BEKKER.

A CassiopeiaPress Book: CASSIOPEIAPRESS, UKSAK E-Books and BEKKERpublishing are Imprints by Alfred Bekker

© by Author

ORIGINAL: KRIEGER DES NORDENS

COVER TONY MASERO

© of this issue 2018 by AlfredBekker/CassiopeiaPress, Lengerich/Westphalia in arrangement with Edition Bärenklau, edited by Jörg Martin Munsonius.

The imagined persons have nothing to do with actually living persons. Identical names are random and not intended.

All rights reserved.

www.AlfredBekker.de

postmaster@alfredbekker.de

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CHAPTER 1

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Anno 842, near Xanten on the Lower Rhine.

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"OLAV! THORBRAND! MY sons!"

Grimr Skullsplitter Grimsson's mighty paws lay on the shoulders of the two young men at the bow of the slender Skaid. Thorbrand and Olav were the same size. And their facial features were so similar to their father that one could not doubt for a moment who they came from. "Today you can gain glory, my sons! There's rich booty waiting for us in the Land of the Franks! "More booty than I've ever seen in a pile..."

"We will take her," said Olav. "With Thor, we'll get them!" He grinned. "As long as the kings' sons of this country prefer to tear each other to pieces, they invite us to take the gold from their monasteries and cities!"

"Yes, but let that be a warning to you," Grimr now said in a much more serious tone. A light wind blew towards him. He rippled the waters of the wide stream on which their skaids were rowed upstream along with dozens of other ships. The sails were hauled in. The rudder blades dipped evenly into the water.

With almost a hundred ships with several thousand Northmen on board, they had sailed up the Rhine. The barren coastal country wasn't even worth plundering.

The narrow, agile Skaids formed the vanguard. Later followed bulbous Knorr, on which even riding horses were transported. The broad river was full of ships. With such a large fleet, even the cherished Grimr hadn't gone on the road yet. However, most of these ships were not under his command, but under that of Eirik 'Axeman' Sturlason. His Draken, manned by more than a hundred warriors, was the largest ship in the fleet. Together they set off from Denmark, drove along the Frisian coast and then landed in Britain.

But they had not stayed there for long, but had then sought the way to the mouth of the Rhine.

They had crossed the swampy Frisian coastal wilderness unhindered in order to advance into the heart of the Frankish Empire. An empire in which Charlemagne's grandchildren fought a fierce war for their inheritance. They had heard of it from Frisian traders who regularly crossed the canal with their clumsy ships reminiscent of wooden shoes to trade in the land of the Anglo-Saxons. And some captured Saxons who had contact with their relatives in the Regnum Francorum confirmed these stories of the conflicting heirs of the throne. When they learned that the Saxons were raging with black leaves, Eirik Axeman had decided to leave the coast of the Anglo-Saxons almost in a hurry. Grimr had no choice but to follow his powerful ally, who would never have been numerous enough to stand his ground against the Saxons. Of course, the prospect of easy prey in the Frankish Empire had made it easier to ignore the monasteries of Wessex.

"Honor the name of our family, my sons," said Grimr with a broad smile. "It should not be said that we are wrong to use the name Skullsplitter. Thor and Odin may bring us luck."

"So be it!" said Olav, while his hand lay around the sword hilt. His eyes flashed when he looked at his brother. "Though I'm not sure my brother won't secretly pray to his Franconian mother's Christian god!"

Thorbrand's posture tensed involuntarily. The angular face, overgrown with light blond stubbles, was covered with blush of anger. His hand now also included the handle of the sword at his side - but with such a strong grip that the ankles turned white.

"What do you mean, Olav?"

"Nothing I didn't say, Thorbrand!"

"Oh, yeah?"

"Isn't it true that you secretly pray to the Christian god of the Franconian slave girl who gave birth to you?"

Thorbrand was cooking inside. It was obvious that he had trouble keeping his anger in check. But that's all he wants, Thorbrand thought. That you go off the deep end and say things that make you seem like an angry booby.

But before Thorbrand could have replied, Grimr took the floor. "Our gods are not jealous," he said. "It may help a lot to pray to many gods. And neither Thor, Odin or Njörd would be foolish enough to refuse any additional help."

"Yes, only the Christian God is that stupid," said Olav. "But his son was also beaten on the cross. What else can one expect from such a weakling but that he curses all those who do not pray to him alone! Maybe he cursed you too, Thorbrand!"

"Heh, Grimr!", now called Bjarne the helmsman, a tree-long guy whose white-blond beard was braided into braids, while the hair on his head had already retreated noticeably over the years and made way for a tanned bald head. Bjarne stretched out his arm. "There are riders on the shore!"

In fact, some riders stood out on the riverbank as dark silhouettes against the low morning sun. They had emerged like ghosts from the dense fog banks that surrounded the banks of the river.

"They're far away," said Grimr. He laughed rough. "And most of all, they're on the wrong side of the river. They won't be dangerous for us."

The current was the border at the time, the Frisians had told them. The border between the central part of the empire ruled by Emperor Lothar. East of the Rhine, Ludwig ruled, while Charles controlled from Paris the west of the vast empire, to which his grandfather and namesake had once given shape and greatness.

"They will be Ludwig's men," cried Grimr. "They have no reason to lift a finger if we plunder Xanten!"

"Would you bet on it?" old Halmi asked. Nobody knew exactly how old Halmi was. His leathery, wrinkled skin made him look like his face was carved from stone. No one had experienced more than Halmi. No one fought more battles, killed more men, seen more foreign countries and shipwrecked more often than this gaunt man, who still had the springy, safe walk of a much younger man. Only a furrowed face gave an idea of the number of years behind him. And since, on the other hand, he was too old to challenge Grimr for leadership over his men, he trusted no one else as much as Halmi. Not even his son.

"And even if it wasn't, the Franks would have to cross the river first. "Without ships, that's almost impossible, and there are no bridges here!"

Olav turned to his brother. "You haven't answered my question yet, Thorbrand: Are you secretly praying to your Franconian mother's god as she taught you when you were little?"

In Olav's eyes it flashed aggressively.

"I am sure that our father had much more joy with my mother than with yours, Olav - from whose sight he cannot even flee to distant shores since you have sailed on his ships. For you look far too much like this sneaky, wrinkled snake from Bragi's clan, Olav."

Olav paused for a moment. His smile got disgusting.

"Well roared, walrus! I didn't think you did."

"Oh, no?"

"I thought your berserk rage was going through with you and you would pounce on me so I could let you walk right into my knife. But I'm sure there'll be another chance..."

"Don't you want to be beaten to death in a few francs? Or do you lack the courage, Olav?" Thorbrand made a sweeping gesture. "This country's flat, you're gonna have to fight hard, because ambushing's almost impossible here."

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A WILD WAR CRY NOW arose as the outlines of walls and buildings now appeared in the fog of the eastern shore. That must be Xanten. Wooden palisades surrounded the place. But there also seemed to be buildings made of stone. At least one church tower protruded beyond the fortifications. There were dozens of ships and boats along the river. Some fishermen were busy unloading last night's catch. But now, when they noticed the fleet of northerners approaching the place, they left the nets and the catch and fled instantly. Their cries screamed across to the dragon ships.

"Row faster!", Grimr shouted, waving his battle axe. "I can't wait to kill Franken!"

"At least there is a church tower," said Olav. "Then we can hope that there is also a monastery and some treasures to capture!"

The first Skaids reached the banks of the river. Grimr and Thorbrand were among the first to climb ashore. They stormed up the embankment.

Olav, on the other hand, held back. Even though the gods loved the foolhardy and hosted them in Valhalla to wait with them for the last battle, in which at the end of time the gods fought with the dead heroes against the giants. But Olav was not at all sure whether he should really strive to take part in it. Finally, legends said that in this battle on the day Ragnarok the giants won. It was not without reason that this event was called the Twilight of the Gods. The order of the world would be destroyed and the earth would become what it had been before the beginning of time - a place of chaos.

And as far as Olav was concerned, he just didn't like to be on the side of the losers. Never. The fortunes of war were not with the foolhardy Berserker, but with the one who only fought when he knew that he would also win. A quick attack from ambush or with superior powers - that was what the gods rewarded in this world, even if they perhaps promised something else for the hereafter. And so Olav did not land until most of the other northerners had long ago stormed the palisades of Xanten and the first of them had already been killed by arrows.

"Come on, Olav, your father shouldn't say you've been passed by an old man," Halmi the Grey shouted to him.

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BURNING ARROWS SOAKED in pitch whistled through the air like shooting stars and descended by the hundreds inside the boundary wall. Especially the men of Bragi's clan were considered good archers. These men had been following Grimr for many years. And the fact that Grimr had married a woman from this family was a sign of how close the connection was with the family of Grimr Skullsplitter.

From Bragi's clan came the best archers Grimr had ever heard of, and so he depended to some extent on the help of these men. There were many men who could smash the other with a long-stemmed Danish axe in the skull. But good archers were rare.

Only some of the archers missed arrows. The others had their eyes on the guards behind the palisades built on an embankment. These were not very numerous. There were also archers among them who fired arrow after arrow. But the men of Bragi's clan quickly decimated them.

The gate facing the river was closed long ago. But the associated watchtowers already contained several arrows and since these towers were made of wood, there was a high probability that sooner or later they caught fire.

The majority of the northerners simply stormed towards the protective wall. Arrows were already in the shields of most of them. And some of them had already been killed. But the losses were limited. This was also primarily the responsibility of the shooters from Bragis clan. Several archers among the defenders were hit. One fell screaming over the parapet. He was still alive when the first northmen stormed up the embankment covered with grass.

It was Grimr himself who cut off his head with his sword. He rolled into the damp, slippery grass while the blood splashed out of the stump of his neck.

Thorbrand had meanwhile reached the Palisades together with several other warriors. One and a half man-highs they rose up and were pointed at the top. But such walls were no obstacle for the Northmen. One of the men formed a kick with his hands. Thorbrand took the sword and threw his shield aside, with half a dozen arrows in it. An archer came at him from above. But before he could let go of the bowstring, a warrior from Bragi's clan had killed him with a sure shot.

The name of this warrior was Gunjorn Goodeye. He was a brother of Grimr's wife Solvejg's. Gunjorn's helmet attracted attention with a clearly visible bump that the fight with a Saxon had earned him. "Come on, over the wall with you," Gunjorn shouted, while he was still running and sent another arrow on the way, killing another guard behind his chest.

Thorbrand's foot was held by the hands of a fellow fighter. He swung himself on his shoulders, placed a foot between the sharpened logs from which the border had been made, and then swung daringly over the parapet.

He had so much momentum that he could not have kept up with his career. He staggered to the ground, held one defender at a distance with a wild kick in his foot and dragged another down with him. Thorbrand landed on it and then slipped with it down the inside of the mound for the fortification wall and the palisades. Thorbrand was the first to get back on his feet. He tore a short-handled, light throwing axe out of his belt and threw it at a defender with an almost casual movement, who stormed towards him with an axe in his hands. Then he ripped out the sword and swung the blade through the air at lightning speed. Just in time to fend off the attack of another, quickly approached attacker. Steel clashes against steel. Thorbrand fended off the blow to the side, then let his long, slender blade retract with a massive blow and hit the leg of an attacker.

A scream was heard when the bone broke.

Thorbrand's sword cut his opponent's leg just below his kneecap. The Franconian warrior fell and rowed with his sword arm through the air. Thorbrand rolled aside to avoid the person falling and then pushed the sword into his body. With one jump Thorbrand got back on his feet. His left shoulder was blood-red. But that was not his own blood, but that of the Franks he had just slain.

Calls came to his ear.

"Fire! It burns," shouted a husky woman's voice, which sounded as if from her senses. That it was burning was obvious, because dark, almost pitch-black columns of smoke rose to the hazy sky, through which hardly the morning sun was able to penetrate. The sound of these words reminded Thorbrand of his childhood. To his mother, a slave at Grimr Skullsplitter's farm. She had taught Thorbrand the first words and they had been from the language of the Franks. The Franconian woman had died of a fever before Thorbrand was ten years old.  But he still had the sound of their language in his ear - good enough to communicate in it. The differences to the language of the Northmen were not very big anyway.

It was a strange feeling for Thorbrand to enter the country his mother came from as a robber and looter. A country he seemed to be familiar with through his mother's stories in a strange way, although he had never entered it before.

Thorbrand grasped the sword hilt with both hands and whirled around as he saw a movement from the corners of his eye. Hoarse screams could be heard. Death cries and harsh orders mingled. Within a few moments Thorbrand was surrounded by at least a dozen francs. A spear was pushed in his direction. Thorbrand turned aside. With a powerful stroke, he made sure that his opponents kept much more distance.

With an insane scream, one of the Franks finally stormed Thorbrand. Thorbrand parried the first, massive sword blow and had to retreat one step before the second. Since he was surrounded, he had no other choice than a blind counterattack. With all his strength he beat around him. The double-edged blade whirled through the air and came clinking against the steel of the opponent. The blow was so violent that its blade broke. Bad steel that had been burned by the ignorant. The next moment Thorbrand's swift thrust had killed the franc. He swirled around, separated another attacker's sword hand and weapon from his body, dodged a spear that flew right past him and then attacked again.

