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Authors: Vincent Atherton

Viking Voices

BOOK: Viking Voices
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Viking Voices
The Sword of Amleth

Vincent Atherton

Copyright © 2014 Vincent Atherton

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study,

or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents

Act 1988, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in

any form or by any means, with the prior permission in writing of the

publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with

the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Enquiries

concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.

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The historical context

This novel is set in the Viking world of Northern England, Ireland and the Irish Sea between them, starting with the expulsion of the Vikings from Dublin in 902 AD and continuing until after their return in 917. Those two events define the time span of the novel.

It is a fictitious account of how things might have been, rather than a serious attempt at a factual account. Nevertheless it holds true to the historic events of the period, using actual characters, such as Ragnald, and adding some fictious ones, including Amleth and Aud, and describing how it might have felt to be a Viking living during that era.

The Norwegian Vikings, or Lochlain as the Irish called them, had established a large settlement and fortress at Dublin (Dyflinn) and its hinterland they called the Dyflinnarskiri. It was established as a centre for the slave trade, and they took Irish, British and Saxon slaves, mainly back into the Baltic, there to be traded on. They could not hold onto Dublin though, as in 902 the Kings of Brega and Leinster united to expel them. They were said to have left a great number of boats as the Vikings escaped half-dead, wounded and broken. It is not clear that Dublin was completely abandoned and there is evidence suggesting Norse traders may have continued to work and trade in the city after this event.

Following this setback the Hiberno-Norse operated in several groups, seeking refuge in various places around the Irish Sea. They re-organised and centred on various leaders, including Ragnald, Guthfrith and Sihtric, who were all the grandsons of Ivarr the Boneless, an earlier king of the Hiberno Norse. The latter two were perhaps brothers, but it was their cousin Ragnald who rapidly became the most important and is recorded as raiding the Picts in 904 and 905.

They had left Dublin with all their families, and so it was necessary to find the wives a secure place to raise their children well away from the conflicts. It is likely that they would have founded a settlement or settlements in typical Viking locations on an estuary somewhere on the English or Scottish coast between Galloway and the Wirral.

It is known that another of their leaders, Ingamund, was granted land on the Wirral peninsula by Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia after 902. They were controlled by the Angles who sought to constrain and limit their power, but nevertheless attacked Chester (Ceaster) in 907. These may be the people that had earlier attempted to settle in Anglesey (Môn) and were driven off by the King of Gwynedd.

The River Ribble (Ripam) was then on the main trade route from the Irish Sea to the great Viking centre at York (Jorvik) and was a busy and well trodden highway at that time. It was here at Cuerdale, near my home in Preston (Prestune), that the greatest treasure ever found in Europe (outside of Russia) was buried by the Hiberno Norse around 905. It consisted of a great amount of silver, apparently collected over a lengthy time, tied in leather sacks and put into a lead-lined chest. It lay there until discovered accidentally by agricultural labourers in May 1840. Preston itself, situated above the Ribble on a sandy ridge, was the site of an extensive Viking settlement. It is the story of this treasure that inspired me to write this novel.

In 909 the Mercian army made a five-week incursion into Danelaw, across the Mersey. This was not well received by Agmundthe Hold, the Scandinavian lord who held that area. In 910 he and the Danish army retaliated by invading Mercia, but the expedition ended disastrously for him and the Danes. They met with a wholesale defeat at Tettenhall, and Agmund was among the dead. As a result there was a switch towards Hiberno Norse control of the Danelaw.

Ragnald defeated Bardr Ottarson, a rival Norse leader, in a sea battle off the Isle of Man in 912 and secured a Manx base for his community. In 913 another Norse fleet arrived in Waterford from Brittany, and they joined forces with Ragnald providing a turning point in Hiberno Norse power in Ireland. In 917, the Scandinavians took Dublin back from the Irish, and the Angles were left facing an apparently renewed and strengthened Norse presence from the twin and allied centres of York and Dublin.

Nevertheless southern Danelaw, including the large buhrs of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, collapsed in 917/18, falling to Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and the son and successor to the Danes great foe; Alfred the Great. The fall of the Mercian Danelaw alarmed Ragnald and he conquered York around 919, establishing himself as King of Northumberland, and unifying Scandinavian resistance to Wessex.

Ragnald died in 921.

The languages and the ethnic groups of Britain and Ireland in the 10
th
century

Anglo Saxons: Germanic people of the seven English kingdoms: Mercia, Wessex, Kent, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Northumberland.

