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Viking Storm

Book 18 in the

Dragon Heart Series


Griff Hosker

Published by Sword Books Ltd 2017

Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition

The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

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I was ready to die. I did not want to die but I was becoming old. I had yet to lose a battle and men still feared to face me sword to sword but time was not on my side. One day I would meet a warrior who was not afraid of the sword which was touched by the gods and on that day I would die. I hoped that I would go to Valhalla. My son and grandson had become men who could both lead the clan. With great grandchildren now what more was there for me to do? When the Norns had brought the king of Om Walum into our lives they completed a circle. My sign was the dragon and that was the sign of Om Walum. Now that my son had married the king’s daughter, Ebrel, it seemed that I was being told that I was no longer needed. What I needed was reassurance that, when I was gone, my family would be cared for. I lived in the Land of the Wolf and what better place to go than Wolf Mountain, Úlfarrberg.

I had left my hall early. It was the day before the summer solstice. Only Uhtric my servant knew I was about. He would tell my wife where I had gone but not until she rose. I would normally have climbed Old Olaf but in the dream I had been visited the spirit of my mother who had come to me and told me to ride north to Úlfarrberg. I took my wolf cloak and my sword. They were both part of me. When I wore them then I was Jarl Dragonheart the Wolf Warrior! I did not take mail. As dawn was breaking I looked east, beyond Skelwith, and saw the distant outline of the mountain I would ascend. Even as I rode my horse north I did not know why I was riding towards the mountain. What would be there that would reassure me about my family, my people and my land. I could have asked Aiden, my galdramenn or my daughter Kara but some small voice, deep inside, told me to go alone. The small voice that sounded like my mother’s but as it was over fifty years since I had heard her voice perhaps I was making it up. That small voice had been nagging at me ever since we had examined the chests which the king had given me. Inside had been a piece of stone. I had recognised it as being from the mountain range of which Úlfarrberg was part. More than that there had been, carved upon it, the distinctive mountain and on the reverse, a wolf. Ebrel had told me, after her father had died, that the wolf was not a symbol of her family nor of her people. There was nothing else, save the dragon, which connected our people. I was determined to discover, before I died, what the carved stone meant. There had to be a reason why I had found it. Many others would have discarded it as a piece of stone and nothing more.

I could have travelled the Rye Dale but that would have meant meeting people and I wished to be alone. I chose the quiet way. I chose the way which travelled up over high ground and struggled through bog and swamp. It was the shortest way but it was not the one I would normally have taken. I would pass farms but they would not be on the old path which had been there since before the Romans had come. My mother’s people had been in these lands when the paths had first been formed. I found solace and comfort in them. Knowing that ancestors had walked upon them gave me a link back to them.

Since the birth of my grandchildren and great grandchildren I had become more interested in my family than the clan. At one time, I would have thought that a bad thing. The clan had been formed by me. When I had saved old Ragnar from the wolf in the forests of Norway I had set in motion events which now led me on the path to Úlfarrberg. I had journeyed with Prince Buthar to Man and we had slowly evolved the clan. When I had brought them to the Land of the Wolf it seemed it was the end of the journey. It was not. I paused at the stream to let Ubba, my horse, drink. I looked up at the mountain which lay just four miles ahead. A breeze shivered over my head and hair.

“I am sorry Skuld, it was not I who set these events in motion but you and your sisters.”

The Norns were no longer friends of my clan. Since I had rescued my daughter, Ylva, from their clutches they had tried, many times to blight our lives. Odin had saved us each time. The Weird Sisters were not our friends but that did not mean that we were not aware of their power. Their threads could not be seen. They linked and they joined but they also trapped. Was this a trap? It made no difference. The clan did not need me any longer. Ragnar would lead them now. He was a great warrior. I knew that his father had been a good one but Ragnar was, well he was more like me. Like me he had the blood of a Saxon in his veins; his mother Elfrida had been the wife of King Egbert. It had been King Egbert who had drawn us to Om Walum. Wyrd.

I dropped down into the valley of Thirl. I had decided not to walk the long ridge which went almost from Nab’s Scar to the viciously sharp ridges which led to the summit. Instead I would ascend the steep path which went straight to the peak from the north west. I would not take my horse. When I reached Thirl’s Waite I stopped. Thirl was of an age with me. He had fought alongside me when first we had come to this land. Wounded by the Danes he could no longer fight in the shield wall. He farmed alone for his family had been taken by a combination of war, disease and, in his wife’s case, a broken heart. Like me he was ready to die. I could see it in his rheumy eyes as I spoke with him. I took the water skin, my staff and wolf cloak from my saddle.

“You are up and about early, Jarl Dragonheart.”

“I climb Úlfarrberg.”

He nodded, “It is a good day but it will be hot. You will not need your cloak.”

“True but I shall take it with me. Watch Ubba for me. I will be down before dusk and if not…”

He nodded, “Then it will be wyrd. Aye I know. You have been a good jarl. You made life good in this land.”

“We have all played a part in that. I was just lucky enough to wield the sword that was touched by the gods. I was chosen just as this path was chosen for me.”

“I will tend your horse. May the Allfather be with you.”

