A tale from the forgotten history of Alter-earth.
Da N’tan regarded the horde lined up along the hilltop. “Is this rabble the mighty host that defeated the best of Cyning Erik’s troops?” he asked in disbelief. “Bear and wolf pelts may intimidate lesser men but they do not frighten the ferdrinc of Scartho.”
“I assure you, Son of Aethelward, that beneath the fur is mail as strong as yours and their spiked clubs can match any iron axe as I know to my cost!” answered Frode, pointing to his missing left eye.
“There are quite a lot of them, Leif,” advised Wassa cautiously.
“Thank you for pointing out the obvious, cempestre!” retorted Leofric. “Now get to your position, Saewine, have you no vision to share with me today?”
“I vision I do have,” replied the grizzled shaman. “It has nothing to do with the approaching battle but rather what comes after.”
“Shaman, there are things of much greater import to consider!”
“But surely that there is something after the battle should be of interest?” asked Saewine.
The figures on the hill were now waving their clubs over their heads or shaking long spears while chanting and ululating. “Curse you Saewine, no more of your evasions, will we win this battle?”
“Enough!” Leofric was eager to get this over with, Erik the Reckless, a cousin of his father, Aethelward the Thegn of Scartho, had invaded the northern land eager for conquest but these people had routed the entire D’an spearhead upon reaching Upper Soomi.
Erik had entreated his cousin for help and Leofric had been sent forth across the Nord Sea, with several thousand spears at his command to wreak revenge on his behalf. But what he found in Soomi had infuriated him for it was not a land of silver overrun by hostile savages as described by Erik, but a proud, poor struggling country ravaged by rape and plunder.
Frode was a powerful, experienced chieftain and Erik’s right-hand man, he had with him two thousand men but the host before them was easily double their entire number. “Take care Leofric, my men have faced these wild beasts before and are a little jumpy.”
“If we keep our discipline we shall overcome them…” began Da N’tan then he stopped and stared. “What in name of Tiw is that?” A group of horsemen were galloping towards them led by a cempestre of the most startling appearance, bare of breast and leg, her body and face painted with stripes and wearing a helmet fashioned from a deer skull complete with antlers.
“That is Kukka, the chieftain’s daughter. She’s part shaman, part warrior and a complete bicce.”
“Kukka?” asked Da N’tan in bewilderment. “Isn’t that Soomilek for flower?” Wassa would never think to enter the fray without armour.
“Yes, hardly a suitable name for that creature,” replied Frode grimly.
“She is remarkable,” Leofric was fascinated by the apparition on the horse, and despite her being the enemy he hoped she would survive the day.
The naked warrior brandished a long spear over her head and yelled “Kuolema hyökkääjille!” at the top of her voice. The mass of fur-clad warriors echoed the cry then began charging down the hill.
“Shield wall!” went the order along the Scartho line and the ferdrinc snapped into formation, locking shields and presenting their spears.
“Hold your ground dogs!” yelled Frode as the D’an contingent wavered nervously. “These ferdrinc of Scartho make you look like old women!”
Leofric raised his axe high and when he judged the enemy to be in range lowered it sharply, arrows flew over the shields to come down like rain among the Soomilek who fell in droves. Da N’tan had brought archers trained in the Brython way and commanded by Mim O Dyffryn Gwyrdd. He motioned to a warrior sat by his side, the man raised a curled silver horn to his lips and a fell note echoed across the ranks to be taken up by others along the line and the Scartho shield wall slowly advanced into the charging horde. The savage warriors threw themselves against it only to fall like wheat to the scythe.
“They are brave these Soomilek,” Leofric remarked approvingly.
“Leofric, they are coming at our flank!” yelled Saewine as hundreds more of the fur-clad warriors burst out of the woods.
“You did not see this coming, shaman, did you? Why do you think they abandoned the advantage of high ground so readily?” asked Da N’tan with a grim smile. “It was to lure us forward leaving our sides open to attack. Sometimes, Saewine, a knowledge of battle is more useful than magic.” Wassa, leading the horsemen they had held in reserve, now charged the attackers to rout the flanking manoeuvre on the left but Frode’s men to the right, who lacked the iron discipline of the Scartho contingent were not faring so well. Leofric saw the chieftain go down pierced by one of the long spears, the Da N’mark line was crumbling. “This goes against us shaman!” he yelled.