Vikings: Scandinavians both Norwegian (Lochlain/Norse), Danish (Danir) and occasionally Swedish. The Vikings held an area known as Danelaw which covered Northumberland, East Mercia, East Anglia and Essex. The Hiberno-Norse also held significant areas in Ireland such as Limerick, Waterford and Wexford, and of course, Dublin for a time.

Brythonic/Welsh (referred to as Britons): British Celts inhabiting Wales, Cornwall, Strathclyde and some other large pockets in Scotland and England, including Danelaw, plus Brittany in modern France. These people had been the original inhabitants of Britain.

Gaelic (referred to by the Norse as Irskric): The Irish living in Ireland and the western part of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Picts: Occupying Fortriu, now the Highlands of northern Scotland. A group who were original inhabitants of Britain, with different language and culture from the Britons.

Norse, British, Saxon and Irish place names used in the novel

Dyflinn –
Dublin

Fortriu –
Scottish Highlands

Gleawecstre –
Gloucester

Jorvik –
York

Maes Osfeilion –
Llanddonna, Anglesey

Mersam –
River Mersey

Môn –
Anglesey/Ynys Môn

Prestune –
Preston, Lancs

Ripam –
River Ribble

Seafern –
River Severn

Seafern Sea –
Bristol Channel

Trente –
River Trent

Vannin –
Isle of Man

Wirral –
Wirral, Merseyside

Woden's field –
Wednesfield, West Midlands

Chapter One
THE BATTLE OF DYFLINN

Even in the midst of a siege it is a lovely feeling to wake up lying alongside your new bride.

Lovely, but this time it is also tinged with a bitter sense of anxiety, so there is not too much of our happy laughter together today. Aud puts her head on my shoulder, too sleepy to speak while we lie side by side together, our naked skin touching sensually under the warm skins that cover us. We feel safe and comfortable here but we are also very conscious of how dangerous and how cold it is beyond these skins.

I am Amleth, Amleth Eriksson, and a proud young warrior of the Lochlain of Dyflinn, the Norse people who founded this town long ago. Alongside me is my darling wife, the tall, blonde and very beautiful Aud Gerdsdottar. I am looking into her eyes but am not very comforted by the anxiety I can see etched on her face today.

It is difficult enough to be afraid for yourself, your parents and siblings, but now there is so much for us both to live for. We envisage such a wonderfully happy life stretching out in front of us but it could all be taken away in one moment of violence. I am frightened of dying but I am even more frightened of surviving if Aud was to die. It is just four months since my father approached Gerd and agreed to pay him ten ounces of silver for Aud his daughter, now my bride. She is typical of the very best of the Lochlain women, with her own special charm. I think she is also capable of enduring hard times if necessary, but I will make sacrifices to the gods to ensure that she never has to.

Her personal charm really won me over, a beautiful smile and laughter that sounds like falling water; she has a strong sense of fun and mischief. So it is wonderful to have such a good friend to become my wife and lover, to chat and laugh with and to enjoy life. I know that she has an inner strength that would allow her to survive anything that might come our way. Although I hope she will never need that quality, I know in my heart that she certainly will need it at some point.

We were married just a few weeks ago, and that was such a wonderfully happy occasion, although it seems like a hundred years ago now. Our thoughts have been so occupied since then by our troubles. Aud was so proud and beautiful wearing her wedding crown, and I was so proud to become her husband. It was a privilege to put a silver ring onto her finger, and to receive hers in return. Naturally all of our friends and family attended the ritual and, of course, the feasting afterwards. It was such a joyous occasion and I had never seen Aud so radiant and happy, the centre of everyone's admiration.

Despite today's great anxiety we have been so happy together since, never being away from each other's side. We hope to have our children soon, and to have a piece of land to farm, and lead a quiet industrious life. At present, however, we cannot claim any land in the Dyflinnskari, as it's become just too dangerous to venture beyond the inner fort.

The grey morning's half light is coming onto the eastern horizon, but we can sense that there is a great mass of humanity waiting, somewhere just out of our sight. The Irish, or Irskr as we call them, may live much nearer to the mountains than to our settlement, but those mountains are not far away at all. They may come today or tomorrow, or even the day after but it will certainly be soon now.

Then we hear the distant beating of drums and wild savage screaming, and realisation dawns with a sense of dread! They are coming and they are coming right now! We have very little time and must move fast to save ourselves. We all spring up in alarm!