There was a scream. A second Nordmann had managed to climb over the palisades and now jumped recklessly under the Franks. That was Hromund the Rough - one of the few men from Bragis family who were bad at archery. But Hromund had other qualities. He was a giant, even by the standards of the Northmen. Thorbrand - although tall and broad-shouldered - seemed almost slender compared to this colossus. The muscles of his arms, which emerged under his waist, were so thick that someone else would have liked to have them as thighs. He always wore a bearskin around his shoulders in battle because he believed that the bear's powers were transferred to him. And he had previously consumed an essence of certain mushrooms that upset him and made him feel no fear and no pain. Screaming wildly, he immediately threw himself at his opponents. He had already knocked out one of them with a fist. He had one hand with a particularly long Danish axe, the blade of which was larger than that of his comrades-in-arms. A blow went through the helmet of the next franc and split his skull to the base of his neck. Blood shot up. The Franconian was still rowing with a sword arm, while Hromund gave him a kick to better release the axe blade from the dead. He swung the terrible weapon around and scythed down two opponents with one blow.

"At last!" Thorbrand shouted. "I thought you'd leave me alone!"

Hromund only answered with a growl. His eyes were bloodshot and dilated. In this state, it was better not to address him. And even his comrades-in-arms avoided that, because when he was in berserk rage, it could well be that his wild anger accidentally hit a confederate.

More warriors now came over the palisades. The mad Orm, whose hair was braided in dozens of plaits and who never wore a helmet, grabbed an opponent with bare hands and rammed him onto the sharpened logs of which the palisades were made. The cry of the Frank mixed with the noise of slaughter.

Crazy Orm was a younger brother of Grimr Skullsplitter. Twenty years separated them. He belonged more to Thorbrands and Olavs generation than to his brother Grimr.

Thorbrand's grandfather - Grimr Skullsplalter the Elder - had conceived this son with his second, much younger wife even in old age. Orm had been nicknamed'the Mad' ever since he began to have Hromund show him how to prepare mushroom extracts, which made him forget that he was not of the gods but of mortals. Orm threw himself with a wild scream at another guard, pushed two daggers into his body and at the same time head-butted him with his forehead. The Franconian warrior fell from his career behind the palisades. In close combat, the mad arm often used a pair of daggers, as they were more agile towards the opponent than with the sword, which always needed a certain amount of freedom of movement to use it effectively. The mad Orm carried his sword belted over his back and was proud not to use it. No one was closer to the enemy than Orm.

Thorbrand, on the other hand, would have felt it beneath his dignity to fight in this way. A real warrior's weapon was a sword or an axe. At most still the bow, if one knew how to lead him with the artistry, like many of the men from Bragis clan.

Meanwhile, with one jump, the madrm threw himself from his career onto one of the Franconian warriors who was about to throw a spear in Thorbrands direction. Orm caught the Franconian from behind, rammed one of his daggers into his kidneys with the full force of his jump and slit his neck with the other so that the blood splashed up high while the Franconian was still tumbling to the ground.

Meanwhile, Hromund's axe blade hooked into the hollow of the knees of a Franconian who lost his balance. A blow with the Danish axe smashed his skull.

Several dozen Northmen had meanwhile crossed the palisades. At the same time another volley of incendiary arrows flew into the city. Houses were already on fire. It was hopeless to want to put out the fires now. More and more dense columns of smoke rose to the sky.

"To the gate!" Thorbrand shouted. Because that was the most important thing now: If the intruders succeeded in opening the gate, several hundred Northmen could enter the city's interior. Then the fight would have been decided and there was no stopping the defenders.

But even if that didn't happen, it was only a matter of time when the place could be taken by the Northmen.

Thorbrand let his sword whirl through the air again and again. He had performed these movements so often that they had become flesh and blood. He didn't have to think about what he was doing. A point of the sword hit him on his upper body and penetrated the leather cover of his jerkin, but got stuck in the layers of densely woven fabrics underneath. The thrust was not guided powerfully enough. Thorbrand fended off the blade before it could actually hurt him, and the next moment he struck with his own blade. The Franconian sank to the ground groaning while blood stained his clothes red. He got blood in his mouth and nose, too. He ruckled and shrugged like a slaughtered chicken when he was already lying on the ground.

The mad Orm was now beside him and threw himself screaming on a Franconian, who retreated with terrified eyes before this berserker.

Hromund was also in Thorbrands immediate vicinity. And with these two berserkers at his side, the young Viking stormed towards the main gate on the river side of the city. The screams of Hromund the Rough and the Mad Orm alone caused horror among the Frankish guards.

The gate had not been particularly crowded anyway - just as the whole fortification for Thorbrand had already given the impression at first glance that it was not very crowded. Perhaps this had to do with the war of kings that was currently raging in the Frankish Empire. A circumstance that played into the hands of anyone who now had the courage to take what was not sufficiently protected.

The goal was quickly cleared. A Franconian limped away bleeding. Two others lay on the ground moments later, beaten to death. And the others fled.

They just tried to save her life.

Thorbrand put the sword in. Together with Hromund he pushed the large beams aside, which served as bolts. And then it was done. The gate could be opened. The wild horde of Norsemen stormed in. Even the great Hromund was almost knocked down when one of the warriors bumped into him with his shield.

Grimr Skullsplitter Grimsson and Eirik Sturlason were among the first attackers. A little later followed Olav and old Halmi.

Meanwhile, the archers fired another fire salvo. Probably the last one. Because also for the shooters there was no stopping now. Nobody wanted the last person to come on the train during the looting. And even if the booty was later distributed justly and according to the rules of the family, there were also one or two things that could be snatched under the nail. A good sword, a golden Christian cross or a sack of silver coins that a merchant may have hidden under his bed.

"Well done, Thorbrand!" Grimr called Skullsplitter and pride in his son could be clearly heard.

Too clear, because Olav, who stood only a few steps away, had heard this and his gaze darkened. The helmet with the deep nose guard didn't make that clear to everyone. But Thorbrand had noticed that very well. He finally knew his brother from Kleinauf. You were the same age. Their mothers - Grimr's wife Solvejg Bragistochter and the slave called 'the Franconian woman' - had given birth on the same day. Until today, no one knew for sure whose scream one had heard first. And the only one who could have known this was the healing Audhild. But she was very old then. Older than anyone Thorbrand had ever met. He still remembered well how he had gone to her at the age of five when she was sitting alone and sunken in herself by her fire - she had worked very calmly. He had only realized later that she was no longer alive. She had taken her secret with her into the realm of Hel, the goddess of the dead, and it would probably remain there unless one of the two half-brothers set out there at some point to snatch it from old Audhild.

"You'll make a good leader," Grimr said as he patted his son on the shoulder. Then he went on shouting: "Catch all the monks and nuns! Because they know where other monks and nuns are! And their monasteries with their gold treasures! Do you hear that?"

"You'll make a good leader," Olav aped after his father. Grimr was already too far off to hear these words. But Thorbrand wasn't.

"Come on, what are you waiting for?" Thorbrand asked. "Storms like the city!"

"Of course," growled Olav. You're gonna make a great leader! Always forward, without thinking! Just like our father!

But the similarity in character between the two was probably the reason why Grimr Skullsplitter preferred Thorbrand. He of all people! was not the first time Olav had bitter thoughts. The son of the Franconian slave girl, who was already killed by the first outbreak of a fever and left her son only the prayers of the Christian God! But a God who voluntarily let himself be nailed to the cross and claimed to redeem the world through it was at least as simple as the mad Orm or Hromund the Rough - only in another way. One day, Olav thought, everything will fall to me. Everything my father gathered together and left to this booby, who is my half-brother!

With a face twisted into a grim smile, Olav followed his brother and the others.

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CHAPTER 2

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Screams and noise could be heard everywhere in the city. And the columns of smoke took the breath away from friend and foe. The Northmen went from house to house to plunder or to take a woman if they found one. Battle noise was hardly audible anymore. The Franks had fled or died. Some of the inhabitants had also already fled the city, as was to be expected. So the news of Xanten's case would spread quickly.

Rain started. Ice cold rain and rough wind from the north.

In the middle of the village there was a church - bigger than Olav and Thorbrand had ever seen it anywhere else. And Grimr and Eirik, who had already travelled a long way, were also impressed for a moment.

"By Odin - the churches of the Saxons are but huts," Eirik said and spat out while he was leaning on his axe. The grey beard almost grew under his eyes. The heavy rain dripped from his helmet's nose guard, into which a gold coin was incorporated as a decorative accessory. It bore an inscription in Greek and Latin and allegedly came from the legendary city of Constantinople, about which it was said that there were churches with roofs of pure gold. Stories that Olav had never really wanted to believe when the men told about it by the fire. On what winding paths this coin had found its way from the legendary city of golden roofs to the helmet of Eirik Axeman Sturlason the shipbuilder was unknown.

"In any case, the church is a good place to round up prisoners," Grimr said.

"I think we should stay there too," Eirik said, pointing to the grey sky, from which it was now raining more and more heavily. "Odin's wet greetings!"

"You're thinking of staying longer," Grimr asked in surprise.

"Why not?" said Eirik.

"It's better than camping out near here," Olav interfered.

Eirik patted the young man on the shoulder. "Your son understands me, Grimr! If Franconian warriors were to be around, we could defend ourselves better here than anywhere else against them."

Grimr growled something incomprehensible to himself. He did not like the thought of staying one hour longer than absolutely necessary in this place. That was obvious to him. But then Eirik simply had more ships under his command than he did. And here, already too deep in the Frankish Empire to be able to disappear again quickly, he was more dependent on Eirik's protection than he would have liked.

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THE RAIN TURNED INTO hail and finally into a full-grown snowstorm. An icy wind blew cold and damp across the flat land. The swampy, deep soil began to cover itself with ice in some places.

There wasn't one of the Northmen whose clothes weren't soaked. Even the jerkins or furs consisting of different layers did not offer sufficient protection against such weather.

"The weather must have been sent by the Christian god," Grimr said sinisterly, because it made it possible for more inhabitants of Xanten to escape than could be dear to him. On the other hand, the weather had also ensured that the refugees had been able to take virtually nothing with them. And most of the little they tried to tow out of the city had to be left behind on the way. Horse-drawn carriages and ox-carts got stuck in the completely soaked ground. The refugees left everything to the looters. A few dozen of the Northmen followed them and went after the prey.

Eirik gave the order to bring all the loot that could be gathered together to the monastery in the immediate vicinity of the church. Its main building seemed to him to be the most suitable.

Towing it to the ships now would not have made sense. This had to happen later, as soon as one decided to leave.

The prisoners were driven into the church. Among them were many monks and nuns. By Grimr's order, special care had been taken not to let them get away.

Crouched together, they sat there in their dirty brown robes. "He who runs away from you before I allow it, will be slain," cried Grimr in a booming voice. He spoke in the language of the Northmen, interspersed with a few words about how they used the Saxons. "Do you understand me, you Christian bastards?" he then asked, since he was obviously not quite sure. Then he turned to Thorbrand. "Speak to them and tell them once more in their language what I have said," he demanded. "You can still talk like your mother, can't you?"

"There are things you forget," Thorbrand replied.

He let his gaze wander over the prisoners. He noticed a young woman. A nun, even if the hood had been torn off her head when she was captured. Her hair was cut short, her eyes widened in fear. She was trembling with cold, which was not surprising. Thorbrand was aware that most religious orders prescribed poor, inadequate clothing for their members. Thorbrand couldn't take his eyes off her. The nun replied briefly and her horror seemed to increase. She blushed. Thorbrand understood that she had misunderstood his look. His only interest was that the nun reminded him of his mother - the Franconian woman.

"I don't want to torture you for long until you tell me what I want to know," said Grimr, "but I will do it if I don't like your answers or I realize that you are lying to me! Tell those monk dogs that again in their language, Thorbrand!"

Thorbrand only reacted after Grimr had elbowed him. He had been too much in that moment with his thoughts in the past. The woman who had only been called the Franconian woman had also been humiliated time and again. Especially from the other women. When a maid, who had been on Grimr's farm for a long time, had beaten the Franconian woman, because she allegedly had not done her job well enough, Thorbrand went out on the maid in an attack of irascibility to protect his mother. He had thrown down the maid and dipped her into a mud hole that looked as if she was a mountain troll in the flesh, just emerging from the earth. Thorbrand remembered it as if it was only yesterday. It was on this day that Grimr first became aware of Thorbrand. He had defended the boy and told everyone, "She deserved what the boy had done!"

Many who stood there laughed about it. Only not the muddy maid - and Olav. Thorbrand had also never forgotten the sinister look of his half-brother.

Thorbrand finally translated his father's words.

"We understand you the same way when you speak slowly," said one of the monks. An elderly man with white, confused hair, who barely revealed where exactly his tonsure was.

At that moment the church door opened. She creaked and a gush of cold air blew in.

It was Bragi Bragison and a few men from his family.

They drove other prisoners before them. A few monks were also among them. The others were strikingly painted women. Their lips were so exaggerated red that at first glance one could believe they had been beaten bloody. But that was not the case.

"There's a weaving house here!", Bragi roared. "And that's where I picked up this gang," he said.

"The women or the monks?" Eirik asked with a grin.

"Both," growled Bragi. With a bow he drove the prisoners forward.

"Do you mean one of those houses where women sleep with men for money?" Olav asked.

"And weave or spin when no one wants their services," Bragi nodded.

"The monks to the other monks!", Grimr. "And the women..." He looked at her for a moment.

"You don't look very excited that we're probably going to have a good time here," said Eirik Sturlason.

Grimr made a throw-away gesture. "You'd better have found some prisoners for whom a ransom can be expected."

"After all, we can only take a few prisoners with us if we want to go further up the river to plunder rich monasteries," Olav interfered. None of these fools think beyond the next day, it went through his head.

