The Last Berserker – Extract from my unpublished novel
I’ve finished writing a Viking fantasy and, so far, it has not found a suitable publishing home. Nevertheless, I think it’s quite good so I thought I’d give my loyal readers a sneaky peak at the Prologue and first chapter to entertain them during this tedious lockdown we’re all enduring and maybe get a bit of feedback.
Before you launch into all the Dark Ages blood and mayhem, here’s just a quick reminder that my most recent novel Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold is now available on Amazon (click here to buy a copy). Also, I’d like to invite any publisher reading this, who likes the idea and might wish to publish the entire novel, to swiftly contact my agent Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates.
The Last Berserker – Volume 1
By Angus Donald
The Valdr shambled towards the village, the butt of the long bearded axe dragging a furrow in the sandy soil as it dangled from his bandaged hand. He hummed to himself as he approached the gate in the fence that surrounded the tiny settlement by the sea; a rhythmic four-note tune, repetitive, hypnotic – the vibration in his throat designed to suppress the frailty of his wounded body and coax the old Beast once more from its lair deep within his heart.
He was a huge man, his scarred face toad-ugly under a hacked fringe of greasy hair; his heavy shoulders made bulkier by the thick fur cloak that was draped over his back. The thick, matted fur vambraces, which protected both his forearms, made his upper limbs appear absurdly large, particularly when combined with the ropes of coiled muscle on display between shoulder and elbow. A simple loincloth and boiled leather greaves, sewn with iron strips and strapped over a pair of heavy, iron-studded boots, completed his attire.
Fifty paces from the rickety gate, he hefted the axe on to his shoulder and broke into a lumbering trot, increasing to the full charge as he neared the wooden fence. The humming noise now rose in pitch and volume to become a terrible keening screech, then a full-throated blood-curdling scream. At a full sprint, he threw his massive body against the collection of sun-faded sticks held together by thongs and hemp-twine, crunching through the gate and bursting out the other side, into the village itself, in a shower of debris.
The two gate-guards, village men armed with no more than thin fishing spears and wicker-shields, were already running by the time he had brushed the splinters from his fur-cloaked shoulders. The Valdr threw back his head, lifted the axe high in both hands and roared with mingled rage and triumph.
Then he set to work.
He strode to the nearest house, a decent-sized hovel of wattle and daub, with a sagging turf roof. He ripped the leather curtain aside, swung low and sank his axe into the groin of a man who lunged out at him with a bait knife in hand. He booted the collapsing man’s body back into the cottage and, chuckling and bellowing out a jovial word of greeting, he followed it inside.
The air was ripped apart by the sounds of violence – shouts of raw anger first, then squelches and brisk cracks, then screams of fear and pain. Finally a woman’s voice pleading, begging and a newborn bawling – both horribly cut short. The Valdr emerged a moment later, spattered with fresh gore and laughing like a donkey in pain.
He shook the axe free of its slick, red coating, droplets scattering, and stumbled on into the heart of the village. A bitch, a big mongrel with a good deal of wolfhound in her, barked at him, and circled growling, sensing his evil. The Valdr leapt, fast as a snake, and the animal was swatted away with an axe blow, half her ribs crushed, pierced. She staggered, and fell, whining.
A shield wall had formed, half way up the only street in the settlement. A dozen men, all the males of fighting age within the village. They huddled together, trembling pitifully, behind three big, round, painted lime-wood shields. A few wavering spears were pointed in the Valdr’s direction and five or six extended swords or long knives. The intruder loped towards them, gathering speed, still giggling a little, and swinging the long gory axe in ever wider loops around his huge shaggy head.
The shield wall fared no better than the frail gate. The Valdr smashed straight through it, then hacking left and right, killing with practiced ease.
He took a sword thrust to his left side, the steel scraping over his naked ribs, but paid it not the slightest heed – the Beast possessed him wholly now and he had no understanding of pain. The long axe hissed through the air and thunked into living flesh. Again. And again. Blood spattering in wide arcs, as the blade plunged into human meat and swept back for another strike.
The five unwounded men of the shield wall now ran for their lives, scattering – and the Valdr let them go. There were seven men now curled on the bloody earth, coughing, bleeding, dying. He stamped on one twitching fellow’s head, crushing the skull like an egg under his iron-shod boot. Then, unexpectedly, the Valdr stooped and picked up the dead man’s sword, an ancient one, but well made by a craftsman; he gave it a few trial swishes.