I nodded and took the first steps up the steep path which led past Piketoe Knott and the Brown Crags. I had come north to travel south on this road. The sun was now on my left. My age began to tell. I forced each foot before the other. I resisted the urge to drink from my skin. I would need that later. This was not like walking up the Old Man. That was almost gentle. You felt as though Olaf himself was helping you. This was Úlfarrberg. The mountain demanded that you treat him with respect. When you reached the top then you knew that you had made a journey. I had seen more than sixty summers yet I was not like some I had known whose bellies made them look as though they were with child. The battles I had fought kept me lean.

I stopped a thousand paces from the narrow ridge which rose along one side of the mountain. I looked down at Thirl’s valley. His was the only farm. Further south were the better, more fertile lands of the Grassy Mere and the Rye Dale. The narrow valley did not receive as much sun. Old Thirl had sheep and a couple of goats. That was his diet: cheese and mutton. With fish from the stream it was a simple existence. Sometimes that was all that a man needed. I drank a little water and then took a piece of dried venison from my pouch. Chewing would help to ease the thirst pangs.

I counted each of the one thousand steps to the top. When I saw the tarn below me then I knew the hardest part was over. The peak lay just two hundred paces from me. The two ridges swept to the north and south of the tarn. They were like arms folding around the tarn. The wind was cooler closer to the top. Thirl had been wrong. The day was not as hot as he had predicted. Looking at the sky I saw, to the south, dark clouds which threatened a storm later on. It was as though one of the gods themselves was blowing into your face. It was not hard. It was gentle and it refreshed.

I reached the peak and I drew my sword. I raised it. “Odin, I have come and I have brought the sword which has been touched by your son, Thor. Tell me what you will of me. Speak, Allfather, that I might know why I am here.”

The wind blew and the clouds in the distance scudded but other than that there was silence. I sheathed my sword. Sitting on a pile of stones I drank some more. I took out the carved stone. The stone was the size of a large golden coin. We had seen coins that size before. The Romans had used them and we had some from Miklagård. If the stone had been gold then it would be valuable. I knew that the stone had a message and, as such, was even more valuable than gold but I could not discern it. As I turned it over the light caught it. I saw that the carving of the mountain was accurate. I saw the crags I had passed on the way up. I was about to turn it over when I saw what, in my hall, I had taken to be a piece of poor carving. With the bright sun of midsummer’s eve, I saw that it was a wolf’s head. It was a smaller one than that one on the obverse of the stone. I turned the stone and saw that the two wolves, although different sizes, were the same wolf. Was this wolf the one that had made the mountain?

I stood. If the stone had been carved accurately then the wolf had been placed on the side of the mountain for a purpose. Holding the stone to match the real mountain I looked to where the wolf had been carved. It was not a wolf shaped stone as I had thought, it was a dell in the mountainside. Falling rocks from winter avalanches had made a small fort. At first it looked as though it was inaccessible and then I saw a track. It had not been made by man but by animals. I spied sheep droppings and, just fifty paces from me the bleached white skull of a dead animal.

The staff would be the only thing to keep me on the mountain side. As I descended I held it in my right hand. The mountain side fell away sharply. This might be where I met my death. One misplaced step would see me tumble down the mountain. I would bring down rocks and they would bury me. No one would ever find my grave. Some farmer, many generations from now, would seek a sheep and see the rusted remains of my sword protruding from the ground. He would wonder who I was but he would never know. He would speculate. He might remember the legend of the jarl who walked the mountain and was eaten by it.

The path levelled out as I closed with the stones. I was sheltered here from the wind. As I took steps closer I caught the whiff of something dead and then, when I was twenty paces from the rocks, I heard a growl. I stopped and held my staff in two hands. There was a wolf nearby. I could smell, even above the smell of the dead animal, the smell of wolf. Another man my age and alone on the mountain would have turned and descended but I was Jarl Dragonheart. I was ready to die. If my fate was to be killed by a wolf then so be it. I had spoken with the Allfather. Was this his answer? Had I served my purpose and now I could leave the clan in Ragnar’s hands?

There was a small flat space to the western side of the rocks and I stepped there. I saw a dead she-wolf. Baring his teeth before the corpse, was an emaciated whelp. It did not have the strength to stand but his eyes were bright. No more than four months old, he was barely weaned. My eyes were drawn to something behind both wolves. There was a rusted piece of metal. It looked for all the world like a sword. Wyrd. I was meant to come here and I was meant to find the two animals and the sword.

I laid down my staff and took off my wolf cloak. As I did so the piece of stone tumbled to the ground and then fell down the mountain side- it was gone. It had brought me here and now it had disappeared. Wyrd.

Taking a piece of venison from my pouch I held it out and spoke gently as I approached. “Úlfarr, I am Jarl Dragonheart and I protect all who live in this land. Your mother is dead. You wish to protect her but her spirit is with the Mother now. She would want you to live.” The whelp growled. “I will not hurt you. If you bite me I will not fight you for you are young. I could no more hurt you than I could hurt Sámr or Einar Moonchild.”

