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.
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.
“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 exciting part.
“My chief, Sven Gunnarsson, is offering a truce. He will not attack you if you give him your daughter in marriage, with a proper dowry of course. He will also give you his protection against other attacks.”
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 an ealdorman or a king, not a lowly 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 one and twenty and a beauty. She will be betrothed soon, and certainly not to your master. You have wasted my time enough; go and tell him that, and not to worry about my safety. I can protect myself.”
The Duke disdainfully waived his dismissal.
The messenger held back a smile. He had him just where he wanted him
“In this case, my instructions are to warn you that you just started a feud. And it will be harder to save yourself from us than from unarmed farmers. You could try to crawl in a hole or hide behind your men like a little girl when we’ll attack. Just don’t get your dress muddy when you’ll beg for mercy, we’ll need it clean for one of our bedslaves. You’ll be so used to kneeling by then that you’ll have no issue becoming a monk.”
The Duke’s face turned a shade of dark red. He rose from his seat and slapped the messenger, his rings cutting deep into the man’s cheeks.
“Take him away, kill him and behead him. Then mount his head on a spike and throw his body out of the walls.”
Still raging, he stormed out of the room.
The Viking laughed. He had completed his mission. His death would give his chief a legitimate reason to attack. The Duke just ran to his doom.
[i]Duke or Dux, was the Latin term for Ealdorman.
[ii]A recess in the wall with a hole at the top, there were no chimneys as we know them yet.