It was a fine day; the sea was pleasantly calm and the sun warmed through to the bones.The only sound was that of the waves gently lapping against the boat. Wulfhere looked towards the horizon, a hint of a smile flickering around his lips. Small white clouds drifted lazily across the bright blue sky. He took a deep breath of sea air, then, let out a slow sigh. A good catch, fine weather and the beauty of the sea; it made all of the miserable, cold and wet days seem worth it. His thoughts turned to home and he pictured his wife, Eardfrith, filling the smoker with split herrings, or selling the kippers from their small booth. She was a good wife and a hard worker, his perfect partner and he loved her deeply. It was her warmth, tenderness and good humour that made life worth living. They had grown up in the same village and, even as children; there had always been a special bond between them. She had matured into a fine looking women and many wealthy men had tried to woo her but she had chosen him to be her husband and that made him proud. He had taken on his father’s boat when he died and, together, they had built a good business. Now she was with child for the first time and that was a great source of joy to him. He turned his gaze to the stern of the boat where his young nephew sat cleaning fish and throwing the guts into the sea. Cuthred, his sister’s son, was strong for his age but rather slow of wit. Wulfhere had taken him on, despite his misgivings, when his sister had pleaded with him. The boy turned out to be a real help, never shy of hard work and always in good humor. Beyond him, a flock of twenty or so seagulls sat on the water enjoying the free meal. The gentle rocking of the boat added to the tranquility of the moment. Wulfhere smiled to himself and offered up a silent prayer of thanks to God for all of his blessings. Cuthred untangled a small dog fish from the net and threw it towards the seagulls. The warning cry of a diving gannet split the air, making the seagulls scatter and ending Wulfhere’s musings. He watched the bird dive, as straight as an arrow, into the sea. After a while, the raider resurfaced, a little way off, with the prize in his beak. At the same moment, Wulfhere felt a breeze on his cheek.
“The tide has turned and we have a wind. Come, nephew, time to go home!” The lad leapt to his feet and had the sail set in quick time. “You are keen lad!”
“Hungry,” the boy replied with a grin. The sail filled, Wulfhere took the handle of the steering board and guided the vessel on a homeward course.
The sun hung low in the sky as they began to round the headland that sheltered their village from northerly storms. It shone directly into Wulfhere’s face and made him squint. He pulled hard on the steering board the boat turned towards the shore. When his eyes had cleared he saw the pall of smoke and flame that rose from his village. Then he saw three ships coming directly towards him and took evasive action. The vessels passed nearby, their decks lined with jeering Vikings. A few levelled bows, others waved axes and a couple turned round, dropped their breeches and bared their buttocks. Arrows whistled through the air. Wulfhere ducked down and brought the boat back on course. After a while, when his fear allowed, he took a glance behind him. The ships were a way off, bearing south. He took a deep breath and tried to regain his composure.
“Well now nephew! That was a close thing! You can get up now they are going away. We have to check on Eardfrith!” Cuthred remained silent. Wulfhere secured the steering board with a rope and went forward. The boy’s lifeless body lay among the catch, an arrow through his throat. Although he was shocked and enraged at the murder of his kin, Wulfhere’s overriding thought was the fate of his wife. He returned to his seat and guided the boat towards the town, praying all the way that, by some miracle, she had survived.
Arriving at the town, he jumped up onto the jetty, made the boat fast with a quick knot and ran towards his house. Fear gripped his throat as he arrived at the, half open, door. Summoning all of his courage, he stepped inside. He took in the scene and almost cried with relief. The place had been ransacked but there was no sign of a body, or even blood. Outside was a different matter. The dead lay where they had fallen and half the village was ablaze. He was moving among the bodies, checking that Eardfrith was not among them when a familiar voice called his name. Looking up, he saw a monk running towards him.