My hand was almost at the mouth of the young cub. It sniffed the venison. Hunger overcame the desire to protect the dead she-wolf and it snatched the venison from my hand. Despite the fact that it snatched it did not bite me. As it ate I took the opportunity to sit next to it. I took out my water skin and poured a little into the palm of my hand. The cub had eaten the venison and it began to lap the water. I refilled my palm three times. Taking another piece of venison, I gave it to the cub and, as it ate, I risked stroking its head. It allowed me to do so. This, in itself, was a miracle. I had never known a wolf allow a man to do that. As I stroked I felt the ribs. It was almost at death’s door. I knew now why I had been summoned. I had been sent here to save the wolf but I knew not the reason.

I stood and the wolf growled. “Úlfarr, I just go to see who else is buried here.” I climbed to the back of the den. I noticed that nothing had tried to eat the dead wolf. The cub had been protective. The bones of dead sheep littered the well in the centre of the stones. When I reached the back, I began to remove stones from around the sword. I saw that it was a shorter sword than mine and the guard looked like the one we had found in the cave of the dead where Myrddyn lay. Wyrd.

I found human bones. When I uncovered the body, I saw that he had been a warrior. There was a rusted helmet and pieces of metal which could have been armour. Around his neck was a green and corroded piece of metal. I took it and turned it over. Time had weathered it but I could see that it was in the shape of a wolf. I had seen it before. It was the token worn by the warriors of the Warlord. I held it in my hand. It felt warm. After slipping it into my pouch I took out my sword. “Whoever you were, warrior, I salute you. I may never know your story but I will take this and my wizard will look at it. Perhaps there is a story here but I can see that your spirit drew me here and that I was meant to find this whelp.”

I turned. The wolf looked at me still. It was no longer a look of fear. It was still young. I took the warrior’s helmet. It would hold more water. I poured some in and the wolf lapped it dry. I refilled it twice and then realised that I needed the rest for the journey down.

I put the stopper back in. “We will drink more when we reach the stream. Now I had better see to this warrior and your mother. I will leave neither for the carrion.”

I replaced the warrior’s helmet and laid the sword along the body. Piling up stones on top I soon hid it. Then I turned to the she-wolf. I could see that was even more emaciated than her cub. She had died making sure he would live a little longer. “The gods have sent Úlfarr to me. I swear that I will care for him.” I began to lay stones on her corpse. Úlfarr growled. I turned. “I am not harming your mother. Be at peace as she is now. Her spirit knows that I will care for you.” I continued making a cairn of stones and then when she was hidden I stood and, raising my arms, said, “Mother, here is a true mother. Watch over her spirit for she was noble.”

I put on my cloak and then went to the cub. I had to trust that I had bonded with him. I gently put my arms beneath him. He growled a little but I sang gently to him as I did so. “Cubs and bears forged from steel, Cubs and bears to no man kneel, Cubs and bears forged from steel, Cubs and bears to no man kneel.” It was a chant from my ship. I know not why I sang it but the cub allowed me to lay him over my shoulders. I carried him as a shepherd might carry a hurt sheep. He was not heavy. Taking my staff, I began to walk along the narrow path back to the valley of Thirl. I was now even more worried and concerned than on the journey across. If I fell now then the cub would die as well as I. I could not let that happen. I looked carefully before I put each foot down. I was actually sweating! Once I reached the main path it became easier and I talked to the cub as I walked. I told him of my family and of me. I had tired of singing the song and telling him of my family made me feel better. I told him of Sámr and Ulla War cry. I told him of Gruffyd and Ragnar. I did not know if he understood me but I wished him to know my voice. If the gods had sent him to me then there was a purpose.

We stopped at the stream and I lowered him so that he could drink. He relieved himself. He had yet to learn to cock his leg. He was young. After giving him more venison I put him on my shoulders once more and headed down to the farm.

Thirl’s dog began to bark as we approached the farm. Úlfarr growled. Thirl came out with his bow. His mouth fell open when he saw me and my new companion. Then he shouted, “Karl, silence!” The sheepdog lay down but his eyes never left the wolf.

I smiled, “The gods, it seems, have not finished with me. I found this one and his dead mother high by the peak, just along from the crags. What do you call that?”

“Until now we called it nothing.”

I nodded, “The mother is dead and so your sheep are safe. I would call it Whelp Side.”

“Aye, jarl. This is a wondrous tale. There is still magic in this land.”

I nodded, “Then let us see if the magic extends to my horse. Fetch Ubba for me.” He brought my horse from the lean to. At first she was skittish and so I spoke quietly to her, “Hush, hush, this one will not harm you.” I knelt down and took the wolf from my shoulders. I said, “Thirl, will you trust your jarl?”


I took the cub and laid it in his arms. It growled. Thirl knew dogs and he began to stroke its ear. Its teeth went to his hand and then began to lick it. He smiled, “I have been salting mutton.” He shook his head, “I never thought that I would see a wolf, even one so small, lick my hand.”

I climbed on to Ubba and, after putting my cloak over her neck, held my arms out. I laid the wolf cub across the wolf skin. Her legs were draped across both sides of my horse’s neck. “Farewell Thirl.”

“Farewell Jarl Dragonheart. I think I will live a little while longer. There may be more wonders for me to see.”

I retraced my steps and soon the cub was asleep. The rhythm and gait of Ubba sent him to sleep. He woke when we neared one of the tarns above the Lough Rigg. He drank and ate more of my venison. I was not certain of his strength and so, after he had squatted I put him back on my horse and headed home.