The Valdr then set to work on the houses, zig-zagging across the street from one to another to make sure he did not overlook any potential victims. In each house, he kicked open the door, pushed inside and killed, sword in one hand axe in the other. He slew the old, the young, women and infants. He efficiently dispatched livestock, even pets. He spitted a half-blind kitten on the point of his newfound sword. He destroyed anything that breathed.
Slathered in gore, like a dread creature from a nightmare, or a man who’s been fully dipped in a cauldron of blood, the Valdr slowly approached the last and biggest building in the village, an ale-hall of tall, carved timbers.
The fur of his great-cloak was now utterly soaked; his vambraces were soggy and glistening red; of the heavy features of his blood-caked face, only his glowing blue eyes could be distinguished and a glimpse of yellow teeth in his mad, almost jubilant smile. The survivors, no more than two-dozen folk, mostly women and children, had gathered in the gable-ended ale-house and barricaded the heavy oak door with benches from around the walls. The Valdr ignored the main entrance and went in straight through the east wall, easily hacking through rough wattle-and-daub exterior and thin inner planks with the axe. His fury and stamina were apparently endless, and he battered a man-size hole in a matter of moments, and burst through, skewering a doddering greybeard through the belly with the ancient sword and, with the axe in his other hand, hewing the neat, grey-combed head clean off a doughy matron who tried to stab him in the belly with a roasting spit.
The rest of the inhabitants cowered by the long rectangular central fire-trough, resigned to their fate, all except a young dark-haired boy, who charged at the Valdr from the shadows, yelling shrilly, a sharp eating knife in his hand. The Valdr killed him with a sideways flick of the axe, a casual, almost friendly blow, which smashed the little boy’s right cheekbone into several pieces, driving the shards deep into his skull.
The Valdr loomed over the last few huddled folk by the fire-trough, breathing just a little from his exertions. He fixed one of the cowering girls, a pretty blonde on the edge of womanhood, with his pale, burning eyes.
“Freya . . . my sweet,” he said. The words were clogged in his throat, as if they were too large or too jagged to come out. “I have come . . . for you.”
One year earlier . . .
The fate of a murderer
The hemp noose around his neck was as prickly as a bramble. His hands, still crusted with flakes of brown blood, semi-circles under each fingernail, were bound in front of him, uncomfortably tight. The stool under his dirty bare feet creaked alarmingly with the slightest shift of his considerable weight. Very soon, they would kick the rickety wooden seat away and he would drop a few inches and begin strangling to death, dangling from the broad limb of the ancient sacred oak, until the final darkness came upon him.
Seventeen summers was a pitifully short span for a young man to walk on this green Middle-Realm. Indeed, although he was fully grown to look upon, tall and broad, slabbed with springy muscle, he still felt himself to be little more than a bewildered boy – a boy who would never grow any older.
Neither would it be a good death. This was no glorious battlefield; he held no weapon in his dirty bound hands; there was no circle of slain enemies around his feet. No wingèd sword maidens would swoop down to gather his broken body and take it to the Hall of the Slain for a near-eternity of feasting, ale and laughter – before the final great battle at the ending of the world. He would be slung in a hastily scraped hole on the outskirts of his village and left there to rot, if the foxes and rats did not dig him up and feast on his decaying corpse. That would be the last of Bjarki the Orphan.
He was a murderer, twice over; he had not even bothered to deny it at the gathering of the Holmsby village elders, the Ring, which had met to settle the bloody matter, and now he must pay the price for his actions.
Yet he had not expected this, this slow strangling in the shade of the ancient oak dedicated to the Old One, the Father of Fathers, in the beaten-earth circle where the village collected to see justice done. Outlawry was the time-honoured penalty for murder – a terrible fate, nonetheless, for the outlaw would be expelled from society, none would aid him, or shelter or feed him, any man might kill him, like a wild wolf, without cause or penalty.
Olaf Karlsson, the headman and local hersir, had spoken vehemently against him at the Ring. Bjarki was no better than a mad dog, he thundered, waving a long finger in the air, an indiscriminate killer of good men who must be put down lest he endanger them all. Mere outlawry would not do.
Only the ale-wife, Fulla, has spoken in his defence. She suggested he should be branded on the forehead with a hot iron and exiled from the Mark. But no, the Ring decided, in its collective wisdom, it must be death. Only that grim finality would keep them all safe from his murderous ways.
Bjarki could feel the prick of tears welling behind his eyes. He had sworn that he would not weep. If he must depart this Middle-Realm it would be with courage. But this unmanly sorrow was threatening to overwhelm him. “Father of Fathers, give me the strength to die well,” he prayed silently.
