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Mist stuck upon the hot steel as it sliced the air. The axe’s blade bit the droplets until it sank into flesh and drank blood. Then Godric ripped it back out and swung again.
All around him, the pale rocks cracked with streams of blood and filth. Rain poured from above, on and on, as if trying to wash it all away. But Thorkell’s men pressed upward, over rocks and pine needles, towards the great stone fortress of Gamleborg.
Another man rushed for Godric, little sword stabbing. Godric needed only to glimpse his scrambling shape in order to strike. He gripped his axe, turning and swinging, dancing to the ringing song of his steel.
The impact of metal against bone sent a jolt up his arm, but he was ready for it. He absorbed the pain, fueling his hungry rage, and let it out in a howl.
His Viking brethren joined him, calling out with hellish glee. Some of them yelled different names. Whom they fought for hardly seemed to matter. They fought to fight.
The towering stone city of Gamleborg should have been more difficult to strike. Men had to climb rocks and wade through moats to reach its walls, where boulders and boiling water might rain down on them. Beyond the walls, the inhabitants of Burgenda-lond waited in fear and misery within their rocky prison. But the Vikings could have slammed against the boulders and clay for months on end without making a crack.
Godric stood tall, resting his axe at his side and breathing deeply as his one eye surveyed the dim bloodbath around him. A grin swept up the side of his cheek, a cheek now grazed with its first shadow of a beard. He watched the black waters trickle through the tiny cracks of the fortress, with much less effort than the warriors who bled against the walls, and yet with a much more devastating effect.
“Drink it,” he cried, his voice scraping through the pine trees towards the wet heavens. “Drink your death, Burgenda-lond!”
Godric had helped Thorkell plan the attack for the last few days with exactly this goal. They knew they would lose too many lives by trying to storm the fortress; even with Thorkell’s army of three thousand men, they refused to waste a single death. Godric remembered his lessons with the monks, and the way they carefully placed their latrines in relation to the current of the nearby rivers. Godric suggested they fight Gamleborg selectively from the north, where the water flowed into the city and enabled its inhabitants to drink. In these very waters, Thorkell’s men would piss, and shit, and slaughter, until the people within grew sick and desperate.
Godric waded through the sludge, dipping the bloody head of his axe into the mess. The song of clashing metal and dying screams faded slowly around him. Their enemies were weak, their victory certain. He glimpsed his own hands, thick and hilly with calluses. Skuli trained him to use the weapon without gloves, so Godric had endured a year of bloody, raw skin and festering splinters. Now the surface of his palms felt like the stones beneath his feet, coarse and undulating.
He heard a twig snap behind him, a moment too late. He gripped the haft of his axe and lifted it once more, but all of this took precious time, and now he needed to swing it. He considered reaching for the dagger in his tunic, stashed away primarily for moments like these. But that would take too long, as well. From the corner of his one eye he could already see the gleaming iron swinging down to take his life.
“Get down, Gimp!”
Godric was already dodging out of the way, knowing he had no other chance of survival. He knew not where his rescuer came from, but he heard the shaft of the spear whirring through the air a moment before it pierced his attacker in the side. Even as the Burgendian groaned and fell, Godric seethed with frustration. His savior called him “Gimp,” and though lots of people called him that, he had a bad feeling this person was Harald: the very person who came up with the infuriating nickname.
Soon enough, Harald walked up to retrieve his spear, grinning from ear to ear. His thick sandy hair was not quite long enough to pull back into a tail, so it flew haphazardly around his blood-spattered face. He was only a few years older than Godric—a son Thorkell had born with his first woman, Runa, and left in Jomsborg—but had long since grown to his manly height and then some. Thorkell’s parentage showed in his towering figure and rippling muscles. Even so, Godric could almost always match him on the battlefield, or even surpass him. Harald clearly resented him for this.
“Lucky I was around, eh, Gimp?” Harald’s teeth gleamed with a smirk as he offered his hand. Grimacing, Godric reached to take it.
As soon as he gripped Harald’s wrist in his fingers, he squeezed hard, and Harald’s grin faded. Godric could feel the flinch of Harald’s muscles, which had been poised to pull away at the last second and make a fool of Godric in front of the men. Godric would not let that happen, so instead, he nearly pulled Harald to the ground as he yanked himself up.
