A further story set in the somewhat incomplete history of the Alter-Dimension’s Dark Age…
The Dragon ship sailed out of the estuary watched by two mounted figures on the headland. “Well my son she’s on her way back to Soomi,” said Frida Da N’tan “I will miss her lively spirit.”
Leofric didn’t reply, he didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. His rightwife Kukka was returning to her homeland. After a year together they had found little in common and she had failed to produce a child to inherit the title of Thegn. “I will miss Kukka,” he said finally.
“As much as you miss little Mim the Brython?” asked his mother.
After the death of her father, Leofric took it upon himself to console her and as relations soured with Kukka he began consoling Mim on a regular basis. Kukka had stormed in during one ardent consolation and angrily attacked the lovers. Mim disappeared, rumoured to have returned to Brythony and things between Leofric and his Soomilek spouse deteriorated rapidly after that. Several days ago a messenger from Upper Soomi had arrived unexpectedly with news that her father, Teijo the Thunderstone, had died suddenly of apoplexy and the people of her land were begging for her to return and rule in his stead. Seeing this as a convenient way for them to part Leofric agreed that their union be annulled and Kukka had set off for home today.
“Father says I shouldn’t have agreed to let her go, he worries that the moment Kukka returns to Soomi she will foment trouble and stir up the Soomilek to attack D’an settlements within their borders.”
“Your father’s troops will keep them apart, it was part of the marriage contract,” Frida assured him.
“But with the contract between Kukka and myself broken, Scartho is no longer obliged to enforce the peace in Soomi” ventured Leofric.
Mother and son rode back to the Hall to be met by an agitated Thegn. “Leofric, we face a serious problem, saeteres in Jorvik bring news that Erik Boartusk is sundering men from over all over the weald and he means to attack our new castel on the river Don.”
Scartho had built a sturdy stone fortress that effectively controlled the old Roman road known as Ermine Street right on the Jorvik border and Erik, none too pleased with Aethelward’s growing power, saw the castel at Danum as a personal affront. “With so many of our men in Soomi we are hard-pressed to defend the burh let alone this fortification. I have requested support from Cwene Aethelflaed for we do we not stand guard at Mercia’s east? I have even sent envoys to Owen of Llantys.”
“I will take command of Danum father and hold it against Erik until reinforcement comes,” said Leofric.
“I knew I could rely on you my son but do not tarry if the castel looks like to fall, I can ill afford to lose too many ferdrinc let alone my only son!” answered the older Da N’tan grimly.
Leofric set out several days later at the head of two hundred huscarls to support the garrison at Danum with Wassa the Scar riding at his side. “With Kukka gone back to Soomi and Mim missing you need not think that I will be replacing them in your bed, Leif.” She informed him jokingly, they had dallied in the past.
“I don’t think we’ll have time for that should Jorvik attack?” he replied with a smile.
“Oh but there is always time for that!” grinned Wassa in return.
Leofric looked at his friend, but for the jagged scar that ran from ear to mouth on the right side of her face, the cempestre had a fine profile, attractive even. With Saewine dead and Mim vanished she was the last of his close comrades left. “Wassa, do you know where Mim has gone?”
“Why would I know that?” she replied cautiously.
“You two were good friends, I just thought…”
“Even if I did know she may not want me to reveal it to you.”
“Wassa, if you know please…”
“Sorry Leif you know I cannot break my word.” that was the end of that and they spoke very little until reaching Danum Castel.
The fortification had been built on high ground overlooking the river Don with its curtain wall constructed completely of stone, apart from one part facing the river. This unfinished section had been fortified with wooden stakes but remained a weak spot and most likely to be attacked first. One thing they had in their favour were Roman style ballistae mounted in stone towers that were capable of taking a man off a horse at a thousand feet, piles of large stones and jars of oil had been placed around the walls for defensive use.
Cempa Te G’rath, the commander of the garrison was a distant relative of the D’an Cyning and an experienced old warrior who had seen many battles. Under his hand he had five hundred huscarls and a complement of archers, Da N’tans retinue brought the total defenders to just less than a thousand, would that be enough to defend the fortress?