He glared fiercely, and very nearly dry-eyed, at the assembled villagers, his friends and neighbours – well, neighbours, he had few friends in this muddy shit-hole – who had gathered this spring morning to watch him die.
The village of Holmsby lay on the western edge of the tiny island of Albo, one of dozens of low-lying islands of varying size that, together with the Skarling peninsula, made up the realm known as the Mark of Skarlsgard.
Almost all the inhabitants of Holmsby, a dirty, hard-faced race, had gathered to see him swing; some sixty people ranging from babes-in-arms to hobbling grandfathers were spread out in a loose semi-circle on the southern side of the ancient oak. Some passed sloshing ale flasks from hand to hand, others chewed on fresh baked oatcakes sweetened with honey: it was an entertainment, this hanging, for many of them a blessed relief from the back-breaking struggle to wrest a meagre crop of barley or rye from their small, muddy fields; or from the endless casting and hauling of heavy fishing nets.
A miasma of rotting seaweed and burnt fish oil permanently hung over the settlement. Bjarki sucked it in through flared nostrils, savoring the odour like perfume. His last precious scent on this plane. He looked up at the pale yellow disc of sun through the leaves, feeling its small warmth a final time.
The half-circle of familiar faces was a smear of white and pink and grey. There was Olaf Karlsson, the hersir, his dark pitted face twisted by hated, staring directly at him; beside him stood his one remaining son, Freki, smirking, as pleased as a man who’s won a great wager. He would be the heir now, to Olaf’s house and his lands. Perhaps, he would be the hersir too, one day, if he petitioned Siegfried, the Lord of the Mark, to grant him title.
Fulla the Simple was smiling at something inside her own muddled mind. Her baggy, shapeless body festooned with leather flasks of freshly brewed ale on cords of twisted deer hide. From time to time, she passed one over to a thirsty villager, and made a cut on her tally stick with a blade, to record the sale.
There was Thialfi looking sullen; he had lost a morning’s fishing to attend the Ring, which he was bound to do as Bjarki was in his charge, his apprentice. Yet he had not spoken up decisively either for or against the boy. He did not care much for Bjarki. He stated only that he had not seen what occurred in the dunes as he was busy mending his nets on the beach, and while he knew Bjarki had a temper, he had never known him to kill before.
There was one face Bjarki did not wish to see; his eyes skidded over it, only noting the bone-white cheeks and large blue eyes reddened by weeping.
He fixed his gaze instead on a tall, lean, one-eyed man in a fine leather-lined woollen travelling cloak and hood – a stranger to the village, but one he had seen here before. He was a trader from somewhere up north, perhaps from the mountainous Kingdom of Vegnar across the straits from the tip of the Skarling peninsula, or from the dense forests of Kottland further east, or perhaps even from the frozen Suiva lands beyond both these foreign realms, where the reindeer herds ran in their thousands upon thousands and the sun only peeped above the horizon for half of the year. He could not recall the old man’s name only that he wandered widely and dealt in small portable items – beautifully carved bone pins and dainty silver broaches, fine silk threads and colourful ribbons, necklaces of polished amber beads, sharp steel eating knives and powerful magical amulets – perhaps in slaves, too.
He had one beside him now. A thin girl of twelve or thirteen with knife-cropped spiky red hair, a tiny, elfin nose and a small mouth clamped tight shut and a look of compressed fury in her small, glittering blue eyes, as if she wanted to slaughter the whole world and piss on its grave.
The one-eyed trader – Waltyr, the name came back suddenly to him – had his hand on the back of the neck of the slave, a symbol of possession, perhaps a safeguard, too, against the girl attempting to flee. Although there was nowhere to run on Albo, and nowhere to hide either, no place where the fugitive would not be captured in a day or two; then bound, imprisoned and handed back to his master – a reward for the captor; a whipping, or even a small mutilation or branding, for the errant child-slave.
Perhaps a worse fate awaited a runaway captured by a lonely, lustful freeman in a remote farmstead. The girl was a pretty little thing, after all.
The old man Waltyr was moving now, pushing through the throng to Olaf’s side. He leant forward smiling in a friendly way, showing a bunch of scarlet ribbons in his proffered right hand. He spoke urgently, forcefully to the stiff-backed hersir, who seemed irritated at the outsider’s presumption.
Bjarki looked away.
His eye fell on the young face he did not wish to see. But once there he could not tear his eyes from it. Freya’s face.
