"I'll see you at the end of summer, Wolf-Kissed," King Widukind said to me at the docks. There was a large gathering of people to see us off. I could hardly hear the words beneath the ocean of noise coming from the what felt like hundreds of people shouting their farewells all at once. They crowded around the beach at the edge of a dock that housed my small fleet. A full thousand Norse warriors divided up between eleven ships, all heavy with goods.
I almost dreaded setting out to sea, because if we got caught in a spring storm, we were bound to sink. Every ship was barely buoyant underneath all of the weight they bore. The near thousand pounds of gold, silver, and jewels was only part of it. Each of my men had their equipment and their own wealth to bring. Then there was food - grain, barley, meat, chickens, and goats.
All the same, despite the fact we really did need another three ships to comfortably carry the weight, it was time.
We were leaving Saxony.
"I'll see you then, King Widukind," I returned, clasping an offered forearm. "Enjoy the peace you have won. Saxony deserves it."
There was a rueful smile on King Widukind's face. "We shall. While it lasts," he agreed, letting go of my forearm. "We shall rebuild. We have a tentative ally in Holland, and King Charlemagne has many other enemies to contend himself with. This loss weakened his reputation with his Jarls more than he would care to admit. I believe the next time you return to Saxony, you will see a greater kingdom."
I suppose that was the hope. It was good that he wasn't acting under the delusion that Francia would never return to Saxony. It might take a few years, but one way or another, they would return.
"I hope to see it. Farewell, King Widukind," I told him, getting on the flagship of my fleet. The crowd continued to cheer as Thorkell stood next to me. There was a smile on his face.
"Not what I'm used to. Usually, when people are happy to see me go, they don't mean it like this," Thorkell remarked. "Ready to sound off?"
It felt odd, I decided, giving Thorkell the nod. He brought the horn to his lips and blew it, announcing our departure. Almost as one, the oars dipped into the water, pushing off from the dock. I had spent a year in Saxony, dedicating myself to securing its freedom, and now I was leaving it behind. It was always the plan. I never intended to stay in Saxony, not as long as I had… but the plan changed and I spent more time here than I intended.
It was time well spent, I decided. I watched the people waving at me, cheering and celebrating. It wasn't the plan, but I didn't regret the detour. I was stronger for it. And I liked to think that I was a little wiser.
Thorkell clapped me on the back. "It was a fine adventure. You ready for the next one? Marriage is something else entirely." He remarked, a smile on his face. "It'll make you yearn for the days of war."
Well... that wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement.
Our fleet was slow and sluggish. A journey that I had made before and had taken a day and a night of travel now took much longer. We sailed around the coast in case we needed to make a quick landing. As we did, I spent days looking at my homeland. A place that had seemed so grand to me before, but now seemed so very small. I recognized the occasional landmark as we passed by…
Even with a strong current and wind at our backs, our speed was slowed by more than half. An unfortunate thing as it left my mind time to wonder. I hadn't heard much about the war between King Godfrey and Horrik. I had no idea if the war was still ongoing or if it was over already. Was there a battle going on somewhere in the land right now? The one that would decide who would be King of Denmark?
I had no idea. It was annoying, really. I hadn't thought to ask around for one last piece of news before setting off. Leaving me to stare out at the land of my birth in unknowing frustration.
"There should be some news in Norway. Hopefully," Halfdan remarked to me, leaning against the railing, sending my thoughts. "Could you imagine what father would say if he could see us now? A fleet of treasure and at the head of an army? Off to get married to some important noble ladies? He'd laugh himself sick."
That got a smile from me as I settled into the ship. I could practically see it. Father was reserved, but he was poor at hiding how he really felt. I could practically see his eyes falling out of his head if he could see us now. "What's mother going to say?" I one upped the question, earning a laugh from Halfdan.
"You better pray that the gods gave her another warning, Sieg. For the sake of her heart!" He said with a laugh, and it was only after the land of Denmark faded into the open ocean that I realized that he had successfully distracted me.
We reached Norway a day later, but it was another three days of sailing before we neared our destination. An island off the coast of the mainland - or, rather, a number of islands. With Halfdan as our guide, we managed to find the island that belonged to the strangely named Jarl Hoffer Hofferson. Thorkell was able to tell me a little about him on the way. He belonged to an old family that had held the islands for as long as history. He was a powerful Jarl that commanded a kingdom as large as Horrik did. If not larger. He raided around his territory frequently, meaning that he had a number of enemies.
In short, he was powerful but not particularly well liked by the many Jarls that were within distance of his ships.
