Ulfric’s axe bit into the leather scales with such force that the wearer was flipped almost upside down in falling to earth. Two paces to the side and he brought it down in another arc that cleaved its victim from collar bone to arm pit. These creatures, these goblins did not bleed red but thick, dark ooze that was black to the sight yet left a dark green smear. Ulfric was covered in the substance; it clung to his axe-head and speckled the shaft, it was splattered across his helm, his black leather cuirass and the ring mail hauberk underneath. His hair stuck with the stuff, and it tickled his face, it was under his fingernails and he could smell it in his beard.
The battle-plan was succeeding. Sigmund’s mounted attack around the edges had drawn a number of the goblins away from the village giving the beleaguered farmers a chance to barricade themselves within the mead hall. Inexplicably, some had continued to attack the building instead of rushing out to form a defensive position. Only now Ulfric was upon them did they abandon their attempt to kill the defenceless villagers and turn around to fight the men with weapons.
A throwing axe flew past Ulfric’s head and buried itself in the skull of a goblin ahead of him. Henrik charged after it at the head of his men, axe in one hand, scramasax in the other. Before the battle his small group of men had waited while they all drank from flagons kept in their cart and recited battle prayers. At the time their hesitance had baffled Ulfic and his captains. There was nothing hesitant about the way they threw themselves into battle afterwards, eschewing all but the most basic of leather armour. The goblins got little chance to test if they were inadequately clad. They fought with such speed and ferocity their enemies were hewn asunder before they could land a blow.
By the double doors the mead hall, Ulfric parted the skull of the last goblin to stand before him. Behind this leading group, Jorund had organised a guarding shield wall that sealed off their flanks and rear. In the open fields outside the settlement, Sigmund continued to run them down one group at a time. Black smoke rose from the outlying houses, fortunately they were not densely packed enough for it to spread inward. Many innocents had died today but those that had made it to the mead hall were safe.
Ulfric beat upon the doors with his axe handle. “Fear no longer. Friends are here. Look out your windows and see our banners.” There was a scraping of wood on floor and a thud of tables being righted. The doors were thrown open a few feet until they were blocked off by the remains of the barricade. Just behind were a handful of men and one very tall woman bearing arms while the empty space in the heart of the room where the tables were normally stretched out was filled with a huddled mass of men, women and children. There were perhaps a hundred in all. Redmore had been a sizeable village before. There was no doubt that everyone left in this room had lost at least one person very close to them.
“Stay still.” Rune steadied his hand and let Sigrun wind the bandage round once more. Everything smelt of smoke hours after the fires had been put out and would for days afterwards. Better that than rotting corpses. The warriors that saved the village had the good sense to move the bodies a fair distance away before disposing of them.
“Do you know who that is?” The boy said nodding over her shoulder. Sigrun turned around and saw the big, blond man who had met them in the mead hall.
“Some Thane or other.”
“That’s Prince Ulfric. Armod told me.”
“How does Armod know this thing?”
“He says he saw the royal family once when he was trading in Stormhold and he is sure that’s him. They are flying royal colours too. Not anyone has such a command. I wonder why he didn’t tell everyone he’s the prince.”
“I suppose it is easier clearing up after a battle without people kneeling all the time.”
“Makes sense. What did you think when you met him?”
“I thought ‘my, this man is tall’.” That much was true. There were maybe a handful of men taller than her in Redmore so Sigrun tended to notice the few occasions when she had to look up instead of down to make eye-contact.
“People are saying he killed two dozen goblins in the battle.” Sigrun looked at Rune critically; it was almost admirable he could think battle was still a glorious thing after seeing his village butchered. On second thoughts, that was a little unfair. The Prince had saved them; that was a worthy thing. “Well?”
“Forgive me, what did you ask again?”
“Do you think ’tis true? Do you think he killed that many?”
“Maybe.” He certainly looked like he could. Those arms veritably bulged with refined muscle. On further reflection, Sigrun had to concede he was a handsome man. Nothing had been further from her mind when they had first met.
“I wish I had killed some goblins. Pay them back for Gert and Frida and Kalf.”
“Did you like Kalf?”
“No, but I didn’t want to see him dead.”