“Thank you, Harald,” said Godric once he was on his feet again. He wiped blood from his face and looked down at the still-gurgling victim. He nodded approvingly. “Good shot.”
Harald frowned, recognizing that Godric’s praise demeaned him. With a grunt, he turned and walked away.
Godric picked up his axe again and winced. The ebb of battle had given his blood a chance to cool and feel the sore, aching wounds of his body. Blades had carved deep slices in one of his arms and across the side of his torso. He would have to tend the wounds carefully tonight. For now, he needed to either jump back into battle, or sit down to rest. He wanted to keep fighting, but the flow of Burgendian warriors had ceased. Where had they all gone?
Harald let out an angry cry, as if to call more men from within Gamleborg. Others Vikings began to echo him. Godric waved at them angrily.
“Hush, and listen,” he shouted. To his pleasure, most of the men obeyed, and Harald soon found himself yelling alone.
Once they were all quiet, they heard distant screams. They sounded like women and children being slaughtered without cessation. The men looked around in confusion, but Godric grinned.
“That would be Thorkell and his men,” he explained. “They’re in.” He could see it as clearly as if the scene was playing out before him. In final desperation, Gamleborg’s citizens had opened the gates and tried to escape. They would quickly see the error of their decision and have no choice but to surrender.
The hoorah of the Jomsvikings thundering over the stony landscape quickly confirmed Godric’s suspicions.
“They surrender,” said Godric. Then he lifted his fist and shouted, and the voices of his fellow warriors rose with him.
That night they feasted on fish and creamy stews. The miserable lord of Gamleborg sat in his dining hall, watching in dismay as Thorkell’s men eyed his young wife. Thorkell himself drank heavily and paid no attention to the rambunctious behavior of his fellows. He understood that his men needed their release.
Godric sympathized with Thorkell’s quiet celebration. In the midst of battle, Godric always felt full of life and power, his senses heightened, his emotions soaring. But after the peaking climax of failure or victory, sorrow swept in to replace his elation. He felt empty and guilty, as if he had not achieved whatever it was that he fought for, even if his enemies lay conquered.
Truly enough, none of the men here knew very well what they fought for. The Jomsvikings fought because war was their life, their nature, and they did not know how to live if not for the thrill of bloodshed. Other men fought because they wanted certain lords to rule the Baltic Seas. Some supported Olaf the Stout in Norway. Others supported Anund Jakob as the new king of Sweden. But all of them opposed Canute as ruler of Scandinavia, whom the lord of Gamleborg had supported, and so they all fought together.
Godric looked at Thorkell again, working up the nerve to approach him. The two of them did not speak much these days. Once in Jomsborg, Thorkell had handed him over to the other Jomsvikings for training, and rarely saw him anymore. Godric had hit a growth spurt in his teens that brought him quickly towards manhood, and now—nearly sixteen years old—he already looked tall and manly. Thorkell might not even recognize him from a distance.
As ever, Thorkell wore his hair long and flowing. These days, many of the Danes had picked up the English way of cutting their hair short; but Thorkell never followed this trend, and so neither did Godric. Godric reached back to untie the leather thong from his hair and let the wavy brown locks fall about his shoulders. Then he laughed at himself for thinking, even for an instance, that Thorkell might care how he wore his hair. He picked up his warm bowl and walked towards Thorkell’s table.
After Godric sat, they ate close to each other in silence. Godric waited patiently.
“I heard you fought well today,” said Thorkell at last. But if he was pleased, he gave no other sign.
Godric sat a little straighter, fighting to keep his pride at bay. “Thank you. Skuli has taught me well.”
“Then why do they call you Gimp?”
Godric’s shoulders sank. “I don’t know.”
“How did it start?” Thorkell sounded irritated.
Heat reddened Godric’s cheeks. “It just … started.”
Thorkell waited patiently for more.
“Because of my one eye, I guess.” But that was a lie, and the anger in his voice gave him away. “What do you think?”
Thorkell took another large gulp of mead. The excess drops fell in messy rivers down his untrimmed beard. He glanced at the men near the lord and his lady. The men were surrounding the lady now, pacing and chuckling as she shook with fright. Godric looked away, disgusted, but there was no expression on Thorkell’s face. “I never heard anyone else call you the Gimp until a few months ago.”