Three days had passed since Da N’tans arrival when the lookout shouted a warning, a small band of scouts had been spotted in the woods beyond the cleared killing field. Wassa led a charge of mounted huscarls out after them and succeeded in running them down before they could report to the main body of Jorvik troops.
“The rest of them will follow soon enough Lord,” said Te G’rath as they watched Wassa’s horsemen return.
“Let them come, Cempa, they will die all the sooner,” replied Da N’tan with a great deal more confidence than he felt.
Hours passed and as sol began setting towards the east a reverberation could be felt in the very ground, it was the tramping of many booted feet marching in time then a black line that seemed to stretch across the horizon beyond the forest could be seen.
“That’s a lot of men Leif,” said Wassa.
“Several thousand I’d say my Lord!” added Te G’rath.
“Just wheat to the scythe my brave ferdrinc!” shouted Da N’tan loudly for his men to hear.
Several horsemen appeared out of the woods to halt at the edge of the cleared area and out of range of the ballistae, one broke away to come forward holding his shield high to show desire to communicate. “Hail Jorving have you come to surrender to us already?” Leofric yelled to the rider when he was in earshot. “It is a little early but I will accept it.”
“Brave words Scarthling but it would be in your favour to heed this message from Thegn Boartusk, he guarantees your lives will be spared if you leave this castel before any blood is spilt!” replied the man.
“You know we will not do that Jorving!”
“Then there is no point in further talk, it is a shame that so many of you will die for this heap of stone!”
“It is time for you to fall on our blades, come to us if you dare, coward!”
“So be it, Scarthling.” The man turned and rode to join his fellow warriors.
“We could hit him with a ballista bolt easily enough.” suggested the Cempa.
“We will not shoot this man in the back. We shall behave like men of principle while we still can.”
The Jorvik host emerged from the forest to show their number but they were well out of bowshot, “Just a little closer” muttered Wassa as the enemy quickened their pace.
“Bowmen ready” shouted Te G’rath as the front line surged forward carrying long ladders.
The castel gates were pulled open quickly and half of the archers rushed out with a hundred ferdrinc to form a shield wall ahead of them, the Brython trained bowmen could reach near six hundred feet and as the enemy drew closer they shot several volleys which fell like rain among the enemy and the charge faltered as many died or were wounded.
The men rushed back in and the gates barricaded, the first attack had been repulsed all too easily and Da N’tan realised they were drawing attention to the front gate. “Look to the river!” he shouted urgently.
“They have come in flotae!” cried one of the ballista crew from a rear tower.
“Archers, form ranks and await my command.” Ordered Te G’rath and the men from the river received the same welcome, the archers shooting high over the wall to drop their arrows among them as they climbed the embankment.
The boats began launching fire arrows from their ballistae in an attempt to set the wooden palisade alight and the Scartho engineers proved their worth by succeeding in sinking one of the Jorvik vessels and driving the others away with their accuracy.
“Well met, if this is how they fight we have naught to fear!” said Da N’tan encouragingly.
“Leif, driving back the attack on the wall used up a lot of our ballista bolts,” warned Wassa. “We do have plenty of spare shafts in storage but they have no iron points.”
“Set men to the task sharpening the wood and hold them in reserve, we’ll just have to hope there are warheads enough for now, dark is falling and it will work against us” he replied. “Te G’rath, get food and drink distributed to the men and tell them to rest while they can, we may have a long night ahead of us!”
Da N’tan sat at the wall and managed to doze briefly before the warning cry went up, the enemy host was back and this time heading directly for the gates with a large wicker shield covering what had be a ram. Sure enough, they began to batter at it as the defenders shot arrows and threw stones down at them. Da N’tan and Te G’rath both agreed not to pour oil and ignite it for fear of burning the wooden gates.
“If it starts to splinter we’ll use the oil as a last resort,” stated Leofric.
The enemy now brought archers forward under the cover of darkness killing and injuring and many defenders on the walls, the ballistae in the front towers were quickly re-armed using the sharpened shafts with flasks of oil tied to them and lit immediately before releasing, they were not accurate but enough fell into the archers ranks to scatter them easing the torment of the defenders on the wall.
The constant rain of stones on the battering ram was having an effect too as the shield was weakening and coming apart. “This is a night worthy of a saga!” shouted Wassa above the clamour of battle.
