eric


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2. chapter 2

Chapter 2

Eric chuckled to himself. Even with a hundred of his kinsmen and all the weapons they could carry Eric could never force his way into Castle Bristlen. Fortunately he was alone.

The thick portcullis was closed and two dozen guards with long spears stood on the parapets above the gate. Eric wasn’t surprised; they must’ve been frantic, seeing a Norse dragon ship sail into their harbor. Frowning deeply, Eric raised his hand in peaceful greeting and rode onward.

“Halt!” cried a large, black-bearded man with a voice like a snarling bear, standing on the wall above the gate. “What business have you here, Viking?”

Eric reined in and glared up at the black-bearded man flanked by his many soldiers. Eric was vastly outnumbered and far from home. Several Saxon guards wielded strung bows and Eric had no shield; they could kill him at will.

“By what business dares any Saxon question me?” Eric shouted defiantly back. “I am Eric Bjornson, Ambassador of King Svenson Two-Sword, King of Southern Norway! I’ve been sent here with a gift for your lord, or whatever form of scoundrel you Saxons deem fit to rule this stone-pile. Send him out to me at once!”

“Baron du Harmon waits on no man, much less a Viking,” the black-bearded man shouted. “I’m Captain Sir Gunderson. Convince me of your reason to see our baron or be off!”

“So be it!” Eric shouted back. “I’ll take my gold back to Svenson and tell him your baron didn’t want it!”

Eric scowled and started to turn his aged horse around.

“Wait!” Captain Sir Gunderson shouted from above. “Prove to me that you carry gold and I’ll let you see the baron.”

Eric clenched his teeth to keep from smiling; these Saxon fools were playing right into his hands.

Eric reached into the burlap sack that he’d carried from his ship and lifted out a large gleaming object and held it up for all to see. Polished yellow metal shined brightly in the setting sun’s light, reflecting its rays all directions. Aloft Eric held a golden mead-horn: a musk-ox horn banded and decorated with over a pound of the precious metal and many sparking jewels.

“Open the gate!” Captain Sir Gunderson shouted.

With much clanking and creaking, the huge portcullis raised. Eric admired the gate. The portcullis was made of sturdy mountain ash beams, a hand span thick on all sides, and braced with thick iron fastenings. Svenson would require fifty warriors with a stout battering ram just to penetrate it. Alone, Eric had gotten through with just a few lies and a stolen drinking horn.

By the time the portcullis was raised enough for Eric to ride beneath it, Sir Gunderson had descended the steps and was waiting for him in the courtyard with a score of soldiers. Captain Sir Gunderson was a tall bear of a man wearing a blackened-steel breastplate engraved with a mighty falcon. Eric stashed his priceless horn back inside his burlap sack and dismounted before him.

“Surrender your weapon,” the knight ordered.

“Those who worship Odin never go weaponless,” Eric snarled. “I’m not an assassin; I’m an ambassador, and not by choice. Just let me present this gift, deliver my message, and I’ll gladly ride out of here.”

Captain Sir Gunderson nodded at his men and several drew bows and pointed them right at Eric.

“Keep them on me, if you wish,” Eric said absently, “but I can’t surrender my sword. You have my word that I intend no harm to your baron. My message is one of ...” Eric paused, frowned, and then spat on the ground. “... friendship.”

“I see,” Sir Gunderson said. “Very well, ambassador, but if your hand touches your hilt you’ll be dead before your sword clears its scabbard.”

Eric shrugged as if expecting nothing less. “Let’s get this over with.” “I’ll inform the baron that you’re here,” Sir Gunderson said. “Guards, keep him here until I send for him.”

“Be quick about it,” Eric said disgustedly.

Offended, Sir Gunderson turned and stomped away. The remaining guards glared at Eric, but kept their distance. Eric said nothing but his thoughts were racing. While Castle Bristlen could easily repel a hundred invaders, Svenson’s thousands would swarm over this backwater-castle like hungry red ants on a rotten apple. Eric didn’t know exactly when Svenson Two-Sword would arrive, but Svenson had sworn that Eric would be tortured to death if he captured him alive.

Eric noticed one of the guards watching him intently; a tall youth, well-muscled, just sprouting his first whiskers. He was standing perfectly balanced, evenly distributing his weight, almost poised, not resting, leaning on his long spear; with training he could be a great fighter. The boy stared at Eric curiously as if he’d never seen a Viking before; probably a farm-boy from the interior who dreamed of being a knight and got suckered into guarding this worthless pile of stones. He had thick brown hair, smooth skin, and steady gray eyes; doubtless the wenches would favor him. Eric turned to face him.

“Come here, boy!” Eric commanded.

The youth’s eyes flew open.

“Now!” Eric shouted. “Or do you mean to insult King Svenson Two-Sword’s ambassador?”

Hesitantly, the tall youth glanced uncertainly at the other guards, but they wisely turned away from him, unwilling to get involved. The boy took one small step forward, but no more.

“What’s your name, boy?” Eric asked.

“Karl.”

“Have you never seen a Norseman before, Karl?”

“Only heard the stories,” Karl said.

“What stories?” Eric demanded.

“Saxon stories,” Karl smiled. “I’d gladly repeat them, but I wouldn’t want to insult King Svenson Two-Sword’s ambassador.”

Eric tried not to smile but failed. This youth was quick-witted, intelligent as well as big. His face was too handsome; some men scarred themselves so that they would look fiercer on battlefields. Eric grinned; he needed a Saxon to travel with through England.

“How long have you been guarding this stone-pile?” Eric asked.

“Nine days,” Karl answered, and suddenly every guard listening burst out laughing.

“I fought at the Battle of Ferny Creek,” Karl protested their derision, brandishing his spear.

The older guards kept laughing, much to the boy’s embarrassment, but Eric ignored them.

“Have you no sword?” Eric asked.

Karl glanced down, subdued. “All they gave me was this spear.”

“All good warriors should have a sword,” Eric said. “Fetch me a tankard of ale and I’ll get you one before I leave.”

Karl’s eyes opened wide with surprise, and then he nodded and ran off. The rest of the guards only laughed louder.

When Karl returned with a full tankard Eric greedily took it and drank deeply. It was warm, and pathetically weak but it tasted sweet on his thirsty tongue.

Sir Gunderson returned and escorted Eric, surrounded by the guards, into the wide doors of the great hall. The hall was one huge, dark room, half the size of the castle keep. Thick, colorful tapestries hung upon each wall, but their depictions in sparse torchlight were shadowy. Long wooden tables and benches lined the walls, the central area clear. Overhead, great wooden beams upheld a mighty roof which was mostly lost in thick, dark cobwebs. At the far end of the hall, in front of a huge black and blue banner, stood a tall, polished throne. Upon the throne sat a fat old man.

Eric set down his burlap sack and drew from it his golden drinking horn and a large earthenware jug. Leaving the sack, he raised the horn and jug for all to see, and then walked straight toward the throne. Baron du Harmon  nervously leaned back as the Viking approached; Eric pretended not to notice.

“Behold!” Eric shouted, turning so that all could see and hear him. “I am Eric Bjornson, Ambassador of His Majesty Svenson Two-Sword, King of Southern Norway! I hold here the Horn of Friendship, a great gift of gold for the lord of Castle Bristlen. This very horn did I witness as King Svenson Two-Sword drained it in one great gulp. Now I pass it on to your baron with these words from my king; ‘Drink, and forever friends we shall be!’”

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