Godric stood up, sloshing the last of his stew onto the table, glaring angrily at his foster-father. He refused to tell Thorkell the whole truth this late in the process. “Why do you care now what they call me? You never cared before. You never ask me anything about my life!”
“Because you are among Vikings,” snapped Thorkell. “And the name they give you defines the rest of your life.”
A crash made Godric look to the side, where a Viking knocked the lord of Gamleborg to the ground, then stabbed him through the chest. His wife screamed, and the men closed in on her.
“Hey!” yelled Godric. “Stop this. Stop!”
He yelled and yelled, but they did not seem to hear him. One of them picked up the thrashing woman and threw her over his shoulder to the cheers of the others.
This time, they did. But not because Godric said so. The voice they obeyed belonged to Harald, because he possessed a voice more capable of slicing through the noise. Tonight Harald wore a long red cloak, and his unruly hair flew around his head like a sunny halo. He looked and sounded like a man to be obeyed. With a sharp pang in his heart, Godric briefly remembered his own father. Some men, like Eadric, or Thorkell, or Harald, simply possessed the ability to make men listen to them; others did not. Like himself.
“Set her down,” said Harald. The Viking reluctantly complied.
Godric felt as if had lost another minor competition with Harald, but he did not care. He wanted to make peace with Thorkell’s son if he could. Harald was not even a particularly cruel person, except sometimes to Godric. If he possessed the goodwill to protect an innocent woman, all the better: perhaps they should be friends.
Then Harald looked at Godric, a faint smirk on his face. “Give her to the Gimp.”
At that, all the men burst out laughing.
Godric felt as if he might erupt into flames. His single eye narrowed with so much hatred he could scarcely see at all. This was the real reason the men called him “Gimp.”
They thought him impotent.
When Godric first came to Jomsborg, he knew what nickname he wanted. He wanted to be known as Godric the Kingslayer. Already, he’d killed Edmund Ironside, and he planned to kill King Canute after that. Not sure how to get this nickname to stick, he tried starting rumors about himself, as he had started rumors about Aydith in Norwich. Starting gossip about oneself was much more difficult, however. He had to say things like “Have you heard of Godric the Kingslayer?” to people who did not know him, and often he would only confuse them. “Which one’s Godric?” they would ask. And eventually, the embarrassing truth would come out.
One day, he decided to confide in Harald. They had been closer companions at the time. “Did you know I once killed a king?” he said. Harald was doubtful. “It’s true!” Godric insisted. “And I plan to kill another. One day, you’ll call me Godric the Kingslayer.”
Harald laughed then, though it seemed good-natured at first. “More like Godric the Hopeful!” he laughed. “Godric the Liar! Godric the Dreamer!” Refusing to be discouraged, Godric smiled back at him. But after that day, Harald would not stop trying to come up with a nickname for Godric, all of which were demeaning. What started as a joke became something else entirely as the the names got worse and worse. Godric the Orphan. Godric the Blind. Godric the Disabled.
Harald happened to be in the midst of calling him Godric the Gimp when something else unfortunate happened—something which sealed his nickname in the eyes of the other men.
All of the warriors seemed to believe that to become a man, one needed to bed a woman, and it so happened that one woman—a spirited, fighting woman—had set her sights on Godric. Godric ignored or rejected her flirtations, so much so that the men began to give him a hard time. “What’s wrong Godric, are you scared?” “Don’t worry, she’ll break you in.” Godric’s body wanted her plenty, but truly enough, he was shy around her. He preferred not to deal with the situation altogether.
Eventually, the men’s teasing frustrated Godric to the breaking point, and one night when all the men were watching, he approached the woman’s tent. She pulled him inside to the cheers of the Jomsvikings.
Once inside, they fumbled about in the dark at first, and Godric felt nervous and confused. He insisted they light a candle. Her reluctance to do so unsettled him all the more, for he wondered if something about his appearance upset her. Perhaps she feared disturbing his eye-patch and seeing the mauled flesh underneath. His heart thundered in his chest, more from fear than excitement, and his desire for her plummeted. He fought the urge to run from the tent.