“As long as we live to relate it” replied Da N’tan.
“Ladders!” Came the yell from the east wall and they looked to see Jorvik troops climbing onto the walkway.
“Wassa, with me!” he yelled and they led a group of ferdrinc along the parapet arriving in the nick of time to turn the fight in Scartho’s favour. It was difficult to fight easily on the narrow bulwark but the defenders were able to push the attackers into the yard to be finished off by soldiers below or back over the wall displacing ladders as they did so. A ladder appeared next to him and as warriors began climbing over he cleaved through the helmet of the first with his war-axe then pushing the ladder off the wall, hacked into the mailed chest of the next who fell back onto to the walkway, his helmet falling off as he dropped. Leofric saw the dead face of a youth barely into his teens and in the midst of all the mayhem and carnage he just stood and stared.
Wassa neatly decapitated the man who was about run him through with a spear then kicking the body on to the ground below pushed a ladder from the wall and cried. “Leofric, what the fuck are you doing?”
“He’s just a boy, Wassa, hardly more than a child…”
The attack having subsided, Wassa grabbed Da N’tan and pulled him into a shadowy corner. “What’s going on Leif?” she asked.
“I just killed a boy too young to shave!” he cried.
“He was an enemy soldier who would have killed you without blinking an eye, I was but a youngster when I killed my first man and that young Jorving died sword in hand so his place in Valhalla is assured. Leofric, my friend, if you must beat your breast over this please leave it till the morn at the very least!” Wassa admonished him. “You are the Thegn’s son and in this castel you are Scartho, your ferdrinc need you now more than ever!”
“You are right of, course, my friend,” he replied before walking along the battlement to give words of encouragement while trying not to think of the young enemy he had slain. Leofric slept fitfully and woke to see the bodies of the Scartho fallen laid in neat rows along the base of one of the walls, the enemy dead, however, were piled in the middle of the castel yard with the youth on top of the heap, his face seeming to mock him in death. “What will you do with them Te G’rath?”
“Wassa suggests we roll them down the embankment and let the crows have them or burn them in front of the walls to intimidate the enemy,” he replied.
“No, we are better than that. Cempa, open the gate I wish to talk with their leader.”
“Have you lost your mind, Leif? They will kill you for certain.” asserted Wassa.
“I do not seek your advice, Wassa, get these brave bodies onto waegns and start bringing them down on my signal,” he ordered.
“I trust you will show such respect to my corpse when the time comes?” she chided.
Da N’tan rode out with his shield raised high to wait halfway between castel and forest and it was not long before the man who had spoken earlier approached cautiously. “Hail Scarthling do you wish to surrender now?”
“No, but I will allow you to collect your dead if you so wish.”
The man appeared surprised. “This is not a trick?”
“It is no trick, your warriors fought and died bravely and I owe it to them to be shown proper respect by their companions. We will bring them down to this point and you can take them to your lines.” Da N’tan replied.
“Well within the range of your archers?” retorted the man.
“I will stay here while the exchange is made, right within the range of your archers.”
The man agreed to this and Leofric waved to Wassa stood in the gateway, waegns were sent from the Jorvik lines and the two men stared uncomfortably at each other.
“You are the Son of Scartho, Leofric Da N’tan, I have seen you before.”
“I do not remember you.”
“I am your exact opposite for I am Swein Eriksson.”
“The Son of Jorvik!” exclaimed Leofric.
“We could draw our swords and end this now Da N’tan,” suggested Swein with a grin. “I hear you are a worthy fighter but I do hear that scar-face over there is the mightiest Scartho has to offer.” Wassa had ridden down to watch over her friend at a discrete distance.
“Wassa the Scar is the most skilled and powerful warrior I have ever known.” He replied.
“More so than Bran the Bullroarer?” asked the Jorvik leader.
“I believe the champion of Brythony would be hard pressed to better her.
“Then maybe I should fight her instead?” laughed Swein.
“She would like nothing better than to cleave your skull,” replied Leofric, they looked over to Wassa who was scowling at them and both men laughed. “It is a shame we are enemies, Swein, I feel under different circumstances we could be friends.”
