Soon it would be done. Soon Toke would be dead, and Harald avenged. For we had a plan.
“I have been giving this matter much thought,” Hastein had told me, after we’d reached Danish waters on our voyage home from Frankia. “You wish to bring a case under the law against Toke at a Thing, charging him with murder. And I would of course support you in such a case, as would Hrodgar. Having the jarl ruling over the Limfjord district and the chieftain of the village closest to where the killings occurred join you in the case would almost certainly guarantee success. But the greatest sentence a Thing can pass is outlawry. Toke would forfeit any lands he now holds here─lands which rightfully belong to you, anyway─and would be banished from the kingdom of the Danes. But there is a way Toke could contest a Thing-court’s decision. He would have the right to challenge his accuser to a duel….”
I knew what Hastein had left unsaid. I was greatly changed from the boy who had sworn an oath of vengeance against Toke. I had gained much experience as a warrior in Frankia, and I had killed men─many men, counting all those my arrows had felled in battle. I had even killed Snorre, Toke’s second-in-command, in a formal duel. But Toke was different. I did not want to face Toke one on one. He was as strong and nearly as large as a bear, and very quick and light on his feet. And I was afraid of him. I had always been afraid of him, for as far back as I could remember. I did not believe I could best him in such a fight.
“No, we must surprise and trap him with overwhelming force. Then, as jarl over the Limfjord district, I will call upon him to surrender. I will tell him I will take him to King Horik, to answer the charge that he wrongfully killed Harald and his men, and I will give him my oath that he will come to no harm on the journey there. Ivar and Bjorn will join with me, also─it will be no small thing, to a man like Toke, that two sons of Ragnar Logbrod are urging him to come peacefully and appear before the king.
“Toke is of noble birth. He is the grandson of a jarl. He will not believe the king will do more than outlaw him, if that.” Hastein smiled a grim smile. “Had he only killed Harald and his men, he would probably be right. These things happen. His mistake was killing everyone─the women, the children, even the thralls. And he killed them after giving his oath that they would be safe. It was the worst kind of niddingsvaark. King Horik is a man who greatly values honor. He has no use for a Nithing. He will hang Toke. I feel sure of it. It is a good plan.”
My own plan differed slightly from Hastein’s. I knew Toke. He would never surrender. He would fight us, even if he knew he could not win. He would rather die with a sword in his hand, killing as many of his enemies as he could, than allow himself to be taken without a fight. He would fight us, and when he did, I would put an arrow through his eye.
Soon it would be done.
We had landed at dusk a short distance up the coast from the estate that had once belonged to Hrorik, my father, and after him to my brother, Harald. Ivar and Bjorn had indeed come with us. They wanted to see the end of the tale Hastein had told the entire army at the feast that last night in Paris, before our fleet had left Frankia and sailed for home with the ransom we’d won. Hrodgar and the men from the village on the Limfjord had come, too, although some of them had grumbled at the prospect of further delay in returning to their homes, once they were so close.
“It is our duty,” Hrodgar had chided them. “It was we who discovered the slaughter at Hrorik’s farm. It was to us that Toke spun his web of lies, to cover his own misdeeds. We allowed him to escape, and even sent two of our own to help hunt Halfdan, believing Toke’s tale that he was a bandit. Toke must know, when he is brought to justice, that we are no longer his fools.”
We planned to surround the longhouse in the last hours before dawn while the household still slept, trapping Toke and his men inside. Hastein and Ivar and most of their warriors were with me now, hiding in the edge of the woodlands that bordered the cleared lands of the estate. I’d led them there in the dark, through the forest that I’d hunted in so often as a boy. At first light, Bjorn, Hrodgar, and the rest of the men would bring the ships around to block any chance of escape by sea.
“It is time,” Hastein whispered, reaching out and touching my arm from where he was sitting nearby, his back against the trunk of a tree. When we’d arrived, he’d been but an indistinct shadow. Now I could make out his outline, and see the looming shape of Torvald sitting beyond him. “The sky will begin to lighten soon,” he continued. “We should be in place before anyone ventures outside.”
I seated my helm on my head, twisting it back and forth with my hands until it felt comfortable, then tied the strap under my chin. I stood, braced my bow against my right foot, and strung it. Beside me, Tore did the same.
“Do you think he might fight?” he asked me. “This Toke? Against great chieftains like Jarl Hastein, and Ivar, and Bjorn? It would be madness. But Torvald says he is a berserker, and with them, you never know.”
I shrugged my shoulders in answer, and slipped the strap of my quiver over my head, so that it hung at my right hip with the arrows ready to draw. I searched through them and selected one I knew shot true. It had a heavy oak shaft, and was tipped with a short iron head with a square cross-section that tapered to a sharp point. I called such heads mail-breakers. I’d found a barrel full of them in a storeroom in the island fort that had been the home of Count Robert of Paris before we’d taken it and the town. I’d stowed a sack of the heads in my sea chest, and had mounted two dozen on my heaviest arrows during the long voyage back from Frankia.
I touched my finger to the tip, feeling its sharpness. Recalling where I’d found it brought thoughts of Paris flooding into my mind. Where was Genevieve now? What was she doing? I remembered the last words she had spoken to me. She’d brushed my cheek with her hand, and whispered, “I will pray every day to my God to watch over you and protect you. I will pray to Him to shelter my love from wind and wave on your long journey back to your land.” Then she had turned and walked away without looking back.
I shook my head, trying to clear it of thoughts of her. I could not afford to be distracted by memories of the happiness we’d shared so briefly then lost. I had a man to kill. Perhaps many. All of my thoughts must be on that for now.