As I approached Cyninges-tūn I heard the dogs barking. Then they went silent and I saw Kara and Aiden at the gates to my stad. Kara was smiling, “The gods work in mysterious ways father but you have made the Mother happy. You have saved one of her children and it is wyrd.”

Part One

Chapter 1

It was my wife Brigid who found it hardest to come to terms with a wolf living in our home. She would have been as bad about a dog but a wolf! It was a wild creature this was despite the fact that, for the first few days, it was so emaciated that it could barely move. Uhtric gave me the solution. He was happy to share his quarters with the beast. In truth Úlfarr was remarkably gentle. As lively as a puppy he liked to be stroked and, when he could not be close to me, was happy to be curled up by Uhtric. Part of that was the scraps he was given. When Uhtric prepared a deer then the offal and the guts were given to Úlfarr. Uhtric fed him goat’s milk and he thrived. Within days we saw a difference in him. His coat became thicker and glossier; his eyes brighter. The Water was also a boon for he enjoyed swimming and became stronger as a result of his swims with me.

I had gone to Kara and Aiden when I had descended. Aiden studied the metal wolf. “This is ancient work. Take off the one Bagsecg made for you, Jarl.”

I did so and he laid them side by side.

“Bagsecg does good work but this one, even though it is corroded is finer. It is made of bronze. I have seen ones such as this around Wyddfa.” He handed me back mine and went to the chest which King Mordaf ap Hopkin had left to me. The coin and the valuables were in my hall but Aiden had retained the more mystic objects and jewels as he tried to fathom their purpose. He opened it and took out a dragon necklace. It was a beautifully cast piece of metal. “This is exactly the same hand, jarl. I would say that the man who died on Úlfarrberg was a warrior who came from Om Walum.” He gave me a searching look, “He may have known your ancestor, the Warlord. This sign is a link to Om Walum and the Warlord.”

My son had just taken a wife and she came from Om Walum. She was of the old people as the Warlord and my mother had been. That had to be the connection. “Gruffyd.”

“Aye, that was what I was thinking.”

My son had married the daughter of King Mordaf ap Hopkin. His wife’s father had been ill treated by the men of Wessex and Gruffyd had debated long and hard about what he ought to do about King Egbert. I had insisted that, before he take on any Saxons, Gruffyd needed warriors who would protect him in battle. He had spent the last year doing so. He and Einar had joined with Ragnar on some slave and grain raids on the northern borders of Mercia. He had seemed successful but I wondered if he was ready.

“Gruffyd is your son and I think that you should visit with him.” Aiden held up the two objects. “This is linked to him as much as you. He married the daughter of King Mordaf ap Hopkin.”

“The kingdom of Om Walum is too much for him to rule.” The idea of my son as a king of Om Walum seemed preposterous.

“You were not much older when you came here.”

“I had Ulfheonar.”

“And how do you know that his men are not as good?”

I gave him a sideways look. “Aiden, you have seen my men, are there any greater warriors than my Ulfheonar? I know that I was lucky. The gods chose them to help me. But you are right. It is half a year since last we saw them. The winter has been and gone. Brigid will need to see how Sámr and Ulla War Cry grow. We will go.”

Kara put her hand on mine, “It is time we saw them too. We will all go. We will put our home in order and travel when the days begin to shorten.”

Aiden said, “I would suggest, Jarl Dragonheart, that you wear the metal wolf around your neck. If one wolf has magical powers then think what two can do. And you have the dragon one too.”

I nodded, “When I was young I just needed skill now I need cunning and magic.”

“All men need those.”

It always took longer to plan these journeys when my wife was travelling with us. We seemed to spend weeks preparing for the visit. Brigid was delighted to be visiting her children. She spent the time preparing the clothes and the gifts she would take. She had purpose. Myfanwy was happy too. She was coming to the time when a girl becomes a woman and Astrid and Ebrel were young women with whom she had much in common. That pleased my wife. What she was less keen on was the fact that Úlfarr would be with us. “We cannot take a wild beast to be with my grandchildren!”

“Úlfarr has lived with us for more than a moon. He has shown no signs of violence and I will take Uhtric with us.” Mollified she had acquiesced.

For me the wolf was more than an animal. He was a symbol and he represented something from my past. The gods had sent him to me and, until I knew why, he would stay as close to me as my sword.

Instead of the swift journey to Whale Island I normally enjoyed we went at the pace of my wife’s carts with the goods she was taking. I bit back the barbed comments I contemplated making. I could never win an argument with my wife. Instead I enjoyed the ride. We had been training my wolf. It had not been hard. Uhtric had discovered that he had a fondness for crackling, roasted pig skin, and pig’s ears. We had used them as rewards and now he was trained as well as a dog. When we travelled he stayed with us, briefly before he ranged ahead. He always returned to make sure that we were still there.

Aiden said, “He is still a wild beast, jarl, but perhaps this is how the first dogs were trained. They were wolves that warriors somehow captured.”

Kara said quietly, “He could be a spirit in a wolf’s body. It is not unknown and I seem to sense his thoughts. It is strange.”

Ylva had smiled, “You are not wrong mother. I seem to know his thoughts too.” Ylva had been named after a wolf and she had an affinity to them.