“But this is not the right time, Leofric will you change your mind about yielding the castel?”
“I’m sorry Swein but you know my answer.”
“Son of Scartho, are you stalling with this ruse of returning our dead for your men are being given time to recover while this goes on or are you hoping for help from your allies? Our saeteres in Mercia tell us that Cwene Aethelflaed is planning to unite with Brythony to depose Ailef and become Bretwalda in his stead so I doubt any help will be coming soon.
“That is an unlikely union, the Brythons distrust Mercia as much as they hate them,” realising this hiatus in battle was working to his advantage Leofric desired to keep the conversation going as long as possible. “Why is this place so important to Jorvik?”
“This stone fortress is a statement of your father’s power, it will draw people to it and next a settlement will be built here then before you know it Scartho will have a fortified burh on our border controlling the way south,” Swein replied. “Leofric, this is my last offer to you, leave this fortification now and I swear to Thor that you and your men will have safe passage.”
“Pah, why should we abandon it to leave it yours for the taking without having raised a finger or spending a silver mark? I say again we will not leave this place, you must winkle us out and you will pay with blood for every inch you take.”
“Brave words Son of Scartho, but if we cannot drive from this place then we will destroy it stone by stone,” warned Swein Eriksson.
“You can but try Jorving.”
“That we will, it is a shame that next time we see each other it is likely that one of us will be dead and it is most likely to be you.” Eriksson saluted Leofric and rode back to his line as the last waegnload of bodies left.
Da N’tan turned his horse and joined Wassa. “Feel better now, is your guilt is assuaged? She asked sardonically.
“That was the son of Erik Boartusk” Da N’tan informed her as they rode back to Danum Castel.
“And you did not think to kill him?” asked Wassa in disbelief. “I despair of you Leif you are losing your edge.”
“A man of integrity does not kill another without good reason,” he replied and Wassa rode off shaking her head in disgust.
They did not have to wait too long for Jorvik’s response. “Lord Da N’tan they are bringing forward Roman onagers!” shouted the lookout from the watchtower. Jorvik had, it seemed, studied the ancient’s machines of war as closely as Scartho, the catapults could hit the castel well outside of the range of their ballistae but were notoriously inaccurate at long distance, half a dozen had now been rolled out of the forest and shortly large rocks began raining down on the stonework in rapid succession.
“Can we do nothing Cempa?” asked Da N’tan
“I will lead a charge down to their ranks and destroy the devious engines myself” asserted Wassa.
Before Da N’tan could answer Te G’rath thought of a solution “if we send ballista bolts high with flasks of oil fastened to them to land before the onagers a fire-bolt sent after them may set the oil alight to perhaps destroy one of them.”
The ballistae on the two nearest turrets were set to their greatest range and sent bolt after bolt affixed with oil-flasks at the nearest catapult, one even fell against the engine to the cheers of the defenders. The startled operators realising the defender’s intention ran to fetch water pails but a burning bolt reached the oil-soaked ground first, the siege engine and one of the unfortunate crew were set afire to further cheers.
Their exuberance died however when the remaining five concentrated on one of the ballista towers destroying the giant crossbow and killing or injuring the crew, a large crack appeared in the tower and after further hits, it toppled into a pile of rubble as high as the wall itself.
Seeing that it could easily be scrambled Da N’tan yelled “Te G’rath set archers to guard the breach. Wassa, take anyone that can be spared and wait below.”
“Lord they are coming again in force!” the Cempa pointed at a mass of figures running towards them, many carried ladders.
“The Draca-flotae have returned!” called a man from the watchtower.
“This is it, Lord, they mean to take us this time don’t they?” asked a ferdrinc nervously.
Da N’tan removed his helmet and stood forward. “You all know me I am Leofric Da N’tan, Son of Scartho!” he shouted. “I will die before I let this fortress of ours, this castel of Danum fall into the hands of the Jorvik scununga. We may all fall today, but we will fight with ferocity and will die with axe or sword in our hands, we will not give the Boartusk an easy victory for I have promised his son that they will pay in blood for every inch they take and I intend to live up to that promise! We will cross the rainbow bridge to be welcomed into Asgard by Tiw himself, Woden will bow his mighty head to us and Thor will greet us as equals… I am proud to fight with you at my side, my brave warriors, my ferdrinc… and I will gladly die today for Scartho!”
