The Viking was alone on the muddy road, his makeshift white flag –a grayish piece of cloth attached to a branch- hanging miserably under the rain. He was soaked to the bones despite his cloak and hood, but he didn’t care. He was on a mission, so much depended on him right now. He felt naked without his sword, although he refused to wear it: they would have taken it from him anyway. He had given it away to his brother Olaf, to keep as a token of his affection and esteem, something to remember him by. The likelihood of him living through the day was thin at best, but he had accepted it. Before sunset, he would be with the Gods in Valhalla. But first, he had to deliver his message.
He stopped in front of the massive gates, main way through the high palisade surrounding the village. The sentinels in the gatehouse must have seen him coming. The outside ditch was filled with ice-cold dirty water, preventing him from getting closer. He waited, trying to control the shivers: they could mistake them for fear.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“I come in peace, I am carrying a message for the Duke from my Chief Sven Gunnarsson. I am alone and unarmed, let me in.”
His Saxon was slow but correct. The slave had taught him well.
He did as instructed. At least they were considering it. He looked at the sky, dark and menacing, as if Death was there, waiting. He couldn’t thank Sven enough for giving him this chance, a warrior’s end, when he was condemned to hang for his crimes. He would not fail, he couldn't allow it.
One side of the gate creaked open and he straightened up, crossing the drawbridge as soon as it covered the ditch. Two guards appeared at his sides when he reached the keep, where the houses were nested. Another one stepped in front of him and motioned for him to follow. They proceeded towards the castle, along a narrow street twisting around the wood and earth houses. He glared at the few frightened inhabitants brave enough to peek at him. Christians! These people were dirty and the place was shabby. With a pang in the heart, he remembered his native town, so clean and organized, with proper longhouses and straight alleys. He was never to see a civilized land again. Savages! His people would be doing them a favor by taking over.
Eventually they reached the castle, an ancient roman fort protected by yet another ditch and drawbridge. The front guard bellowed some orders and they were let in swiftly.
They crossed the yard and entered the main house, a large three levels wooden tower at the center of the yard. He was showed to the first floor and into a large, decorated room. Thick leather curtains, holding the chilly dampness at bay, covered the narrow windows. A fire was roaring in the large chimney, bringing some welcome light and heat. A man was seated in a large armchair on its side, surrounded by guards. From his attitude and finery, the messenger deducted that this was the Duke.
As instructed he bowed politely, not showing his despise of the man. Ethelsted, Duke of South Anglia, was reputed for his cruelty and greed for power. He had recently conducted a punitive expedition against Dane settlements close to his northern border, and left no survivors, even though these people had been innocent peasants.
How cowardly could you be to attack women and children? They were not even related to the raiders he wanted to punish.
“A Viking hey? So the pirates sent you? And what could your thief-in-chief want with me?”
He bowed again, hiding his scowl. Now was the fun part.
“My chief, Sven Gunnarsson, is offering a truce. He will not attack you if you give him your daughter in marriage, with an appropriate dowry of course. He will also give you his protection against other raiders.”
The Duke’s laugh boomed in the room, echoed by the guards. The Viking remained impassible. He had been warned to expect this reaction.
“My daughter, to this criminal! He has some nerve! She is my only heir, she will marry a Duke or a King, not a lowlife burglar.”
“With all due respect, if that was to happen, why is she still a maiden? She is already far past the age of betrothal, and has no suitor. My chief is a wealthy man, she would be well taken care of.”
“She is only twenty-one and a beauty. I have plans for her that should be fulfilled soon and that doesn’t include your master. You have wasted my time enough, go and tell him that, and not to worry about my safety. As you can see, I can protect myself.”