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Viking Witch

Book 15 in the

Dragon Heart Series

By

Griff Hosker

Published by Sword Books Ltd 2016

Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition


The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.


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Dedicated to Thomas and Samuel my two new grandsons both born in 2016. Wyrd!



Britannia 825 A.D.


Prologue

Each birth in the clan was special. It meant we were prospering and we were growing. The girls could grow to be mothers and the boys into men who would wield weapons and defend the Land of the Wolf. We had had one such birth in my hall. My new daughter, Myfanwy, had brought joy to our home. She could not replace my son, Wolf Killer but, as Kara, my eldest daughter said, “She is of our blood father. Your blood coursed through Wolf Killer and it will be in Myfanwy. Who knew what she might achieve. She and her elder sister, Erika, were the gentle side of my hall. They took after their mother, Brigid.

Kara’s words had made me thoughtful. I mourned my dead son, Wolf Killer, but I still had my grandson, Ragnar and my son, Gruffyd. I would not make the same mistakes with them as I had with Wolf Killer. We would not become estranged. Both were now growing quickly. Ragnar had seen fourteen summers and was now able to go to war. He had his father’s oathsworn as his hearth-weru and he had been blooded in battle. Although Gruffyd was younger he too had been in battle and had been blooded. He had not flinched from our foes. I had a new purpose in my life and that was to ensure that they were ready to leave my clan when I was gone. I was not a fool. With age came wisdom and I had lived longer than any man I had known save Old Ragnar and he had been a half blind cripple at the end. I did not think that I was doomed to endure such an end.

The last few years had changed us. Many of my Ulfheonar were now in Valhalla with my son and his son, Garth. Others had had their lives changed irrevocably. Snorri had had to kill a witch. Many now called him Snorri the Witch Killer but he did not approve of that name. We had sailed to Syllingar to atone for that act. Although the witch there had forgiven him I knew it had changed him. His hair was now turning white. He feared no man alive but a witch… that was something different. Kara was a volva and her husband Aiden a galdramenn. They had put a spell on Snorri’s wolf token which he wore around his neck. Already made of gold it was already powerful but they made it even stronger. It helped but it did not drive away the demons which filled his head at night. We had all changed after fighting Eggle Skulltaker and his warband. They had been evil.

Eggle Skulltaker and his band had come close to destroying both me and my people. The fight to destroy them had been hard and they had shown cunning. I was happy that they were now gone. We had drawn even closer together. With Eden Stad and Ketil Stad to the north Windar’s Mere was now the furthest west we had a settlement. Far to the south were the homes of Sigtrygg on the Lune and our ally Pasgen ap Coen at Úlfarrston. With Cyninges-tūn in the centre my land was filled with farms but beyond that was an empty wasteland. The farms which had stood there were now being reclaimed by the forests and the mountains. We were prosperous but we looked within and not without. We traded less and were warier of strangers. The attack by the Danes had made us suspicious, even of our own kind.

Aiden had read the parchments we had taken from the hall of Grimbould of Neustria. He and Egbert of Wessex had been allies and Egbert had been involved in the plot against my people. They had shown us that our enemies plotted to end our time in the north. We were too few in number, yet, to take on the mighty Wessex but it was in my mind to visit the treacherous Saxon and bloody his nose once more. His land was rich and hurting him profited us. I could not allow the hurt he had done us go unpunished.

As Gormánuður drifted to an end I saw that the leaves were now lying deep on the ground and breath began to mist in the early morn. The water of Cyninges-tūn was heavy with early morning dew, the waterfowl hidden by grey, dank fog. It would soon be the time to hunt the wolf. When the feast of Yule was over those warriors who wished to become Ulfheonar would travel into the high places and hunt that most deadly of predators. I knew not if any wished to hunt this time but I would lead hunters to take wolves. They were a threat to every isolated farm. We had learned over the years not to ignore the threat.

As I looked out over my stronghold I saw young boys practising with wooden swords, slings and bows. That was as it should be. Their play was purposeful and would make them into better warriors when they grew. Everyone else was busy preparing for the long dark nights to come. The hides from the animals we had slaughtered were cleaned and prepared. The bones which had been used for soup were now being sorted. Those which were large enough would be made into tools and jewellery. Others would be burned on the bone fires and spread on the land. Nothing was wasted. The best of the fruits which had been gathered would be stored while the poorer ones would be cooked along with the meat which had not been preserved. They would be mixed together with the precious spices from Miklagård to make our Yule feast special. Women were spinning the wool from our sheep and goats to make new kyrtles and blankets for the winter. Fish were drying on racks while others were in the smoke houses. Timber was hewn for firewood. Each day we had less sunlight and my people strove to use every moment. When winter closed in around us we would have food, warmth and safety.

I looked at the mountain that was Olaf, the old man. He watched over us still. He, along with the spirits of the Water, protected us. I touched the wolf and the dragon which hung from my neck. “Thank you, ancient ones. Soon we will start a new year and face new challenges. It is good to know that you are there.”