“She is not here,” Brother Barnabas explained breathlessly as he arrived, “they took her.” Wulfhere stared at him for a moment. The monk had been a friend to him for a long time. They had first met when Wulfhere’s father worked the boat. He had turned up at the jetty one morning and asked to come on a fishing trip. His father had reluctantly agreed after trying everything to put him off. During the trip, Barnabas had entertained them with stories of Jesus and his time with the fishermen of Galilee. After that, he often accompanied them and when Wulfhere’s father died suddenly, he had been a great source of strength and comfort.
“Yes my friend,” the monk smiled for a moment, then his expression turned grave, “but they have taken her. There is nothing we can do to help her, except pray. We should help with the fires and the injured.” Ignoring the monk’s suggestion, Wulfhere set off at speed towards his boat. Barnabas ran after him, grabbing his arm to stop him.
“Where are you going?” he demanded. Wulfhere shook himself free and resumed his course.
“To get her back!” he called over his shoulder. The monk continued his pursuit.
Wulfhere untied the boat and jumped aboard. Wrapping Cuthred’s body in a spare sail, he carefully stowed it aft. Barnabas stood on the jetty giving him an admonishing look.
“It will turn out well; I know what I am doing. Go and help the villagers.” He put his boot against a wooden upright and pushed the boat off. The monk took a great leap, robes flying, and landed on the pile of fish. He stood up, brushed himself off and made his way to stand in front of Wulfhere.
“Now you can explain how, exactly, you intend to rescue your wife from a hundred armed savages. Who, by the way, could be anywhere by now!”
“They went south and they won’t go far, it will be dark soon. I think I know where they will be.”
“Oh that is good, you are reasonably certain you can find the heathens; then what will you do? You cannot fight that many, you are on a journey to certain death and I appear to be accompanying you.”
“You know I am no warrior my friend but I love my wife more than life itself and I will have her back. This is my quest and mine alone. I will put about and drop you at the jetty.”
“No,” Barnabas held up a hand, “I will accompany you, if only to try to save you from yourself.”
“I intend to trade for her.”
“What? Trade! Did you not see what the devils did to the village? They don’t trade, they take!”
“That was not always the case. My grandfather told me of a time, long ago, when they would come to our shores in the summer season to set up small markets and trade goods from faraway lands. Trading is in their blood, he said that is why we call them Vikings - the people of the markets.”
“That is interesting but you cannot look for honour among such a rabble.”
“I have to try.” It was dark by the time they entered the river mouth and Wulfhere steered the boat into the bank where it came to a gentle halt in the reeds. He carefully lowered the anchor stone.
“That’s as far as we go tonight, get some rest. We will continue at first light”
A white mist floated above the river as the two men worked the oars. Barnabas prayed under his breath as they progressed towards, what he believed to be, certain death. He could not help but question his companion’s state of mind and his ability to make rational decisions. He put his trust in God and fought to keep his nerve. They rounded a bend and saw an island in the middle of the river. This is where Wulfhere expected to find the raiders and he was right. Not just the three ships he followed but many.
“I count twelve ships,” Barnabas whispered, “and there are more in the mist!”
“I will head for the island,” Wulfhere said softly. “When we get there, stay in the boat.” They passed a warrior pissing in the river but he just watched their progress with a puzzled expression on his face. The keel rode up on the shingle and Wulfhere jumped out. A fearsome looking Viking looked up from where he was washing by one of the ships. He casually picked up an axe and sauntered over to the boat. He looked Wulfhere up and down, and then shrugged his shoulders in questioning manner.
“Trade,” Wulfhere said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “I wish to trade with your leader.” He gestured towards the boat and his catch. The warrior cast an approving eye over the fish; then pulled a sour face when he saw the monk. He thought for a moment, then gestured for them to wait and walked off up the slope towards a large tent covered in hides. After a while, the warrior came out of the tent followed by an imposing looking figure. He was head and shoulders taller than any normal man and twice as broad.
“I will speak your tongue,” his voice was almost a growl. “I am Jarl Borkar, what is your business here?” By now, a crowd of warriors had gathered to spectate. Wulfhere looked at them and swallowed hard.