I laughed, “If you mean that he comes to you when you have a treat then that is no trick.”

Shaking her head, she said, “Grandfather! I am not a fool!”

I patted her hand, affectionately, “I know and it is just an old man teasing you.”

More than half of the clan lived in the land which lay between Whale Island and Úlfarrston. Raibeart had made his town a strong one. My son had built a stone wall around his halls and the walls guarded the anchorage. We had been raided in the past and we had learned our lessons. Ragnar had created a strong stad and it could hold many people. Einar, Gruffyd and all of my other warriors each had their own hall with a ditch and a palisade but if danger came they would all flee to Ragnar’s Stad. That way they were not living on top of one another. The only child of mine who did not live close was Erika. Married to Thorghest the Lucky of Dyflin she lived there with Moon Child. We rarely saw them but messages were passed when our knarr traded. It was not perfect but it was better than nothing.

I had sent a rider to tell my son and grandson of our arrival. We would stay with Ragnar. He and Astrid had the largest hall. As we neared it my son, grandson and a dozen of their warriors rode to greet us and escort us the last couple of thousand paces. When they saw Úlfarr, and he growled, their hands went to the swords.

“Peace! He is gentle!”

Gruffyd snorted, “Look at his teeth! He is a wolf!”

Ragnar laughed, “I think the Dragonheart has a tale to tell us. The beast looks healthy enough.”

Brigid said, “He eats us out of house and home!”

I laughed, “He eats scraps but, I confess, he is much bigger now than when first I found him. His name is Úlfarr.”

Gruffyd shook his head, “Not a particularly imaginative name, father.”

Kara admonished her half-brother, “The wolf named himself. It is how our father first spoke to him and he was found by Úlfarrberg. What else would he be named?”

My son would never argue with Kara for she was a volva. Only Ylva had powers as strong as my daughter. A warrior always kept on the right side of witches and wizards. The Norns were bad enough but to be cursed… poor Snorri had discovered that to his cost.

As we entered the gates Ragnar said, “Aye well we have news too. We would have ridden and told you but…”

Just then Astrid, Bronnen and Ebrel appeared in the doorway. They were all with child. My wife said, “Why did you not tell us?”

Gruffyd shrugged, “We are now!”

Kara smacked him on the back of the head, “Little brother, I thought that having a sensible wife would make you a better man! I was wrong.”

Elfrida, Ragnar’s mother, stood behind them. She now lived close to her son and grandsons. She looked as happy as I had ever seen her. When her husband, my son and my grandchild had been slain by killers sent by King Egbert, I was not certain if she would find the will to live. She had managed and was now stronger for it. Astrid, Ulla War Cry and Sámr were the best thing to happen to her.

I turned to Aiden. “It is propitious to have three children born in the same year is it not?”

“It is and the arrival of the wolf which presaged it makes it even more momentous. All will have been born in the same year. The wolf and three children of the clan of the wolf. This will be the year of the wolf and in the Land of the Wolf that is momentous.”

Kara looked sideways at me and said in a quiet voice, “And now, perhaps you will come out of the deep hole of despair of the last year.”

I stared at her. I knew that she could read minds but it always came as a surprise when she did so.

I allowed Brigid and Kara to greet the women first. Aiden and I stood patiently by. All three looked to be blooming and healthy. The three fathers would all be hoping for boys. A Viking needed sons. For myself I did not mind. Kara had proved to be stronger than any son.

Astrid hugged me tightly, “It is good that you come. We would visit you but your grandson always has something to occupy him and he says we cannot.” I liked her. She was the warmest person I knew. A natural mother, there was nothing about her to dislike.

“It is my fault, Astrid, I should make the time to visit. When I do not travel with Brigid, it is not a long journey.”

She laughed, “Dragonheart! The things you say.”

I shrugged, “I fear I have always been too honest.”

She pecked my cheek, “And that is another reason why we love you so.”

I sat with Ebrel. She looked content and she smiled as I held her hand, “Your father would be happy.”

“Aye he would. He liked it here too. In those days before he died he would look at the trees. He liked the pines. He said that they reminded him of a place not far from Tintaieol where there was a stand of such trees. He liked the mountains. He said the soil here was less rocky than home. A man could put down roots here.”

“I did not know that pines grew in Om Walum.”

“It was said that, in times past, a warrior came from the north and he had with him a wizard. They planted the trees there to remind them of home.” She laughed, “We do not believe in wizards but my father liked the story.”

I clutched my amulet. The past was haunting me again.

The hall was filled with laughter and with children. Sámr and Ulla War Cry loved Úlfarr. I stayed close by. He was a wild animal. The wolf was still enough of a cub to enjoy chasing the sticks that they threw and it allowed me to be outside the hall and watch the two of them. Sámr and Ulla War Cry were no longer babies, nor even toddlers. Vikings grew quickly. Childhood was the time to prepare to become a warrior. The two of them were becoming bigger each time I saw them. Sámr was the leader but Ulla War Cry was not afraid to question his elder brother’s authority. That was good.

When Úlfarr tired of the game I said, “Come and sit with me. I would talk with you. I do not see you often enough.”

