An arrow whispered out of the dark and thudded into something solid. The sound startled me awake, and I reached out, frantically searching for my weapons. My hand hit something–I could not tell what–that fell over with a loud clatter.
“Hush!” a voice nearby said. “They cannot see us, but they are shooting at sounds.”
The voice–it was Tore’s–pulled me the rest of the way from my sleep, and I remembered where I was.
The Gull, the longship of Hastein, my captain, and the Bear, Ivar the Boneless’ ship, were anchored, lashed side by side, in the middle of the Seine River. We were deep in the heart of Frankia. Dusk had been falling when they’d plucked me from the riverbank, where Frankish warriors had surrounded me. Deciding it was too dangerous to try to navigate the unfamiliar waters of the Seine in the dark, Hastein and Ivar had decided to wait the night out in the middle of the river, as far as possible from Frankish archers lurking along the shore.
Tore and Odd were crouched nearby, their bows strung with arrows nocked and ready, peering between the shields lashed along the side of the Gull.
“Do you see anything?” Tore whispered.
Odd shook his head. “No,” he answered. “The shoreline is too far, and the shadows from the trees along it hide too much. He is somewhere over there, though,” he added, pointing slightly upstream with his free hand, “judging from the angle of the last arrow that hit the side.”
I was lucky to be alive; lucky to have returned unharmed from the dangerous scouting mission our army’s leaders had sent me on. I could still feel the fear of knowing that the time of my death was upon me. Yet once more, against all odds, I had survived. Once more, for reasons known only to them, the Norns had chosen not to cut the threads of my life, but instead had kept me alive and a part of the great pattern of fate they were weaving; the fate of all men and of the world itself. I had survived, but my death had felt so near and so certain that I could not shake its grasp from my heart.
Late the following afternoon we reached Ruda, the Frankish town along the river that our army had captured and made its base. I did not want to return to the home of Wulf, the gruff Frankish sea captain, where I had been billeted before being sent out on the scouting mission. If I’d been alone, I would have gone to the palace, where the rest of the Gull’s crew had made their quarters. But I was not alone. I had a prisoner.
When I pushed the door of his house open and stepped inside, Wulf, who was seated at the table in the main room, scrambled to his feet. For a moment he was speechless with surprise. Perhaps he’d thought–or even hoped–that I was dead. Quickly enough, though, he recovered both his wits and his voice, and began protesting loudly.
“I was not expecting you to return here. The town is calm now, and at peace. We no longer need your protection.”
What he said was true. Most of our army was encamped on an island in the river just upstream from Ruda, rather than in the town itself, and Ragnar, the army’s war-king, had forbidden our men from harassing the town’s citizens. Soon enough we might be facing the main Frankish army. Ragnar did not want a hostile populace at our backs to deal with, in addition to a besieging force, if we had to defend ourselves from behind Ruda’s walls.
“Why have you come back here?” Wulf continued. “Why do you not stay with the rest of your captain’s men in the count’s palace?”
Bertrada, Wulf’s wife, was standing behind him, wringing her hands, an anxious expression on her face. I knew she could not understand what he was saying–Wulf was speaking to me in my own tongue, rather than the version of Latin spoken by the Franks. But his anger was obvious from the tone of his voice. No doubt she feared I might take offense. In truth, I was beginning to.
I pointed behind me. “I have come back to your home because of her. She is my prisoner. I need quarters where she will be safe.” Surely Wulf could understand that. A woman–particularly one as young and comely as my captive–could not be housed in a hall filled with hardened warriors.
“You are concerned for her safety?” he exclaimed, and rolled his eyes–an insolent gesture which angered me. “Is this not a woman you stole? If her well-being worries you so, why did you take her? Surely she would have been safe if you’d left her with her own folk!
“I am running low on food,” Wulf continued. “So long as your fleet is on the river and our land is under attack by your army, I am unable to take my ship out–I am unable to trade. I can earn nothing with which to buy food for my own family. I cannot afford to feed two extra mouths. She is your problem. She is not my concern.”
Genevieve, my prisoner, was standing just inside the doorway, slumped back against the wall, staring at us dully. She had stumbled from fatigue several times during the short walk from the river to Wulf’s home, and looked as though she might fall asleep on her feet at any moment.
