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Authors: A Tale of Two Vikings

Sandra Hill

BOOK: Sandra Hill
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A Tale of Two Vikings
Sandra Hill

This book is dedicated with much love and appreciation to my good friend, Trish Jensen. Not only is she a good writer who helps me make my books better, but she also teaches me so much about friendship and caring and loyalty. And what she doesn’t know about romantic humor would fill the head of a pin. A wise person once said that we remember best the friends with whom we have laughed
and
cried. How true! Thanks, Trish.

 

And to Ross Bennett, her significant other and my knight in shining computer. I cannot tell you how many times Ross has saved the literary life of this electronic klutz. Thanks, Ross.

Friend I was with the Lord of Spears;

Trusting I was, and kept my faith
.

But now the All-Father, God of Battle
,

Has turned his face away from me….

—Egil’s Saga
from
Sonatorrek

Contents

Prologue

Toste and Vagn Ivarsson did everything together.

Chapter One

Toste Ivarsson slid in the soft earth and almost fell…

Chapter Two

“Marry my daughter, or you’ll wish you were dead,” Jarl…

Chapter Three

The nun was kneeling on all fours in the dirt,…

Chapter Four

Would he live or would he die?

Chapter Five

Time was of utmost importance to Esme, but, unfortunately, her…

Chapter Six

It was probably the worst plan Helga had ever concocted.

Chapter Seven

“Stop moving.”

Chapter Eight

Helga was driving Vagn barmy. Full-blown, pulling-at-the-hair, humming-at-the-groin barmy.

Chapter Nine

“The stables? Why are you taking me to the stables?”…

Chapter Ten

Vagn was dreaming. He knew he must be dreaming. And…

Chapter Eleven

It was the second sennight of December. Snow and ice…

Chapter Twelve

“We are going to Ravenshire for a yuletide celebration,” Gorm…

Chapter Thirteen

It was two days later.

Chapter Fourteen

By early afternoon, Esme was back at the castle.

Chapter Fifteen

The next morning, Alinor found Toste and Vagn out in…

Epilogue

It was summertime at Briarstead, and Vagn Ivarsson’s first child…

Double the trouble, Viking style…

Toste and Vagn Ivarsson did everything together.

They came squalling into this world from the same womb together, bare minutes apart.

They suckled from the breasts of the same wet nurse when their mother died in the birthing.

They were weaned and privy trained at the same time.

They invented their own language—words and body expressions that only they could understand.

They rode their first horses at the age of seven, rode their first maids on Friggs Day of their thirteenth summer, and rode off on longships to go a-Viking as untried fourteen-year-old warriors.

They’d been inseparable till their ninth year when their father, Jarl Ivar Thorsson, who considered twins an unnatural happenstance, came up with the lackwit notion
that they would mature best apart. He sent them, kicking and screaming, to opposite reaches of the Norselands for fostering. That lasted a total of three intolerable months afore both were sent home by exasperated Norse chieftains.

Because of their identical appearance, except for a clover-shaped birthmark on Toste’s inner thigh, they constantly traded places, to the chagrin of comrades and maids aplenty.

Their father eventually outlawed them from his Vestfold realm on the same day, over the selfsame piddling incident—piddling to them, leastways. Vagn, in a fit of meadhead madness, had referred to their older brother Arne as “Mother’s Baby, Father’s Maybe,” and Toste had piped in with a comment that Arne much resembled a trader called Leif Lousebeard who came into the area on occasion.

They never wed, some said, because they could not bear to be apart from each other. Bolthor the Skald once described them as: Fair of face and form; fierce in the bed furs; even fiercer in battle; quick to wit; loyal to a fault.

In essence, Toste and Vagn were as one.

But, alas and alack, Toste and Vagn, having seen only thirty and one winters, were about to die together.

Land of the Saxons, A.D. 964
A-marching they did go, a-marching they did go…
uh-oh…

Toste Ivarsson slid in the soft earth and almost fell on his arse, to the amusement of the many warriors who surrounded him on their trek through Saxon hell.