"Then one can only hope that they are really rich monasteries," Bragi muttered, relying on his bow. "In any case, what we have found here is more of a disappointment. Either the brothers were really as destitute as they dressed or the most valuable pieces were dragged out of the city."

Olav thought that a fool like you would probably not even recognize the most valuable pieces if they were lying in front of him. But even if he had a snappy remark on his lips, he kept it to himself. He had finally decided one day to succeed his father. The sooner that day came, the better, because he was convinced he was a better leader than Grimr Skullsplitter Grimsson had ever been. However, Olav was aware of the fact that he would be dependent on the support of Bragis clan. Good archers were rare, but certain activities could only be carried out with their support.

"You heard what I said," Grimr now turned again to the prisoners. He pulled out a parchment from under his waistcoat. A card he took from a Frisian merchant on the coast of Anglo-Saxons. It showed the course of the Rhine from its mouth deep into the Frankish Empire. Some cities and trading places were listed on it. And now and then there were crosses that stood for churches and monasteries. But there were many signs that Grimr did not understand and for which he did not know what they should mean. And apart from that, the map was probably far from complete. "I want you to tell me all about the churches and monasteries upriver. Translate this, Thorbrand, so that they really understand what I mean!"

Thorbrand obeyed. One of the monks began to pray. He mumbled Latin words to himself, of which no one understood a single word - perhaps with the exception of Halmi the Horror. He had once learnt a lot from this language from a captive priest who had been sold into slavery. After all, it never hurt to learn a language. You didn't know if the wind had ever blown you into a country where you had to communicate with it.

"He calls to the assistance of the Mother of God and all the saints," Halmi said.

The rough mouth of Hromund drowned out the prayer with a piercing cry. His head was bright red, his eyes so wide that one might think they would fall out the next moment. He tore the axe out of one of the other men's hand, grabbed the handle with both hands and threw himself on the monk. No one would have dared to stand in the way of the madrm when he was in this state. Actually, he had reserved this special atmosphere for enemies in the turmoil of battle. But from time to time he also got angry - and then the best way out of his way was to avoid him. Before any of the other Northmen could intervene, the axe blade had driven through the skull of the praying monk. She split his skull all the way down to his lower jaw.

Hromund kicked him in the chest to pull out the blade and hit him again. The booming cry that came out of his mouth sounded more like the sound of an animal than reminiscent of a human being.

"He'd better not take so much of his fly agaric brew," Olav growled to Bragi Bragison. He mostly got along very well with the men from a mother's family. That was also true of Hromund. However, it was apparently a bit out of character. But as archers with a steady hand like Bragi and most other men of this clan, one could hardly have imagined Hromund the Rough.

Hromund took a deep breath and beat the bearskin back on his back. The others looked at him in silence. At that moment not a single sound could be heard inside the church. The mixture of rain and hail pelted on the roof and the storm had started to rage again outside.

"No one kills my prisoners," Grimr said calmly but surely. "Did you hear that?"

Hromund pointed to the slain monk. "Be glad I killed him before he could perform his Christian spell. Then that would have gotten us bad!"

"Like your toadstool food," Thorbrand said.

"Leave him," Grimr said to his son. "Not everyone is a berserk by nature, like you!"

Hromund just made a throw-away gesture. "I'll take the body out too," he said. "You have no reason to complain! And there are enough monks here, Grimr!" He beckoned the madrm. He took the monk by the feet, while Hromund took him by the shoulders. Together they brought him out of the church.

A gush of icy cold air rushed in as they briefly opened the church door.

"We should be glad that Hromund is fighting in our ranks - and not against us," said Eirik Sturlason. "And I don't think any of us can say we've killed more Franks and Saxons than he has."

"I don't deny his merits," Grimr said, "But maybe it would be better if Hromund didn't eat any of his mushrooms for a while and just drink his own urine instead, like the mad Orm does!"

Laughter broke out. Only Crazy Orm didn't laugh. He shook his head so that his braids moved in such a way that you could think living snakes were growing out of his head.

The consumption of the mushroom extracts was dangerous and the risk of dying was high. The slightest mistake in the preparation could be fatal. So when a man took some of it to become a berserker in battle, it was quite common for up to a dozen other men to drink that warrior's urine. The effect was not quite as strong - but there was also no risk of the fungus poisoning itself.

Olav turned to Thorbrand. "We will have to take care of Hromund. With his unrestrained manner, he will cause a lot of trouble."

"Not for more than usual," Thorbrand gave back and shrugged his shoulders. "What do you expect? He's a berserker!"

Olav nodded. "Yes, and there is something that makes a berserker even wilder than the fight or spirit of a bear that lives in its fur and those mushrooms cursed by the gods with their special qualities."

Thorbrand raised his eyebrows. "Oh, yeah?"

Olav grinned broadly. "Boredom. "The weather is so bad, we probably can't even think of going upriver right now."

"I doubt Eirik will even move on," Thorbrand said.

"He's getting old," Olav said. "Just like our father."

"I don't get that impression about either one."

Olav pointed his finger to his temple. "Weakness begins here, Thorbrand," he muttered softly. "Not in my arms. It's always the same. But as for Hromund - you'll have to give him something to do, otherwise he won't just smash the skull of monks sooner or later."

Thorbrand looked at his half rudder thoughtfully. He was a little confused about the almost conspiratorial way in which Olav had now addressed him. As long as Thorbrand could remember, they had been rivals. Same age and strength, but very different in character. That Olav's mood towards his brother could sometimes change in no time at all was something Thorbrand had never really got used to. He also never understood what these sudden changes actually meant. But Thorbrand knew one thing very well: His brother rarely did anything without pursuing a specific intention.

"Meanwhile, Grimr, who had continued to question the monks and nuns, called him "Thorbrand! "I need the help of a linguist again!"

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"YOU SHOULDN'T BOTHER with the old men, father," said Olav, after Grimr had not heard much more than stammering prayers from the monks - even when he had tortured one of them with the sword so that he bled.

He did not find out much more about where the monasteries lay upstream and which of them were worth plundering.

Grimr turned to Olav with a frown.  "Oh, and what do you suggest?" he asked gruffly.

Olav pointed to the prisoners. "They're almost all men, hardly any women," he noted.

"The Christian monks keep their monasteries separated according to men and joys, because they see being together as a sin," Grimr said.

"That's right. But think about it! The monastery in this place seems to be inhabited by men. Men who probably haven't left the grey walls they locked themselves in for years. But the women - nuns! - they don't belong here. Probably they have just been passing through or have been sent here with some task that their order has given them. If you want to know about other monasteries, ask them!" Olav pointed to the young woman who had reminded Thorbrand so much of his Franconian mother.

Grimr scratched his beard.

Olav turned to her. The other two women were much older and apparently quite out of their senses at the moment. They kept muttering prayers.

"Where are you from?" Olav asked the young woman. "You heard me already, so answer me!"

She cowered on the floor and looked up. The prayers of the others did not cease, but became even more intense.

She trembled and muttered something to herself. He understood only one word clearly: Novaesium.

"That's what it says on the card I took from the Frisian merchant," Grimr stated. "In the runes of the Latin, but it could mean."

The nun continued, but very vaguely. And although the Northmen knew many of her words, what she said simply didn't make sense to them at first.

"What did she say, Thorbrand?" Olav turned to his brother. "Or was our sight alone such a terrible torture for her that she has lost her mind and can no longer really talk about it."

"She says that she comes from the convent Novaesium of the poor sisters and that there is nothing to plunder there, because they have committed themselves to poverty and that they are not allowed to accumulate property."

"There may be nothing to get from the poor sisters - but certainly in Novaesium," Grimr said. He pointed to the map. "The Friesian has scribbled a list of names on the back of the card. I can't read the runes of the Latin people well, but Novaesium is there. And behind it a number of lines..."

Grimr unfolded the parchment inconveniently. His large, paw-like hands were better at holding a sword or an axe than something as fine, thin as parchment. That was plain to see. He blinked. It was not particularly bright in the church and this circumstance did not facilitate the reading either.

Olav also took a look at it. "These will be the names of the places that the Friesian trader has visited time and again," Olav suspected. "And the lines may represent his income..."

"So there is a market place in Novaesium," Grimr concluded. He grinned broadly. "And where there's a market place, there's more than just a nunnery with old women." He bowed down to the young nun from Novaesium. "Read!" he said. "What names do they say?"

She swallowed. It was now completely quiet in the church. Even the monks had stopped praying.

The nun hesitated at first.

Then she read it haltingly. "Novaesium, Colonia, Diusburh..." She could not read well, although she had undoubtedly learned it in the monastery. But maybe she just wasn't practiced enough in this art yet.

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IN THE COURSE OF TIME, the Northmen used the storerooms of the neighbouring monastery, which had a rich wine cellar. Many of the men would have preferred the usual mead, of course. But wine was better than nothing. Fireplaces were set up in the church. Some of the northmen enjoyed themselves with the women from the weaving house. Laughter mixed with shrill screams and quarrelsome voices.

Outside, the storm roars. Every now and then men came in who had been detached to guard the ships. In addition, the horses that were carried along on the big knots had to be cared for. But there were enough stables that could be used for this. They were almost all empty, for the fled inhabitants of Xanten had driven away everything that could move, just so that it would not fall into the hands of the northerners.

Eirik Sturlason had ordered the palisades to be occupied. Of course, none of the men was particularly enthusiastic about keeping watch in this weather. But even though it was quite unlikely that the displaced people dared to return, it was better to keep your eyes open.

"Our next destination is Novaesium," Grimr said. "We must go there and I'm sure we'll find rich prey."

"First I am glad that we have found a place where there are at least two stone houses," Eirik Sturlason said. By this he meant the church and the main building of the monastery. All other buildings in the village were made of wood, mostly half-timbered. And many of them were now little more than ruins after being hit by the Northmen's arrows. For the third time Eirik had filled his drinking horn with the wine that had been dragged out of the monastery. He took a deep sip and then burped unabashedly. "The bad weather has saved the wooden houses, but maybe the storm will blow them away now!"

"As long as you're not sitting in one of them while that happens, you can't care, Eirik," said Grimr and the men burst out laughing. The laughter of Eirik Sturlason drowned out even the mad Orm and Hromund the Rauen. Eiriks eyes already seemed a little glassy. Apparently he had already tasted more of the wine than he could handle.

A pig was roasted in the church over the altar. Dark smoke rose and pulled under the high ceiling, where it was blown away by a draft. Not all windows of this church were filled with painted glass. Apparently you couldn't afford that here. But this circumstance ensured that there was a well-functioning smoke vent.

They started distributing the loot. Even if the local monastery did not exactly give an example of the wealth of the church, the men of Eirik Sturlason and Grimr Skullsplitter still had some silver in their hands that had previously belonged to the inhabitants of the city. The value of a Bible manuscript from the monastery was quite controversial. Against how much silver should one weigh this not even completed book?

"I have heard that several farms have already been exchanged for a single book of this kind," said Halmi the Grey. "At least I heard that. "And you know, I've come further than any of you."

"Entire farms - for a bundle of parchments sewn together and scribbled on?" Bjarne the helmsman shouted booming. "That would be a bad deal, I'd say."

"What do you know about business," Halmi said contemptuously.

Bjarne shrugged his shoulders, took his drinking horn and drank from it. He, too, had found a taste for the wine.

"I know more about it than you think," Bjarne said. "For example, I know that a farm must be worth more than a book, because you can make more parchment with the skins of all the cows on that farm than sewn together in such a book."

"It depends on what's in it, you chump!" Halmi replied. "All the letters and drawings and the decorations. And apart from that, it is the holy book of Christians. They'll pay whatever it takes."

"We could ask your son about it," suggested Eirik Sturlason and turned to Grimr with a big grin. "He knows all about these things!"

The other men laughed.

Thorbrand blushed and felt his anger rise. It was particularly noticeable because of his light skin and blond hair. He didn't like it when you alluded to it and pretended that he wasn't completely becoming one of them. He used to beat up anyone who made a remark about it and even now his fists instinctively clenched. Of course, he could not give free rein to such an important man as Eirik Sturlason in the face of his temper. He was well aware of that.

But it was hard for him. Lucky for you that we need the support of your men and ships in this foreign land, it went through his mind grimly. Lucky for you that I got to know my mother's gentle faith, otherwise I would cut your head off!

Eirik Sturlason noticed the sinister look Thorbrand gave him. Suddenly, Eirik seemed frozen. His mouth remained open for a moment, as if he wanted to say something else. The wine came out of his horn because he held it wrong. "You have two very different sons, Grimr," he then muttered. "And as wild as they are, you'll have to reckon one day one of them will slit your throat in your sleep."

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CHAPTER 3

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On the eastern bank of the Rhine, Franconian knights tested the low-lying, mist-shrouded floodplains. The ice-cold rain, which sometimes turned into snow or hail, slapped them in the face. Cunrad von Diusburh, a tall Franconian knight who towered over his companions by far, led the troop. Not only Cunrad himself was unusually tall, but also the war horse that had to carry him. And Cunrad was an important man in several ways. He was very strongly built, had a massive body, which was protected by a chain mail, whose interlocked iron rings corresponded to twice the usual, normally for the protection of a warrior sufficient number and had of course also the appropriate weight.

But Cunrad also had weight in the figurative sense, because he administered the royal fortress Diusburh and also commanded a considerable contingent of troops, which Ludwig, King of the Eastern Franconian Empire, commanded. That Ludwig, whose father of the same name had been called Louis the Pious and whose grandfather had been Charlemagne, the first Franconian ruler to wear the crown of a Roman emperor.

