The Last Berserker extract: Chapter 1
I have written a Viking adventure novel – the first of many, I hope – called The Last Berserker. It is set in northern Europe in the 8th century, at a time when Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was attempting to annex pagan Saxony (the German lands below Jutland) and add it to his nascent empire.
The Saxons were none too happy about this and, being a warlike collection of tribes who worshiped the old gods – Odin, Thor et al – they resisted the Christian Franks, with the help of their Norse allies. The Fire Born series will chronicle the resistance, led by Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir.
This extract, designed to give you a flavour of the novel, is the first chapter of the book, in which we meet Bjarki. The Last Berserker is available from Amazon and will be published as an eBook on February 11, 2021, and as a paperback on February 25. There will be an audio book coming out but I don’t know yet when that will be. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this extract . . .
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, 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 choking to death, dangling from the broad limb of the ancient sacred oak, until the final darkness came upon him.
Nineteen summers was a pitifully short span for a young man to walk 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 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 an eternity of feasting, ale and laughter. Instead, he would be slung in a hastily scraped hole on the outskirts of his village and left there to rot, if the foxes did not dig him up and feast on his corpse. That would be the last of Bjarki the Fatherless.
He was a murderer, twice over; he had not even bothered to deny it at the gathering of the Bago village elders, the Thing, which had met that morning to settle the 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 All-Father, 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. The outlaw was expelled from society, none would aid him, or shelter or feed him, and 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 Thing. Bjarki was no better than a mad dog, he had thundered, waving a finger in the air, an indiscriminate killer of men, one who must be put down lest he endanger them all. Outlawry would not serve.
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 Thing decided, in its collective wisdom, that it must be death. Only that 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. “All-Father, mighty Odin, give me the strength to die well,” he prayed.
He glared fiercely, and very nearly dry-eyed, at the assembled villagers, his friends and neighbours – well, neighbours, he had few friends in this fishy mud-hole – who had gathered this spring morning to watch him die.
The village lay in the centre of the island of Bago, a mere flyspeck of low-lying land, barely a mile across, which was one of hundreds of islands of varying size that, together with the Jutland Peninsula, to the west, and the settlements on Scania in the east, made up the realm called the Dane-Mark.
Almost all the denizens of Bago 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 a kind of entertainment, this hanging, for many of them a blessed relief from the back-breaking struggle to wrest a poor crop of barley or rye from their small, often flooded 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 scents on this earth. 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 hatred, staring directly at him; beside him stood his one remaining son, Freki, smirking, as pleased as a man who’s won a wager. He would be the heir now, to Olaf’s house and his land. Perhaps, he would be the hersir, one day, if he petitioned Siegfried, King of the Dane-Mark, to grant him the title.
Fulla the Simple was smiling at something inside her own muddled mind. Her baggy body was festooned with leather flasks of freshly brewed ale on cords of twisted 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 Thing, 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 west beach, and while he knew Bjarki had a temper, he had never known him to kill.
There was one face Bjarki did not wish to see; his eyes skidded over it, only noting the bone-white cheeks and blue eyes reddened from 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 a few times before. He was a trader from somewhere up north, perhaps from the land of mountains and fiords, the Little Kingdoms, as the remote settlements across the straits from the tip of Jutland were called. Or maybe he came from the dense forests of the Svears and Gottars further east, or perhaps even from the frozen Sami territory beyond even those far-off exotic realms, where the reindeer herds ran in their thousands upon thousands and the sun only peeped above the horizon for half the year.
Bjarki could not recall the old man’s name only that he wandered widely and dealt in small items – beautifully carved bone pins and dainty gold and silver broaches, fine silk threads and colourful ribbons, necklaces of glowing amber beads and precious stones, excellent steel eating knives and powerful magical amulets – perhaps in slaves, too.
He had one beside him now. A skinny thrall of perhaps seventeen summers with knife-cropped spiky red hair, a tiny, elfin nose and a small mouth clamped shut. A look of compressed fury blazed in her bright green eyes, as if she wanted to slaughter the whole world and piss on its grave.
The one-eyed trader – Valtyr, the name came back to him – had his hand on the shoulder of the slave, a symbol of possession, and perhaps a safeguard, too, against the girl attempting to flee. Though there was nowhere to run on Bago, and nowhere to hide either. No place where the fugitive would not be captured within a day or two, and then bound, imprisoned and handed back to his master with a reward for the captor. A savage whipping, or even a small mutilation or branding, would be all the slave could expect.
Perhaps a worse fate awaited a runaway captured by a lonely, lustful freeman in a remote farmstead. The girl was a pretty one, after all.