“Remind me again why we are trudging about in scratchsome chain
sherts
over padded leather tunics, all that covered with wet fur pelts, carrying heavy shields and swords and battle-axes, during a hailstorm, smack down the middle of enemy lands, like bloody game pigeons?”
Ping, ping, ping
—the icy pellets kept hitting the metal armor and weapons of the soldiers in the
bird
, creating an irksome din—just as irksome, Toste hoped, as the pellets of his grumbles directed in an endless tirade at his equally irksome brother, Vagn. “And the odor! Two hun
dred men who have not bathed in a fortnight—phew! ’Tis said that women of all nations favor us Viking men because we are so handsome, but mainly because we bathe more often than the average fellow. Well, they would change their tune quick as spit if they got a whiff of this aromatic bunch. I’m thinking of putting a pincher on the nose guard of my helmet to cut out the foul body aromas.”

To his frustration, Vagn’s response was to whistle. For the love of Thor! Whistling in the midst of this…this…sure-to-be wasted effort!
The lackwit! No church pillage is worth this time and inconvenience. My toes feel like icicles. By the gods, I would love to be sitting afore a hot hearth, feet propped up, nursing a horn of mulled ale
.

“I was bored,” Vagn answered cheerily, even though he was equally laden with battle gear, and led an ancient warhorse named Clod he had won the night before in a game of
hnefatafl
. The destrier, made skittish by the pelting ice, was one of the few horses on the field today. Most of the soldiers preferred to walk the short distance to the monastery…which was turning out to be not so short a distance, after all.

It was a rare peaceable time in Britain. King Edgar, being only twenty and one years old and busy fornicating with every female who crossed his path, was heavily under the influence of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom he’d brought back from exile. While Edgar sinned, Dunstan built more monasteries for his king’s penance. A good bargain, in Toste’s opinion.

Toste reacted to Vagn’s remark. “Bored! Why could we not have wrestled a bear, like we did last time you got bored? Why could we not have dug for amber or hunted whales in the Baltics? Why could we not have gone horse
buying in the Saracen lands? Why could we not have drunk a tun of mead and slept the ale-head away all winter long? Why could we not have spent a sennight and more in a talented harlot’s bed furs?”

“Together?” Vagn asked.

How like him to home in on the last and most irrelevant of my suggestions!
Toste snorted with disgust. “We have tried it
together
more than once, as you well know, but we were half-brained youthlings then. Now, I much prefer to do my own plowing, thank you very much.” He regretted the words the minute they slipped from his mouth.

“Mayhap you are getting old,” Vagn commented, as if he were not the same
advanced
age of thirty and one years. “Almost a graybeard you are. For a certainty, I saw a wild hair growing in your ear yestereve when you were retching your guts over the ship’s rail into the stormy sea. Up and down, up and down, up and down, our boat followed the path of the roaring waves. Ne’er have I seen a man vomit so much.”

“In the midst of that sea-gale, you noticed a single hair in my ear?” Toste arched his frosty brows in disbelief. At the same time, he swiped a forearm across his forehead to wipe away moisture from the melting hail.

“Yea, I did…and, come to think on it, there was one in your nose, too. Women do not like such misplaced hairs, you know. Dost want me to pluck it out for you?”

Toste made a coarse observation about “plucking” and jabbed Vagn in the upper arm with an elbow for his deviltry, Toste’s hands being full of weapons.

His brother just grinned and danced away.

The hail began to die down and was replaced with sleet, which in turn created a mire of mud underfoot. What a miserable day! If they didn’t soon find this mon
astery, he was going to turn on his heel and head back to the ship, blessed booty be damned!

Then, ignoring Vagn’s flummery, he commenced afresh his earlier diatribe. “’Tis all your fault. ’Twas you who convinced me that we should join the Jomsvikings, and look where it has landed us.” They were surrounded on all sides by Viking warriors intent on plunder or battle, or whatever they faced ahead—way too far from the four longships anchored near shore. “A bloodthirstier lot I have ne’er met than this mercenary band, including our chieftain. I swear, Sigvaldi would hew down his mother if she sneezed the wrong way. And, by the by, you failed to inform me that no women were permitted at the Jomsviking fortress at Trellenborg. ’Tis a year since we joined this troop of noble warriors. Nobility is one thing, celibacy is another. Not what I envisioned, I’ll tell you that.” It was not the first time Toste had voiced this particular complaint to his brother.