“Scartho!” echoed Te G’rath
“For Scartho!” yelled Wassa from the yard and the call was taken up as all began chanting the name of their weald repeatedly. The chant was cut short as arrows from the attacking host felled several men, one shaft barely missing Leofric as he replaced his helm.
“They have brought back the ram,” observed the Cempa.
“This time we pour our oil set it ablaze and do not worry for the gate.” replied Da N’tan. The fire-ships had managed to set alight the wooden barricade in the hindmost wall at the cost of a further vessel. One of the rear ballistae was aflame too, a tribute to the determination of the enemy engineers.
Wassa moved her men to form up at a distance from the burning wall with a line of bowmen stood behind them and as the wood weakened, long poles were used to push the burning staves onto the attackers and archers began shooting at the enemy as they appeared through the smoke.
The cempestre decided it was time to take a more offensive position. “Lock shields!” she commanded and her men set themselves for the onslaught. “Archers ready…” she ordered. The enemy soldiers were now breaking down the charred remains of the palisade to advance through the breach. “Loose!” the first line fell to the rain of arrows. “Steady!” Wassa shouted as the enemy formed up to begin a slow advance banging their swords on their shields.
The catapults continued their barrage as the battering ram approached under a newly constructed wicker shield, this time oil was poured liberally setting alight the ram and leaving many of attackers burning. Then a large section of the front wall fell as all five onagers hit their target simultaneously and Jorvik warriors surged through the gap.
“How many men have they got?” Leofric shouted to Te G’rath.
Wassa now found herself fighting on two fronts and any hope of an ordered defence crumbled into a confused brawl. “Huscarls with me!” shouted Da N’tan charging down the stairs with a score of warriors and into the yard where Wassa was fighting like two men with an axe in one hand and a sword in the other. The attackers were slowly beginning to retreat when suddenly a lone Jorving, seizing his chance dashed forward driving his spear through her body.
“No!” Leofric yelled running towards her, Wassa cleaved her attacker from shoulder to stomach with a blow of her war axe before falling to her knees. “Wassa, hold on!” he cried clutching her in his arms.
“Leif, I can see the rainbow bridge and Tiw is there to guide me across,” she said weakly with blood coming from her mouth.
Tears welled in his eyes. “Have a safe journey my friend.” he drew her seax and pressed it into her hand.
“Thank you, Leif, Mim, Mim, must tell you,” her voice died to a whisper and he bent forward to hear her dying words.
“Sir something’s happening outside, there are riders, hundreds of them!” cried a young ferdrinc.
“Not more Jorvings?” they could not stand another attack.
“No, sir, you must come and look!”
Da N’tan carefully laid his friend out and running to the open gate saw Te G’rath marching most of his remaining men downslope in a shield wall, pursuing the Jorvik soldiers now attempting an orderly withdrawal. At the forest’s edge mounted warriors were moving in and out of the Jorvik line sticking them with their spears and hacking down with long swords, North Mercian horsemen! Dismounted warriors wearing gilded armour were moving among the back of the line causing mayhem and one giant warrior was wilfully smashing an onager to pieces with a great axe. Leofric couldn’t hear the booming voice but knew it had to be Bran the Bullroarer, champion of Brythony.
Several riders passed Te G’rath’s formation saluting them and came to the charred gate.
“Wassael, Son of Scartho, it is good to see you still alive!” it was the legendary horse-warrior, Osric Ironhelm. “If you are here then Scarface cannot be far away, where is the ugly bicce?” he asked with a grin.
“Osric, my friend, Wassa has crossed over Bifrost.”
His face fell. “No, it cannot be so, did she die well?”
“Very well, Tiw will be proud to have her at his side.”
“Wassa will be running Asgard by the time we get there” he said with a morbid grin. “She is inside?”
Da N’tan indicated so and the Mercian went to pay respect, he sat back down against the gatepost and closed his eyes, all his close companions were gone now.
“Aenglishman!” a booming voice jolted him back to reality. “This is the second time I have rescued you single-handed.” Bran the Bullroarer had climbed the embankment.