I felt almost as weary as Genevieve looked. I had been close to exhaustion before Hastein and Ivar had rescued me, and had slept little since. The Franks had been angry at losing Genevieve when they’d believed her rescue was assured. The archers they’d sent creeping to the river’s edge had kept up a steady, if ineffectual, fire at us during the night. No one on board either ship had been hit, but after having been hunted for several days by the Franks, the occasional whistle of an arrow passing overhead, unseen in the dark, or the thud of a low shot striking the side of the ship had been enough to keep my nerves on edge, and had made sound sleep impossible.
“We will discuss the question of food at a later time,” I told Wulf. “For now, I must rest, and so must she. You will provide us both with food and drink, and a place to sleep.” He opened his mouth as if to protest further, but I cut him off. “I am not asking you, Wulf,” I snapped. “Do as you are told.”
I slept the rest of the afternoon and through the entire night. When I awoke early the next morning, I was ravenous. Even the thin barley porridge Bertrada had cooked to break the night’s fast tasted delicious to me. I quickly finished one bowlful and handed the empty dish back to Bertrada to refill. She glanced at Wulf, and when he nodded, she stepped to the hearth, ladled out another serving from the pot hanging over the low fire, and handed it back to me.
Genevieve stepped through the doorway leading to the back room, and stood for a moment, blinking her eyes and looking confused. The night before I had told Wulf and Bertrada to prepare a pallet for her in the back room, where they and their children slept. I thought she would feel safer, and hopefully comforted, being among her own people again. Wulf and Bertrada had looked surprised. I suppose they’d thought I’d taken her captive at least in part to have the pleasure of a woman in my bed.
Wulf noticed me looking toward the back room, and turned and saw Genevieve.
“She is a nun,” he said, turning back to me. Apparently he was still annoyed that I had returned, and was inclined to argue about it. “Did you realize that? Do you know what that means?”
“She told me,” I said.
“She is a holy woman. Why did you take her? What will you do with her?” he demanded.
“I intend to sell her.”
Wulf’s eyes widened, and he turned his head and looked at Genevieve again. “You cannot,” he said in a softer voice. “She is so young. And she has dedicated her life to serving God.”
Which meant more to Wulf, I wondered–her age or that she was a priestess of the White Christ? He’d told me his first wife and their two daughters had been taken by Northmen when Ruda had been sacked several years ago. Did seeing Genevieve call to his mind painful memories of that loss?
“I intend to sell her back to her family,” I explained. “Besides being a priestess, she is of noble blood. She says her father is a count. He will pay well to get her back unharmed.” Or so I hoped.
The light in the room dimmed suddenly. I turned to see Torvald standing just inside the open doorway. He could move quietly for such a large man.
“You are to come,” he told me. “Ragnar is holding a war council with Hastein, Ivar, and Bjorn. They wish to speak with each of the scouts and question them about what they observed.”
As I pushed my seat back and stood, Torvald added, “You are to bring your prisoner, also. And you,” he said, pointing at Wulf, “Hastein said you are to come, too.”
Ragnar was holding his council in the great hall of the count’s palace. I was glad that for once I’d been summoned to appear there before him for a reason other than to answer for some misdeed. As we entered the hall, Torvald pointed to a bench against one wall near the doorway.
“You and the woman wait here,” he told Wulf.
Ragnar and his sons Ivar the Boneless and Bjorn Ironsides were seated behind a long table. Hastein was pacing in front of it. Four warriors–I recognized them all as scouts from our journey upriver–stood nearby. Einar, my comrade, was among them. Hastein had told me he’d returned safely from the scouting mission, but we’d had no chance to speak, for he’d been retrieved by Ivar’s ship, rather than the Gull. Einar nodded when he saw me, and stared at Genevieve curiously.
Hastein glanced at Torvald and me as we approached, then said, “Ah, here is Halfdan. He is the last of them.”
“Three of the scouts did not return?” Ragnar asked. Eight of us had been sent out on the mission to find the Frankish army.
Hastein nodded. “Two from the south bank and one from the north.”
“And it was a close thing with this one,” Ivar added, pointing at me. “When we found him, he was surrounded by Frankish warriors. He had killed four of them, and was holding the rest at bay when we reached him. There were close to thirty of them. He is lucky to be alive, for he was much farther upstream than we’d planned to venture. But just when we were preparing to turn and head back to Ruda, we saw smoke rising from up ahead, along the line of the river, and Hastein insisted we investigate on the chance it might be from a signal fire.”