“Methinks you have lost the adventuresome spirit, brother. To go a-Viking is a way of life for us Norsemen. ’Tis what men do when the crops are harvested and high-winter has not yet icebound our longships.” Vagn shrugged as if there were naught more to say on the subject. Norsemen would be Norsemen, was Vagn’s simple philosophy. Toste thought Vagn had finished blathering, but then he added more of his non-wisdom, “A dollop of celibacy hones a man’s appetite. Makes him a more self-disciplined fellow.”

“Hah! More like a
wallop
—as in overabundance—of celibacy hones a man’s randiness and makes him nigh beastly when he finally lands betwixt soft thighs. The monkish life is not for me.”

“Me, neither,” Vagn admitted. “Shall we go home?” A
dozen hailstones lay in Vagn’s as yet unhelmeted, dark blond hair. Water rivulets ran down his face in muddy streaks. He looked absolutely ridiculous, and absolutely endearing, at the same time. Toste loved his brother more than himself.

Choking back the emotion that clogged his throat, he asked, “Home? What home? Oh, nay, you surely do not suggest we hang tail and return to our father’s estates in the Norselands? He outlawed us—his own sons.”

“He would take us back,” Vagn said softly.

“Mayhap, if we would agree to his never-ending demands: Stop being so frivolous. Fight in his army, which is always at war with one minor Norse king or another, or one Saxon thegn or another. Bend knee to our two scurrilous older brothers, who are heirs to the jarldom…not that I would want to take on that mantle. Wed a noble wench
of Father’s choice
. Make public apology for past misdeeds. Need I remind you of the Helga the Homely incident? Or Ingrid Hairy Chin?”

“Groveling would be required, of a certainty. And much kissing of arse,” Vagn pointed out with a wince. Neither of them were ever much good at groveling. “But we are older now, Toste. Being landless knights no longer holds appeal. Perchance settling down with a wife and family would not be the worst thing in the world. Our friend Rurik seems happy enough in that role. And, of a certainty, there is not much attraction anymore in raiding greedy clerics of their gold crucifixes and ruby-encrusted chalices. We have wealth enough, both of us.”

His brother’s words surprised Toste, mainly because they mirrored his own thinking of late. But that had been the pattern their entire lives. They always thought alike,
having the same tastes and dislikes, even feeling each other’s pain and joy on occasion.

Toste shifted the halberd—a long-handled spear/battle-ax—in his right hand to its leather shoulder strap and used his free arm to wrap his brother’s shoulder and squeeze tightly. In a voice choked with deep sentiment, he said, “This will be our last battle, then. We will go home to make peace with our father and establish our own families and estates.”

“Can our estates border one another?” Vagn asked.

“I would have it no other way.”

They smiled warmly at each other, glad to have made a long-overdue decision.

“That reminds me of a saga I have been writing,” Bolthor the Skald—also known as Bolthor the World’s Worst Skald—said as he huffed up behind them. Bolthor was a giant of a man, still well muscled from fighting, even at forty and more years, but he had lost one eye at the Battle of Brunanburh some twenty years ago. It was a liability for a soldier. Still, he’d insisted on coming with them to join the Jomsvikings. Or more likely, his former leaders, Tykir in the Norse lands, and Rurik in the land of the Scots, had sicced him on them, having endured more than enough sorry sagas relating the intimacies and foibles of their lives. Either way, they were stuck with the good-hearted behemoth poet. “The saga could be called ‘The Lost Vikings.’”

“Uh, mayhap later,” Toste said quickly, noticing a dreamy look passing over Bolthor’s face which usually portended a vile poem about to spew forth.

“We are not lost, Bolthor,” Vagn pointed out. The fool! Did he not know that it was unwise to encourage the skald in any way? Vagn waved a hand to indicate the
vast number of Jomsviking warriors traveling with them. “Surely, we cannot
all
be lost.”

“I did not mean the entire
bird
of soldiers was lost. Just you two.”

“Oh,” Vagn said, still clearly confused.

But then Toste made a mistake as foolish as his brother’s. He remarked to Bolthor, “I thought you always started your sagas with ‘good’ in the introduction. Like ‘This is the saga of Tykir the Good.’ Or, ‘This is the saga of ‘Rurik the Greater.’”