“Single-handed along with a thousand Mercian horsemen you Celtic braggart!” replied Leofric.
“Not when I tell them the story back in Brythony, Aenglishman.” His bearded face showed a wide grin then he became serious “I heard from your man Te G’rath that Scarface has passed over, my greatest regret is that we never got to fight together. With your permission, I will say goodbye to your great cempestre.”
“You will find your new Mercian ally there already.” Bran laughed at Leofric’s insinuation of the alliance Swein had spoken of and entered the broken castel leaving him to his thoughts. Saewine and Wassa were both gone and Mim had vanished, he could do nothing about his two dead friends, but Mim… that was another matter.
The red-haired woman tried to stop Da N’tan entering the house angrily shouting at him in Brython but he glared at her and she reluctantly stood back to let him pass.
He pushed the door harder than intended slamming it against the wall making a loud bang and the feeding baby stopped briefly then hungrily sought out Mim’s nipple to resume sucking noisily. Leofric stared mouth agape, he’d forgotten how pretty Mim was and now this…
“Well, you took your time finding me didn’t you?” she said feigning an indifference she did not feel. “And what are you gaping at you’ve seen my mams before?”
“It’s the baby… it’s…” he spluttered.
“He’s a boy and I’ve named him Leofric after his dada,” Mim informed him.
“He’s my baby?”
“He’s our babi, ffwl!”
“Are you sure?” he sat heavily on a stool in astonishment.
“Well since I have lain with no other man, I am quite certain, unless of course he is a gift from the god’s and I somehow doubt that” she answered.
“Mim, I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t ffwl and I didn’t want you to, did Wassa tell you where to find me? I knew she’d give in eventually.”
“Wassa told me you’d gone back to Brythony to live with your aunt, she told me with her dying breath.”
“Wassa is dead?” her eyes filled with tears and her lip trembled.
“Yes, as I am sad to relate.”
Her body shaking Mim suppressed a sob then regained her composure. “Mustn’t cry in front of the babi I don’t want to upset him.” she took him off her breast and rearranged her tunic “All fed now Leif.” a ripe smell was coming from the baby. “Time to change your soil-cloth.” she looked at Da N’tan with her green eyes. “Dada want to do it?” asked the girl.
“I er don’t know how best that you er…” He replied.
“Hmm.” she laid the infant on a clean blanket unpinned the soiled material then reached for a jug and washcloth. “You ought to learn to do this, you put the little pup in my belly and that makes you as responsible for him as I” she finished changing the infant. “There, all done,” she held up a pungent package. “Leofric put this in the soil bucket outside” as he did so Mim wrapped the baby in a blanket then placed him in an elaborately carved cot. He cooed for a while then went to sleep. “The babi’s so good, hardly a bother.” her voice trailed off and although Mim had her back to him Leofric could see her shoulders shaking. He took her in his arms. “Poor Wassa, she was such a good friend, was her crossing easy?”
“I was with her, she didn’t linger and she fought like ten men,” he replied, she embraced him tightly and sobbed for a while then kissing her forehead Leofric asked. “Mim, will you come back to Scartho?”
“What about the Soomilek bys I doubt she’ll be very keen on that?”
“Kukka has returned to her homeland.” related Leofric. “Her father died and she has gone to rule the land in his stead.”
“That’s not going to go well for Da N’mark.” she mused.
“That’s a problem for tomorrow Mim my dahling, today is more important. Will you consider what I have asked?”
“If I do come back it will be as your rightwife and you will acknowledge little Leif as your son and successor or do you have another little bahstard tucked away somewhere?”
“Not to my knowing, Mim, I agree to everything you asked.
“And if I catch you in the arms of another as Kukka did with us, remember I still have my curved black knife.”
They kissed tenderly at first then became more passionate.
In far off Soomi, Kukka Teijontytär, her naked torso painted in garish stripes, mounted her horse and put on the deer-skull helmet then holding her spear aloft looked back at the long line of warriors clad in bear and wolf pelts before turning to face the shield wall ahead of them.
“Kuolema hyökkääjille!” she screamed at the top of her voice and the war-cry was echoed by over a thousand voices then spurring her horse forward she led the Soomilek horde against the nervous D’an soldiers.