We arrived in the late morning, a few hours before midday. We were spotted well in advance because I heard a horn blaring as we headed towards the port. Thorkell handed the horn to Halfdan, who blew three long notes to signal his return. When he was done, he looked to me, "It might be best to sail in with one ship. He's been expecting my return, but I doubt he'll be happy with a thousand warriors showing up on his doorstep."
"Aye, it makes sense to me. We'll go first," I decided, earning a thankful nod. I'm sure the men would have complaints about being so close to shore and having to wait longer, but another hour at sea wouldn't kill them. After giving the signal, my flagship sailed forward while I took off the head of the ship. It would not do to offend the spirits of the land with its frightful visage - a snarling dragon with a forked tongue.
I saw the town gathering up by the docks out of curiosity, but with more warriors than townspeople. It was a large town. Perhaps a few hundred, but likely less than a thousand. A number that once seemed so unthinkably huge to me. I searched the faces along the coast, hoping to find familiar ones. Instead, I found a well dressed man - he wore fine furs, his clothing was dark blue with gold stitching. Clutched in his hands was a shield and a Dane-axe. He stood at the end of the dock, waiting for our arrival.
Halfdan leaned in close to me, "That will be your brother-in-law, Hoffer Hofferson." I glanced at Halfdan to see if it was a jest, but his face was deadly serious. "He's a humorless fellow, but he respects strength. So, he'll like you, little brother." I also got the impression that Hoffer didn't much care for Halfdan.
Hm. "Ho, there!" I greeted my soon to be kin, searching his face. He was blonde haired with bright blue eyes with a thick bread that dripped down to the center of his chest. The ship slowed to a crawl, trickling forward towards the docks with dull momentum.
"Ho there, travelers. Halfdan. I see you've returned with an army." There was an edge to his voice.
"Aye! And my little brother, who leads it!" He said, patting me on the back. Hoffer looked at me, a small frown tugging at his lips. I could see the doubt shining in his eyes. I found that after a year in Saxony, I was unaccustomed to the doubt. Though, I was very much used to the disbelief that I was the Wolf-Kissed because of the ridiculous rumors about my height.
"Do we have permission to land?" I asked, meeting his gaze. I saw the frown lessen when he saw that I didn't flinch at it.
There was a brief pause. "Aye. You may land this ship, but my father must grant permission for the rest of your men. I shall take you to meet him," Hoffer said, inclining his head to me. "Welcome to Nordscagor," he greeted me, allowing us to land. With a few more pushes, the ship reached the docks and I was the first to step out of the ship…
Big. Hoffer was big. My father was the tallest person I had ever seen in my life, larger than even Roland. That wasn't true any longer. I only realized how big he was when I stood next to him, I realized that he would have stood half a head taller than my father. He looked down at me with a blank expression, his gaze searching me. He wasn't being rude, but it was clear that he had doubts.
"My thanks for your hospitality," I told him before pausing a moment… "And for extending it to my family," I included my head to him, and that seemed to ease some tension out of him.
I was wrong. He didn't have doubts.
He was afraid.
"Please follow me, Wolf-Kissed. My father waits for your arrival. I'm sure that there will be much to discuss between you," he said, bidding me to follow him. He seemed confused when I didn't immediately do so, instead taking a heavy chest from the ship. People whispered as they watched me and Halfdan enter the town. I saw that it had wide open dirt roads, but the roads leading into town were through a sea monster's bones. I gazed up at them as we passed, seeing that they were carved and painted.
The action didn't go unnoticed. "My great ancestor slew the beast in battle many years ago. Before my great-great-great grandsire was more than an itch in the balls of his father - the first Hoffer. He made a pact with the spirits of this land and sea - that so long as a Hoffer rules this land, it shall be bountiful." There was evident pride in his voice as we made our way to the long house. A building that seemed to dominate the town in terms of size.
I suppose that explained the name. "It sounds like an incredible saga. I would wish to hear it in full, if given the chance." I offered and that got a pleased smile from him.
"The greatest tale in Midgard, I say!" Hoffer replied, very pleased with the compliment. He seemed like a simple man - he loved his family and he was proud of his heritage. I expected worse, honestly. A quick glance at Halfdan told me that I should be grateful for the welcome. I imagine his reception would have been quite different.
The doors to the longhouse were opened for us with our approach and we were greeted by the scent of cooked meat and the sound of men - the hall was about full to the point of bursting. I scanned their faces, looking for my family amongst them. I didn't see them. What I did find was a man that stood even taller than Hoffer. He was seated in a chair that honestly looked like it could seat two men. His beard was long, his head shaved to reveal a number of tattoos that marked his flesh.
This man was Jarl Hoffer.
"I am Jarl Hoffer the Vast," Jarl Hoffer greeted me without standing as I came to a stop before him. His blue eyes were cold as he gazed down at me.