Part One

The Clan of the Skull Takers

Chapter 1

My wife, Brigid, was a follower of the White Christ. She was not alone. There were others, mainly slaves, who chose this new religion. I did not mind for they were women and it suited them. For a warrior, it went against everything we believed. None of the men in the Land of the Wolf chose that way. It did mean, however, that we celebrated the birth of the White Christ at the same time as Yule. It seemed strange to me that the White Christ should have been born in the depths of winter. Most of our babies were born in Tvímánuður, the corn cutting month. Conceived when the nights were long that was the natural way. I did not mind the feast for my wife was happy for us to drink and to eat. She tried to get us to give gifts. So far few did so. She was a good wife and I was lucky. The two festivals seemed to meld together. My wife had her way, albeit briefly, and we could feast in the heart of winter.

The celebration this Yule was different, for my new daughter, Myfanwy, took up much of my wife’s time and the feast was planned by Kara, my eldest, and the slaves. I noticed that there was more greenery brought in this Yule as well as some customs from the land of the Norse. My wife did not seem to notice.

Over the last year, we had a pair of travellers who brought us goods from the lands of the Saxons. Wighlek and Vibeke were an older couple. They both had grey hair but they were hardy for they managed to travel even in the heart of winter. Only the closed passes stopped them. They did a healthy trade with us. They brought goods which the women liked. They brought jet and amber jewellery. They used the money to buy swords from Bagsecg. They had come in early Gormánuður bringing herbs, spices and powders which Kara and Aiden needed for their magic. They also brought news. It was they who told us that King Eanred was now staying in Bebbanburgh and that Athelstan was the defender of the lands. Bebbanburgh had been called Din Guardi by the old people. I still thought of it by that name. I knew I would have to speak with Athelstan soon. His father was a frightened old man while Athelstan made sure his land was safe. He was a good ally.

Kara and Aiden’s daughter, Ylva, was now coming up to womanhood. Almost twelve summers old others her age were almost ready to bear children. She was different however. She might not bear children. Ylva was a volva, like her mother. If she had children, then it would diminish her powers. Kara had waited a long time to start a family. Some of her powers had left her and gone to her daughter. Aiden had magical powers too. It meant that Ylva was special, even beyond being my granddaughter. She would be a powerful witch when she grew into womanhood. I knew that Brigid did not approve of this witchcraft but Kara had saved the clan on more than one occasion. As I sat in my chair by my roaring fire Ylva came to sit by me. She took a bone comb and began to pull it through my untidy tresses. She often did this. She would hum a tune as she did so. It was soothing and I found it made me calm but I knew not what pleasure she derived from it.

“We should use those oils that they bring back from Miklagård, grandfather. They would make you smell sweeter.”

I shook my head, “Do not mind offending me, Ylva, I am just the chief of this clan. Speak your mind eh child?”

She was not put out by my mock outrage, “And that is why you should take greater care of yourself. You do not go to war in winter. You have time to look more like a chief. The people look up to you. If you take care of yourself then the other men will too. It makes the clan stronger.”

She had wisdom beyond her years. She saw things that I did not and which appeared obvious to her. “You mean I do not take care of myself? Brigid would not be happy to hear such words.”

She laughed, “You look like a wolf!”

It was my turn to laugh, “Then that is wyrd for this is the Land of the Wolf and I am a wolf warrior.”

“Oh, you are impossible.” She laid down her comb and spoke conspiratorially to me, “I have asked my mother if I can go to Syllingar.”

The hairs on my neck prickled, “Why? It is far from here and the seas are dangerous.” I had been there many times but I feared the place. We had rarely sailed there because we wished to. We had gone there because we had been summoned.

“I envy those who have met the witch there. My father believes she is a Norn. I would learn from her. She would be able to teach me how to become a powerful witch and I could save the clan. Even Snorri has met her.”

“And his hair turned white as a result. Be careful what you wish.”

“I would not fear her. I have spoken with the dead and they are a comfort to me.” She smiled, “My first grandmother, Erika, often comes to me.”

“She was a great woman.” I still missed my wife. She lay in a barrow across the water and in the spring primroses and other wild flowers made it look alive.

“Aye and an even greater witch. She is the one who holds this land safe. It is her spirit which watches over us.”

“And old Olaf?”

“Oh, he does his part but he just stands like a rock. My grandmother moves over the land and through the Water. When danger comes, she will warn us.”

“And is there danger?”

She shook her head. “I have not dreamed it yet. That is why I would go to Syllingar. There my powers can become greater.”

I pointed to Elfrida. She and Brigid were spinning wool in the corner away from the fire. She also had powers and had been the wife of my son, “A witch once tried to take Elfrida and make her powers greater. Ask your mother about Angharad. She nearly ended the clan for she divided us.”

“I know of her. She had a black heart. She was like the witch Snorri slew. My powers will be greater and I will be able to defeat such witches. I have powers for good. There are evil witches. My mother has told me of them and I do know of Angharad. That will not happen to me.”

Kara came over, “Stop bothering your grandfather. Angharad almost destroyed our family. We will not speak of her.”

“But if I have tuition from a Norn then I could have even greater powers and prevent such tragedies.”

“I have told you daughter, you need to be a woman first.”

Ylva hung her head, “Why am I not one? I have great powers and yet I am still a child.”

Aiden joined us, “That is because the Weird Sisters have plans for you. When the time is right then shall you be a woman.”

“Besides, daughter, it is the Mother who makes you a woman. Each girl becomes a woman when the Mother decides that it is right. We will know when it is time for you.”