“Then we must turn it quickly around, Scartho’s son,” answered Saewine and waving his iron clawed hand spurred his horse toward the struggling D’an soldiers.
Da N’tan smiled grimly and shouted. “My bodyguard, to me!” then followed his shaman into the fray.
“Teijo Ukonvaaja, Teijo the Thunderstone, the Thegns of Da N’mark and Scartho accept your surrender with the following conditions. You will acknowledge Erik Te G’rath, Erik the Reckless as your Cyning and you will pay him tribute. The other condition is that you will give your daughter Kukka to the Son of Scartho as his bride.”
“What? I will pay the bahstard Te G’rath whatever he wants, but my daughter, my lapsi, nej I will not give her to the Scarthling as a prize!” roared Teijo, starting from his throne.
“Would you like to keep your place as chieftain or would you prefer to die?” asked Alfarinn, Erik’s messenger and successor to the recently deceased Frode.
“I would rather die vaahto!” replied the chieftain defiantly.
“As you wish,” remarked Alfarinn almost casually, he motioned to a spearman who advanced lowering his weapon.
Kaleva Skull-Breaker, a minor chief who had designs on Kukka himself grasped the hilt of his dagger but held back, there were many D’an soldiers in the hall and he had but a few retainers here.
“Nej!” cried Kukka stepping out of the throng, now more modestly attired in a long dress “Isa, you must not die for me, I will give myself willingly to the Scarthling to save you and the land I love.” And I will cut off his balls at the first opportunity!
The messenger looked her up and down approvingly. “Very well, I will tell him you assent his demand, he will send men to escort you to Aengland soon enough.”
Several days later, a scout arrived bringing word of approaching riders and shortly afterwards thirteen horsemen approached the fortified settlement. Kukka Teijontytär, now wearing a fine white dress trimmed with blue and gold thread, her long strawberry blonde hair combed and plaited, watched in trepidation from a watchtower as the horsemen drew near. With a sigh she climbed down the ladder, joining her father at the front of the hall in time to see the new arrivals dismount. All wore black painted mail and carried white and blue shields with a black cormorant on them, all apart from a young woman who wore a golden mail coat, tan coloured leather and had hair so red it almost matched the colour of the dragon upon her shield. There was another woman among them with a long scar from right ear to mouth, marring what was otherwise a fine face, the legendary cempestre, Wassa of the Scar.
“Terve, you are sent from Scartho?” asked her father of the strangers.
“Wassael Chief Thunderstone,” replied the leader. He was handsome and dark-bearded with an air of authority but he bowed his head to the chieftain’s daughter before continuing. “And you can only be the Lady Kukka, I am Tostig of Scartho sent to fetch you to Aengland.” He spoke Soomilek adequately but with an obvious Aenglish accent. “You look very different to how I remember you on the field of battle.”
“Moi,” she replied emotionlessly.
“Tostig, will you and your companions eat with us before your long journey back to Aengland?” asked the chieftain wanting to keep his daughter for just a little longer.
“Thank you, Lord Teijo, I accept your hospitality but we can tarry only a while, we have two long days travel ahead of us before reaching our ship.”
The Thunderstone led the Scarthlings into his expansive hall while his daughter walked dejectedly behind him, Kukka had put on a brave face thus far but now the inevitable was close she was near to tears.
“She doesn’t look too happy?” whispered Wassa to Mim.
“You ffwl of a Seaxling,” retorted Mim quietly. “How can she be happy? She’s being made to give up everything, I don’t know what Leif’s playing at.”
“But she is coming to Scartho away from this wretched backward place and Leofric is a fine man, honourable and kind?” replied Wassa, the Thegn’s son was her good friend.
“I can sympathise with her, I remember how sad I felt when Saewine took me from my village and I went with him willingly enough, the poor girl’s heart must be breaking in two.”
The party had ridden all day and as night fell they stopped at a farmstead. The husbandman, daring not to refuse hospitality to the heavily armed warriors nervously offered his house to them but Tostig thanked him politely, saying he only wished room for Kukka. She was installed in a curtained off area of the main house with Mim as her guardian, he had decided that the cultured Brython with her excellent manners and command of Soomilek would be both a good companion and custodian for the prospective bride. He meanwhile would camp outside with Wassa and the men.
Kukka regarded the red-haired woman, who without her armour looked no more than a girl herself and was perhaps younger than her own twenty years. She had put off the advances of many suitors in the past and her father had always supported her but now he had been forced to give her away as a token of conquest. “This Leofric who I am to marry, is he a good man?”