It was swollen from her weeping but still perfect and wondrously beautiful to Bjarki. He held her gaze, each staring at the other across the empty space in their mute shared agony. He knew this would be the last time they would ever look into each other’s eyes. He could almost feel the love, so often and so urgently professed by both, shrivelling in the space between them, like a hair in a candle flame. They would never be wed now; their talk of a hearth and a home, of babies and the fishing boat that Bjarki meant to build himself from forest timber – all that was slipping away fast, dissolving as even the most delightful dream must upon the waking hour.
This nightmare was the cold reality.
It was for her sake that he would die this morning, under the old oak tree, in the presence of the whole village. Freya’s mother – her father was long dead – stood behind his beloved, looking at him over her daughter’s thin shoulder, seemingly fearful of him even now. She believed her daughter had had a lucky escape from a life yoked to a killer. Yet did she know what had truly happened? Did she grasp at all why he had done what he did?
It had begun with the puppy. A glossy, squirming pup a few weeks old and black as a raven, one of the litter Ubbi the Huntsman’s bitch had produced. Ubbi lived on his own in a hut in the forest, a mile or more inland from the village boundary, and Bjarki had formed the habit of visiting him around noon, when he had returned from working the morning boat with Thialfi.
He would rarely speak with Ubbi, for the man disliked all conversation, but he helped him prepare the hides and skins, which the hunter bartered for necessities, scraping them free of fat and flesh, salting, drying and rubbing them with grease until they were supple again. He helped Ubbi most days – when the man had not gone off to the north on one of his long solo hunting trips – and received a bowl of venison stew as the price of his labour. On a couple of memorable occasions, he had even accompanied Ubbi on a winter trek hunt the fallow deer in the most northerly part of the Skarling peninsula.
Yesterday, having seen that the pups were ready to be parted from their milk-drained mother, he had forgone the stew and begged for the glossy little puppy instead. “I shall name him Gorm,” he happily told Ubbi, “after the black Hound of Death that guards the gates of the Underworld.”
Ubbi had merely grunted his assent.
Bjarki had run all the way back to the village, with the puppy nestled in his under-tunic, sleek black head excitedly poked out of the neck-hole.
He found Freya in the beach, waiting for him on an old blanket in their usual spot, a grass-filled hollow between the high dunes, out of sight of the fishing boats and their owners. It was their special place, where they kissed, made love, and lay afterwards in each other’s arms, apart from the world.
Bjarki had presented her with the puppy Gorm, which was received with cries of joy. Then he received his own reward from his loving Freya.
They had finished making love, and with the puppy nosing happily through the mound of their discarded clothing, Bjarki lay back, panting and looked at the sky. He heard a snigger, sat up abruptly, and then he saw them.
There were three of them on the brow of the dune, framed by the wide blue heavens – white-blond Jeki and his even fairer-haired younger brother Freki, and Ymir, a massive, swarthy, dull-witted boy who followed the pair of them around like a bond servant or bodyguard.
Freya gave a little shriek and dived for her clothes.
“I always knew she was a willing slut – but I had no idea what a lustful little whore our Freya truly was,” said Jeki. “Randier than a bitch in heat.
Ymir sniggered: “She loves big cocks and no mistake.”
Bjarki stood up. He was completely calm at this point.
“Go away. This is a private moment between Freya and myself. It is none of your business. Please take yourselves off and leave us in peace.”
“Go?” said Jeki. “I don’t think Freya would like that. I think she wants to have a nice ride on Ymir’s fat one. I think she’d like us all to do it to her.”
Bjarki, still tightly controlled, glanced once at Freya, who was now cowering on her knees with the bundled clothes held up before her, said: “Go away now. You have no right to be here. Leave us alone. Go. Now!”
“Or what?” said Jeki. “What will you do, eh? Nothing, orphan-boy. We’ll have some fun with your whore, I think. We’ll all get our pricks wet.”
The puppy Gorm, sensing the confrontation between the four boys, charged up the hill, barking sharply. Ymir booted the little beast hard in the ribs, bowling it back down the sandy slope, little Gorm squeaking in pain.
Bjarki felt suddenly very, very cold. He heard a rushing sound like a tumbling waterfall in his ears. That was all he could remember for a while.
When memory returned to him, his face and hands were covered in blood. Slathered. Arms gory right to the elbow. His finger bones burned like fire. Blood was in his mouth, eyes and ears. He spat and wiped. Disgusted.
Ymir lay dead in the sandy hollow, his lower jaw had been wrenched completely free of the joint and flopped over to one side, hanging by a flap of skin. One of his eyes was missing; only a red-brimming hole remained.