They came dutifully. Úlfarr, panting, sat by my feet. He looked asleep but he was not. He was watching and he was guarding. Sámr asked the same question he always asked, “Can we see the sword?”

“Of course, but it stays in the sheath. I do not wish to risk the wrath of your mother or your grandmother. If you cut yourself I would never hear the last of it.”

Ulla asked, “Is it sharp?”

Sámr shook his head, “Little brother, you have much to learn! What is the point of a sword which is not sharp?” He looked up at me. “For myself I am quite happy just to touch the pommel. It was touched by the gods.”

I nodded, “It was and one day, many years in the future, it will pass to your father and then, who knows, to you.”

“Why would you pass it on?”

“Because, Ulla War Cry, I am not young and one day I will die. It goes to your father for he will be the next jarl.”

“And not your son?”

Sámr had a sharp mind. “Your grandfather was also my son and he was older than Gruffyd. Gruffyd understands.” Even as I said it I hoped that it was true.

They asked me about the grandfather they had never known and I told them. I missed out the parts where we had argued and fallen out. At the end we had been close and that was all that was important.

We feasted well and, the next morning, my son and grandson took me and some of their oathsworn to the forests. We went hunting. Raibeart ap Coen came with us. He was jarl of Úlfarrston and knew the forests better than any. We took bows and boar spears. There were twenty of us and I was confident that we could deal with any animal which we met. We did not take horses, we walked. I took Úlfarr. It would be good to see how he acted in the wild. I was pleased for it gave me the opportunity to speak with Ragnar and Gruffyd.

“The raids went well?”

“There was little honour in them. The Mercians are not the warriors they were under Coenwulf.”

I nodded, “You are right, Ragnar. King Egbert did that.” I looked at my son, “And your new warriors?”

He smiled, “They are not Ulfheonar if that is what you are asking but they are keen and they are young. We can learn together. Einar Fair Face has good men too. We now have a larger number and can crew ‘Crow’.”

I glanced at Ragnar. I knew why Gruffyd had said what he had. He wished me to give him my smallest drekar. I smiled at my grandson, “Perhaps I will come with you on your next raid then. If I think your men are worthy enough I may let you use my drekar for a share of the profits.”

My son frowned. He was too young to have gathered as much treasure as Ragnar. I had heard that few of his men had mail byrnies. Gruffyd had one because I had commissioned Bagsecg to make him one. While he ruminated I asked, “And Thorghest? How goes his war with the Hibernians?”

“He does well. Hrolf the Horseman now has jarls who serve him. Some of his warriors came and fought for Thorghest. And you have a granddaughter, Brigid.”

“Her mother will be pleased. It is a shame that she could not have sent us word.”

“Aye but they have much to do in that land of wild men.”

Gruffyd suddenly said, “I would raid Om Walum.”

“With one drekar?”

“No, Ragnar. I would take as many as wish to go. King Egbert thinks that he has captured that land and not paid a price for it. I would bloody his nose.”

“You would not retake it?”

He shook his head, “I am not a fool, father. The land is rocky and, save for tin and ore has little to commend it. This is a better land. But I know that I cannot lead such a raid. I have not the experience.” He looked at me.

I said, “Gruffyd, I told Ragnar last year that I would hand over the clan to him. He showed me, when we rescued the King, that he can lead the clan. Ask Ragnar.”

My grandson had grown in stature since his sons were born. He had an inner strength which his father, Wolf Killer, never did. He did not speak straight away. He considered. I saw him pretending to look for signs of truculence or immaturity. Then he raised his eyes and said, “And where would you raid? We emptied Tintaieol.”

Gruffyd must have thought long and hard about this. He had an answer. He said, emphatically, “Karrek Loos yn Koos has a monastery. The Christians worship someone called the Archangel Michael there. It is an island for part of the day, when the tide is in. At low tide, a man can sometimes walk from the land to the island if he does not mind getting his feet wet. Many people visit the island and leave offerings. Ebrel says it is rich.”

“And how does she feel about Vikings raiding it?”

“King Egbert gave it a large sum of gold when he conquered her father’s land. The priests and monks there soon forgot her father. She would have them punished. One day I may go back and take Ebrel’s land back for her. For now, a raid will suffice.”

I looked at Ragnar who nodded. He said, “It seems that you have thought this out. Are there warriors close by?”

“There is a Saxon burh at Pennsans. They have a thegn and warriors. There is another church and chapel there. It, too, is rich.”

“Then I will consider it. Now did we come here to talk or to hunt?”

My days of trying to impress my men with my skills as a hunter were long gone and I was content to keep my bow ready should it be needed. Úlfarr just stayed close to me. My son and grandson did compete. I think they were trying to impress me. I was just grateful that it seemed good natured. It was a good hunt. We killed two boars and eight deer. Úlfarr enjoyed the guts that were spilled in the kill. We would eat well. All the way back and during the feast my mind was busy planning. It would be Ragnar and Gruffyd’s raid but I knew they would need the knowledge I had gained from over fifty years of wielding a sword.

I went with Ragnar to visit with Erik Short Toe. The most senior of the warriors who captained my drekar he knew the seas and my ships better than any. “Jarl Dragonheart. You are to have more great grandchildren. The Allfather smiles on you.”