I led our force of warriors from the forest’s edge that lay just behind the crest of the low hill atop which the bodies of my mother and Hrorik had been burned and sent upon their death voyage—the hill overlooking the longhouse, from where we would launch our attack. It was here that Harald had found me, the morning after their funeral pyre. The burial mound within the standing stones that formed the outline of the death ship had grown a lush cover of tall grass since I had last been here.
In the great feast hall of the gods, did my mother know what I had become? Did she think it was worth the sacrifice she had made? And what did Hrorik think now of his slave son? When he’d reached Valhalla, Harald would have told them of how he’d trained me, and of my first battle─the one that had cost Harald his life. But much had happened since then. Did my family know, where they dwelled now in the distant land of the gods?
Morning fog shrouded the hilltop. We spread out into a long line, Hastein at its center. Torvald, Tore and I, with the rest of the warriors from the Gull save the skeleton crew who would sail it round from where we’d landed yester night, aligned ourselves to his right. Ivar and his men formed to Hastein’s left. Hastein’s two captains, Stig and Svein, with their warriors, anchored the two ends of the line, barely visible now in the morning fog.
Hastein drew his sword, waved it overhead, then pointed it toward the longhouse. We moved forward slowly across the hilltop and down its slopes, like an army of ghosts gliding silently through the mist. When we reached the base of the hill, Stig and Svein and their men trotted ahead, curving the ends of the line forward to encircle the longhouse within a wall of armed men that touched the shore at either end. The trap was closed, and those inside were now surrounded. No one would be able to escape.
Ivar raised his horn to his lips and blew a long, challenging call. After a moment, he blew it again. From out over the water, we heard another horn give answer. The ships, which had rounded the point and were waiting for the signal, would pull for the shore below us now that they knew we were in position.
The door to the longhouse opened, and a head peered out. Seeing us, it jerked quickly back inside and the door slammed shut.
I thought it lax of Toke that no sentries stood guard outside during the night. Even though the estate lay in the heart of the lands of the Danes, he was a man with enemies.
Hastein called out in a strong, clear voice, “You, inside the longhouse. Hear this! My name is Hastein. I am jarl over the Limfjord district. I have business with Toke. I come in peace, so long as violence is not offered to me and my men. On that, I give my word. But those inside must come out now, and bearing no weapons. You are surrounded. If you do not come out and meet with us in peace, blood will be shed.”
For a long time, there was only silence. I spent the time recalling in my mind images of the longhouse. If we had to breach its walls with a ram, where would be the best place to attack? Hastein was not Toke, nor was I. We would not burn it with innocents inside.
Finally the door opened, and a voice from within shouted, “We are coming out. We bear no arms.”
Gunhild lead the procession that filed out of the longhouse door. That I had not expected. As much as I hated her, I could not deny that she showed courage in doing so. Behind her, one by one, peering fearfully at us as they left the safety of the longhouse, came the estate’s carls, their wives and children, and the thralls who lived and worked on the estate where most of my life had been spent.
Toke and his warriors were not among them.
“Does anyone remain inside the longhouse?” Hastein shouted. “If you are not truthful, it will go hard on you.”
Gunhild shook her head. “There is no one left inside.”
Hastein murmured to Torvald, “See if she speaks the truth. Take Halfdan and Tore. Be careful.”
The three of us strode toward the open door of the longhouse. Tore and I had our shields slung across our backs and our bows raised and at ready. Torvald held his shield angled in front of him, covering his chest and neck, and he carried a spear cocked back, ready to throw. The moment when he entered the doorway would be the most dangerous. Tore and I would cover him as best we could.
Something nagged at the back of my mind. I stared at the faces of the frightened folk huddled behind Gunhild and realized that Toke and his men were not the only ones missing.
“Wait,” I said to Torvald and Tore in a low voice, then turned toward Gunhild and snapped at her in a louder one, “Where is Sigrid? Where is Ubbe?”
She’d looked pale before, but at my questions, the blood remaining in her face drained from it.
“Who are you to know those names?”
It was not surprising she did not recognize me. The light was still dim─it would be a while yet before the sun rose─and my helm and its nasal bar obscured my features. And I was not the boy she had last seen. I was a warrior now. The boy who’d left here was now a man, wearing a shirt of Frankish mail, and a Frankish helm, with a fine sword hanging at his hip. The beginnings of a beard lined my jaw. And around my right arm was the torque of solid gold that Ragnar Logbrod himself had given me. I wore it now because I wished to make a strong impression when I first reappeared at my former home. I was no longer Halfdan, the former slave. I was the warrior Strongbow.
“I am called Strongbow,” I replied. “Answer me. Where are Sigrid and Ubbe?”
Someone said, “I know that voice,” and a man in a shabby, soiled tunic pushed his way to the front of the crowd.
“Get behind me, thrall,” Gunhild told him, but he ignored her.
“Is it you?” he asked in a quavering voice. “Is it Halfdan?”
I had not counted on this. I loosened the strap under my chin and pulled my helm from my head. “Fasti,” I answered. “It is. I have returned.”
Gunhild staggered back. She would have fallen had those behind her not supported her. “But you are dead!” she gasped.
“It would seem I am not.” To Fasti, I said, “Quickly. You must tell me. Where is Toke? Are he and his men still inside? Where are Sigrid and Ubbe?”
The expression of wonder that had filled his face a moment before was replaced by a look of pain and fear.
“Toke is gone. He and all of his men. He killed Ubbe, and took Sigrid with him.”