My first reaction is to get Aud away from the danger. She is my first and my most important concern, so she, like all the women and children, must be put onto a boat and leave immediately; there is no time to lose. After my concern for Aud I also look to ensure that my mother and Aud's mother get away in the same boat as she is in. I am too slow to react though, as my very capable wife has already found them and brought them together. Aud is crying with fear and hugs me tightly, she asks to stay with me, but at the same time she understands what is happening, what she and I need to do, and that there is little time for farewells. She is caring and sensitive but also very sensible and gets quickly into the boat, still in tears.

All of the women of the settlement are now frantically grabbing all they can of our possessions and taking their children, rushing for the boats. There are no warriors to spare to row for them and they must do what they can for themselves. They have been directed to take the big knarr boats which are broader, more stable and more seaworthy. These are the boats which are used for the long voyages of the traders, often carrying larger cargoes. Some of the women understand what is required of them but none have done this task before. It is a skilled task, only previously undertaken by men, and they are struggling to control the boats which therefore leave chaotically. Despite the struggle they are safe as soon as they get away from the river bank and are on the water, as the Irskrs cannot reach them there, and will not attempt to. Fortunately there is a strong ebb tide running which will carry them downstream, and perhaps even out to sea if they can only control the boats sufficiently to keep them off the sand banks.

Having seen our women leave, all of the men including myself are rushing to take up arms and to position ourselves around the palisades. Most of us have a sword or an axe to wield. It is important that every part of the fence is defended; there can be no gaps around the whole circuit. We have little time but we are very highly motivated, our minds focussed by the threat of imminent death.

Down the hillsides and across the boggy fields many thousands of men, resembling small brown woolly bundles, are struggling towards us. They dress all in drab woollen garments, even covering their heads, and only their warrior elite have chain mail. Mostly they carry clubs and knives or scythes, most of them agricultural implements that have now been pressed into military use. The majority are not warriors at all, just farmers who have been required to fight for their Lords in this one great battle. Their great advantage this time is that they are coming in huge numbers.

There are a significant number of true warriors as well though. Both of the Irskr Kings keep their own household guards, several hundred in number. Normally these guards allow them to dominate their own subjects. Today though their arms are all to be turned onto us. They do wear chain mail and are well equipped with swords and battle axes. They also carry shields and have been trained to understand how to work together to maximise their impact in battle. They may even be capable of forming a shield wall if needed though that is unlikely to be required by a force attacking in numbers.

The Irskrs are like us in battle, they work themselves into a rage screaming and howling, biting their shields and swinging swords and axes. They believe that their rage makes them fight more fiercely and they may also be drinking beer to dull the fear, or herbal potions which make them even more delirious! We have these potions too, and many of our warriors are also drinking them. Although they give you courage and take away some of the fear I have noticed that those who take them are more likely to die in the first rush. The difference between bravery and stupidity is always a fine one, and in the heat of battle it disappears, but in the first skirmishes I believe it is better to keep a cool head and I will not drink any of those potions.

They are coming directly at us. Rushing down the hills and across the fields, screaming and waving their weapons, still many with clubs but many more with spears and certainly many more than we expected with real weapons, axes and swords. They are far better armed than ever before, and they come at us in huge numbers, almost beyond our belief. The surrounding fields are covered in them as far as the eye can see.

Now the first group of them arrive and collide with the palisade. We defenders have an advantage, being higher up and so we hack down at the attackers who retaliate, thrusting back up at us. There are many wounded, especially among the Irskr, but few fatalities at this opening stage. Many of those who are wounded now will, however, die over the next few days from loss of blood or from infection. For the present though, they are able and very willing to continue fighting.

Then suddenly a section of the palisade collapses with a great creaking and splintering noise, the timbers breaking under the weight of the bodies pushing against it and the great throng behind them. The crush caused by the men piling up against the fence is too much for the fence, which falls over. Many of the attackers spill through and gathering themselves up from the floor they immediately turn on a group of Viking warriors nearby. This group of brave and desperate Norsemen can instantly see that they are in trouble, and I can see the fear written on their faces as they hack and slash desperately at their assailants, frenzied by the rush of adrenalin. Despite their furious and frenzied reaction they are completely outnumbered and are instantly overwhelmed and they disappear underneath the throng, without doubt they have all been hacked to pieces.