Any further conversation was ended when my son, Gruffyd and Ragnar approached me. I saw my son looking at Ragnar and nodding. “Grandfather we would like to go on the wolf hunt with you when you take the Ulfheonar.”

I shook my head, “I took you on one wolf hunt. The men who would be Ulfheonar need our skills to help them kill their wolves. It would not be fair to have the distraction of you two.”

They looked at each other again. There was a conspiracy here. They had plotted. The two were close. The death of Wolf Killer had made them so.

“You both have a wolf skin.”

“I know. It is not to get a wolf skin. We would not be Ulfheonar but…” Gruffyd looked at Ragnar who nodded, “Ragnar said you will not have many wolf hunts left, father. I would hunt with you.”

Brigid, who had been feeding our daughter looked shocked, “Gruffyd!”

“Well it is true! You said so! You said he was too old to be hunting the wolf!”

I saw from her face that it was true. Was I getting old? The only time I saw my face was when I saw it in the Water but I knew from Haaken and the other Ulfheonar that none of us were getting any younger. I did not know my age but I had been alive a long time. I had seen kings come and go. I had buried more of my oathsworn than lived now. Perhaps my son and grandson were right. I saw Ragnar scowling at Gruffyd and I smiled, “You may be right. We all get old.” A silence fell on my hall. The celebrations had been dampened. Poor Gruffyd looked embarrassed. He had not meant to be so blunt but he was young still. “But I am still the jarl of this clan. I can still ride and I can still hunt.” I gave Brigid a withering look, “Despite what some people might think. I tell you what, I will ask Snorri if he can take the three of us to find the wolves. He would be scouting them anyway. If it is meant to be then we will hunt them and if not, then we can enjoy the search.”

“You have no need husband! This is foolish!”

“No, it is not. I hunted with Wolf Killer. The boys are right. Wolf Killer would have taken Ragnar on a wolf hunt. When his father died, I said I would be as a father to him. It will be good to test ourselves.” I looked at Kara, “Is there danger?”

She kept her face impassive, “There is always danger but if you ask me have I dreamed a death then I will answer no.”

Ylva stood with her hands on her hips and said, defiantly, “Why can they do what they want and I cannot?”

“Your father has told you. When you are ready then we will know and we will tell you.” My daughter had the power to bend others to her will. She stared at Ylva with eyes which pierced into my granddaughter’s heart.

Ylva fought it briefly and then shook her head, “Soon I will have the more power than you, mother, and you will not be able to do that.”

Kara nodded, “And then you will be ready to go to Syllingar.” She smiled, “Do you see? When it is right then we will know.” She turned to Ragnar and Gruffyd, “And if you two insist upon this venture Aiden and I will make you a charm. I have lost one brother. I would not lose another.”

Later that night as I lay in bed with Brigid I asked, “Am I old; do you think I am?”

She cuddled closer to me. “Our son should learn to think before he speaks. No one believes you are old but it is true that you look older. When last you came back from war we feared for you. Haaken told us of the dangers you faced and how close to death you came.” She sighed, “It is no secret that I wish you would not go to war as often as you do but I also know that sometimes you have to. You do not have to go on a wolf hunt.”

“I know. I do not think we will find a wolf. More times than enough we do not. It is the wrong time. In fourteen nights or so it will be right to hunt and Snorri will take those who would be Ulfheonar. I need to help them to become men who will lead this clan after I am gone. I will go with them. This will be an opportunity for me to talk with my son and grandson. I also need to speak with Snorri. He has kept to himself since we returned. It is not good. The hunt is a good place to share thoughts.”

“Aye, his wife is concerned too. Perhaps this is a good thing.”

I smiled in the dark, “You mean it is wyrd? Beware, my wife, you are becoming pagan!”

The conversation was ended by the playful slap she gave me.

Snorri was happy to take us hunting. “In truth, jarl, I need to stir myself. My wife is worried that the dead witch has taken my spirit.”

“That is not true; Kara told us that.”

“I know, jarl, but I have not been myself. I think back to that cave and the Norn… I wake up shivering and shaking. That is not the way an Ulfheonar behaves.”

“Then my son’s request to go hunting may be the work of the spirits. It will be good for us. Where do we hunt?”

“Lang’s Dale is still the best place to find them.”

“It is a long way. We will need horses.”

“If we take the high pass we can save time.”

“Is it open?”

“At the moment it is but if the snows come we can return by the Rye Dale. The valley of the Lang Dale leads past the Lough Rigg.”

The pass of which he spoke was rarely used. That was partly because of the spirits who dwelt there. They were not happy spirits. They were the spirits of Lang and his family. The wolves had taken them not long after we had first arrived. The pass was narrow and had little sun. If the weather closed in, then it could become impassable. Normally this suited us for it meant that we were safe from attack from that direction. Snorri was right; however, it was the quickest way. I began to look forward to this hunt. It would be a challenge for all of us. It did not matter if we found no wolves. Snorri could teach the boys how to look for sign. There would be the anticipation of a kill. Sometimes that was almost as good as one which resulted in a death.