Now the grandchildren were at war with each other. As inexorably as one should only have done to heathens. But times were tough and it was just too much. The Franconian law of succession, which demanded the division of the inheritance among the ruler's sons, did not prove to be a fate for the first time. Cunrad von Diusburh thought that my master will probably have only one way to go in the end. He has to kill his brothers. Just as Charlemagne and Blessed Louis the Pious have done. In Cunrad's opinion, there seemed to be no other way. At least not in the long run, for however one divided the empire, none of the rulers would suffice in the long run. And despite all public expressions of the will for peace, each of the three would secretly suspect that the other two were in fact striving to rule alone and were only waiting for a good opportunity to beat their rivals out of the field.

And was that not ultimately the goal that each of them had to pursue in the interest of their own survival?

For months, the negotiators of the three kings met near Verdun. But Cunrad did not believe that the conflicts should actually be resolved through consultation. The only thing that could now prevent a prolonged war was an overpowering enemy against whose forces all had to unite. But the times when the Arabs had penetrated deep into the Frankish Empire from Spain were long gone. And as far as the territories of the Elbe Slavs in the east of the empire were concerned, they had long since all been subject to the Frankish rulers. 

Cunrad restrained his mighty horse, which came from a special Burgundian breed. The other riders, all heavily armed, followed his example.

The ground was very deep and damp. The icy, wet coolness reached the core. And the chainmail shirts and other metal parts, which were part of the men's armour, passed on the cold unhindered. Even a multi-layer jerkin didn't help in the long run. Cunrad felt the hailstorm pass and the precipitation turn back into ordinary rain. The knocking on his helmet became less violent.

In front of them lay the broad, swollen stream. Too wide to cross without a good ferry. There were no bridges for hundreds of miles. And the ferrymen's moorings were regularly checked by his men. After all, none of them should possibly think of helping Emperor Lothar's warriors across the Rhine. There had been such cases several times since the outbreak of hostilities between Lothar and Ludwig. However, until then it had only been patrols and spies who had thus crossed the natural border between the Eastern Empire and the Middle Kingdom.

Cunrad got off his horse. Almost ankle-deep, the boots sank into the marshy ground. He stroked his horse over the neck, because the animal was restless. It had to be weather-related. No one liked to be outdoors under the conditions prevailing at the time. Not even the creatures that were made for it.

Cunrad looked across the river. There, where the church tower of Xanten protruded from the mist close to the ground. The embankments on the river bank lay in front of the wall of fog, which currently made the fortified wall appear only like a dark shadow.

The naves crowded side by side in countless numbers. The few riverboats, boats and a few large ferryboats that had already lain there were lost in the numerical superiority of the barbarian fleet that seemed to have emerged out of nowhere. They had made faster progress with their agile dragon ships upstream than the news of their arrival at the mouth of the Rhine.

"The Northmen have already been in Xanten for three days," said Cunrad. "They're gonna settle down."

"I don't believe it," one of the other men said. The horse he rode was small and stocky, he himself lean and slender. He was one of the few in the group not to wear a helmet and did not seem to be armed either. Under the coat was a grey monk's robe. He hadn't even put his hood over his head to protect himself from wind and weather. The grey hair was stuck to his head, the tonsure threw poorly cut and should have been reworked urgently.

Cunrad turned briefly to the pale monk, whose age was very difficult to estimate. "You know better the intentions of the Northmen, Brother Branagorn?"

"I've seen them," said the monk. "I have seen them plunder the villages of the Baltic Slavs."

"You were among the heathens, Branagorn?"

"Certainly. I had important negotiations there for our Blessed King, who was not called Louis the Pious for nothing."

"But his piety did not prevent him from allying himself with the heathens on the Baltic," Cunrad mocked.

"It was also about permission to build monasteries," the monk clarified. "And apart from that, many of the Slavs have now also adopted the right faith and submitted to the protection of our Christian king."

Cunrad sighed. Branagorn of Corvey was a thoroughly serious man to whom any kind of humor seemed completely foreign. Again and again the path of the linguistically gifted monk, whose diplomatic services had been used by Louis the Pious as well as by his successor of the same name, had also led to Diusburh. And often Cunrad had experienced how the monk had told his king about the results of his travels. Travels that had certainly been of invaluable diplomatic value. It was obvious that he had already met these barbarian invaders, who had recently taken up residence on the other side of the Rhine, and was perhaps better able to assess them than a man like Cunrad, who as administrator of the royal castle in Diusburh had hardly ever got beyond the area around the rivers Rhine and Ruhr.

"The Northmen are like locusts," said Branagorn of Corvey. "They attack a place, steal anything they can gather in a hurry and then move on. If they meet with the slightest resistance, then they abandon the place that this scourge of God has sacrificed and move a few miles along the coast, where they try to find another place that is as defenseless as possible and promises them rich prey and little risk".

"So above all monasteries and their unarmed inhabitants," Cunrad concluded.

"You say it," Branagorn nodded. "It would be unimaginable if they managed to plunder our abbey in Corvey... The writings kept there are unique in all Christianity."

Cunrad laughed out loud. Loud enough that the wind could have carried this laughter to the other side of the Rhine if it hadn't just blown in the wrong direction.

"What's so funny?" Branagorn asked.

"Your words are just so typical of you, Branagorn."

"Oh, yeah?"

"A few scribbled parchments are more important to you than the lives of all the innocent people who would die in a robbery like this."

"You deliberately misunderstand my words to mock me," Branagorn noted and his voice sounded icy.

"I wouldn't dare," Cunrad said. "But you can rest assured. No navigable water flows to Corvey in Westphalia, as far as I know. Therefore, these messengers from hell will never get there!"

"They are said to have reached as far as Constantinople, as they say in the north."

"These are legends!"

"They showed me coins that no doubt came from there," Branagorn explained. "No, there's no place to be safe from them."

Some northerners appeared at the ships on the other side of the river. Shameful figures. Here and there you saw a spear or the outline of a battle axe. Cunrad looked over at them. It was obvious that they had noticed the Frankish horsemen on the other side of the river. "I have a feeling," Cunrad said. "They will occupy us longer than we would like."

"King Louis gave strict orders not to take action against them," Branagorn of Corvey reminded the Lord of Diusburh.

"Yes, I know," Cunrad muttered. A foolish order, which might still take revenge, went through his mind. And only to harm Lothar. I wonder if King Ludwig's attitude will change when the Northmen next invade a village on our side of the Rhine.

Branagorn of Corvey seemed to have already guessed the thoughts of the Lord of the royal fortress in Diusburh. "I know you would most disobey our King's command and I understand you very well."

"Where are the chivalrous virtues of our king, Brother Branagorn. Aren't Christians on the other side of the river worth protecting from the births of the worst heathen hell? Is it really more important that we have our forces ready for an attack by Lothar's army?" 

The words just sputtered out of Cunrad. He was beside himself and it seemed to him at that moment also to be obviously completely indifferent whether his feudal lord and king perhaps heard of his opinion. But Cunrad had never understood how to keep his views behind the mountain.

"Your wrath is righteous, Cunrad," found Branagorn. "There are two possibilities. Either I'm right, and the Norsemen are leaving as soon as they get here, rich pickings. Then we can all be grateful to the Lord. But if they stay longer, it will be difficult to drive them away once they have settled in. But that could be good for him."

"You speak in riddles, Brother Branagorn," Cunrad expressed his confusion.

"What I meant is that there is nothing that could promote an agreement among kings as much as a common enemy."

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CHAPTER 4

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The first days had gone by without the Viking ships having moved upriver. Thorbrand was annoyed. His father had tried everything to convince Eirik Sturlason to move on to Novaesium and make rich prey there. But Eiriks didn't think so. First, it should be waited to see if it was not possible to get an appropriate ransom for the hostages one had taken. All prisoners had been thoroughly interrogated. At least one of the monks was the scion of noble parents, whose life and integrity could probably be silver-plated. There were also a few members of merchant families who simply hadn't been quick enough to get away because they still believed they could save some of their accumulated wealth. What was to happen to the other prisoners was still unclear. To take them away and sell them on the slave markets of the North only made sense if one thought of returning home as soon as possible.

However, if one should actually penetrate deeper into the realm of the Franks in order to come home with really large booty, then prisoners were only a burden.

At the moment, the bad weather meant that we could not think of continuing our journey inland. And so far there has been no need to make a final decision.

Thorbrand stood on the riverbank with a few other northerners while the storm tore his clothes and bubbled the water off his helmet. While Thorbrand might also have been the favourite son and probable successor of the great Grimr Skullsplitter, this did not mean that he had enjoyed any preferential treatment. It was natural that also the son of a leader and Jarls took part in the guarding of the ships at the approaches. While the combined fleet of Eirik and Grimr may have been larger than most of the other shipping units that left the coasts of the northern countries every year to the south to bring rich prey to the barren wasteland of their homeland, they were all aware that the defenders were at least vastly superior to them in number. Not in determination, speed, courage or ruthlessness - not to mention the skill with weapons and ships. But all this did not change the fact that they were ultimately only a handful of warriors in a sea of enemies. And this also applied to the members of Bragi Bragison's family, from whom no one could afford to insist on any privileges.

And as far as the privilege of noble birth was concerned, Thorbrand finally had to take care anyway never to emphasize this in any way improperly. If one day he really wanted to inherit his father's estate, he had to be sure of the followers of all those men who had previously sworn loyalty to Grimr Skullsplitter.  And this was by no means a matter of course for the relatives of Bragis family. Thorbrand was well aware that it would have been much better if his half-brother Olav had succeeded them. After all, he was the son of Solvejg Bragistochter and thus one of them.

Next to Thorbrand stood Bjarne the helmsman. He leaned on a spear. Bjarne was a good five years older than Thorbrand and also the son of a slave. That had connected them and established their friendship. Whenever Thorbrand was in trouble, he could rely on Bjarne's help. To Thorbrand, Bjarne had been like an older brother. And if one took it exactly, then Thorbrand felt much more connected to Bjarne the helmsman than he had been able to claim from Olav. It didn't seem to be so important whether the same blood was actually flowing in the veins. More important was whether they shared the same fate.

"Look at those Franconian bastards over there on the other side," Bjarne exclaimed with contempt. He spat out. "Cowards are. They won't dare to come over."

"These will be King Ludwig's men," Thorbrand believed. "They've been watching us since we went up this cursed river and did nothing about it."

"They watched calmly as we plundered the city and slaughtered Franconia, Thorbrand."

"They probably think we're their involuntary allies."

"These dishonorable dogs don't care who kills their enemies for them, Thorbrand. This is what happens when you have a faith that revolves around a man who let himself be crucified without defending himself and promises the faithful salvation in the hereafter. None of them want to go to Valhalla!"

"Have you ever seen a man with a horse as big as the guy over there," Thorbrand asked a little abruptly and pointed to the other side of the river.

"You're right, that's really a pretty big horse," Bjarne admitted. "If he had eight legs instead of four, you'd think Odin's horse was Sleipnir."

When Thorbrand and Bjarne were relieved from their posts, the weather had calmed down a bit. But it became freezing cold. Thorbrand was not sensitive, but since his clothes were already soaked, he was shivering.

Meanwhile, the riders around the man with the big horse had left.

"Believe me, we have nothing to fear from them", Bjarne came back to the topic when they approached the gate of Xanten facing the river. It was filled with a number of positions. Finally, it had to be prevented that their fled inhabitants possibly returned unnoticed in order to prepare a reconquest. The guards greeted Bjarne and Thorbrand briefly.

When they returned to the church, there was a real fight going on. Hromund the Rough had thrown Gunjorn Goodeye to the ground. And of course Gunjorn didn't want to put up with that. "You'll never stare at me like that again," growled Hromund, "or I'll rip your eyes out of your skull one by one!"

Gunjorn was right on his feet. "My bow!" he shouted. And one of his friends from Bragi's family threw him quiver and bow. Gunjorn caught both skillfully and safely.

Hromund wanted to pounce on Gunjorn with his massive body. The berserker grabbed a small hatchet, which he had stuck in his belt and threw it through the air. Gunjorn could only narrowly avoid him. The axe flew close to his head and clashed against the church wall. It struck a relief that showed the Mother of God exactly where Mary held the child. Cracking, the axe fell to the ground.

Hromund gave an angry cry.

Gunjorn, meanwhile, put in an arrow. "In your bearskin you look like an animal, Hromund! And like an animal I will shoot you down now!"

"Stop now!", Eirik stepped in. He turned to Grimr: "These are your people! Get them to their senses, or I'll smash their heads in with my axe myself!"

Grimr started off red. He had been arguing with Eirik all day about what to do now. The ideas were simply too far apart and a quick agreement was not in sight. And now Eirik dared to reprimand Grimr in front of his men. The anger was obvious to Grimr. It was an anger that was actually directed against Eirik. But someone else would feel it now.

"Down the bow or Thor's lightning shall strike you and burn you to ashes," Grimr roared with his hand on his sword.

But Gunjorn didn't seem willing to let things slide. The string of the bow was tense and at the distance of a few steps between Gunjorn and Hromund it was almost impossible to miss. "I will shoot you right in the eye."

"Oh really?" returned Hromund the Rough apparently unimpressed. "I'm still gonna kill you with my bare hands. If need be, I'll even go on fighting without a head, for I know no fear and no pain. Did you forget that, Gunjorn?"

"Odin gained wisdom after losing his eye. Let's see if that's the case with you, Hromund, who is known as Hromund the Rough, but who is also known as Hromund the Stupid..."