“Yesterday, your people raided my village, which lies north, just up the coast. You took my wife captive and I am here to offer a trade for her. All of the fish in this boat for her safe return.” The Jarl seemed to consider his offer, and then whispered in the ear of a nearby warrior who then entered the tent. He reemerged herding five shuffling female figures bound hand and foot; one of them was a child. Wulfhere recognized Eardfrith immediately and his heart leapt for joy.
“Which one is yours?” The Jarl demanded. Wulfhere pointed her out; the Jarl looked her up and down. “Ah, the pretty one! Will I trade?” He stroked his beard for an agonizing amount of time. “Yes, it is a good trade.” At his signal, several warriors began to unload the boat. They picked up Barnabas and, unceremoniously, threw him into the river, which was the cause of much hilarity. Wulfhere did not react; he was overwhelmed with joy and did not want anything to spoil the transaction.
The fish were unloaded and Wulfhere looked to the Jarl to fulfill his part of the bargain, the Jarl just grinned at him. After a long, almost unbearable, silence, he spoke.
“Thank you for the fish. Now we must fight.” Wulfhere’s heart sank.
“My Lord, we made a trade. I am no warrior, I bear no arms. Let me take my wife and go in peace.” A long-shafted spear whistled through the air and stuck into the ground just in front of him.
“You will fight me.”
“No, I cannot.”
“You will fight me!” He grabbed Eardfrith by the hair and lifted her on to tip toe.
“Please, Gracious Lord, she is with child! Take the boat! Please, just let her…”
Jarl Borkar thrust a long blade into Eardfrith’s belly and made a wide circle. She coughed up a gout of blood and he let her lifeless body drop to the dirt.
“No!” Wulfhere screamed. A red mist came upon him. Still screaming, he grabbed the spear and charged up the slope. The Jarl smiled, dropped the blade and picked up a double-handed axe. As Wulfhere neared the target of his rage, he tripped on a rock and stumbled. He felt the axe brush his hair as it passed overhead. He thrust the spear out to steady himself and, planting its butt on a rock, pulled himself up. His eyes were at the Jarl’s chest level. As he looked up, he saw that the spear’s point had pierced the Viking’s throat and that he was dead. He pushed the body and it fell to the ground. The crowd of warriors were silent, shocked by the demise of their leader. They had not seen Wulfhere stumble; they saw a well-executed duck and thrust attack which they had to admire. Then the spell broke and they began to advance on him.
A blast from a horn stopped them in their tracks. They lowered their weapons and bowed their heads. Wulfhere dropped to the ground, took Eardfrith in his arms and burst into tears. It was a while before he looked up to see a Viking standing over him. All of the other warriors stood with heads bowed.
“I am sorry for your loss,” the man began. “I am king among this folk and you are a bold fellow. May I offer you an apology for the actions of my Jarl? I have witnessed his behavior in this matter and it saddens me. You offered him a fair trade and he accepted it, which is binding. He murdered your wife and you killed him in open combat; that is fitting. My judgement is that you be awarded the rest of the captives and I will gift you a complete set of the finest war gear for winning such a famous victory. Now, take your prizes and leave this place.” With that, he turned and strode off, followed by his retinue of warriors. A dripping wet brother Barnabas appeared at Wulfhere’s side and helped him to his feet, he was still sobbing uncontrollably. Some warriors untied the women and helped them to the boat, another transported Eardfrith’s body. Barnabas almost carried the distraught Wulfhere.
“I have never seen such a miracle! God was with you in that moment my friend.”
“God, Where was he when that monster murdered my love? Destroyed my life?
"Curse God and all his Saints!”
“You are upset my friend and naturally so. Let us take these poor ladies to safety.”
A warrior carried a heavy bundle wrapped in a fur cloak and placed it in the boat, another brought a scabbarded sword and a decorated shield and laid them alongside. Once everyone was aboard, the Vikings pushed the boat off the shore and out into the river.