I nodded, “Aye he does and I am grateful.” As I said the words I kept my hand on the pommel of my sword. “We raid Om Walum; the southern coast.”

He looked up. “Then we risk Syllingar.”

We had avoided the island where we had fallen foul of the witch. This time we would have no choice but to sail close to those waters where a ship could be drawn into a circle of magic no matter how skilful the captain.

I nodded, “We will take Aiden with us. A galdramenn might keep us safer.” This time I had a hand on my sword and one on my dragon amulet. “Are the ships all ready?”

He smiled, “By the time you have gathered enough warriors to crew them then aye. Will you need them all?”

I shook my head. “We will need but three. Which one requires the most work?” Although Bolli was the shipwright, Erik Short Toe took charge of the ships.

“‘King’s Gift’ needs her main mast replacing. She might cope with the voyage but if you risk Syllingar then I would have all of them perfect. We are preparing a new pine mast for her but I would prefer to wait for her to sail.” He knew his ships and I would trust him.

Ragnar nodded, “Then I will take ‘Odin’s Breath’, you, grandfather, will have ‘Heart’ and Gruffyd, ‘Crow’.” I looked at him sideways. He smiled, “I know that it appears as though we give your son what he wants and he will have no one watching over his shoulder but we put his drekar between ours. We can then see what kind of leader he is.”

Ragnar was wise. He was leading and I was pleased. His decision was the right one and my doubts were just those of a father.

Leaving Erik to his ships we walked back to the walls of Ragnar’s home. Gruffyd awaited us there. If he felt resentment at being excluded from the discussion and decision he showed no sign of it. When we reached him, Ragnar told him of his decision. This time Gruffyd could not contain his joy. He beamed!

“And who do we take with us? Einar Fair Face and I have crew enough.”

Ragnar nodded, “Erik Ironshirt will come with me. Raibeart and Sven Long Walking can sail on ‘Heart’. I will have Erik Short Toe with me. I will need his experience.” He smiled but it was a sad and wistful smile. “The days when half the crew would have been Ulfheonar are long gone, eh grandfather?”

Sven Long Walking was a new leader amongst my men. He and his warriors had arrived from the south. They had been raiding Mercia. While ashore a storm had wrecked their drekar and they had had to fight their way north to reach us. They were hardy men and a welcome addition. Aiden had said that the gods had sent the storms to wreck their ship. They were meant to fight alongside us.

He was right. Cnut Cnutson had been lamed in the last battle. He would be my standard bearer now. He would not be needed on this voyage. That left just six Ulfheonar. Our success and our progress had been marked and measured by the graves of the ones who had fallen in battle. They stretched back through time. Now they were, for the younger warriors, the stuff of legends and a mystical memory. For me they lived in my head and in my heart. I would never forget them and I knew that they awaited me in Valhalla.

“I will send for them. They may choose not to come. Haaken, too, is a grandfather.”

Ragnar laughed, “And that guarantees that he will come! You never tire of your blood, grandfather but Haaken has had enough after five days back from a raid.”

I laughed with him, “You are right. Haaken still seeks glory. He has never changed since he stood with me on the fighting platform in Norway and we fought back to back. He could not wait to sing the song of our fight!”

I would usually be heavily involved in the planning of such a voyage and a raid but this time, after sending a message to my Ulfheonar and speaking with Aiden I spent time with Sámr and Ulla War Cry. And of course, Úlfarr who had taken to the boys as I hope he would do. Who knew how much time remained to me? I found their wooden swords and bucklers. A Viking was given a wooden sword as soon as he could stand alone. We went to the flat ground where warriors practised. There were some there as we approached and they smiled at the two tiny Vikings.

“Ignore the other warriors. In a battle, you must have eyes for your foe alone. If your eyes flicker to the side then you die!” They both nodded seriously. “Now face each other.” I looked at their guard. Ulla was the smaller of the two and he did not have as much strength. His shield arm was down. I took his buckler from him. “Use two hands on your sword.”

Sámr said, “Then I should discard mine too.”

“No, for this is just practice. When Ulla has the same strength as you he can use his shield. Besides this is useful practice. You think that having a sword and a shield gives you an advantage over a man with just a sword?”

“Of course.”

Kneeling I took the wooden sword from Ulla. “There we are the same height.” I was aware that the other warriors had stopped their bouts to watch what this foolish old man was doing. “And I cannot move quickly. Let us see, young Sámr, if you can slay the Dragonheart.”

I saw, in his young face, that he thought it would be simple. He ran at me with sword raised and his shield before him. I watched as he brought the sword down. My hand flicked up and I blocked his blow. I used my left hand to pull forward his shield and slid my wooden sword down to his throat. “There, you are dead and I did not even have to move.” I struggled to my feet and handed the wooden sword to a grinning Ulla.

Sámr looked thoughtfully at me. “I was not expecting that!”

“If your enemy cannot move then use your speed to go around him. Your shield is a weapon. If you hit a man’s sword hand it becomes numb. If you hit him in the face then you may break his nose or, at the very least, make his eyes stream so that he cannot see.” I turned to Ulla, “And if you are smaller, as you are, then strike at your foes legs. Karl One Leg was a great warrior but when he was lamed in a fight he almost lost his life. There are more places to strike than the head or the chest. Use your mind and your quick hands.”