“No, me neither. He didn’t deserve that.” Sigrun felt a wave of tiredness wash over her. Could it have been only yesterday that she took him on in that foolish challenge?
“I’m glad your parents survived.” Rune offered kindly. Sigrun smiled and refrained from reminding him they were only as much through marriage.
“And yours. We’re much luckier than others for that.”
“I’m sorry about Anders. I liked him.”
“He died bravely.”
“How is Snorri?”
“He’s not well. It can often happen with wounds but the commander, I mean the prince, is sending him to Somershalla where they have people who know how to treat wounds like his.”
“I hope he gets better.”
“You’re a sweet boy, Rune. Redmore is going to need people like you.”
By night the mead hall had been returned to its usual setting. There was no high table in a mead hall. Ulfric chose the one on the right hand side furthest from the door to settle down upon. Most of the people who lived in the central part of Redmore were able to return to their houses. Some chose not to do so, preferring to stay with the homeless and the warriors in the mead hall than return to a home short of family members.
“Good news, Ulfric, or is it safe to call you prince again?” Henrik asked joining the table with a flagon in hand.
“Ulfric is better. I can do without endless formalities at a time like this. What is your news?”
“The mead was unharmed in the battle and the people of Redmore insist we take as much as we wish.”
“That is good news. Tell me, Henrik. What was that you drank before the battle?”
“It was a brew sacred to my people. It must be consumed as part of our battle rites. It is what makes us berserkers.” Henrik smiled in pride and the others at the table smiled back at him and raised a horn. “I was close to you in the battle today. You are truly a great warrior. If you followed the ways of the berserker you would be unstoppable. But perhaps the way of the berserker is not right for a prince or for a man who has to command.”
“Prince Ulfric is more to us than a great warrior alone.” Jorund agreed.
“Yes, I think you are right.” Henrik looked down the hall. “The fat man that you mock what is his name?”
“Lars of Borrn.” Sigmund answered.
“He fought well also. There is a stillness about his movements that is to be admired.”
“You mean he has got slow. Poor Lars, he was never swift but he used to be strong and vigorous. I dare say there’s still some force behind that huge maul of his but what fool would wait until he is ready to strike them?”
“That tall woman is here again. She heads for this table. Should we turn her away, Ulfric?” Jorund asked.
“No. Let her be heard.” Sigrun stood respectfully before the Prince. “Be seated.” Henrik moved to one side to let her take the bench opposite Ulfric.
“Commander…my lord…forgive me, I am not sure how I should address you.”
“Ulfric will do. Speak on, I pray.”
“Sire, the villagers have no answers for what happened here. The name goblin is used for these creatures but, truly, that is a word from tales. Can you share aught with us?”
“Until this day I had never seen these foes myself. We came to find the source of attacks in this region. We are as shocked by the answer as any other might be. The name goblin may indeed be apt.”
“From whence do they come? People have not seen such a thing in untold years.”
“It is a mystery we intend to unravel.”
“I wish to volunteer, Sire.”
“I deem that you will go to Rockfall Keep from here. It is the only fortress in these parts. Once you are there you will need to raise a force to track and fight these goblins. I can do both and beg the chance to give you my service.”
“You have thought ahead, I see.” Ulfric chuckled lightly. “Those will indeed be our next steps. Have you given thought to what it might be like at Rockfall Keep? In war men must be crammed together in close quarters. Only the most senior will have rooms to themselves and there is little room for modesty.”
“Sire, I have seen my friends butchered and my village burned; modesty is nothing to that.”
“Ulfric, while I respect this woman’s courage we cannot let our womenfolk join with us. They do duties that a man cannot. Families need wives and mothers with them.” Jorund advised.
“I am not asking on behalf of all women. I am a widow and can bear no children. I have born a spear for five years alongside men who would not accept me were I not of worth.”
“She makes a fair point.” Ulfric reasoned. “Were we to only accept unwed and childless women standing over six feet who have training in arms, the Kingdom would not be light on womenfolk at home.”
“It would be light of one dear to you, Ulfric.” Sigmund pointed out. “Would you wish to see her standing on the front lines?”