Jeki was no more. Higher up on the slope of the sand dune. His face was only red mush, and his spine had been snapped, judging from the flopping head twisted at an impossible angle. His right arm had been wrenched from its socket. The puppy Gorm was dead too, trampled in the blood-spattered furrows of sand, destroyed in a battle of which Bjarki had not even the slightest recollection. There was no sign of the other boy Freki.
Bjarki was aware that behind him Freya was screaming, on and on. He was surprised he had not noticed before. He ignored her and sprinted up the slope of the dune. At the top he stopped and looked around. The fishermen, half a dozen of them, had all ceased their work on the high-tide line and one of them, his master Thialfi, was trudging towards him across the sand, his expression grim. Bjarki turned away and looked back towards the village. Freki was still running, waving his arms, nearly at the gate. Bjarki could still hear his terrified shrieks from a distance of three hundred paces or more.
The wooden stool beneath his bare feet gave an ominous creak, and drew every eye in the circle. Bjarki stood very still, his neck extended as far upwards as possible, as if that would make a difference when the time came. He looked over at Olaf Karlsson – it was the hersir who would ultimately give the order to kick away the rickety stool – or he’d do the job himself.
Bjarki wondered how long he would dangle by the neck before he lost consciousness. He wondered if dying would hurt very much. He had heard tell that hanged men always pissed and soiled themselves when the end was near – a bodily failing completely beyond their control. Let the Old One preserve him from that humiliation. He wanted to bargain with the god to ensure that this did not happen but he realised had nothing to offer. His life? It was forfeit. He had no goods to give up, no birds or beasts to sacrifice.
“Father of Fathers,” he prayed, mumbling aloud, “let my death, this ending, be a sacrifice to your glory. Let me hang here as you once hung from an oak tree for seven days and nights to gain your wisdom. Accept my death as a sacrifice to you, Lord, even though I did not choose it. I choose it now. Accept this sacrifice and take me to your heroes’ hall in the Upper Lands.”
He could see Olaf approaching, striding towards him with an odd expression on his pock-marked face. This was the time. He looked wildly over at Freya, and opened his mouth to call out to her. But he saw that she had her face turned away, and buried in her hand. He had nothing to say to her, anyway, except that he loved her. She knew that well enough already.
The hersir went to the trunk of the old oak, where the rope, looped over the branch was secured to a heavy iron stake driven into the flesh of the tree. He loosed the knot, taking the hempen rope’s end in his big, rough hands.
Bjarki was surprised. He does not have the strength to haul me up by himself. Surely not. I am twice his weight. He cannot be thinking of that.
Then he saw that the old man, the merchant Waltyr was coming over to join him by the trunk. Two of them; that made more sense. The old trader was lean but wiry. He looked strong. The two of them could haul him up, and so achieve his death. But why not simply kick away the stool?
Olaf put the end of the rope in Waltyr’s hand.
“Hear me now, all of you,” he said. “This man Waltyr Far-Traveller has offered to pay the wergild, blood price for the deaths of my eldest son Jeki and his bondsman Ymir on behalf of the murderer Bjarki Bloodhand. He has agreed to pay me a considerable weight in silver, enough and more to ease my grief and suffering and compensate me for my loss. Therefore I hereby renounce all vengeance against Bjarki for myself – and for this village.”
There were murmurs of surprise and, perhaps, relief, from the villagers. Freya was now staring at Bjarki, a hesitant smile quivering at the edge of her wet mouth. It disappeared soon enough. Wiped away by Olaf’s next words.
“But Bjarki is declared outlaw from this time forward and for ever. He is exiled from the village of Holmsby, from the island of Albo, and from the whole Mark of Skarlsgard. He may not return on pain of death. Furthermore, he is now made thrall. His freedom is stripped from him; he shall henceforth be given into the hand of Waltyr Far-Traveller as a slave. This is the law. I, Olaf Karlsson, law-speaker and hersir, have spoken. Gods be my witness.”
Olaf put the end of the rope into Waltyr’s hand. Bjarki heard Freya crying out his name. But he looked instead at his new master.
“You prayed to the Old One in this sacred place. I believe he has heard you,” said Waltyr in a kindly voice. “Get down from there, lad. We must be far from this village by nightfall; and we’ve a long, hard road ahead of us.”
At which point, Bjarki’s legs collapsed under him. He crashed down on the stool, splintering it to kindling, and tumbled unconscious to the ground.
End of extract
If you would like to read my latest novel Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, click here.