Grimr now ripped out his sword. The blade rushed through the air, hooked itself into the bow and tore it out of Gunjorn's hands. The arrow flew together with the bow into the air and bounced against the church ceiling. At that moment, Hromund wanted to rush on Gunjorn, roaring and filled with the kind of rage that only a berserker had. But he didn't come to that anymore. Grimr hit him in the head with the flat side of his blade. Hromund stood there dazed for a moment. Then the tall man with the bearskin collapsed.

"He'll sleep for a while," Grimr said. He put his sword away. "Put him on his bearskin and make sure no weapon is near him when he wakes up. "We don't know if his cursed Berserker wrath will be smoky by then."

"What was this fight about?" Thorbrand asked.

Grimr pointed to Gunjorn. "Maybe this fool can tell you something about it." Grimr made a contemptuous, throw-away gesture. His face was filled with blushes of anger. "Isn't it enough that the Franks will try to kill us? Do we have to be fools like that and take their jobs?"

Grimr's voice echoed in the church and it was completely silent for a few moments.

"He insulted me!" said Gunjorn. "He called me a urine drinker too weak to drink the Berserk drink."

"So what? Wasn't he right," Halmi the Grey asked, after which a general laughter broke out. "Consider it a compliment," Halmi finally added after the laughter had subsided a little. "One day Hromund will perish by his toadstool potion, but anyone smart enough to drink only the water of this maniac will laugh at him and call himself a wise man."

Crazy Orm was the first to laugh after Halmi had finished.

The mood seemed to relax a little. Four men from Bragi's clan were needed to carry Hromund away from the roughage. They put him on his bearskin just as Grimr had asked.

"Not everyone would have dared to rebuke a man like Hromund like that," Eirik said to Grimr.

"I don't know fear," Grimr said, "But I don't need to eat any mushrooms first! It's a quality the gods have given me." He now became aware of Thorbrand and hit him on the shoulder. "Did you see that? That's how you do it!"

Thorbrand nodded. "However, I wouldn't have let him get away so easily..."

"...and split his skull?"

Thorbrand smiled. "It probably wouldn't have been wise."

"It might have been wiser to kill Hromund than to humiliate him like that," Olav interfered. He'd been standing around the whole time, not saying a word. His features had been unnoticeable. Almost nothing. Because whoever knew him well could see what he really thought. This was true for Thorbrand as well as for Grimr, but the latter had drunk too much to be able to see this clearly at this moment.

Grimr Skullsplitter made a throw-away gesture. "What do you want? Hromund will wake up again and we have lost no warrior."

"One warrior, moreover, who outweighs fifteen others when he fought in anger," Eirik recalled. "I'd like to have him with my people. At least when I go into combat. "If that's not the case, his company may sometimes be a little... tiring!"

Some of the other men nearby laughed. A laugh that was not well received by some of the men in Bragi's family. They had not really heard what had been said in the tumultuous babble of voices - and so they now apparently interpreted the laughter as mockery of the great warrior in the bearskin. The looks were clear.

"You must expect him to take revenge," Eirik believed.

"Come on. He has sworn allegiance to me. So did his whole family. "And I have taken a woman from among them to be my wife." Grimr shook his head vigorously. He had meanwhile had a drinking horn and taken a deep sip.

"Eirik is right," Olav now interfered. "And perhaps you have made an enemy not only of Hromund, but also of others of Bragi's clan."

"What should I have done," Grimr asked quite disillusioned. He now spoke much more quietly than usual. Bragi Bragison stood with some men from his family around Hromund's camp. "Watch Gunjorn and Hromund beat each other to death?"

"They come from the same family," Eirik said.

"All the worse! An outrage against the gods!"

"It would have been Bragi's job to intervene, not yours."

"Yes, but that coward better keep a low profile."

Eirik shrugged his shoulders. "If you really are going upriver in the near future, it will certainly be a funny affair! "If I were you, I'd make sure Gunjorn and Hromund didn't put their feet on the planks of the same ship at the same time."

"I will consider your advice, Eirik," promised Grimr.

Grimr turned away and wanted to return to his place. Meanwhile, blankets, skins and furnishings had been moved from the looted houses to the church, which now had more resemblance to a particularly stately hall of a nave, as was built in the countries of the north.

Meanwhile, the attention in the room turned to other things. Behind the altar, a red-haired warrior named Rasmus was cheered on as he climbed up one of the women from the weaving house. It was the third of the women he took and he had announced to create them all in turn in one day, which was highly doubtful because of his abundant enjoyment of wine. So the bets were more against him, which spurred Rasmus on the red even more. Some of the captured silver would certainly change hands that day.

Grimr was grateful to the gods for this change. It took men's minds off things.

"Father," he heard the voice of his son Olav, who had followed him to his camp. The camp places where Thorbrand and Bjarne the helmsman had their things were very close by and so they also followed there. It was the area between the baptismal font and the beginning of the rows of benches, into which none of the Norsemen wanted to squeeze in so much. Not just because of the uncomfortable bench to kneel on. But to keep prisoners at bay, pews were excellent. When they were tied up, they could easily be tied to the benches and saved the guards.

"Father," Olav said again, for Grimr Skullsplitter had not paid any further attention to his son. 

"What is it?" Grimr asked a little gruffly.

"You have to do something."

"Good thing I have your advice. I wouldn't know what else to do," Grimr laughed.

Olav suppressed the anger that threatened to rise in him because of this blatant contempt. One day he would prove what a leader he was made of. A better one than Grimr Skullsplitter ever was in his prime. However, it was regrettable that Grimr would probably never experience this...

"You must do something about Hromund, Father."

"He sleeps well. And after that, I hope he sweated out his mushroom stock."

"This is not the end of the story. Boredom here in this Franconian nest is the cause of evil."

Grimr laughed. He pointed to the howling crowd that had formed around Rasmus the Red and the woman from the weaving house. "Isn't there enough entertainment here? "It may be that his head has suffered a little from the excessive use of the toadstool drink, but that this stuff also shrinks his manhood would be new to me."

"Then give his manhood something to do," Olav suggested. Grimr wrinkled his forehead. "You're talking in riddles, son!"

"Give him a toy to keep him busy." Olav reached out and pointed to the young nun from Novaesium. "Shall he have that one as a slave. I assume you want to take her upriver because she knows what she's doing."

Grimr seemed surprised. His face relaxed. A broad grin finally spread. He stroked his beard and finally muttered: "Maybe it's not such a bad thought what you just said."

"We need Hromund," said Olav. "But with the ravens sitting on Odin's shoulders, let our enemies fear this monster of a man, not us."

"True spoken, son. We'll do it just like you said." He beckoned two of a man. "Hromund shall have the nun. In addition to his cut. No one will doubt that he deserved it, for he fights like he fights no one else!"

"You'll have to give Gunjorn, too," Olav said. "Otherwise, he'll feel offended."

Grimr nodded. "Give him a few pieces of my share and tell him that for every franc in Novaesium containing an arrow from his quiver he gets an extra share of the loot we expect there."

"That will please him," said Olav. How could he have survived as a leader for so long if he didn't think about such things himself? His steel-blue eyes looked cool. Since his long, blond hair was hanging something in his forehead, this icy cold with which he looked at his father did not strike anyone. What a leader I would be - but my father is too stupid to realize that and instead wants to make an irascible fool his successor.... This thought flashed through him and caused that cold rage to rise in him that sometimes controlled him. An anger, however, which he had learned to hide. That also distinguishes me from Thorbrand, he thought. I won't run into anyone, like you will sooner or later, my brother.

Olav noticed that Thorbrand was looking at him. "What's the matter? Is there anything wrong with giving the nun Hromund?"

"No," he said.

"I thought..."

"What did you think?"

"I thought you wanted to strangle me best..."

"When we were kids, I beat you up once before," Thorbrand hissed through his teeth.

"If Halmi the Grey hadn't intervened then, you would have killed me."

Thorbrand's mouth remained a straight line as he spoke. "Your happiness, Olav."

"No, your happiness, for even our father would not have forgiven you for that, for he is otherwise always extremely indulgent with regard to your weaknesses."

Thorbrand no longer listened to his brother. His eyes were on the young nun from Novaesium. She looked over at him with big, fearfully widened eyes. Her hands were tied up and moored to the front pew as with the other prisoners. She has no idea what she's up against, Thorbrand thought. Her appearance reminded him more and more of his mother. But the fate facing this nun was many times worse. After all, the nun had now become the slave of a man who was proud that everyone regarded him as a wild animal and who hung himself a bearskin so that everyone really recognized this trait.

In the evening there was a loud argument between Grimr Skullsplitter and Eirik Sturlason. The two men yelled at each other and cursed each other with the worst swear words. For others this might have been a reason to smash each other's skulls with the Danish axe. But Eirik and Grimr had known each other for so long and had been on the road together so often that their connection could withstand a real fight. And apart from that, each of them was aware that he was dependent on the other.

In the end they agreed and drank on it. For this purpose, the last supplies of mead, which the Northmen still carried on their ships, were used. There was not much left of it after the long journey they had behind them. But both tasted the brew from home far better than the sweet wine that had fallen into their hands in the monastery walls.

"So this is how we'll do it," Grimr said. We'll leave with our ships as soon as the weather allows. You'll stay here with your ships."

"Good luck to you, Grimr. You know I've always respected your daring."

"We'll leave our knots here and I can rely on them being in good hands with you!"

"A matter of honour," Eirik promised.

"By the gods!"

"With Odin and Thor!"

"And with Hel, into whose dark realm of the dead you shall enter, if you will not keep your word!"

"Have you ever experienced that in all these years, Grimr?"

"No."

They clashed their drinking horns. "Let us swear by Njörd! "He shall bless your and my undertakings in this riverland!"

"That's the way it should be," Eirik agreed, "although it's a little strange that the god of the sea of all people should stand by us in the depths of the inland."

"I would even accept the help of the God of the Arabs if I knew a little more about him and was sure that I was on our side."

"I'd be careful."

"Oh, yeah? Why?"

"Because the God of the Arabs is invisible - just like a few mean dwarves from the sagas told by the fires. And I don't trust the invisible. "I find even a crucified one more pleasant."

"Whatever," said Grimr. "I intend to plunder Novaesium..."

"...and if you succeed and don't have a few frightening nuns tear your warriors away, I'll send the knots after you so you can ship your prey," Eirik summed up an important point of her agreement. "After all, you'll probably need transport ships..."

"I'll let you know when the time comes and send you a messenger," promised Grimr. "And who knows, maybe you'll regret later that you didn't go along too!"

"I don't think so," Eirik said. He made a sweeping gesture, spilling half of what was a drinking horn. "You see what a pleasant place this city has become since we have it in our hands. The women from the weaving house are handsome and little by little we can expect a high silver ransom for some of the prisoners. It is the wisest thing to stay here for the next few months." He laughed out loud. "How else would we reap what has already been sown?"

Grimr made a throw-away gesture. "We have talked long enough about this point. And I'm afraid you won't tell me anything new if we had talked about it for a whole week!"

"True," Eiriks admitted. "I hope that young nun will still be able to help you."

Grimr's face clouded a little before he answered. "What makes you think that might not be the case," Grimr Skullsplitter asked himself, and the bushy eyebrows rose a little.

"Well, you know how Hromund is. Neither his enemies nor his friends or his wives have anything to laugh at. "And as we've already seen today, he doesn't hold it so close to who he's beating the head off."

"What matters is that our enemies fear him," said Grimr. "I won't do it, at least, as you may have seen today."

"A Jarl shall not have to fight his own men," Eirik found.

"Sometimes that's inevitable," Grimr returned.

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RASMUS THE RED HAD collapsed from exhaustion after taking just the fifth of the Webhaus women. "By Odin, it's all because of that cursed wine," he bawled before he passed out and slept out his intoxication. Some men had now won a lot of silver, others had lost the same amount.

Bragi Bragison was one of the winners. He meticulously counted his silver pieces on a pew in the front part of the nave. Here it was for itself. Nobody had set up camp here because it was uncomfortable when the door opened. And this has always been the case when the guards had to be replaced.

Olav Skullsplitter came to see him. The men of Bragi's family were important to him. Especially when he wanted to put his intentions into practice and claim leadership. If necessary, even during his father's lifetime - and against his father's resistance. In any case, it simply could not be that a man like Thorbrand, driven by irascibility, was lifted onto the shield. Olav had to do everything in his power to prevent that.

"What are you looking at my silver for?" asked Bragi, who had lined up the pieces on the pew and put them on the wood in groups of ten.

As a young man, Bragi was on his uncle's ship. A journey had taken him across the rivers of the eastern lands and a sea known as the Black Sea to the lands of the Arabs, where he had learned to calculate according to their kind. For in the art of arithmetic, it was said, no one surpassed the followers of the invisible God Allah and his prophet.

"Don't worry, I won't take anything from you," Olav laughed.

"I'm reassured," Bragi said. "I'd hate to slay you."

"You'd hardly succeed."

"You shouldn't be too sure!"

"As I said, your silver means nothing to me. I like to steal, but never from someone in my own family!"

Bragi laughed. "I'm glad to hear that."

"Besides, I couldn't face my mother if I stole from her family!"

"In that case, I really don't want to be in your shoes," Bragi grinned. "Solvejg has a quarrelsome temper. "We were all happy when she married your father and stopped living with us."

Now both men laughed.

"If the weather changes, we'll go upriver," Olav finally said. "There will be many fights. "This Novaesium will hardly be as easy to take as the nest we currently store in."

"I share that view."

"Word will have got around about what happened here in Xanten. Our opponents will have prepared better."