At last she managed to light a candle, and at the sight of her half-naked body, he began to feel better again. He leaned forward to kiss her; a moment ago, their mouths had mashed against each others’ faces and necks aimlessly. He wanted to taste her lips. As he folded his mouth around hers, she grabbed his tunic and yanked it down his arms, hardly giving him a chance to breathe. She slid her hands along his biceps, seemingly pleased by what she found, then across his chest and down his stomach. Without warning, her hand went under his trousers.
“Slow down!” he cried, even as he gave a little moan of pleasure.
“Relax.” She sounded irritated, and her hand was not gentle as she rubbed and tugged at him. He felt like she was the one who needed to relax. He grabbed her shoulders and guided her down to the earth, climbing on top of her. He wanted her to be still long enough for him to try to enjoy this. He stayed there a moment, taking in the sight of her heaving breasts and soft lips. But her face pinched with impatience, ruining the image. His eye trailed downwards. He reached down and slowly pulled up her dress, brushing her thighs with his fingertips, peeking through the crack.
“What’s wrong, never done this before?” she said.
Godric wondered again why he was doing this at all. Without a doubt, his body wanted this, but inside his mind was screaming. He did not like this girl, and truly enough, he did not know what he was doing. He was probably going to embarrass himself, and for what? A brief moment of physical relief?
“Just put it in.” She tugged at his shoulders, as if to pull him back on top of her.
“Give me a moment,” he snapped. For a girl who wanted so badly to have sex, he found it strange that she kept her legs squeezed tightly together. The aroma rising from her was pungent and bitter. He wanted to see more of her. Stubbornly, he guided her thighs apart with his fingers.
“Oh God!” he cried.
The space between her legs oozed blood.
“I guess you’ve never seen a girl on her moon cycle, either,” she said. “If you had come to me a few days ago, or hadn’t insisted on the damn candle …”
He felt sick to his stomach. He knew that girls bled once a month, but seeing it like this, totally without warning … it felt wrong—so very wrong. It was not only because he heard that women were unclean during such times. He also remembered the sight of his mother, tangled in sweaty sheets, telling him to wait for the afterbirth. But she only kept bleeding, and bleeding, and bleeding …
His breath came in short, rapid pants. Sweat poured from his brow. He stumbled to his feet, pulling up his trousers and groping for his tunic.
“What’s your problem?” cried the girl. She sounded hurt. But then, so was he. In a panic, he turned and scrambled out of the tent.
Outside, the men turned and watched him with puzzled glances. Godric was still having trouble breathing and they only made it worse, so he kept running. To his complete dismay, he heard the shout of the girl echoing behind him.
“Now I see why they call you Godric the Gimp!” she screamed. Then, to the men, “He’s a gimp in more ways than one!”
The men howled with laughter, and ever since then, the nickname would not go away.
Now, glaring at Harald across the dining hall, Godric felt all hopes of friendship quickly dissolving. Instead, he pictured picking up his axe and splitting Harald’s skull in two.
Thorkell would not appreciate that.
Not sure how else to resolve the situation, Godric turned to leave, just as he had done the night his nickname stuck.
“What’s wrong, Gimp?” called Harald.
Godric came to an abrupt stop, but not because of Harald. He stopped because he glimpsed Thorkell the Tall watching him very intently. As he met the Jomsviking’s gaze, he understood its meaning. If he left now, he would never live this down. The men would assume the worst of him forever.
Grinding his teeth together, he turned back around. He looked at the trembling woman. She had long blonde hair and a plump, curvy body. She had been far younger than her husband, and was probably only a few years older than Godric. She’d spent the last few days trapped in a filthy city watching her people die one by one, and by now she was completely overcome by despair and terror. What would happen to her if he left her here with Thorkell’s men, anyway? The men had already worked themselves up, and they needed to see some sort of dramatic conclusion to this skirmish, or they would simply find release elsewhere.
He stood a little taller and straightened the folds of his tunic, suddenly wondering how he looked. Jomsvikings, he had discovered, were very stylish men, and he had to make a conscious effort to meet their standards. His brown linen tunic sported fur on the shoulders and cuffs. His boots were tall and leather, and though he was not particularly rich, he did have one gold ring on his finger and a few jewels on his belt. He looked the woman in the eyes and wondered what she made of him.