“You lit a signal fire?” Ragnar asked me, a scornful expression on his face. It was a look I’d come to expect when appearing before him. “Did you not think that might draw the Franks to your position? Is that how they discovered you?”
Apparently my past sins had not been forgotten, or forgiven. I could feel my temper rising. It had not been my fault I’d been forced to kill one of our own warriors, and had brawled with another. But Ragnar had thought it was, and he clearly expected me to have behaved foolishly again when out scouting.
“The Franks had already found me, and trapped me against the riverbank,” I answered, through gritted teeth. “There was nothing to lose at that point by lighting a fire.” I saw no reason to volunteer that I actually had not intended the fire to be a signal. My fylgja–my guardian spirit–may have guided my hand when I lit it, but my wits had not. In truth, Ivar was right. I was lucky to be alive.
My resourcefulness–or my luck–had clearly impressed Ivar. Now Bjorn, too, stared at me with a new look of approval on his face. Ragnar looked considerably less impressed. At least he was not talking about hanging me, though.
“Show the scouts what you are making,” Ragnar told Hastein.
Hastein beckoned us to approach the table. A scroll of parchment had been partially unrolled, and a section as long as my forearm had been cut from it. I suspected it had been looted from some church or monastery, for it was covered on one side with Latin writing. Hastein had drawn a crude map on the back side of the piece of parchment. So far there was not much to it–it was little more than a single wavy line running diagonally across the sheet. Nearby on the table was a squat glass bottle with a small brush in it, and a short length of board with a shallow groove, similar in shape to the line painted on the parchment, cut into its surface.
“While Ivar and I were on the river searching for you,” Hastein said, addressing all of the scouts, “I took note of the course of the river, of its bends and twists, and marked them on this board. I have copied it onto this map.”
“Here is Ruda,” he explained, pointing to a circle painted at one end of the line near the top of the sheet of parchment. “And this is the course of the River Seine upstream from Ruda, where you scouted.”
“Do all of you understand what this shows?” Ragnar asked. We nodded, and a few of the scouts grunted in assent.
“I want each of you to tell us about any Frankish troops you saw—how many, and what type—and show us where along the river you saw them,” he ordered. “And if you located towns, or roads, and can mark their location for us, do that also.”
It was a clever idea. Although Ragnar had explained it to us, I suspected Hastein had thought of it. Unfortunately, most of the men had never seen even a simple map before. Captains of ships and leaders of armies, like Hastein and Ragnar, have uses for such things, but carls–simple freemen and farmers—-do not. As a result, they had difficulty relating the locations where they had scouted in the Frankish countryside to the mostly blank piece of parchment lying on the table before them.
One by one, the scouts stepped forward and told their tales of what they’d seen. All, on both sides of the river, had seen patrols of Frankish cavalry. Determining exactly where they’d seen them, though, was a different matter. As each man spoke, Hastein became visibly more and more frustrated. In most cases they could only roughly estimate where each sighting of Frankish troops had been, and even that was based primarily on Hastein and Ivar knowing where along the river each scout had been put ashore.
Finally only Einar and I were left. Einar stepped forward and touched his finger to the map. “There is a large town about here, to the south of Ruda,” he said, pointing to an area below the line of the river. “I found a road running across country from north to south, which I believe is the same road that leads south from Ruda. I followed it, and it led me to the town I saw here. Many Frankish warriors are in it, and it is protected by a high wall. I watched the town for more than a day. Patrols of mounted warriors rode in and out frequently.”
“Are you sure the town is here?” Hastein asked, tapping his finger on the spot Einar had pointed to. After his experiences with the other scouts, he sounded skeptical.
Einar shrugged. “I cannot say for certain. It is not easy to compare the distances I traveled to this,” he said, gesturing at the parchment. Hastein sighed. “But if I am correct that the road I saw is the same road that runs due south from Ruda, then the town I saw also lies to the south, and I believe it would be about there.”
“Einar is right,” I volunteered. “There is a Frankish town somewhere in that area. I myself did not see it, but the prisoner I captured told me of it. She called it Evreux.” I pronounced the strange Frankish name with difficulty. “And she said it is on the road leading south from Ruda. I, too, traveled on that road for a time, though I was to the south of the town. And the same road also eventually leads to another town, even farther to the south, which she called Dreux. I think Dreux would be about here,” I added, pointing at the map, below the spot Einar had indicated.
