The only sound in the great hall was the crackle of flames in the hearth. Flickering light from the torches cast a ruddy hue over the assembled warriors who sat stony faced before the implications of the news they had just received. In every heart was burgeoning sorrow and disbelief. All eyes turned to the three brothers at the high table. The sons of Ragnar Lodbrok surveyed the messenger quietly enough, but their eyes spoke of incredulity, of grief and rage.
‘Ragnar dead?’ Halfdan’s voice was grim, his fist clenched on the arm of his chair. ‘You are certain of this?’
‘Quite certain, my lord.’
Beside Halfdan, at his right hand, Earl Wulfrum was very still, his face expressionless save for the blue eyes, now two chips of ice. Involuntarily, his own hand tightened round the hilt of a wicked-looking dagger in a gesture that mirrored his sword brother’s, even as his mind struggled against the knowledge of Ragnar’s death. Ragnar the warrior, the war leader, fearless, powerful, respected, a prince among his people; Ragnar the Terrible, whose ships, once sighted, struck terror into the hearts of his enemies; Ragnar, who had been as a father to him, who had found him that day when, a ten-year-old boy, he had stood alone in the smouldering ashes of his home, the bodies of his slain kin all around; Ragnar, whose rough and careless kindness had taken in the son of his oldest friend and raised him as his own, who had given him his first sword, taught him all he knew, and raised him to the warrior caste in turn. And now he was gone, his fire quenched for all time.
Wulfrum revealed nothing of these thoughts, hiding his pain as he had all those years ago. What ill fate was it that he was always spared when those he loved were slain? Too much care and love made a man vulnerable. It was a lesson he had learned early in life, a lesson harshly reinforced now. If you did not love, there could be no hurt. Was it thus, then, that a man must protect himself? His jaw tightened. There would be a reckoning here. The blood feud that killed his kin had had a far bloodier resolution when the boy grew to manhood. How much more then the slaying of Ragnar?
He was drawn from his thoughts by Halfdan, voicing the question that was in his own mind.
‘As we neared the Northumbrian coast, a fearful storm arose and many of our ships were wrecked. Those of us who reached the shore were attacked by King Ella’s soldiers. We were heavily outnumbered and many were slain. Lord Ragnar was taken prisoner. The king ordered his immediate death.’ He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. ‘He had him thrown alive into a pit of poisonous snakes.’
A collective gasp followed his words as the magnitude and horror of it sank in.
‘And how did you come to survive, Sven?’ Invarr’s voice was cold and his eyes raked the messenger from head to toe, but the man met his gaze and held it.
‘We fought our way back to the ship and put to sea. After nightfall we turned back and at first light Bjorn went ashore. He speaks the Saxon tongue and he learned the truth from some in the market place. ’Twas said that before he died Ragnar sang a death song in which he prophesied that his furious sons would avenge him, and then he laughed. They said he died laughing.’
As they listened it seemed to each man there that he could hear the echo of that laughter, and their hearts swelled. Ragnar’s courage was legendary. He would make a brave death. That it should not be in battle was a dire misfortune indeed, for he would not win his place in Valhalla and feast in Odin’s hall.
‘You did not seek to avenge Ragnar?’ demanded Hubba.
‘To what end? We were a handful against hundreds.’
Hubba’s hand went to the axe by his side, but Halfdan shook his head.
‘Sven is right. To try to attack Ella under such circumstances would have been madness. Worse, it would have been stupid. Now he will fight another day.’
Hubba glared at him. ‘Are you saying that Ragnar died for nothing?’
Wulfrum, silent and intent, waited for the reply, feeling all around him the same curbed rage.
‘No. Ragnar shall be avenged and by an army greater than any yet seen.’ All eyes were upon Halfdan as he rose to face the assembled throng. ‘We shall send a fleet of ships four hundred strong.’
Wulfrum regarded his sword brother with admiration. What he was proposing would be the greatest Viking raid ever known. Almost instantly he corrected himself: not a raid, an invasion.
‘Let every man who can wield an axe or sword prepare,’ Halfdan continued. ‘We shall sweep through Northumbria like flame through tinder. We shall beard Ella in his castle and he shall know the taste of fear. His death shall not be swift, but he will long for it before the end. This I swear by my own blood and by the sacred blood of Odin.’