"If they can do it," Bragi restricted himself. "After all, the Franks are at war with each other and seemingly concentrate their forces mainly on killing each other."

"An affection we seem to share with them," said Olav. "At least when you think about what happened today."

Bragi shrugged his shoulders. "I've never thought anything of clouding my mind with a toadstool drink. If a man's natural rage is not enough, he should not go into battle. The reason for drawing the sword is simply not sufficient."

"Tell me about it," Olav laughed. "But I don't think your words make much of an impression on someone who was willing to drink another warrior's water just to feel a little more anger within himself."

"I would never do anything like that," Bragi said. "But some men do strange things.... Like your father."

"He had no choice but to face Hromund," said Olav.

"That's not what I mean."

"Then what?"

Bragi looked up from his silver pieces and looked around as if he wanted to make sure that no one was listening to them. "We have had many successful rides on which Njörd has given us good luck and guided us home with rich prey. "Sometimes we have challenged the happiness and support of the gods."

"Yes, I know," said Olav. "Unfortunately, I wasn't even born on many of those trips and I only heard the stories by the fire."

"I hate to say this, but he's getting old, Olav. And he's not the same as before."

"This is the course of events. Even the best of us will run out of time."

"A good leader should be expected to look beyond time, Olav. And few can."

"That may be so."

"Your brother doesn't have that gift. He trusts in the happiness given by the gods and I am not even sure whether he even believes in them and prays to them or whether his Christian mother's slave faith has not secretly spoiled him forever". Bragi was printing something around. But Olav knew what the other one was getting at. Olav had always taken care to preserve the friendship of the men from Bragis family. His mother had supported him to the best of her ability. It had once been Bragi who had taught him sword fighting and learned how to sail a longboat. He had shown him how to exploit and even outwit the impetuous, deadly force of the wind and cross it against its blowing direction. And he had learned for a year from Bragi's younger brother Steinar Bragison the art of building ships that could withstand the wildest ocean and sail to the coast of the distant land of Al-Andalus, which was said to be an apostate province of the distant Caliph of Baghdad. It was not uncommon in the countries of the North for his sons to be educated at a friend's or relative's house. What Olav could not overcome until today, however, was the fact that his father apparently regarded everything he had learned as worthless and preferred Thorbrand instead. Thorbrand, who had never left his father's farm unless he had gone out to sea with him, something he had already been allowed to do as a boy. Thorbrand, who had learned nothing but to let his temper in battle run free and to beat himself around with the sword and to forget all caution what certain men regarded as special courage. Thorbrand... The very thought of his half-brother gave rise to resentment in Olav. One day it would have to come to a decision between them. Maybe to an open fight, but Olav wanted to avoid that. Olav was determined to prepare for this day and to gather allies when it came to the question of who would succeed Grimr Skullsplitter.

"When your father is no longer among the living, and he drinks his mead in Valhalla, everything will fall apart here. Everything your father and grandfather built," Bragi said very seriously. "The men will go their own way. I don't think your brother will be able to keep the fleet together. Fathers will leave and seek their fortune elsewhere. Maybe some of them will join Eirik. But he also has his best days behind him. The size of his fleet is deceptive. He's a giant on clay feet."

"That goes for any leader," said Olav. "Once Njörd has turned away from him and there is no more booty or luck in battle, the followers will be up and away. No vows will change anything, I'm afraid."

"True spoken - and wise for a man your age."

Olav smiled cautiously. A smile that also contained a slightly bitter touch. "I'm glad to hear you think so, Bragi."

"Olav, I will say this only once and pray to the gods that no one will hear it and no one will know before time. But should the hour come when you will one day take over the leadership, then you can rely on my support."

Olav was speechless for a moment - which was rare for him. But what Bragi had just presented to him was more than he had expected in his wildest dreams.

"Thank you," Olav said, still visibly under the impression of the assistance Bragi had offered him.

"You'll have to be grateful to me when you've achieved what you had in mind," Bragi returned with a grin. "For example, one could talk about whether the archers from my clan are not entitled to a slightly higher share of the spoils than was customary so far."

"We will talk about everything in due course," promised Olav.

"Your father was unfortunately never very willing to talk about this, although he too had to admit that a handful of skilled archers can sometimes be more important than a hundred axe warriors."

"As I said, in due time, Bragi!"

"There is one condition for my support."

Olav raised his eyebrows. I was beginning to think he couldn't get out of it, Olav had it in his head. Let's see how brave you really are, Bragi Bragison!

"What condition?" Olav asked.

"Whenever you think the day is convenient for me to take the lead, I am on your side and, as you know, I have great influence on the men of my clan and others."

"I'm aware of that."

"But there is one limitation. As long as your father lives, I will be faithful to no one but him."

I thought so, but it crossed Olav's mind. You wouldn't dare a rebellion against my father...

"Be certain that I will choose the right time," said Olav.

Bragi nodded thoughtfully. "I'm sure of that," he muttered before concentrating fully on counting his silver pieces.

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CHAPTER 5

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The next night Thorbrand was on guard duty very late. Midnight was long past and an ominous silence hung over the conquered and plundered place. A penetrating cold reigned now, but the weather had calmed down overall. The sky was starry. A pale full moon stood in the sky and made sure that it was relatively bright.

Together with Bjarne the helmsman, Thorbrand was back on the approaches to guard the ships. This time there was nothing to be seen of the Franks on the other bank of the river. They seemed to be quite indifferent to what happened in Xanten. Thorbrand learned from those who had been keeping watch before them that apparently no Franconian had shown up all night.

"I don't know if this is really a good sign," Bjarne said. "It could also be that they're gathering a large army somewhere now, which we'll run into sometime as soon as we move upriver."

"This army would have to cross the river first," Thorbrand said. "And that's not so easy. He seems to have a pretty strong current these days."

When they returned to the church after their guard, it was almost deathly quiet. You could hear some men snoring. The fire had burned down. Hardly anyone was awake anymore. Even the guards at the church door, for which two men from Eirik's fleet were assigned, seemed to have succumbed to their fatigue in the meantime. And even the captured monks and nuns had stopped praying all the time.

All the more Thorbrand noticed a soft whimper.

"What is that?" he whispered.

"Any of the prisoners. "She probably has no chance of a ransom being raised for her."

"No, you're wrong, Bjarne..."

Thorbrand had identified the cause of the sounds. With quick steps he went through the church. That they were clearly audible and echoed in the vault did not bother him.

"Thorbrand!" he heard Bjarne behind him. But Thorbrand ignored him. There, where Hromund the Rough had his camp, he found the young nun from Novaesium. Hands and feet had been tied together. Her robe and her body seemed scuffed. She had wounds and swellings on her face that disfigured her so much that she was barely recognizable.

Her whimpering died when she noticed Thorbrand. She looked up to him. The left eye was so swollen that hardly anything of it could be seen.

Thorbrand felt a cold grim rise inside him. He hears a voice inside him. His mother's voice. She spoke Franconian and told him how she had fared. How she had been robbed from her village at the mouth of the Elbe - together with the few other survivors of the attack. They had been Franconian farmers, settled on the coast of Saxony, after Charlemagne had conquered their land, turned their inhabitants into Christians and the nearby fortress Hammaburg even into bishop's seat. It had taken a generation to build the village and only a few hours to destroy everything and carry away the few belongings. The Franconian crew of Hammaburg had not been able to help them. And the rage of the looters that they had hardly captured anything that had been worthwhile for the whole company left them out on the prisoner. She had told him how she had been resold at a market, how she had been beaten and humiliated and how she had ended up on the farm of Grimr Skullsplitter, who had bought her together with a few cows. "Thou shalt never forget it," she had told him. "No one should forget where they come from. And you should remember that half of your ancestors were Frankish peasants who believed in Jesus Christ."

"I don't believe in Jesus Christ," Thorbrand replied. "He was too weak to help you then. Then why would he help me when I pray to him?"

All these words and images from the past have ascended in him now. They looked like tinder on the fire of the freshly kindled irascibility that had begun to flare up in him.

Thorbrand went to the camp of the madrm, which was very close by. Orm snored especially loud and penetratingly. It reminded of the sound of the saw used to process the wood for the ships. Thorbrand toasted the sleeping man with his foot. Crazy Orm jumped up. He immediately reached for the short-handed one-handed axe lying next to him on the floor. And his face was distorted to a grimace at first, which only relaxed a little when he recognized Thorbrand.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"Where is Hromund?"

"He has a watch - as do we all from time to time."

"Where is he exactly?"

The mad Orm blinked. He spoke blurred and indistinct. It seemed to take him a while to wake up. Anyway, he lowered the axe now. His forehead was wrinkled. "He's by the big tower on the west side of town, right by the main gate through which most of the people escaped, so we won't get too much ransom money!"

Most of the ransom money would go to Eirik and his men anyway. This was part of the agreement between Grimr Skullsplitter and Eirik Sturlason on how to proceed - but the mad Orm didn't seem to have noticed too much about it.

Wordlessly, Thorbrand turned around.

"Why do you want to know for sure?" Orm shouted after him. He was about to wake up some men with it. But he didn't seem to care. "Didn't you hear me talking to you!", Orm sent after the angry young man.

But Thorbrand didn't answer him. Stieren Blickes and with hasty, long steps he went back to the church door.

Bjarne tried in vain to stop him.

Thorbrand pushed the church door aside and stepped outside. He did it so wildly and impetuously that the guards feared from their slumber. Noisily the door closed again.

Bjarne followed him outside and caught up with him after a few steps.

And the helmsman knew Thorbrand well enough to know exactly what had made the young man react.

"Thorbrand, she's a slave! And by Odin and all the gods, she belongs to Hromund the Rough. He can do what he wants with her."

"I know that very well."

"Then stay out of it, Thorbrand!"

"I can't do that!"

"That nun happens to look like your mother, but that's all!"

"Let me go!" Thorbrand tore himself loose when Bjarne tried to hold him.

"Thorbrand! Must you lose an eye like Odin to become wise?"

Thorbrand walked steadfastly to the large tower at the west gate. Like most of the other buildings in the village, the tower was made of wood, but was hardly affected by the invasion of the Northmen. The arrows had not reached this point and the gate itself had remained completely intact. The tower had only a height of three or four man lengths. It was by far not as high as the church tower, but at least higher than the other watchtowers along the fortification wall.

In any case, this tower was an important vantage point for monitoring the surrounding flat land. And he didn't need to be any higher, because there were hardly any hills, bushes or even trees, you could see every potential attacker many miles away by day and even in a normal, moonlit night it would have been almost impossible to approach the fortification wall from the land side unnoticed, without offering the archers an easy target on the passages.

Thorbrand stormed up the wooden stairs. Bjarne followed him. But the helmsman suspected that he could hardly stop Thorbrand from doing what he had planned.

Hromund's highly erect figure in bearskin stood out against the pale moonlight like the shadow of an animal man. With a quick movement Thorbrand pulled a dagger out of the fur-trimmed leather boot. Before the Berserk had understood what had happened to him, Thorbrand had put the dagger to his throat. "Don't move, you mushroom-happy animal!", he hissed.

Hromund growled something incomprehensible to himself. Every muscle, every tendon of his huge body was tense at that moment. He took a deep breath, which resulted in a rattling sound. But he stopped as if frozen to a pillar of salt.

"What do you want from me, son of a Franconian slave girl? Kill one of your own kind? Is that any way to treat a fellow fighter you owe your fortune to?"

"Attack me if you want, I'll kill you here and now. And if you kill me, you'll never go on another boat. Not at my father's, not at Eirike's, not where they're known."

"The same would happen to you if you stabbed him now," Hromund said. "Even your father or brother couldn't save you from exile."

"I don't care, Hromund, who was so brave as to take on an unarmed, tied up nun!"

"I have no idea what you want. She's mine. Your father gave it to me."

"I saw what you did to her."

"I'll do it again if I please. Because I can do what I want with her."

"Thorbrand, let it go!", Bjarne intervened. "The nun isn't worth all the trouble. And it's better to dip your head in cold river water than in that man bear's mushroom-contaminated blood if you want to get rid of your anger!"

"I don't want to get rid of my anger," Thorbrand said and a cold fire glistened in his eyes. "Listen carefully, Hromund, who is proud to be an animal - although I don't know if it makes much sense, because animals don't understand our language!"

"What do you want? Tell me what to do with my slave?"

"You can do with her whatever you want. She is your property..."

"Glad your mind is slowly returning, son of Grimr Skullsplitter!"

"...but I want you to know: "If you kill the nun, I will kill you."

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THORBRAND RETRACTED the dagger. Hromund's face distorted to a grimace. Meanwhile the other men, who were assigned to guard duty on the tower, stood around them. And a few had even hurried up from a neighbouring career behind the palisades to see what was going on here. The exchange of words between Thorbrand and Hromund had finally been loud enough to be heard from afar.

Thorbrand took a step back.

All eyes were now on Hromund.

No one had ever dared to reprove Hromund and humiliate him in this way. Even as a boy he had been unusually tall and strong and since his seventeenth year at the latest none of the men from Grimr's or Eirik's fleet could have taken him in strength and ferocity.

Hromund's gaze fixed Thorbrand in a way that would have frightened others. But Thorbrand held that look. Tormentingly long moments passed like this. Moments in which nobody dared to say a single word - even to avoid the irascibility of one of the two opponents.

Then Hromund finally turned around. He looked out into the expanse of grassy meadows covered with a light layer of snow. He muttered something to himself that no one understood. Maybe a curse, maybe a prayer to the gods. No one would have asked Hromund.