"Siegfried Erikson. The Wolf-Kissed," I returned the greeting and there were mutterings around me.
"I did not expect your arrival. Much less with a fleet of men," there was a warning in his voice as he regarded me. "Halfdan was to return alone as he assured me you would be busy with a great war." His words were even and measured, offering nothing to hint at his thoughts.
"The war is over. The Saxons managed to force a peace with the Franks, and I found myself with time while Saxony prepared my reward - fifty ships heavy with trade goods," I responded. There were more than a few gasps at that. Most Jarls couldn't hope to command fifty ships. I'm not even sure some kings did. "It will be half a year until then, so I decided to come here. To thank you for your kindness, Jarl Hoffer."
King Widukind taught me the weight of my influence and presence. The other Jarls taught me how I could be perceived. My mere existence was a threat to them. They feared me because at any point, I could take all that they had. With a simple challenge, I could have become a Jarl of Saxony and none would have protested the challenge or results - for none was more beloved by the gods than me, in their estimation.
I needed to assure everyone of my intentions. I couldn't blame them for their nervousness or fear.
"You took my family in when Horrik betrayed us. When he hunted them to be used against me, you offered safe harbor and refuge. For that, Jarl Hoffer, you have my undying gratitude," I told him before I presented the box. "I won much in Francia. Please, grant me the honor of giving you this token of my gratitude."
Jarl Hoffer was silent for a moment before nodding. His son… Hofferson stepped forward, going to pick up the chest, but he paused when he realized how heavy it was. His expression betrayed his surprise, but all the same, he lifted with his legs and carried it up to his father before letting it thump to the ground before him. Jarl Hoffer leaned forward, opening the chest and I saw his eyes widen in surprise.
He ran a hand through the chest, letting everyone see the gold coins spilling between his fingers. The chest was filled with about seventy pounds of gold.
As far as gifts went, it was exorbitant. It was more of a king's ransom than a gift.
But I had learned a great deal from Horrik as well. One lesson stood out to me the most - the bride price. The bride price could be called the estimation of a man's worth. A man was measured by how well he could provide for his family - his wives, his concubines, his children, and kin. The bride price was a man telling the family of his would-be wife… 'this is what I can give your daughter.'
"A fine gift. A fine gift indeed," Jarl Hoffer decided, and the tension in the longhouse vanished entirely with the words. "I heard many tales about you, Wolf-Kissed. We all have. I see that there was a great deal more truth in them than I gave them credit for. I welcome you to Nordscagor! You and your companions!" A great big cheer went up at that as Jarl Offer stood up, approaching me. "We shall celebrate with a feast! For a victory over the dead god! And a reunion between separated kin!"
Jarl Hoffer laid a massive hand on my shoulder, "Come, Wolf-Kissed. Let me bring you to your family." With the words, my heart leapt to my chest. "They are nearby. Allow me to apologize for the frosty reception - the very last thing we expected was for your arrival."
He took me to a back room, and I tried to not think about how he would have used my family against me if I did have ill intentions. "Think nothing of it, Jarl Hoffer. You thought I could be a threat and acted as a Jarl should." He glanced back at me with the words, a faint expression of surprise on his face.
"You speak well, Wolf-Kissed," he commended. I did spend a great deal of time with Kings and Jarls. "You will have a seat at the high table during the feast. There is much to discuss, some of which I'm sure your brother told you about." My engagement to one of his daughters. "But that can come later. For now, I will leave you with your family." He said, inclining his head to a door, whose guards cleared out.
I swallowed a lump in my throat when I realized who was behind the door. My heart started to pound at my ribs to the point it hurt. I was more nervous opening the door than I had been before the last battle of the war. Halfdan reached out, throwing an arm over my shoulder, and urging me forward. He shot a cheeky grin my way before he threw open the door before I was ready.
"You'll never guess who I found!" Halfdan greeted everyone and it was like I had been punched in the gut. By Roland. The room was large, but there were a number of people in it. Some I didn't recognize, but I knew most of them. It was impossible for me not to.
They were my family.
I saw expressions of surprise all around and I didn't know who to look at first. My sisters were seated on a bed, their dark red hair was tied up. Meaning that they were married now, but they still mostly looked the same. In a corner, wielding a stool, was Haldur, who openly gaped at me. Lastly, the one that my gaze settled on was… mother. She sat alone, looking up with an expression of faint surprise.
For a long moment, it felt like all we could do was stare at each other.
It was Mother that reacted first, standing up before crossing the room to wrap her arms around me. "I knew I would see you again," she whispered to me and I couldn't swallow the lump that found its way in my throat. I clung to her, tears burning at my eyes. I couldn't cry. It would be shameful. I wasn't a child anymore. I was a man grown. What would the Franks say if they could see me now?