We left while it was still dark. Ominously a wind was blowing from the north and east. They were always the coldest and brought heavy snow. It chilled us to the bone. We all wore a wolf cloak and rode a sturdy hill pony. Gruffyd had the task of holding the tether for the spare pony and bringing up the rear. However, the comments at the celebration kept him subdued. He took his present task as a punishment. We took bows and spears as well as spare food. Only Brigid and Elfrida saw us off. Brigid would fret but Elfrida seemed remarkably calm. She had the ability to speak to the spirits too. I took it as a good sign.

It was hard going up the Cyninges-tūn fell. The wind had sleet mixed in with it. Once we dropped down to the Greens Beck we had a little shelter but it was still hard going. We halted at the tarn to take on food and allow Snorri and his nose to sniff out the wolves. The wind aided us for it kept our smell from any prey and would warn us of their presence. He could not detect them.

As we watered our ponies I noticed that Gruffyd’s hands were blue with the cold. I shook my head, “A warrior must look after himself. If we found a wolf now you could not hold a weapon and you would die.”

“But I have to lead the pack pony and I only have two hands!”

“Hold the halter and your reins in one hand and put your other hand under your arm. When the other hand gets cold swap them over.” I took the reins and halter from him. “Put your two hands under your arms now and let them get warm. I will hold these.”

He did so and looked over at Ragnar, “Did you know this?”

Ragnar nodded, “I did cuz. I thought everyone did. I would have told you otherwise. I thought you were trying to prove something to your father.”

I smiled. My son was learning that not everything we learned was about fighting. Much was just how to survive. Snorri returned from the head of the water. He held, in his hand, some fur. “I found this on the gorse bush. There are wolves hereabouts. We had better be alert.” He looked pointedly at the two youngsters.

The sleet was now coming down harder. The black sky ahead did not bode well but it also meant we might have more chance of discovering wolves. The track twisted amongst the rocks. We saw pikes and peaks all around us. This was perfect wolf country. There was cover and there was shelter. More importantly there was game. Although most of the sheep had been brought down from the fells there were always some who evaded capture. They did not know we penned them for their own survival.

As the sky grew darker the weather worsened. The wind lessened but the rain and sleet became even more relentless. Then we heard the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance. We had just dropped down to Elter’s Water. The old abandoned farm was just four ridges of rotted wood nestling beneath wild grass and reeds. Snorri turned, “Jarl, we cannot find wolves in this. Thor himself is busy. Let us find shelter.”

There were no farms close by. The nearest was at the Rye Dale or the Grassy Mere. “Then let us head for Audun Thin Hair at the Rye Dale.” I turned to Gruffyd, “We will need our wits about us. Give me the pony and you ride behind Ragnar.”

“I can do this.”

“And I am Jarl and say obey me!”

It was now a race to get to shelter before the storm hit us. I could see the flashes showing Thor was busy working in his forge. In the distance, we heard the booming, rolling, thunder. It was getting closer. The day became night. The black clouds seemed to surround us. I could barely make out the Lough Rigg. Snorri turned, “We will not make the Rye Dale, Jarl. We must head for the cave.” His voice betrayed the fear of entering the cave of Myrddyn.

I nodded. This was a place which brought fear to my heart. The spirits of the ancient peoples lived here. Aiden called this Myrddyn’s cave. Had Aiden been with us then I would not have felt as fearful but we had no wizard. The two boys were oblivious to any danger. They heard the word cave and thought of a sanctuary. We heard the thunder and saw the lightning as we climbed the path to the cave. Its gaping maw did not look welcoming to me but I knew that we needed to be somewhere that Thor’s bolts could not strike us. The mountain would protect us.

I was thankful that Snorri entered first. His nose would warn us of animals or humans. Ragnar and Gruffyd almost threw themselves into the shelter of the huge cave. I dismounted and led the two ponies within. Even as we stepped inside the interior was illuminated by a huge flash as a lightning bolt seemed to strike above us. A few heartbeats later we heard the crack of thunder. I gripped the pommel of my sword. The sword touched by the gods did not fear the lightning. It gave me courage.

“Get the saddles from the ponies and hobble them.”

“Aye grandfather.”

“Snorri…”

“I know Jarl, fire. If you can find some firewood.”

I knew there would be some. We had been here before and Aiden had left some. I went to the middle of the cave. Its blackness was complete. Had another of Thor’s bolts not flashed then I would not have spied the faggots which lay strewn about the floor. An animal had been in and disturbed the neat pile left by Aiden. That made me shiver too. Was that animal a wolf? I hurried to the wood I had seen and grabbed it. I saw the flash of flint as Snorri used the kindling he had brought. I moved swiftly to his side. The sooner we had light the better. As I dropped the pile next to him a sudden flurry of air made the flames begin to rise. Snorri took twigs from the faggots and began to build a fire. He was a master at this.

As the flames took hold the size of the cave became apparent. Ragnar and Gruffyd stared above them at the vaulted roof. “Was this made by the gods?”

“Aye.” I needed them distracted so that they would not be over awed by the place. “Get the food from the pony.”

“Yes father.”

“Shall I get some water from the pool!”

“No!” The pool was enchanted. If Aiden had been here I might have risked it but he was not. “We will use our water skins.”

Ragnar frowned at my words. What was wrong with the water? I did not enlighten him. I did not want him fearful. The less he knew about the dangers of the cave the better.