The old man Valtyr 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 held to a candle flame. They would never be wed now, despite the oath he had made to her; their cosy talk of a hearth and a home, of babies and the fishing boat that Bjarki meant to build himself – he had already laid the keel – all that was slipping away too fast, dissolving into nothing 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 woods on the north point of the island, a mile or so from the village, and Bjarki had formed the habit of visiting him around noon, when he 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 sailed 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 Jutland 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 Garm,” he informed Ubbi, “after the black Hound of Death that guards the gates of the goddess Hel’s realm.”
Ubbi had merely grunted his assent.
Bjarki had swaggered back to the village like a returning raven-feeder, a sea-warrior with a ship-load of booty; the puppy nestled in his under-tunic, sleek black head poking out of the square neck-hole under his chin.
He found Freya on 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 Garm, 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, content, and looked at a slew of chubby white clouds, scudding across a limitless expanse of blue. It was time, he thought, it was time for him to take control of his destiny. He rolled over on to his knees, and took Freya’s right hand in his.
“My love for you is as wide as the sky,” he announced. “You are more precious to me than heaven’s jewel!” He made a gesture towards the sun.
Freya smiled up at him, naked, unashamed, her eyes filled with love.
She is so utterly beautiful, Bjarki thought. She is the most perfect woman in the whole world, the perfect mate and companion for a lifetime.
“I have no silver for a bride-price,” he said. “I have no father to ask your family for your hand. But I will give you my solemn promise, here and now, Freya Njalsdottir, that I will love you, protect you and keep you safe from harm for all the remaining days of my life. Will you accept my oath?”
“I will,” she said, “and I also swear to love you until the heavens fall.”
He took her face in his two hands and kissed her deeply. Their bodies moved naturally, drawn together, the one fitting perfectly into the other.
Then Bjarki heard something. A snigger. A guffaw. He broke away from his lover, turned, looked up and saw them. He sat upright abruptly.
There were three young men on the brow of the dune, framed by the blue sky – white-blond Jeki and his even fairer-haired younger brother Freki, and Ymir, a massive, swarthy, dull-witted older fellow who followed the pair of brothers around like a bond servant or their personal 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 Freya truly was,” said Jeki. “She’s randier than a bitch in heat.
Ymir sniggered: “She loves a big cock and no mistake.”
Bjarki stood up. He was completely calm at this point.
“Go away. This is a sacred 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, and said: “Go away. You have no right to disturb us 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 little slut, I think. We’ll get our pricks wet.”
The puppy Garm, sensing the confrontation between the four young men, charged up the hill, barking sharply. Ymir booted the little beast in the ribs, bowling it back down the sandy slope, little Garm 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 would 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, too, 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 Garm 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. Ignoring her, he sprinted up the slope of the dune and gazed around. The fishermen, half a dozen of them, had all ceased their work on the high-tide line and one of them, his old master Thialfi, was trudging towards him across the sand, his expression grim. Bjarki turned away and looked back towards the village. Freki was running towards it, waving his arms, nearly at the gate. His terrified shrieks carried clearly across the three hundred paces or more between them.
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 Odin 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 make a sacrifice.
“All-Father,” he prayed, mumbling aloud, “let my death be a sacrifice to your glory. Let me hang here as you once hung from an oak tree, for nine 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 my sacrifice and take me directly to your dead heroes’ feasting hall in Asgard.”
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 she had turned her face away, and buried it in her hand. He had nothing to say to her, anyway, except that he loved her. She knew that well enough already.
The hersir walked over to the trunk of the oak. Now is the time, he thought. One kick at the stool and I will begin to die. He screwed his eyes shut. Accept my sacrifice, All-Father, he prayed. Make it a good, swift death!
Nothing happened. He was expecting to fall, to feel the prickly noose tighten horribly around his neck and . . . and . . . nothing. He opened his eyes. The hersir was fumbling with the rope now, which was secured to a heavy iron stake driven into the flesh of the tree. The village headman slowly loosed the thick knot, taking the hempen rope’s end in his 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 Valtyr was coming over to join him by the trunk. Two of them – that made more sense. The old trader is lean but wiry. He looks strong. The two of them could haul me up, and so achieve my end. But why not simply boot away the stool and let me dangle?
Olaf put the end of the rope in Valtyr’s hand.
“Hear me now, all of you,” he said. “This man Valtyr Far-Traveller has offered to pay the wergild, the 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 fair 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 island of Bago, and from the whole Dane-Mark. He may not return to this land 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 Valtyr Far-Traveller as a slave. This is the law. I, Olaf Karlsson, Bago law-speaker and hersir, have spoken. Let all the gods be my witness.”
Olaf put the end of the rope into Valtyr’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 Valtyr 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.”
Bjarki’s legs collapsed under him. He crashed down on the stool, splintering it to kindling, and tumbled unconscious to the ground.
If you would like to order a copy of The Last Berserker, it is available here