I fought back the tears because I hadn't been so sure. I had made the choice, but I never knew if it was the right one.
"Seigfried!" Helga cried out, leaping up to join the hug, and Solveig came with her. Halfdan did as well, and even Haldur did after a long minute. The last of my family. It used to be so much larger. The quiet days on the farm seemed so very long ago. The time I spent on the farmstead, trying to prove my worth to Horrik seemed so wasted.
The hug felt like it lasted an hour, but it was entirely too short for my liking. Slowly, one by one, they let go. Mother being the last one, leaving her to cup my cheeks as she looked at me, her eyes searching my face. "You got older," Mother observed, almost sounding sad about it. Her blue eyes searching mine, "You look like your father."
I did? I was glad. "I'm sorry," I told her. All of them.
A kind smile tugged at Mother's lips, "For looking like your father?"
"For everything. Horrik and Thorfinn… they did it because of me. Because I became a threat to them." To that, her eyes softened. "And for not finding you sooner."
"It was the gods' will," Solveig decided, looking at me while her hands rested on her stomach. Her swollen stomach. Oh… Halfdan had told me that she was with child, hadn't he? "Losing father… and our brothers, was hard, but it was fate, Seigfried. It's not your fault." To that, Haldur looked away while I tried to find a way to argue the words.
"What happened was always going to happen," Mother interjected, her hands lowering to mine and she inspected the calluses that I picked up. "Your father was an old friend to Horrik, but as they grew older, Horrik became more paranoid of everyone around him. Because of King Sigfred," she began, a thumb running across a hand axe callus. "Your father was one of the last men he trusted, and not by much. He gave your father a test - to play the part of the traitor to earn King Sigfred's trust. Your father did as ordered, and it is how you were named. However, your father always knew that the duty was a noose. Sooner or later, his friend would find a reason to distrust him."
That's why Horrik was keeping such a close eye on our family. He was looking for signs that my father betrayed him.
"Grimar told me part of the story. I don't think he knew the whole truth," I said, mulling over what I learned. My father played the part of a traitor, but he did so under orders.
To that, Haldur looked up, his gaze meeting mine. We looked similar. Honestly, he looked like an older me with a short red beard clinging to his cheeks. "Grimar?"
"He's dead. I slew him in a duel before departing," I told him. Haldur seemed surprised, but he offered an approving curt nod.
"The blood debt is being paid, but it won't be paid in full until we sail back to Denmark," Haldur said, crossing his arms. He looked at me expectantly. "Before they shoved us here, they said that you came at the head of an army. Is that true?"
"A thousand men and eleven ships," I confirmed. To that, my sister Helga sputtered and looked at me like I grew a second head. I imagine that might be shocking to hear coming from the youngest brother. She used to see Halfdan smacking my cheeks while I tried to not be on the bottom rung of the family.
Halfdan rubbed the top of my head, "The stories we heard weren't the half of it. I was there for the final two battles of the war. Everything we heard… honestly, it was probably played down. Otherwise no one would believe it." Based on Helga's expression, she still didn't.
Mother gave my hands a squeeze. "There will be enough time to talk about the past. We must discuss the future. I heard talks of a feast through the door. Jarl Hoffer possesses twenty ships and two thousand fighting men. Marry his daughter to link our houses, and we can sail for Denmark on the morrow." Three thousand men? Counting the losses that Horrik had suffered during the initial battles of the war, and the losses he sustained over his war with the crown… and half of the army he sent with Grimar now swore to me.
Horrik would be weak. I could do it with three thousand men.
But… "After I kill Horrik, I'll be King of Denmark… but if I were to kill him now, I think I would be a poor King," I confessed, much to their surprise. "I saw what great Kings look like in Francia - King Widukind and King Charlemagne. They were…" I wasn't even sure how to say it. "They're what a king should be, and while I know much of war, I don't know much about rulership. Or how to lead a kingdom."
I thought I would earn their ire, but Mother had pride shining in her eyes as I continued. "I intend to sail to Miklagard. I wish to see what the greatest city in the world looks like. I need to learn how to be a King before I become one. I made too many mistakes in Francia because of my ignorance. If the gods decide that I shall rule, then I intend to rule well."
When I was ready, then I would return to Denmark. The journey to Miklagard itself would be a journey worthy of song, and once I got there, I suspected that I would have much to learn. It could be years before I returned to Denmark, but that was fine. I had learned to be patient.
For when I returned and took my vengeance… history would remember me as the greatest King that our people ever had.
That's what would come after my vengeance.
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