“Hmmm. You are right, Toste,” Bolthor said, biting his bottom lip with worry. Well, leastways they had time to escape his presence whilst he pondered the dilemma.

Toste and Vagn began to walk faster, but Bolthor yelled at their backs, “Wait! I have the solution.” With a groan, Toste and Vagn were forced by politeness to stand and listen. “This is the saga of Toste and Vagn, the
best
Viking twin warriors in all the Norse lands.”

“That limits our area of greatness, does it not?” Vagn whispered for Toste’s ears only. “How many Viking twin warriors do you think there are?”

“I pray thee, Bragi, god of eloquence, to bless me this day,” Bolthor continued, his one good eye raised skyward. Then to Toste and Vagn he said, “Methinks a good title would be ‘Twin Vikings Who Lost Their Way.’”

“Huh?” Toste and Vagn said at the same time.

“Once were two twins from the Norse lands

Who thought they were best at all things
.

Running, racing, fighting, swordplay…

Flirting, swiving, flirting, swiving…

Laughing all the time, changing places
,

Till was unclear who was who

And whether there be any point to their lives
.

But, by and by, age came upon them finally…

A turning in the road men face in middle years
.

They began to question the meaning of life
,

Which destiny-path to follow
,

Whether to replicate themselves by breeding
,

Why they were born
.

A crossroads in their lives, for a certainty…

The question is: Will they choose the safer path
,

Or will they jump headfirst into wedlock
,

And forevermore question how they landed there?”

Toste and Vagn glanced at each other, stunned speechless. Where did Bolthor come up with this stuff? How did he manage to hit so close to the truth? And most important, where was some other Viking needful of his own personal skald?

“Very good, Bolthor,” Vagn said, not wishing to insult him.

“Yea, very good,” Toste agreed.
Now go plague someone else with your sagas
.

“Now go plague someone else with your sagas,” Vagn said, not nearly as sensitive as Toste. He apparently had no compunction about hurting Bolthor’s feelings. But there was no need for worry in that regard, because the insult passed right by Bolthor, who brightened and said, “Yea, methinks Sigvaldi is in need of a good comeuppance…I mean, saga. Hey, that can be a new name for a certain type of poem—a comeuppance-saga.” Bolthor rushed forward to tell the chieftain his good news.

Toste and Vagn smiled at each other, but not for long.

Up ahead, someone shouted a warning. “Ambush! Ambush! We are surrounded by Saxons!”

Immediately, the two-hundred-man horde of Viking warriors scurried for cover, of which there was almost none in the shallow valley they’d been traversing. Meanwhile, hundreds and hundreds of Saxon soldiers emerged on the small hills surrounding them. Despite their surprise and being vastly outnumbered, the Viking brothers-in-arms soon prepared themselves skillfully for battle with weapons drawn.

Usually, Norsemen preferred the
Svinfylkja
, better known as the “Swine Wedge,” a triangular assault formation with the point facing the enemy, or a “shield wall,” with a tight mass of warriors surrounding the chieftain. There was no time for those tactics now; Saxons hemmed them in on three sides, including the exitway out of the valley. A blizzard of arrows showered from the bowmen, even as the Saxon foot army advanced toward them.

All around him, Toste heard war cries raised by his enraged comrades. Sometimes just wild whoops, or savage roars of fury. Other times, specific exhortations were called out: “To the Death!” “Luck in Battle!” “Mark Them with Your Spears!”

Toste did not love to fight as some men did, but he would rather be the crow than the carrion, and he had no intention of breaking the raven’s fast this day. He raised his broadsword in an arc as a burly Saxon soldier approached him, spear raised with menace. Toste aimed for the “fat line,” that section of the body from neck to groin where most vital organs were located. He sliced the man crossways from shoulder to waist before the spear ever left his hand. Wide-eyed with horror, the man, already spewing blood from his mouth, fell in a heap at Toste’s feet. “Good aim, brother!” Vagn yelled out to
him, while Toste sparred, sword to sword, with another foeman. Next, Toste crouched low and lunged his short sword into a fat Saxon belly. With a grunt of surrender, the Saxon fell, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he died.

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