"Come now," Bjarne said, putting Thorbrand's hand on his shoulder.

He did this as energetically as only a very good friend could afford.

Thorbrand felt the pent-up rage within him. There was the irrepressible desire to kill Hromund immediately, to ram the dagger into his body up to the notebook and to turn around in his flesh. In his heart, it all merged with the memories of his mother and the merciful image of the young nun from Novaesium.

"Tame your anger, Thorbrand," he heard Bjarne say from a great distance and the helmsman's words echoed in his head dozens of times.

Thorbrand felt the pressure exerted by Bjarne's hand on his shoulder and finally gave in. He turned around and left the tower.

The glances of the others followed him. Glances of men who admired him for his courage at that moment, for none of them had dared anything like him before.

Without haste Thorbrand left the tower, went down the stairs and back towards the church.

"That was not wise," Bjarne said.

"It was right," Thorbrand returned and took a deep breath. "And now I feel better."

"Hromund will one day take revenge for this."

"Let him try. Let him give me an excuse to kill him. I am happy to take this opportunity!"

"Perhaps Hromund will choke on his toadstool first - but perhaps one day your own wrath will kill you, Thorbrand."

Thorbrand looked at him and his face relaxed a little. "Isn't it said that such men come to Valhalla and are spared the dark realm of the goddess Hel?"

"Maybe you should hope the Christians are right."

"Oh, yeah?"

"...and after your death you will be forgiven for your sins."

Thorbrand laughed. But the laughter died, because he remembered that his mother had once told him about the things that Christians considered deadly sins. And the temper was one of the worst.

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CHAPTER 6

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It was a cold, clear morning when the Grimr Skullsplitter fleet left. At least most of the men accompanied him. Only a small delegation was left behind to man the bulbous knorren and, if necessary, to let them follow upstream.

Two dozen longboats with a total of about 700 northmen set out upstream.

Grimr and his sons were on the NJÖRD'S BLESSING, a nave with a detachable dragon's head on the bow, but the paint was peeling off a bit. The much too long stay at the coast of the Anglo-Saxons with its bad weather had contributed to the fact that the colour lost its shine earlier than usual. Some saw in it an evil omen and prayed to Odin as a precaution. The grey Halmi, on the other hand, had already expressed the suspicion that she had cheated Sven the Blue from Birka, from whom Grimr had acquired the colour of the ship, when they had still been on the coast of the Anglo-Saxons and this time had supplied them with inferior goods.

Hromund the Rough was on another ship. Grimr had heard of the incident on the tower, as the story had spread very quickly among the Northmen.

The nun from Novaesium, however, had come on the NJÖRD'S BLESSING for this trip. After all, she was the only prisoner who made the journey upriver - and for just one reason! It was expected to provide valuable information as soon as Novaesium was approached.

Grimr wanted her near him at least while he was driving. Because he thought he had that right. Finally he had given the slave to Hromund.

Hromund, on the other hand, had taken note of this with gnashing teeth. Nobody doubted that the nun remained his property. And that he was the only one allowed to carry a prisoner with him could be understood as a privilege granted to him by Grimr, because there was no warrior among his men who had killed more enemies.

Grimr hadn't said a single word about the incident that night. Not to Hromund, not to Thorbrand. But now that they had been on the road for a few hours, he took Thorbrand aside. The two men stood close together.

"Twice in two days, a skull cleaver showed Hromund the Berserker where his limits were," he said quietly, smiling. "Who would have thought that possible?"

"He's a disgusting bastard!" Thorbrand said.

"Yes, he is," confirmed Grimr. But don't forget, my son, he is our son and we should be grateful to Odin for normally fighting on our side."

Thorbrand pointed to Gunjorn Goodeye, who stood in front of the dragon head of the NJÖRD'S BLESSING and watched the shore. "He'll agree with me!"

"Of course. And so do I."

"It would have been Bragi's job to rebuke him."

"Even Bragi has so far trembled at Hromund. And if you are honest, you have to say: Bragi was also not particularly brave in the past. "I can judge that as many times as I've traveled with him." Grimr Skullsplitter put one hand on his son's shoulder. "I will not repeat this if Bragi, Hromund or any other man of my wife's family can hear it, but I want you to know: What you did was not very wise, but brave. And it made me proud!"

He spoke so quietly that Gunjorn Goodeye, who also belonged to Bragis clan, heard nothing of it.

"I didn't do this to gain fame or make my father proud."

"I know that. But whoever thinks of glory even before he has done anything, the gods often deny him glory in the end."

"I never thought about that."

"I, for one, am proud of you. "Whoever manages to rebuke someone like Hromund the Rough must be a born leader."

Thorbrand smiled. But that smile died when he saw the look his brother Olav gave him. A look in which disappointment and anger were balanced by cold determination and bare hatred.

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AT FIRST THE NORSEMEN's naves stayed away from the shores for the most part. After all, they did not want to offer the Franconians a target without necessity. Gunjorn Goodeye repeatedly pointed out that at least on the eastern bank of the Rhine there were scouts watching them. "If you want, I can kill some of them," Gunjorn said to Grimr. "However, Bjarne would have to make sure that we get a little closer."

"Let them watch us," Grimr returned. "I'll bet they'll just watch us plunder Novaesium. Just like they did in Xanten. I just wish there were a few francs on the west bank now and then."

"Why is that?" Thorbrand asked.

"Horror is our ally, Thorbrand. Believe me, we'll have an easy time in Novaesium when they know we're coming."

"Or the Franks are already carrying all the treasures we want for ourselves."

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THORBRAND COULD ALSO be divided to row. As the son of the Jarl, who owned the ships and maintained and equipped this fleet, this would not have been absolutely necessary. No one would have expected this from him at all. But the men saw it as a good sign when a leader or the son of a leader made common with them.

Thorbrand did well to use his muscles and concentrate fully on the coordinated rowing manoeuvres. He'd known that since he was very young. Rowing a large longship was not as easy as it seemed to the viewer. Depending on their rudder position in the ship and the commands of the helmsman, they had to react, because otherwise even the largest nave had become a victim of the current and capsized faster than the Valkyrie could appear to bring the drowning to Valhalla. Manoeuvring along rivers, estuaries and at the confluence of their waters could be very treacherous.

Thorbrand initially changed his mind. More precisely, it prevented him from thinking of anything other than the nave and the rudder. Only the sight of the nun from Novaesium sometimes reminded him of the moment when he had held his dagger to the rough mouth of Hromund's neck and all the things that were mentally connected with it for him. As long as we're on the river, he thought she's safe from him. She stared at him the whole time. She was not stupid and the dialects of the Franks were certainly similar enough to the language of the Northmen to be able to understand most of it. So she must have heard what had happened on the tower from the men's conversations, because everyone had talked about it. Especially when Hromund was not around and listened, so that you might attract the resentment of the berserker when talking about the moment of his greatest shame.

And that had been the case on board the NJÖRD'S BLESSING since its departure from the approaches at Xanten. And the men on board had talked about it more than once.

Only Thorbrand had avoided commenting again somehow. Finally, he didn't want to add fuel to the fire. Because one thing was also clear: at the moment it was first and foremost about hunting the fat prey they had all dreamed of since they were told about the rich monasteries and trading places that were supposed to exist in this country - places that were just waiting for someone to come and take what they liked.

Just for a moment Thorbrand returned the young nun's gaze and he noticed that she had brown eyes. In his homeland there was hardly anyone who had such eyes. But Thorbrand remembered that this had also been his mother's eye color. There's nothing I can do for you, there was something on his mind. You shouldn't get your hopes up. Nothing at all - except perhaps the bliss in the hereafter that your faith promises you.

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AT NIGHT THEY WERE stored in a branched branch of the big river. He branched off on the west bank and wrote a loop-shaped track before finally reuniting with the main stream. The area between the branch and the main stream formed an island without direct access to the mainland. An ideal storage place. Whoever was interested in it could not attack it easily, but needed enough boats or rafts to get to the river island. There were shallow shores that were perfect for longboats to land there. Despite the cold, there was no fire.

"We don't want to call the Franks here negligently!", Grimr Skullsplitter commented. "Then we might as well hand them a formal invitation so they can drink our last mead!"

"We should still send some scouts into the area," said Olav.

But Grimr disagreed, "That won't be necessary. We'll only camp here for a few hours. Before sunrise we will continue upstream."

In the few hours the Northmen stayed on the river island, hardly a word was spoken. They ate dried fish that they had brought back from their homeland and then slept a little. Most of them had finally rowed all day against the current of the river. And the hope that the wind could be so favourable that one could move forward with the help of the sails was not particularly high.

That night Thorbrand woke up briefly. The whimpering of the nun had woken him. A sound that mixed with the rattling breath of Hromund the Rough. The whimpering soon died. The rattling breath could be heard a little longer. Don't think I wouldn't let my vow come true, Hromund! he thought and felt the irrepressible anger that had dominated him at the moment he put the dagger to the bearskin-wearing berserker's throat.

Soon the night was quiet and cold again. The snoring of the men mixed with the sounds of some aquatic creatures and the splashing of the small waves that washed the current of the river against the shore.

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THEY CONTINUE THEIR journey before sunrise. It was so humid and cold that Thorbrand at first thought he had already entered the dark realm of Hels without realizing it. He had always imagined the kingdom of Hel and already when he heard the stories about it as a little boy around the campfire, he had come to the realization that it was much more desirable to die in battle instead and to be brought to Walhall by the Valkyries.

Soon they were back on the water and rowed against the current. Ice cold rain started. The ship's crews were finally completely soaked. The water in the naves was so high that it had to be scooped to prevent capsizing. At times the rain was so strong that one could hardly see the shore.

When the rain died down, clouds of mist floated over the water and swept up to the auras on the shore.

"Let's see the good in everything," Grimr said. "Hardly anyone will be able to see us if there are any scouts on the shores."

"We'll have to start a fire tonight," said Olav. "Or half our men will catch their death!"

"If we look for a suitable place that is not so easily visible, we can dare", the grey Halmi believed.

"And when a Franconian or Saxon shows up, he'll see what he gets out of it," Gunjorn Goodeye, who had just retightened the string of his long bow, interfered.

In the course of the day they passed a few small settlements with a merciful appearance, all of which were located on the west bank. But according to the map of the Frisian merchant, none of them was comparable to a market place, as Novaesium had to have it - let alone that there were any signs of finding a rich monastery, a church or anything else here that would have been worth plundering.

One heard frightened cries and shouts.

Thorbrand could understand fragments of it. He realized they were afraid of the scorpion fish at the bow of our ships! This is exactly what these wooden dragonheads were made for. They should spread fear. But just as the longships emerged from the fog, many a villager thought they were mythical creatures in the flesh. Abortions of hell that had perhaps risen from the bottom of the river with evil, pathogenic vapours to bring death and ruin.

None of the settlements they passed was worth the effort of plundering. More than fishing one night or seeds and a few cows and pigs could hardly have been caught there. Even Xanten had seemed like the embodiment of pure wealth, although both Eirik and Grimr had been rather disappointed by the yield. But perhaps this was also due to the exaggerated tales that they had taken too much at face value and which had heightened their greed.

Hromund der Raue was on a nave which Grimr Skullsplitter had placed under the command of his follower Stormur Stormsson. Son of the Storm meant its name - and that was exactly the name of the broad-shouldered man with a dense, almost to his eyes sprawling beard, too, for Stormur had been a foundling child who had been found during a storm. No one knew who the child was. The parents remained unknown. The boy had been raised by Grimr Skullsplitter's brother Arne and his wife, and after Arne's death in a battle against the Slavs, Stormur had become one of Grimr's most important followers.

And since Stormur Hromund - who couldn't swim - once saved the life after a Skaid capsized, the storm's son was the one the berserker was most likely to listen to. Hromund did not want to fear an enemy or danger in battle, but he was afraid of the water like an anxious child. And the abundant enjoyment of his mushroom potion or mead did not change that. Stormur definitely enjoyed more authority with him than his clan leader Bragi Bragison. That Stormur had not intervened during the dispute with Gunjorn Goodeye was simply because Gunjorn was his father-in-law and he could not have allowed himself to stand up to him in this dispute.

Grimr understood this, even if it had forced him to intervene and even an experienced Jarl as he could not estimate how this would affect the future.

Hromund had certainly avoided Grimr. And apart from that, there were worse and more honourable things than being beaten unconscious by his Jarl.

Like what Thorbrand had done.

That was unforgivable.

Now Hromund stood high upright. He leaned against the dragon's head of Stormur Stormsson's longship. The feet were on the right and left side of the railing. His hands were raised to the sky and spread the bearskin he wore around his shoulders. He gave loud, booming screams. Hromund had to appear to the inhabitants of the shore settlement they passed like a creature of hell. An animal demon, half human, half hairy bear, sent as a scourge of God. A being from whom one could only freeze in sheer horror or escape in hopeless flight.

A choir of bright cries could be heard from the shore, mainly from women and children.

"You shouldn't let him get away with it, Father," Thorbrand thought.

"What shall I do, son?", Grimr returned skullsplitter shrugging. "Yell at it? Believe me, I could - so loud that even the rough Hromund is frightened! "And I don't think you're seriously thinking about swimming over to Stormur's ship, holding another dagger tip to that man bear's neck!"

"The news of his screams will spread! We will hardly be able to approach Novaesium unnoticed! And that could mean we're expected! And we will not be outnumbered, as we were in Xanten!"

"If I had a flat-footed cow shit, I'd throw it straight into Hromund's open mouth to get it stuffed," Grimr said. "And believe me, I'd hit too!"

