Chapter 1: Offer

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The Viking was alone on the muddy road, his makeshift white flag –a grayish piece of cloth tied to a branch- hanging miserably under the rain. He was soaked to the bones despite his cloak, yet he didn’t care. He was on a mission, so much depended on him.

Without his sword, he felt naked. He had refused to wear it: they would have taken it from him anyway. He had given it 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, and 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 carry a message for the Duke[i] from my Chief Sven Gunnarsson. I am alone and unarmed, let me in.” His Anglisc was hesitant, but correct. The slave had taught him well.

“Wait here.”

He did as instructed. At least they were considering it. He glanced 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 had been banished for his crimes. He would not fail, he couldn't afford it.

A panel 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 as he entered the enclosure. Another one stepped in front and motioned for him to follow.

They progressed towards the fortress, following a mud trail amidst the wood and earth houses. He glared at the few 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 roads. He was never to see a civilized land again. Savages! His people would be doing them a favor by taking over.

It wasn’t long until they reached the lord’s residence, an old Roman fort protected by another ditch and drawbridge. The first guard bellowed orders and they were let in swiftly.

They crossed the yard and entered the main house, a large three level wooden tower erected in the center. He was shown to the first floor and into a vast, decorated room. Thick leather curtains covered the narrow windows, holding the chilly dampness at bay. A fire roared in the fireplace[ii], bringing welcome light and heat. Flanked by guards, a man sat in a high-backed chair on its side, hands clenching the sculpted armrests. From his regal posture and finery, the messenger assumed that this was the Duke.

He bowed, hiding his contempt. Ethelred, Ealdorman of the shire of South-Anglia, had a reputation for cruelty and greed for power. He had recently conducted a punitive expedition against Dane settlements over the northern border, leaving no survivors. There was no need for slaughter; his opponents had been innocent peasants. How cowardly could one be to attack women and children? They were not even related to the raiders he wanted to punish.