“He is a fine and worthy man but quite honestly, Kukka, I find this rash behaviour so very unlike him?” replied the green-eyed Brython. “I can only believe he was so smitten by your appearance on the field that he had to have you as his rightwife.”
“Is he kind towards women?”
“He is a man of Scartho, and outside of Brythony I know of no other land where women are treated so equal to men. Even mighty Jorvik renowned for their cempestrae have restrictions on women owning property,” she answered.
“Then perhaps it is not such bad wyrd that awaits me?”
The Brython smiled, saying. “No, you may feel your life has ended but it is not so, he is a good man.” and lover thought Mim, who like Wassa had shared Leofric’s bed on more than one occasion.
“Is the warrior, Tostig, much like Leofric?” asked Kukka, she found the man very handsome.
“Tostig is a man of Scartho and honourable in his way.”
“Is he good-looking like Tostig?”
“Yes, he is a handsome man and many women would like him as their husband, what is this with Tostig?” asked Mim and Kukka put her head down guiltily. “Kukka, you are to marry Leofric, you must banish desire for any other from your head!” scolded Mim before getting up and striding out of the farmhouse to leave the Soomilek to her thoughts.
The man in question was presently standing at the boundary fence and the Brython joined him there. “Kukka has a fancy for you I think?”
The warrior grinned then said, “Mim, I think I saw someone in the shadows out there, we may be being followed.”
Mim, the companion of Saewine the Shaman was part seer herself and closing her eyes concentrated. “A single person is moving quickly away, they must know they have been seen, shall we pursue them?”
“No, we double the watch and stay on our guard, another day’s journey and we reach the harbour at Torguk. Let us ask our guest if she knows who might wish to shadow us.”
“It may well be Kaleva Kallon-Katkaisija, the Skull Breaker,” admitted Kukka. “He is unhappy that my isa agreed to make peace with the D’an and he has pressed for my hand on several occasions.” She didn’t like Kaleva, he was ugly, boorish and only wished to betroth her in order to become the next High Chief of Northern Soomi.
As they set off at dawn next morning, Kukka noticed how Tostig pressed a piece of silver into the farmer’s hand before mounting his steed. “Move out!” he ordered. “And keep your wits about you for we may soon have work for our axes.”
Sol was approaching its highest point when they came to a place on the dirt road where the trees came very close, overhanging quite low in places. “This is the perfect place for an ambush,” observed Wassa.
“Yet this way we must go, Wassa, to go around would take us a further day to reach Torguk and the ship” replied the warrior.
They continued cautiously along the track for some way until Mim who was riding ahead put up her hand halting their progress “Tostig, gwyliwch!” she cried in her native Brython before riding quickly into the trees.
“Kuolema hyökkääjille!” the cry came from all around as fur-clad warriors rushed out of the woods, the Scartho warriors ran down the first group on horseback before dismounting to meet the others on foot.
Kukka, protected by Wassa and two ferdrinc, surreptitiously checked the dagger strapped to her thigh and faced a dilemma, this was indeed Skull-Breaker and his retainers so should she join her countrymen to fight the invaders or join with them and the handsome Tostig against the unpleasant Kaleva?
Wassa’s axe blade appeared against her neck taking the decision away from her. “Don’t get any ideas about helping your friends because I would not hesitate to kill you!” she snarled with her crooked smile. Kukka had only a little Aenglish but understanding the warning well enough, took her hand off the dagger’s handle.
Soomilek horsemen now joined the fray led by Kaleva himself and Mim reappeared, jumping down from a tree onto a rider to dispatch him with her black blade. She then began to loose her arrows into the throng from the man’s former mount.
“Kukka I’m coming for you!” shouted Kaleva above the clamour.
She started from her saddle at this but Wassa grabbed her arm. “You go nowhere, Soomilek!”
Tostig was hewing his way through the attackers with his war axe, leading his men and forcing the Soomi to retreat as Mim took down any stragglers but Kaleva, seeing his chance, charged through the Scartho line riding the warrior down and throwing him aside.
Wassa, yelling in anger at this rushed forward only to be knocked off her mount by a Soomi long spear, its bearskin clad wielder stood over the cempestre and raising his iron spiked club to finish her, only to fall dead with a Brython arrow in his back, Mim’s aim was true as ever.