We spent the rest of the morning practising. There were bruises and there was blood. I knew that I would incur the wrath of Brigid if not Astrid but that was how a Viking toughened himself up. He learned to fight while he was hurting. I stopped when I saw that even Sámr was struggling to raise his wooden sword. Úlfarr looked up. He needed either food or exercise.

“Enough, you have both done well. After such a battle, a warrior needs to feast. Let us see what the women have for us!”

As we went back they questioned me closely about tricks and techniques they might use when they were old enough to raid with the men. I knew that my grandson would be pestered until he allowed them to sail with him. It would not be this voyage but soon they would sail as ship’s boys and learn what it was to go A-Viking.

Chapter 2

We headed south and west for the winds were with us. We rowed when we had to and if the gods sent us south and west then that was meant to be. Ragnar led and we followed Gruffyd. Raibeart was the captain. He was a good sailor. He had sailed a knarr for me before he had become a warrior and a jarl. Since his brother Coen’s death, he had assumed the leadership of his people. They had been there since before the Romans and, like me, had a blood link to the old people. They were the people who lived in the west. The Welsh and the people of Om Walum were, apart from Raibeart’s people, the only survivors. Haaken One Eye was in his element. There were younger warriors with whom he had never sailed. He told them the tales of our deeds and was now teaching them a chant to use as we rowed.

Raibeart smiled, “He may have grey hair and more of a paunch than he used to but Haaken One Eye talks as though he was a young man once more. I admire that in him.”

“Aye, within he is young. I know not why the Romans set such store in their mirrors. It is only when you look in one that you know you are old. If you feel as though you are young then why should you not be young?”

He pointed ahead. The sky was clear but, behind us, it was thickening with cloud. “We need to make that open sky before the storm begins. I would not risk the rocks around the isle of the Angle Sea.”

I smiled, “That would be a test for my son and his young crew.”

“They are keen but you are right. He has not experienced a storm yet. His is lucky; ‘Crow’ is a good vessel. She rides higher in the water. And we guard the rear. He has us to watch for him and Ragnar.”

I turned to Aiden. He was busily studying the map. “What think you of Gruffyd as a captain?”

Aiden did not look up, “He will learn to be a good one. All of us make mistakes when we are learning. That is how we learn. I have not dreamed his death. I have dreamed of him leading warriors. In my dream, he has a full beard.”

That was my wizard all over. I stared at the back of his head. He was enigmatic. I knew that he dreamed of the future. He had promised me that he would tell me when he had dreamed my death. I was not certain that he would. If he told me might I change my future and not die? I looked south and east to the mountain of Wyddfa.

Aiden looked up and smiled, “I would tell you if I had dreamed your death for you cannot change once the Norns have spun. I have not dreamed. This is not your time. Just as your walk along the edge of the wild to rescue Úlfarr was not your time. Your wolf has been in my dreams but I cannot see his purpose yet. Perhaps your rescue of him was the purpose. Since you have found him you have been the Dragonheart of old. The gods like you, Dragonheart. I know not why for you flaunt your mortality with all that you do. When others would sit at home and bounce Sámr and Ulla War Cry upon their knee you tempt the Norns and raid the holy men of the Saxons and the Franks.”

“The Franks?”

He nodded. “Karrek Loos yn Koos is their island too. They have another close to the land where Hrolf the Horsemen now lives.”

“How do you know?”

“I speak with the captains when they return with their cargo. That is how I make the maps better each time you use them.”

“And why do you come, Aiden the Galdramenn? What is your excuse?”

His face was deadly serious, “Do you not know yet? The gods sent me to watch over you. Your warriors can protect you in battle but I see in the dark places where men fear to go.” He lifted the map. “Come, enough talk. You need to know that which we seek.” He traced our route and pointed out where the dangers might lie. I saw that we would have to pass the castle from which we had rescued Ebrel’s father. I had come close to death that day. “As you can see, Jarl Dragonheart, there is no great distance between the two churches. The question remains, which one should we attack first?”

I knew that he had worked that out already.

“That will be Ragnar’s decision.”

“And he will be guided by you.”

I looked again. Pennsans would obviously have the warriors; it was a burh. That meant it had a wall and a ditch. It had a thegn and warriors to guards its walls but the island would have the treasure. “Pennsans first. The churchmen cannot empty their church quickly. If we attack in the evening then the men on Karrek Loos yn Koos will have no idea that we have raided. We could approach the island during the day.”

He nodded, “That is what Ragnar said too. It is good that your minds are in tune.”

“This was a test?”

“I was just making sure that your mind was still working as well as ever. I am satisfied.” My wizard grew more infuriating as he grew older. I preferred it when he had deferred to me. Since he had married my daughter and become a father he was different.

Raibeart disguised a smile by shouting at one of the ship’s boys to tighten a stay. As soon as we sighted the coast of Hibernia we followed Erik Short Toe’s course and tacked to head south and east. We would pass the isle of the Angle Sea. We would be safely to steerboard of that rocky grave of many fine ships. We had sea room to the west of us. There the sea rolled away to the end of the world. The rain began to fall as the storm caught up with us. Although we were not travelling as quickly, we were still moving well.

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