All of the Viking warriors in the enclosure can see what has happened and all rush to save their comrades. Arriving too late, but in even larger numbers than the Irskrs now have on this side of the fence, they can only fall on the assailants and revenge the deaths of their kin. Now it is the Irskrs who are overwhelmed, now it is they who are hacked to pieces. This time I am very close to the action and can see the red spray as blood is spilt. This time I can hear the screams and gurgles of the dying men, and although they are the enemy, I feel sick with horror at their fate.

We move to re-build the gap in the palisade but the Jarl Guthfrith is here and he stops us. He wants the Irskrs to keep coming through in the limited numbers that can make it through the gap, so we can continually outnumber and overwhelm them as they come, and it works for a short while too. Around another twenty or so are killed, but then they realise what is happening and start to pull down the stakes to widen the gap, allowing more to get through together. Now the fortune of the battle swings against us once more.

Having moved to one side of the fortress our defenders have diluted their ability to maintain a defence all around the semi-circle. This is fatal when the whole palisade is under a determined and concerted attack, as a fence is of no value unless there are enough determined defenders behind it. “Enough” is a very large number in a battle of this size. Before long the foreigners have two more gaps in the fence and are streaming through. It is immediately obvious now that the battle will soon be lost; we cannot hold the fence as a defensive line, which was our best and perhaps only chance, and we are heavily outnumbered.

This is the moment that Mael Finnia, the overking of Brega, chooses to appear. He is a huge man, who looks as powerful as his reputation says he is, and he is accompanied by a group of even larger warriors; he is striding through one of the many gaps which are appearing on the side farthest away from me, like a conquering hero. Unlike the Norse Jarls the Irskr Lords do not bear banners, but they do have their own emblems, and he carries the sign of a white stag. He carries a two-handed sword and has no need of a shield as he has protectors all around him. They keep pace with him blocking any attempt to thrust at him and allowing the king the glory of striking out, to kill opponents unopposed. It reinforces the confidence of the attackers there and is a dreadful sight for us defenders.

It brings new energy and confidence to the assailants and they rush towards us screaming and howling to hack and cut at us with new vigour. The energy and confidence it generates is like having a thousand new warriors and the Irskr are re-invigorated and triumphant.

We are Viking warriors though and we cannot be intimidated by Irskrs! Despite their overwhelming numbers I see my brother Kjartan urging a group of our men to rush against them, they are valiantly trying to organise sufficiently to form a shield wall to advance on them and halt their advance. A group of men who organise themselves into a wall share each other's strength and will always have an advantage of a rabble. For a moment it seems that Kjartan and his friends might succeed.

They have created some confusion among the Irskr who have lost several of their number, who flung themselves against the wall and have been stabbed from below the shields by the short swords of our men. Many of them are bleeding profusely from severed arteries in their thighs. None of these men are likely to survive, having sustained such horrific wounds. The Irskr are now paying a heavy price for intruding into our settlement.

Then, just as suddenly, the Irskr are around the back of the wall, and they enjoy far greater success there. There are simply too few of our warriors to turn and form a second defensive shield to protect both sides of the line, and the whole line simply disappears into the Irskr throng, who clamber over their bodies in a welter of waving clubs. We can hear the thud of those clubs crushing skulls and the cries and shrieks of our dying men but are powerless to influence the horror unfolding before our eyes. In just seconds the whole line has disappeared.

Ragnald, normally the first to attack, shows his pragmatic side, decides we must pull back and already has a number of boats in the water to allow our escape. We can see his distinctive red and gold boar's head banner among the boats, so that is the point to rally on. It is already too late for many of our comrades and withdrawing under this kind of attack is more immediately dangerous than standing to fight. None can turn their back on their foe without being cut down and so must retreat facing them with their shields up and their weapons flailing in order to defend themselves.

A few do turn to run in a disorderly panic, and some do get away to the boats this way. They make it even more difficult for the rest of us to fight our way back, and they are breaking their warrior vows to defend their comrades. This will not be forgotten after the battle is over.

Others who turn to run receive more immediate punishment for their cowardice, as the Irskrs strike at the back of their unprotected calves, slicing into the muscles or breaking their legs and bringing them down unable to regain their feet. Anyone falling in this situation is completely vulnerable and immediately falls into the hands of their enemy and therefore has only seconds to live. There are very many casualties on both sides but we are definitely taking the greater losses now because we are retreating under pressure.

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