As the fire grew the full extent of the cave was revealed. I decided we would only stay here until the storm had passed. Audun Thin Hair’s home was but a few miles away. It was a forlorn hope. I should have known that the Weird Sisters were spinning. Even as the warmth from the fire began to seep into our skin there was an enormous crack which seemed to be almost within the cave and then I heard a rumble. This time it was not thunder it was the Rigg itself. It seemed as though the earth itself was shaken. I felt the earth rumbled and tremble beneath my feet. The mountain was falling. The ponies whinnied in fear. There was an avalanche. The sound filled the cave. The crash, dust and debris from the entrance told me that rocks from the mountain were blocking us in. I knew that we were trapped even before Snorri confirmed it.

Snorri ran quickly to the entrance but he came back coughing and spluttering. “Jarl, we are trapped. We cannot get out that way.”

I saw the fear of on the faces of Ragnar and Gruffyd. Snorri had also sounded fearful. It would not do to inflame their fear. I spoke calmly. “This changes little. We eat, we rest and, when daylight comes we see if we can be as miners and dig our way out. If the stones fell, then they can be moved. It is not as though the gods have made a door which only they can open. They have had an argument and tossed some rocks down the mountain side. We are warriors and we will deal with the problem. Ragnar, break out the food. Gruffyd lay the furs close to the fire so that they can dry. We will be cosy this night and dry.”

“Are you not afraid Grandfather?”

“Even if I was would my fear get us out of this predicament any quicker? We have been set a challenge, that is all. Let us meet that challenge as men eh? The spirits of the past are in this cave. Myrddyn the Great lived here, it is said, and he is a link to my past. I do not fear my ancestors. Come, we eat.”

As the boys set about their tasks Snorri said, “I fear I have brought this upon you, jarl. I slew the witch.”

“No Snorri. This is the Weird Sisters and it is not a punishment. They wish us to sleep here.”

“But why?”

“They wish us to dream. Or me at least.”

I saw fear in the eyes of my fearless scout. He could face any number of enemies but this was a realm into which he did not wish to venture. He clutched the golden wolf which had been given a spell of protection by Kara. It seemed to comfort him a little.

As we ate I said, “This is where your father slew his first wolf, Ragnar.” I pointed beyond the blocked entrance. “It was just outside there. Wolves lived in here then.”

Gruffyd looked around as though a wolf might leap upon him.

Snorri smiled, “They are all long dead.” Then looking at me he said, “We are ever drawn here. Perhaps we should have taken a different route.”

“It would not have mattered. We were meant to come here. No matter which route we took the Norns would have made us come here. It is wyrd. Tonight, we watch in pairs. I will watch with Gruffyd. You two will sleep first. We must keep the fire fed. Husband the wood and make it last until dawn.”

Ragnar and Snorri rolled into their furs. Outside the storm continued but the avalanche made it seemed distant, remote and it gradually faded. I kept Gruffyd busy putting wood on the fire branch by branch. It kept his mind occupied and eked out our firewood.

“Snorri is wrong, father. This is the fault of Ragnar and me. If we had not asked to hunt we would be safe at home.”

“Were you not listening, my son? The Norns spin. We know not what their plans are. We are little pieces in their grand game. A man must deal with whatever they throw his way. That is what makes him a man.” I turned him so that he faced me. “Tonight you may dream. Do not fear for the dreams cannot hurt you but remember every detail. When we return home, we must tell Kara and Aiden all and they will tell us what our dreams mean. Sometimes our dreams only give us a version of the truth. Kara and Aiden will divine their true meaning.”

He pointed to the entrance, “But how will we get out? We are trapped.”

I shrugged and pulled my cloak a little tighter around my shoulders as though the dead wolf might offer me protection as well as my sword. “I know not. Let us dream first and then see what daylight brings.”

I measured time by the wood I used. I also judged it by my grandson. He began to thrash around and to mumble in his sleep; he was dreaming. Gruffyd went to restrain him. “No, my son. The spirits are making him dream. Soon he will wake and then it will be our turn.”

“Snorri does not dream.”

“No, for these are not his ancestors and he is not a dreamer. The blood of your grandmother courses through your veins. My mother came from the ancient people. This was her land and Myrddyn was her wizard. Snorri is lucky. He sleeps a dreamless sleep. Our family have to endure the tortures of the night.”

Ragnar woke suddenly, screaming. He sat upright and his cries awoke Snorri. His terrified eyes stared at me. “I saw Danes! They came for me! I saw the skull! It was bloody and it was fierce! The skull came for me! I could not run away.”

I put my hand on his mouth, “Tell Snorri your dream. It cannot hurt you now. Speaking of it will help you to make sense of it. My son and I will sleep. You are safe now.”

“But we are trapped beneath a mountain!”

“Trust me, Ragnar. I do not think that the Norns wish us to end our days here, buried beneath rocks. If we are still here a week from now, then I will worry.” I tried to make my voice as calm as I could but there was a little fear in me too. Perhaps the Weird Sisters had tired of me. Perhaps this was to be my doom.

I stayed awake while Ragnar and Snorri searched the cave for the last of the wood. Gruffyd had already fallen asleep by the time I rolled into my fur.