“What’s your name?” he asked at last.
She spat on the ground, and the Vikings chuckled appreciatively.
“Her name is Dylla,” said Harald, his expression unreadable. Godric cringed at his own slight misstep, that he would forget the name of the lady of Gamleborg while Harald remembered. But he pressed on nonetheless.
“Dylla,” he said. He took a few steps closer to her. He wanted to appear harmless enough to put her at ease, yet seem bold to the men at the same time. How to do this gracefully? Not for the first time, he wished desperately he had inherited more of his father’s charms. What would Eadric have done? He would have conjured some words to make everyone laugh or feel foolish.
Or perhaps not, Godric realized with a start. Eadric might not have involved himself in a situation like this in the first place. He might have simply walked away and left the woman to her fate. The revelation made Godric feel strange, yet slightly empowered at the same time. He could handle this his own way. He needed to take the attention away from himself, and put destiny in the hands of this woman. “You have a choice, Dylla,” he said at last, “Renounce Canute, or face the consequences.”
The silence of the hall grew taut with anticipation. Dylla glanced around uncertainly. Godric noticed she had very pretty eyes: not quite brown, but more of a shimmering gold color.
“Make your decision,” said Godric.
The woman met his gaze, sending goosebumps down his skin. She was more spirited than she first appeared. “Go to hell!” she cried.
Godric’s heart sank, but he tried not to let it show. The rest of the room was watching to see what he would do. “In that case,” he said, “you’re mine.”
Some of the men cheered as he reached to take her, but the one holding her yanked her back. “Why should you have all the fun?”
The sound of a table scooting against the stones made them all glance to the side. The noise resulted from Thorkell the Tall standing up. He instantly captivated their attention. These days, when most Danes were supposedly Christian, warleaders like Thorkell purposefully turned a blind eye on the rambunctious behavior of their warriors outside of battle, whether pagan or simply cruel. That Thorkell would interfere at all came as a shock to everyone.
“Because without Godric, we wouldn’t have won today.” Then Thorkell turned and walked out.
Godric struggled not to let his amazement show on his own face. To receive such a compliment from Thorkell the Tall—and at a moment like this! Thorkell exaggerated somewhat, but his point was true enough. If Godric had not made the city’s water undrinkable, Gamleborg might not have surrendered until tomorrow, or perhaps the day after that. But Thorkell made him sound almost like a warlord! He tried to resist looking at Harald, but he couldn’t help himself. Harald’s face was white.
The men released Dylla.
For a moment, Godric was too caught up in the afterglow of Thorkell’s compliment to realize that he needed to do something. He hesitated just long enough for Dylla to turn and sprint away.
Godric gaped after her. For her sake, he wanted her to escape. But for his own, he needed to recapture her. She was the key to winning the men’s respect, and if she got away, she would take his dignity with her. Reluctantly, he darted after her.
“Get her, Godric!” the men cheered. And to his great humiliation, he heard some of them running after him. No doubt they wanted to see all that transpired.
He did not know the halls of the Gamleborg fortress as well as Dylla. On the other hand, the stone city teemed with Viking soldiers who would happily get in her way. He remembered the path he and his men had followed to the dining hall, still lined with soldiers, and suspected that this would not be the route she chose. So he went the other way.
He spotted her soon enough, but she slipped quickly and easily into the shadows. He was happy he had left his axe behind for the sake of speed as he pushed his feet after her.
“To the left, Gimp!” someone called.
“No, go right!”
Godric growled to himself, wishing that everyone would disappear and leave him alone, along with this poor yet fleet-footed woman.
He passed a great deal of Viking men down the hallway who wore amused looks on their faces. He knew he was going the right way, and he knew that the men were blocking the best ways out of the fortress. One way or another, he would lead this woman into a corner.
And then what?
It happened sooner than he expected. One minute he was dashing around another turn; the next he stood face to face with Dylla. She was trapped.
A single doorway gaped open beside them. She dashed into it. Godric hurried after her, sensing that this was his lucky break. Surely enough, Dylla had run straight into an empty stone room, with Godric blocking her only way out.
He slammed the door behind him and bolted it shut.
end of teaser
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