“Alas, lines of battle do not always respect the difference between a keep and a farm nor a warrior and a woman. When men take a village they slay and rape. Why should we expect less from these goblins? I would rather every woman in the kingdom could reach for an axe than have them defiled and murdered. Jorund, you will stay here when we ride on the morrow. Muster what fighting hands can be spared. If…”
“If Sigrun is of equal mettle or more to them, take her with you.”
“As you command, my prince.”
Beyond the forests around Somershalla the scenery broke into an open rolling plain, the largest in Svanhald, and at its heart, atop a ridge of tumbling hills and bordered east and south by fast running frothy rivers, was Stormhold the Royal hold, greatest in the kingdom. Wind buffeted them from every direction throwing Valeria’s golden locks about her cheeks and chin. Even on bright days like this, calm air was not common here. She looked at Einar and spurred her horse to come alongside him at the head of the party of a score of riders. “Is Stormhold home for you, Einar or did service bring you hither?”
“My princess, I…err…”
“You are permitted to speak to me indeed I insist that you do. I am only a woman, with all the usual parts a woman has. There is nothing special about me.” Valeria insisted. Einar looked at her in disbelief but stopped short of disputing.
“My lady, I was born and raised in Stormhold but I have only latterly been accepted into the Royal Guard.”
“I thought I had not seen you before. I was sure I would have remembered you.” Einar flushed so red that Valeria almost laughed before smiling instead in sympathy. “Come on, Einar, ask me a question. Anything you like. I won’t be offended and I’m not shy. Who else gets such a chance to get to know a princess?”
“Very well. Why do you carry a sword, my lady?”
“So I can defend myself.”
“You have guards to defend you.”
“Guards cannot be everywhere at all times.”
“They are meant to be.”
“Are they? I see no guards around when I am with the women weaving. I see no guards when I take a bath.”
“No, but there are guards outside the women’s quarters.”
“What if I am attacked inside the women’s quarters?”
“Do you expect to be attacked in the bath or at weaving?”
“You have clearly not seen the rage of a woman whose weaving has been mocked. When those needles come at me I am glad to have a sword at my side.”
“I think it is I who is being mocked.” Einar returned with a laugh that broke through Valeria’s serious pose.
“Forgive me. The sword is for the forest where I like to wander alone. I dare say our king will permit that no longer.”
“May I ask who attacked you?”
“Sadly, that is one question I cannot answer.”
“None needed. It is not my choice to stay silent. Still, I am a little disappointed.”
“Why is that, my lady?”
“You had the chance to ask me anything and you chose to ask about swords and attacks. There are so many more interesting things I could have told you.”
“What kind of things?”
“Now, now. That’s cheating. That is not how this game works.” Ahead the King’s Hall was distinguishable from the houses clustered around. It was the only one to have a stone base though the walls and roof were made from wood. It was also substantially larger than any other building in the hold. Either side of the main hall were the smaller wings, which on one side housed the women’s quarters and on the other the quarters for the royal guard. Both were larger than any of the longhouses in the surrounding settlement yet they were dwarfed by the grand hall between them, one of very few buildings in Svanhald that had more than a single story that was neither keep nor tower. “You must guard me whither I go?”
“Of course, my lady why do you…” Valeria spurred her dappled grey horse into a gallop and raced on ahead of the company laughing with abandon. The wind rushed against her and she bounced on the saddle over the rise and fall of the grasses beneath her steed’s hooves. Her protectors pressed hard behind her trying to keep up with the lesser burdened mount. On her right as she drew nigh to the western wall of the hold the tumbling sound of water passing through a weir fought with the tremble of hoof beats for supremacy until the clarion call of horns blew out from atop the watchtowers. Valeria slackened her pace to allow her guards to come upon the gate at the same time.
They were recognised at once and did not have to tarry long before the gates swung inwards ahead of them. The grand hall of the King was to their left and they followed the dry mud path up the slope to come before it. The streets of Stormhold, such as they were, bustled with the usual activity. Almost everyone abroad at that hour knew Valeria by sight and nodded their heads and called out blessing where she went past. For her part she did her best to smile and wave at everyone she saw while keeping her other hand on the reigns of her horse. The square immediately in front of the grand hall was the only part of the hold to be paved wholly in stone and in combination with its elevation made it clear to all that they had set foot upon royal ground.