“Here? You are certain? And there is a road running north to south that connects these two towns and Ruda?” Hastein asked. I nodded.
Using the small brush and bottle of dark liquid, he leaned over the table and drew a line running down the map from the circle marking Ruda’s location, then marked the line with two more circles where Einar and I had indicated the two towns lay. He straightened up, looking pleased.
Ivar put his hands behind his head and slouched back in his chair. “What good does this do us?” he said to no one in particular. I wondered the same thing. Hastein ignored him, and addressed me again.
“Earlier, aboard the Gull, you told me you saw a large number of Frankish troops at a fort. Where was the fort?”
“Over here. There is another road that runs east from this second town, from Dreux,” I explained, tracing the line with my finger. “My prisoner told me that this road leads eventually to a large town the Franks call Paris. It is larger even than Ruda. I found the Frankish army here, just off the road leading from Dreux to Paris.” I tapped my finger on the map where I estimated I’d seen the huge Frankish fort.
Hastein stared at the map, frowning. “You say you saw them here?” he asked. I nodded. “Are you certain you traveled this far south? It is a long way from the river. I put you ashore far to the north of this area.”
“Yes,” I told him. The more I studied the map and thought about where I had traveled, the more confident I felt. “It was there. And I am certain it was the main Frankish army that I saw.”
“You say you found the main Frankish army?” Ragnar interjected. From the tone of his voice, he was clearly skeptical. I wondered if he’d have been so quick to doubt had the fort been seen by a scout other than me. “Why do you believe that?” he continued. “All of the scouts, on both sides of the river, saw Frankish troops.”
“They mostly saw patrols of mounted warriors. I saw those, too. But the warriors I saw here were building a fort,” I explained, pointing again to the area of the map I’d previously indicated. “A huge fort, to enclose their encampment. Many, many men were working on it. Its walls, when they are finished, will be as tall and as strong as those that surround Hedeby, and they will enclose almost as large an area. It was a fort being built to hold an army—a very big army.”
Ivar and Bjorn exchanged glances. “How many warriors did you see there?” Ivar asked.
“I did not even try to count them,” I told him. “They were far too numerous. But I saw many, many more than we fought here at Ruda. There were units of mounted warriors constantly on the move throughout this entire area, and I also saw foot soldiers marching toward the fort–a column of them, two abreast, that stretched so far down the road I could not see its end.”
“Which direction were the foot soldiers coming from?” Ragnar asked. As he spoke, Hastein painted a square on the map where I’d said I saw the fort. It appeared I had convinced him, at least, of the fort’s location.
“From the east, from farther inland,” I answered. “From the direction of Paris.”
“If he saw that many Frankish foot soldiers, it may well be that Halfdan did find the main muster of the Frankish army,” Hastein said to Ragnar, who leaned back in his chair with a deep frown on his face. He looked as though he hated to admit that the main Frankish army might have been found by me.
Ragnar was silent for a time, tugging at his beard as he thought. Finally he spoke.
“By now the Frank’s king will have summoned them all: the nobles and their retainers–they will be mostly cavalry—as well as troops from the garrisons of those towns beyond threat of attack by us. Those were probably the foot soldiers he saw. And now they all are gathering, in answer to their king’s command. The fortified encampment he found south of the river may well be where they are to meet.” He shook his head and sighed. “Yet other scouts saw mounted warriors, many, many of them, on the north bank of the Seine, too. What is the Franks’ king doing? What is his plan?”
“It sounds to me as though the Frankish king has divided his army,” Hastein suggested. “It appears he has placed large forces on both sides of the Seine.”
“Hmm …” Ivar grunted. “If he has, their king is playing a slow and cautious game, but a clever one. He aims to cut us off from obtaining provisions. He is using his mounted troops, who can move quickly across country, to tighten a noose around Ruda. If our raiding parties continue to ride out, one by one he will catch them and kill them. And if we can no longer raid, we will eventually run out of food. We will grow weaker while his army gathers and grows stronger. Then, once he is at his maximum strength, no doubt he will march on Ruda. If we do not take ship and retreat downriver before he puts the town under siege, we will be trapped here.”