It was so black I thought that I was dead. There was no sound and nothing could be seen before me. Then I heard a steady pulsating beat. It sounded like a drum. It was in my ears and filled my head. It was my heart. I was aware of air rushing before my face. I was flying. Then I spied a light. It was a pinprick at first but I found myself dropping down towards it and it became brighter and larger.

Then all went black and when I opened my eyes I saw a fog which hung on the water like a dead man’s shroud. I was in the water and I swam. I could smell smoke and I swam towards the smoke. I seemed to swim for a lifetime and then I felt sand and shingle beneath my toes. I saw nothing for there was fog before my face. Then I stood and the mist vanished. I was on Syllingar. I recognised the spiral of smoke rising from the cave and I saw the grey seas surging around the island. I heard a voice and I recognised it. It was Ylva’s. I headed for the cave and descended. The glow in the distance was familiar and when I turned I saw not the ancient witch but Ylva. She was older but she recognised me and she smiled. I headed towards her and her outstretched hand. She smiled and my heart soared. Her hand touched mine and suddenly it changed. It was not Ylva’s soft and gentle hand it was a claw! I looked up into her eyes and saw her transform into a dragon; she had become a wyrme. I could not escape and her huge mouth opened to swallow me.

I felt no pain. I felt nothing save the cold. Was this death? Had I been shown my end? Then I heard the steady beat of a drum once more and knew that I lived still. I saw a light and headed towards it. Perhaps this was the dragon’s fire and I could warm myself for I was as cold as death itself. As I moved through the dark towards it I saw that it was daylight and it was the mouth of the cave. As I stepped out the light was so bright that it blinded me. I shaded my eyes and closed them. When I opened them I saw that I was surrounded by Danes. They held axes and, from their hair, hung animal skulls. Behind them I saw a monstrous mountain of a woman with a white painted face and, atop her head, she wore a human skull like a helmet. Her eyes were red and her claw like hands bloody. She strode towards me with a seax in her hand. I tried to run but I was pinioned and without a weapon. She put her face close to mine and, as all went black, I heard her say, “Now I will have vengeance. Now will I tear out the dragon’s heart!”

I opened my eyes and shivered. It was cold and the fire had gone out. Yet I could still see Snorri and Ragnar. Snorri pointed and I could see a tiny amount of light coming from the rock filled entrance. “We were waiting until you woke.” Snorri looked concerned. “You were thrashing about Jarl and I was worried.”

I nodded, “It is better to let the spirits decide when you wake up.”

Just then Gruffyd rose with eyes wide. He screamed, “No Ylva!”

I picked him up and held him tightly, “It was a dream. Do not worry about what you saw. Aiden and Kara will explain all.”

He shook his head, “But they were dead! And Ylva killed them. I saw her. She came for me.”

“Did she change into a dragon?”

He looked amazed, “Aye father, how did you know?”

“Because she came to me in my dream but that was not Ylva. I am no galdramenn but I know that what we see in our dream is often a version of the truth. It is the dragon which is the danger.”

“The dragon?”

“The dragon is that which we fear and cannot easily be defeated. We will not talk of that now. We need Kara and Aiden for that. Come; we will see how to extricate ourselves from this cave. Daylight will make the world seem better.”

We made our way to the entrance. I saw that there were gaps through which light shone. It was daylight. Snorri climbed up to examine the gaps. “This will be hard, Jarl. If we take them from the bottom, then we risk the whole falling upon us.”

“Then you and I will enlarge the hole.” I turned to Ragnar and Gruffyd, “You two go and see to the horses. Give them the last of the water and see if there is any food left.”

With those two safely out of the way Snorri and I began to take out the smaller pieces of stone. We laid them carefully at the bottom. It was time consuming but safer. When we had made a hole as big as our heads we felt the icy air rushing in. It brought with it hope. Perhaps we rushed a little too much for when we moved a rock the size of a piglet there was a rush of stones. I thought we had trapped ourselves but the stones tumbled outside rather than in. The hole was big enough to climb out.

“We must work down now, Snorri, so that we can enlarge it for the ponies. Ragnar, Gruffyd, come and begin to clear a path at the bottom wide enough for the animals. Do it slowly and carefully.”

We finished when the sun was high overhead. We led the ponies from the tomb and found ourselves in deep snow. The sky was clear and the storm had passed. The storm had left behind a deep bed of snow whose crust would freeze as ice when the sun dipped. Mounting our horses, we hurried on to Audun Thin Hair’s farm and hall. No one spoke as we rode. Each of us had a mind filled with our own thoughts and fears.

Audun’s wife insisted that we stay the night. The sun was dipping behind the rigg which had tried to kill us. We would have frozen to death had we stayed out. It was a wise decision to stay. Her mutton stew was the finest food I could remember tasting. That might have been because we had gone so long on cold rations. With honeyed ale inside us we huddled together in Audun’s home amongst his family.

As we wrapped ourselves in our furs Gruffyd said, quietly, “What if we dream again? I would not embarrass myself in front of these people.” It was hard to live with the fact that while asleep our bodies did not obey us.

“You will not but do not worry, these are our people. They are of our clan.” Audun and his family were good folk. They would keep watch over us.