The other men laughed.

"Maybe it'll help us," Olav believed. "That we could take this Novaesium in a surprise attack, nobody can believe anyway. We should have left upstream sooner. But if the news of a terrible animal man rushes ahead of us, it may help us to encounter less resistance."

"So let him scream, the berserker," said Grimr. I just hope he has enough air left to kill a few francs when the time comes."

"Maybe we should give this horror a little more time to spread," Olav suggested. "That'll make it easier for us later..."

Grimr frowned. "What do you mean exactly, son?"

"We should land the fleet at a convenient location. Then we should send a boat first to investigate the situation. "When it returns, we may receive valuable clues that will allow us to better plan the attack."

"Why shouldn't we just climb over the walls and conquer the place, just as we did in Xanten," Thorbrand asked. "Speed and boldness will this time also bring us the support of the gods. You'll see."

Olav's smile seemed a little sour. "No one should consider using the mind superfluous simply because one believes one can be sure of the support of the gods."

Grimr seemed thoughtful. "Maybe your suggestion isn't so bad," he said and stroked his beard. "We'll send a ship ahead to check the situation. At night. Between midnight and the early hours of the morning, it should reach Novaesium."

"Then, when everything is sleeping", Olav concluded - visibly satisfied that his father had apparently accepted his proposal. Too often this kind of thing didn't happen. Grimr had his own mind and above all it was important for him to make it clear to everyone at all times that he made his own decisions - uninfluenced by the whispers of others. And that was also true of his sons.

"And if we are lucky, Odin will send us a mist hiding the ship," Olav returned. He reached out and added. "We should take the ODINS goat cars. This is the smallest Skaid in our fleet - and particularly fast and manoeuvrable."

"A good suggestion," praised Grimr.

"And we should take the nun too. She can certainly give us good clues."

"Or cause a lot of trouble."

"None that can't be handled. "If we promise to spare her convent sisters, she will certainly be very helpful."

"If you ask me, a knife at the throat of this Christian woman makes more sense than an offer she wouldn't believe us anyway. But as Christians say, many roads lead to Rome. And hopefully one of the treasures of Novaesium."

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THAT NIGHT THEY DID not moor anywhere, for the wind was favourable. Finally the sails could be reinstalled and dried. It wasn't raining. The wind was bitterly cold, but strong enough to go against the current. Only sometimes, when the river made an unfavourable bend, the rudders had to be used. They made faster progress in this way than the day before. Halmi the Grey took a sip of river water from time to time, gurgling it through his mouth and then spitting it out again. Sometimes he blew it through his nose, which had already earned him the nickname of old sperm whale.

On the high seas they orientated themselves by the stars and the position of the sun. But if both were not to be seen, one had to fall back on other orientation possibilities. Currents and shoals of fish could help. But also the taste of the water. It could be very different in both the open ocean and the course of a stream. At least for someone whose senses were fine enough to see that. And no one far and wide was more skilled in it than Halmi the Grey. "A runic spell may put me in some sea or river whose water I have already tasted, I would recognize the water," Halmi always said. If Grimr's fleet was ever on its way back, the knowledge Halmi was now gathering could still become very valuable.

Only in the evening of the next day one searched again a landing stage at a protected place. At one side of the river, surrounded by bushes and trees, there were shores where it was convenient to moor. This time, however, a break in the early twilight came ashore. The men were exhausted and soaked. You couldn't light a fire.

The embankment was flat. Thorbrand was one of the first to go ashore.

"We'll have to take a look around the area," he said. "Otherwise we might get a nasty surprise tonight."

"Take all the men you need," said Grimr.

"Two or three men is enough," Thorbrand returned. "We don't want to attract attention."

While the others were setting up camp, Thorbrand left with two other men. One was Rasmus the Red. The other was Gunjorn Goodeye.

The three northmen first fought their way through the dense undergrowth on the shore, then crossed a narrow strip of forest before entering an area covered with shrubs and tall grass. There were no settlements in the immediate vicinity. And there were no traces of cattle or sheep.

"There don't even seem to be farmers in this area," said Gunjorn, who had filled the quiver of his bow well with arrows. Gunjorn made the arrows himself. He understood enough of the art of forging to shape the tips exactly as he thought would best serve the purpose. But the most important thing was that he himself cast a rune spell on her. Every single arrow was subjected to this spell. Black stripes were visible on the wood and Gunjorn had applied a rune to each arrowhead. When the paint faded, he repainted it. And he made sure after every fight that none of these arrows remained on the battlefield.

"Odin sacrificed his eye to attain wisdom, but it will probably never happen to me, so no one should expect wisdom from me," Gunjorn said often. The runes at the arrowheads were not dedicated to Odin either, although he was considered Lord of Runes and Magic, but to Thor. For with precision his lightning these arrows were supposed to find their destination - and mostly did.

In the distance a wolf howled and his companion answered him. "Did you hear that?" Rasmus asked.

"A good sign," Thorbrand said.

"Why is the howling of a wolf a good sign?" Rasmus wondered. "So if we had sheep and goats, I'd be worried!"

"And a hunter shouldn't be surprised if he can't find small game because these drooling beasts have eaten everything," adds Gunjorn. The archer had his eyes wandering. "Too bad," he added. "I thought we'd find something tasty. I was also wondering why there are neither rabbits nor any wild chickens or other animals to be seen here. Now I know."

"An empty stomach awaits those of us who no longer like to smell dried fish," Rasmus said. He slapped Thorbrand on the shoulder. "But someone like you calls that good news!"

"It is indeed good news," Thorbrand insisted. "You know who my mother was."

"The Franconian slave girl," Rasmus said.

"She told me that in the Frankish Empire, since the time of Charlemagne, there had been a law according to which every village, no matter how small, had to appoint a wolf hunter, because their number probably took over. Sometimes they would come to the villages, look for leftovers or small children. Do you understand now? "If there was a village here, there'd be a wolf hunter and probably no wolves nearby."

"So you mean there is no village nearby," Rasmus concluded.

"There's not even a farm, because we haven't found traces of cattle or goats anywhere. And I didn't see any field either."

"We should still look around a bit more," said Gunjorn. "I think I hear something there?"

"And what?" Rasmus asked.

But in the meantime Thorbrand had also heard it.

"Horses," he muttered. "Rider..."

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CHAPTER 7

About a dozen men ran their horses through the high grass. They were armed horsemen. They wore Franconian helmets and chain mail. Their armament consisted of Frankish long swords and lances, which could be used both as a throwing weapon and as a stabbing weapon. Some of these lances had small banners in bright colours. None of the three northerners knew exactly what they meant. But it was obvious that these flags indicated that they belonged to some form of rule.

"This is King Lothar's country," Thorbrand said. "It may not take these men half a day to get to Novaesium and warn the city."

"Anyway, they're heading in the right direction," Rasmus admitted.

"We should kill her to be on the safe side," said Gunjorn. "But that's your decision, Thorbrand.

"I don't think so," he muttered and drew his sword. The riders had now changed their direction a bit and came straight towards the three northerners. "They've spotted us!"

"Or they had a hunch that we might show up and moor in the area because they heard what had happened in Xanten," Rasmus said, holding his Danish axe with both hands.

"Then you think she's psychic?" asked Gunjorn, who had already put in an arrow.

"By Odin! Not at all," said Rasmus the Red. "But good approaches are not too frequent after all and these Franks should know better here. So it's not hard to imagine where we're going ashore. "You don't need a special gift."

"I'll let them get a bit closer, then I'll get as many of them out of the saddle as possible," Gunjorn announced. "You'll have to deal with the rest."

"A trifle," Thorbrand growled grimly.

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GUNJORN GOODEYE WAITED very long until he fired the first shot. But this did not happen for no reason. His arrows were finally to break through the chain mail of the Franks. And the shorter the shooting distance, the greater the penetrating power.

So Gunjorn did not shoot until the first of the riders was already throwing a lance that just dodged Thorbrand. Then it was lightning fast. Gunjorn shot down an arrow after another within a few moments. And they all hit very well. screaming. Within a very short time five francs were hit. One slipped out of the saddle. The body got caught in the stirrup and was dragged behind by the horse.

Another was hit in the eye by the arrow - and with such force that it was literally torn out of the saddle. Another Franconian was still alive after the arrow in his upper body hit him. It was difficult to estimate how deep the lace had penetrated through the chain mail and the multi-layer doublet underneath. The Franconian groaned, still hurled his spear. But the throw went into the void and Rasmus the Red had long ago shot a second and third arrow at him. One was badly aimed and only hit the Franconian in the shoulder. But the second one pierced his neck. He gave out a rattle while his horse stood neighing on his hindquarters. In the high arch the Franconian flew into the grass and remained there in a strangely dislocated position.

Even an archer as good as Gunjorn Goodeye could not kill all the riders. The first assailant to come through was heading for Thorbrand. He grasped the sword with both hands and met the blow with the Franconian blade. The latter was quite a bit longer than Thorbrand's sword. The blade of the Franconian was a weapon that had been forged for a horseman, perfectly suited for letting it scythe while sitting in the saddle.

Steel clang on steel that sparked. The blow of the franc had a tremendous impact. Thorbrand was able to deflect his opponent's weapon so far sideways that he was not injured. The Franconian had barely passed him and was now curbing his horse to turn it around, when the next one approached. Thorbrand was barely able to parry the spearhead he was about to receive. He jumped aside, took an upstroke and hit the franc in the back. Another blow separated the franc's arm from his body. Blood popped out in a high fountain as his horse dashed forward.

Rasmus the Red had meanwhile split one of the attackers' skulls with his Danish axe. The force of the blow with this long-handed, ambidextrous weapon was immense. The axe blade penetrated to the height of the chin, the Franconian fell into the wet, high grass. His body was literally swallowed in it. The horse stobbed away neighing and masterless.

Meanwhile, Thorbrand had to avoid another attack by the Frankenreiter, who had attacked him first.

The latter had turned his horse in the meantime and pressed towards Thorbrand again. Thorbrand let the blow of his opponent go to nothing, who then had trouble keeping himself in the saddle. A quick blow with Thorbrands blade took the Franconian out of the stirrups. Before he could pull himself together, Thorbrand had sunk his blade in his fuselage. A powerful thrust, executed from top to bottom and with both hands on the hilt. Also chain mail and gambeson had nothing to oppose this.

With his foot Thorbrand pushed the body of the Franconian off when he pulled the blade out again. His horse calmed down slowly.

While Gunjorn shot another franc out of the saddle with a bow and arrow, Rasmus the Red struck away his opponent's warhorse's forelegs with a Danish axe. Horse and rider went down loudly neighing. Another axe cut separated the head from the shoulders and the helmet rolled into the damp grass.

Thorbrand had meanwhile caught the reins of the horse on which his last opponent had sat. He got on the saddle. Even though he had spent much more time in his life on the planks of longboats than in the saddle, Thorbrand had learned to ride and steer a horse so that it reacted almost like a part of his own body.

At first the mount was a bit stubborn, but Thorbrand knew how to take it. He pressed the hooks into the switches and then let it push forward.

In the meantime, only one of the troops of Franconian warriors they had met was still alive. And it did not escape at all, because that would inevitably mean that they would soon have to deal with a lot more francs.

"You'll get him, Thorbrand!", Gunjorn Goodeye called after him.

The archer lowered his bow and arrow. It would have been a waste to send an arrow after the franc who was fleeing. The fugitive was long out of range.

Meanwhile, Thorbrand drove the prey horse forward mercilessly. It wasn't long before he visibly caught up. The Franconian noticed that Thorbrand followed him and the distance became smaller and smaller.

Finally Thorbrand had caught up with the Franconian. He reined his horse. Apparently, the animal's powers were almost completely exhausted. It was steaming. Thorbrand also restrained his horse. The Franconian drew his sword. With a wild battle cry he let his horse rush forward. Thorbrand approached him. The swords were beating against each other. The blows were exchanged in quick succession. Each parried the other's punches. Then Thorbrand let one of his opponent's sword pranks go to nothing. Immediately afterwards, Thorbrand struck. A clean, very precise thrust through the unprotected armpit straight into the heart.

Thorbrand's sword was soaked in dark red blood when he pulled it out of his opponent's body. The Franconian sat wobbly in the saddle and wanted to take another swing with his last strength. But it didn't come to that anymore. He slipped out of the saddle and stayed in the high grass. His eyes were wide open, his eyes looking up at the sky.

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THORBRAND RETURNED shortly afterwards to the two men with whom he had come. He led the horse of the beaten Franconian on the reins.

"We have to catch the others too," he said.

"We killed them all," Rasmus the Red noted as he wiped his Danish axe in the grass.

"He means the horses," explained Gunjorn, who now began to collect his arrows.

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Zusammenfassung

Jonas Herlin
Viking Blades

A novel

Nothing can stop this Viking fleet - except the battle of two brothers for leadership.

The longboat fleet of the Viking leader Grimr Skullsplitter is located on the Rhine in the middle of the Frankish empire, when he dies of his wounds after a battle.

It is clear to his son Olav that he will now take over the leadership of the fleet. But his brother Thorbrand also seizes power. Suddenly the Northmen are divided into two camps and cannot agree on a common course of action while an army of the Franks approaches. What began as a profitable adventure ends in a massive battle. He brings glory to one, death to the other.

Details

Seiten
500
Jahr
2018
ISBN (eBook)
9783738920840
ISBN (Buch)
Sprache
Englisch
Erscheinungsdatum
2018 (Juli)
Schlagworte
viking blades

Autor

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Titel: Viking Blades