Tostig, bruised and bleeding got slowly to his feet to see Kaleva drag a struggling Kukka onto his horse. “Mim, shoot him!” he ordered.
“That was my last shaft,” she yelled in response.
Da N’tan motioned for his men to advance but the Skull-Breaker raising his blade above Kukka’s head, warned. “Do not come near me Aenglander, if I cannot have this woman no one will.”
“She is not yours to have, scunung, surrender and I will spare your life!” demanded Tostig. “Or I will meet you in single combat to settle this if you wish.”
“I am not from Scartho, I am from Soomi and I take what I want…” he stopped and made a gurgling noise as blood spurted from his neck. Kukka had drawn her dagger from its secret place and opened his throat.
“I have made my choice,” she announced, pushing Kaleva from his horse, her white dress now stained bright red.
Sol was high in the sky as the dragon ship approached the Humbre estuary and Kukka could see the Cormorants Rock, as the fortress was known, clearly silhouetted on the headland. The Soomilek had never been on the open sea before and in between bouts of nausea had tended to Tostig’s wounds herself. She had spotted Mim and Wassa conversing quietly while furtively glancing at her, let them gossip, I like this man nej matter what my wyrd has decided for me. Upon her arrival she was allowed to bathe in a tub of hot water which was in itself a luxury and an example of Scartho’s growing prosperity. After being dressed in fine clothes she was escorted by, Mim, who was wearing a beautiful green gown, into the Hall. Built in stone this was another sign of the Thegn’s growing power.
Aethelward of Scartho sat on a gilded throne at the end of the long room, but significantly his striking rightwife Frida had an identical seat next to him. “So you are Kukka Teijontytär, daughter of Teijo Ukonvaaja, Teijo the Thunderstone?”
Kukka could not follow Aethelward’s words but Mim translated for her. “Jaa,” she replied timidly, overawed by the great man’s presence.
The Thegn’s wife smiled warmly, saying. “Your name is Flower I understand? It is a fitting name for such a pretty girl, you are most welcome here child.”
“Kiitos rouva.” said Kukka after Mim had translated what had been said.
The woman’s face took on a puzzled look. “She says thank you, Lady,” explained Mim.
Kukka glanced around at the people thronging the hall all eager to see this stranger from the north, she spotted Tostig stood with Wassa and a grizzled man with a missing right hand, this could only be the shaman Saewine, Cyning Erik was also present with a party of D’an, so where was this Leofric?
Mim nudged her, the Thegn was speaking again. “Young lady, linking your house to ours will mean, of course, that your people will be entitled to the protection of Scartho. I believe this is something my cousin “The Reckless”, a rather appropriate name, did not appreciate when he agreed to my son’s demand.” Erik’s jaw dropped. “Yes cousin, you hear correctly, if this girl marries my son you must withdraw from Upper Soomi.”
“This is outrageous, Aethelward, you cannot do this!” he started forward but Wassa stood in his way, hand on seax. “You cannot!” he repeated angrily.
“My son saw the way your soldiers treated those they had conquered! This is not the way our ancestor, Havelok, would have behaved! I am very disappointed in you cousin, do not forget that you rely on my support for your continued tenure as Cyning. If you wish to step down just say so, I am sure Wassa the Scar could replace you easily enough.” There were some stifled laughs at this.
His cousin stood back visibly deflated and thought for a second before asking. “If she marries Leofric, after the Soomilek bicce has been brought all this way does she have a choice?”
“Mim, please tell this girl that she has been misled by a love-struck fool whose head was turned by the sight of some half-naked creature on a horse!” ordered the Thegn.
Kukka’s eyes widened in astonishment as the Brython related his words. “I have choice?” she asked in broken Aenglish.
“Yes my girl you have choice, my son was very insistent that you meet him as he is and without prejudice,” was the thegn’s answer.
“But, I have, not, met him?” she managed to say in the unfamiliar tongue.
“Oh, but you have, my dear.” The Thegn turned to face his son. “Leofric, it is time to stop this pretence!”
Leofric Da N’tan, the Son of Scartho, stepped forward. He was limping slightly as his leg still pained him from the collision with Kaleva’s horse. “Hei Kukka,” he said with a grin.
“You are, not, Tostig?” she felt elated at this revelation.
He looked into her brown almond-shaped eyes “I am Leofric, my friends call me Leif but you may call me Tostig if you wish.”
Kukka thought about her answer then smiled widely, saying. “I will call you, husband.”