And we did sleep well. I think it was exhaustion. We did not dream. When we left the next day, we saw that we had chosen the wisest course. The ground was treacherous. Had we tried to negotiate it at night then we might have tumbled to our deaths before we could freeze.

It was as we approached Cyninges-tūn that we began to talk of what we had dreamed. “Say nothing to any until we are alone with Kara and Aiden. I would not have rumour cause upset amongst my people. Aiden and my daughter will interpret these dreams.” My daughter and her husband could unravel the threads which made up our dreams. I knew that there were links and there were ties but I was too close to pull them together. That would be the task of my volva and my galdramenn.

Ominously Aiden, Kara and Ylva were waiting for us at the gates to my stronghold. They had dreamed too and their faces showed that they too had been terrified.








Chapter 2

Neither Ragnar nor Gruffyd would go near Ylva. Despite my words that the dream did not mean that Ylva was the danger they did not believe me. I dismounted and took her in my arms. She was crying. I had never seen Ylva cry. Even as a small child she had remained impassive. I looked at Kara who nodded, “She dreamed too.”

Turning to Snorri I said, “Thank you, Snorri. You had best get back to your wife. We will go to my daughter’s hall.”

“Aye Jarl Dragonheart. Suddenly my home is the only place I wish to be. I shall hold my wife and drive the demons from my head.”

I knew that he would not be able to do so. The terror of the cave would remain with him. I had fallen into a cave in the land of the Cymri. That fear had never left me. Coming on top of the killing of the witch, Snorri would need his wife’s care for some time.

Macha and Deidra, the two former nuns and servants of the White Christ, were waiting within with hot food and hot ale. Their furrowed brows told me that they, too, knew of the dreams.

Kara began, “Gruffyd, I wish you to tell me your dream. Tell me all and leave nothing out.” She pointed to Ylva, “You will not upset Ylva with your words. Every detail that you can remember may help us to unravel this web.”

When he had finished then Ragnar and I did the same. Kara’s face showed that some of it was news to her but that she had expected most of what we had said. Ylva wept in her father’s arms as she heard us tell of the terror of the cave.

“We too dreamed. Ylva was taken from us and carrion tore out our entrails as we watched. She became a dragon and she devoured the Land of the Wolf.”

There was silence. To me it seemed like our world had just ended. I could fight any number of warriors as could my Ulfheonar but this was different. How could we fight the spirit world? Perhaps Snorri’s killing of the witch had set all of this in motion. This, conceivably, could be the end of the Land of the Wolf. “Then what does it mean? We all saw Danes in our dreams. Are we about to be attacked? What is this dragon which comes in the form of my granddaughter?”

“We are too close to this, father. We have no answers yet. We must seek help elsewhere.”

I had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Syllingar?”

Aiden nodded, “We must seek the witch’s wisdom and her advice.”

Shaking my head, I said, “This is not the time of year for such a voyage.”

“I know and we must take Ylva. She cannot use her powers until she is a woman. We have to wait until the Mother deems it is time.”

I drank the horn of ale which Deidra had poured for me and stared into the flames of the fire. It was all very well relying on the spirit world to advise but sometimes their warnings were too vague. The warriors wore skulls. There was a witch with a skull. We had killed Eggle Skulltaker. Were the spirits of the dead coming for us?

“I did not mention it to Snorri but I wondered if the witch I saw could have been the one he slew.”

“Perhaps. The form of Ylva might have been chosen to warn us that there is a woman involved.”

“If it is a woman then does that mean she leads warriors? I have never heard of Danes following a woman.”

“Nor have I. I am sorry, Jarl Dragonheart, you have come to us for answers and you are getting none. Tomorrow we will make a steam hut by the water and the three of us will dream.”

“And then you will interpret what you dream.” I shook my head. “I am sorry but that is not good enough.” I stood. “Tomorrow I will see Haaken and plan a visit to the land of the Danes. Prince Athelstan is a friend. I will go to him and see if he can arrange for me to visit his town of Eoforwic. There are Danes there who might have information about the Skulltaker clan. I had thought we had ended the threat of them but perhaps the dreams tell us otherwise.”

” I would come, grandfather!”

“And me!”

My grandson and son were eager for another adventure. The terror of the cave had not dampened their enthusiasm. This was different. We would be going amongst our enemies. There would be no certainty that we would survive. “No! If there is war coming, then I need you two to be ready to be warriors and defend this land.” I flashed an irritated look at Aiden. “It seems this will come down to muscles and metal rather than magic.”

“That is not fair, Jarl Dragonheart!”

“It may not be but it is the truth. For all the powers in this house I cannot see what protection it affords. You cannot tell me whence the danger comes nor what the exact danger will be. I know little more now than when I woke up from my dream. I did not fear Ylva and that is the only news you have brought save that you wish to dream some more. While you dream, I will act!”

I was angry and I was about to say that which I might regret. I had made that mistake with Wolf Killer and I would not do it with Kara. Surprisingly enough she was smiling. I had hurt Aiden’s feelings but Kara rose and kissed me on the cheek, “You never change father and that is why we love you. You are the rock. People say it is Olaf the Old Man but I know that it is you. The clan is all to you. You truly are the beating heart of our people. And, it seems, the mind. We will do our best; that I promise.”