“I, for one, have no wish to fight from behind these walls,” Bjorn said. Until now he had been silent. “I see no profit in it. This is a Frankish town. We will leave it eventually anyway. Why waste lives defending it?”
“Bjorn is right,” Ivar said. “I am sick of this stinking town. Men were not meant to live this way, so many so close together. I feel as though every breath I take has already been breathed by ten other men.”
“So the two of you counsel that we should take what we’ve won and sail downriver to the sea?” Ragnar asked. Ivar and Bjorn nodded. “My sons,” Ragnar said, shaking his head, “have lived in Ireland too long. They speak like true cattle raiders.” Ivar glared at him, but said nothing.
Ivar’s words made me recall something I’d forgotten to tell Hastein yesterday, in my fatigue and relief at being rescued.
“I found one of our raiding parties when I was scouting,” I said. “The Franks caught them out on the plain. I saw where they died.”
“You see, Father? It is as I said,” Ivar snapped. “It has already begun. So far three of our raiding parties have not returned. No doubt they have all been caught and killed by Frankish cavalry. It is time for us to negotiate ransoms for those of our prisoners the Franks are willing to buy back, and make our plans to depart. We came to raid their lands, not to settle on them.”
“Or be buried under them,” Bjorn added.
I thought Ivar’s suggestion was a good one. I hoped we could quickly ransom our prisoners and leave Frankia. I looked forward to being rid of Genevieve. And I was tired of this war, of seeing so much death. I was tired of killing men I had no quarrel with.
“I see a danger in the Frankish king’s plan,” Hastein said.
“That is what I have been saying,” Ivar agreed, nodding his head vigorously and nudging Bjorn with his elbow. “Hastein agrees with us, Father. We need to make plans now to leave this town.”
Hastein shook his head. “No! I see a danger for the Franks. You are correct, Ivar. By dividing their forces, the Franks can stop our raiding for now. But if he should need to, how quickly can their king reunite his army?”
“The same thought occurred to me,” Ragnar said.
Hastein continued. “I have had the Frankish sea captain whose ship I captured brought here. He may be able to answer that question.” Turning to Torvald, he said, “Bring Wulf here.”
Wulf looked nervous as Torvald brought him to stand in front of the table, and seemed not to know what to do with his hands. He finally tucked them in his belt, behind his back, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“How far upriver, above Ruda, have you traveled?” Hastein asked him.
“As far as Paris,” Wulf replied. “I have taken my ship, the Swallow, to Paris to sell cargos there.”
“How far upriver is Paris?” Ragnar asked.
“In the Swallow? She is not a fast ship, especially if she has to be rowed. And there’s usually much rowing to be done on that journey. The Seine is a twisting serpent of a river, for sure.”
“How long does it take you to travel upriver from Ruda to Paris?” Ragnar said, sounding impatient.
“Seven days, more or less, in the Swallow,” Wulf answered. “It’s faster to travel over land, if it’s speed you’re after. But easier to carry cargo by ship. Of course,” he added, “your ships are much faster than mine. I’d wager you could make the journey in half that time.”
“Are there any river crossings?” Hastein asked. “Any fords or bridges?”
“No fords at all,” Wulf answered, shaking his head. “The river’s too wide and deep. And the first bridges across her are at Paris. There are no crossings at all downstream from there, save for a ferryboat or two at villages along the river.”
Wulf’s words seemed to please Hastein and Ragnar, though I did not understand why. They looked at each other and smiled.
“That is all for now,” Hastein told Wulf, waving his hand at him. “You may go.”
“What are you and Hastein plotting, Father?” Ivar asked. “I have seen that look in your eyes before.”
“Nothing, as of yet,” Ragnar answered. “And you are right, Ivar,” he added grudgingly. “We should go ahead and parley with the Franks and begin negotiating ransoms for our prisoners. It will encourage our men to know that soon they can trade their captives for silver. And you are also correct that we cannot continue sending out raiding parties. We will lose too many men to the Franks.”
“And after the prisoners are ransomed,” Bjorn asked, “will we leave?”
“Perhaps,” Ragnar answered. “Perhaps not. But all of the men should use this time, while they are waiting in camp and cannot raid, to care for their weapons and repair their armor, if needed. And all archers,” he added, glancing at me, “should make certain they have a plentiful supply of arrows. Perhaps, after the ransoms are paid, we shall leave. But we must make certain the army is prepared for war.”