Her words made me feel guilty. I headed for my hall with Ragnar and Gruffyd following. As we crossed the snow covered ground I said, “I did not mean to be harsh but I am aware that we have not replaced the men who died in the last battle. It will be down to the likes of you two and other young men to defend our home.”

Ragnar nodded, as we approached my door, “Much as you and Haaken did in Norway. We will try to be as strong as you were, grandfather.”

Brigid had been told of the dream by Kara and I saw the concern on her face. “You were away longer than I expected. What happened?”

I shrugged, “A storm came and we sheltered in a cave. Then we stayed with Audun Thin Hair.”

She smiled, “After Kara’s dream I feared the worst. I am glad you were in no danger.”

Elfrida gave me a curious look. “Come Ragnar, you are not too old to give your mother a hug.”

Brigid laughed, “Gruffyd is younger but he does not like to say he is pleased to see his mother.”

Gruffyd surprised her by throwing his arms around her. It was a clear sign that the events of the last few days had had an effect on him. As she passed me Elfrida said quietly, “You do not wish your wife to know of the avalanche?” She had taken me by surprise. She smiled, “I too have the second sight. It will soon become common knowledge. I would tell her.”

“Tonight, when we are alone. Your son dreamed. It disturbed him.”

“He is his father’s son.”

Later, as we lay in bed, I told Brigid what had happened. Brigid did not know how to react to my news. Her religion taught her that acts of her God were to be taken stoically but the dreams and the visions were evidence of a pagan world in which she did not believe.

After tears she cuddled in to me, “But why must you go to Eoforwic. You are no longer the young warrior you were. Why anyone needs to go I know not. Our land is strong and we have warriors who can defend it. There are others who could go.”

“There are and sometime in the future I can allow Ragnar or Gruffyd to take on the responsibility but for now it is my appointed task.”

But why them? There are others!”

“I lead the clan. One day one or both of them will lead it too. Now silence. Let me enjoy both the warmth and you. I will be away for some time and it is time I proved to you that I am no old man, yet!”

I went about the settlement the next day seeking out those I wished to take. I would not ask for volunteers; all would wish to come. I sent for Haaken. He lived beyond our walls. The others I chose were Beorn the Scout, Rollo Thin Skin and Rolf Horse Killer. I told them what I planned and they left to gather their belongings. It did not take long for a deputation of Ulfheonar to arrive at my hall. Snorri and Olaf Leather Neck led them.

“Have I offended you Jarl? Do you not need a scout?”

“I do, Snorri, and your wife needs her husband. You need your unborn child to be healthy. It is winter. Stay with her. You have put yourself in enough jeopardy already. Now is the time of the long nights. Now is the time to prepare to be a father. You know what is coming. Enjoy your time now.”

“And what of me, Jarl? I have no family to tie me to the land. Why not take me. The ones you have chosen are boys! You will need a man!”

I was glad that neither Rolf nor Rollo were there to hear Olaf Leather Neck’s words. I smiled, “And I need you here to prepare warriors to meet this unknown threat. You must train more boys to become men and more men to become Ulfheonar. I will not be here to lead the wolf hunt, Olaf Leather Neck. That is now your appointed task.” I saw him nod. He was mollified. “Besides this should not be dangerous. I go to meet first with the Prince of the Saxons. He is our ally and he can smooth our way. It will be more of an embassy than a dangerous mission.”

I turned as Haaken galloped through my gate. He threw himself from his pony. It was when I saw him that I knew my age. Haaken had hair streaked with grey. His good eye still sparkled but the slight grimace as he dismounted showed me that he suffered the same aches and pains as I did. Unlike those around me he did not know what had happened under the Lough Rigg. I saw a slight frown replace his smile as he saw the expressions on the faces of Olaf and Snorri.

“What is amiss? Has…”

Before he could speak more I shook my head and putting my arm around his shoulders led him indoors, “Come and I will tell you all.”

It took three horns of ale to give him all of my news.

“I see why you sent for me.” He grinned and he was the young boy who had followed me all those years ago, “And you have made a wise choice bringing me! Although it will be a hard journey at this time of year.

“Then stay here.”

He laughed, “Do not be so prickly Dragonheart! I merely meant to question that we are prepared. You have horses and not ponies? Spare mounts? Supplies and furs?”

It was my turn to smile, “Do I look as though I need my grandmother to teach me how to suck eggs? Of course, it is all planned. That is why there will be but five of us. This will need intelligence. We will have to delve beneath the onion’s layers to discover the truth. It will be hints and rumours which tell us that which we wish to know.”

“Good. Then when do we leave?”

“In the morning. We will travel first to Windar’s Mere and then Ketil’s stad.”

“I shall return and tell my wife and girls the news. They will be pleased to see the back of me.” He saw my raised eyebrows. “I have been like a bear woken from his sleep. I can stand the house filled with women for so long and then…” He shrugged, “It has been more than two moons. I am ready. I will bring my own horses and saddles. They are more comfortable!”

I knew what he meant. The days when I could ride all day without discomfort were in the past.

A sudden and welcome thaw meant a wet but slightly easier journey to the north and east. I told Asbjorn, at Windar’s Mere what had happened. It was as well for him to be forewarned. “I will make sure that we are prepared. Our defences are better but there is always room for improvement.”


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