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3. chapter 3

                   Chapter 3

Eric raised the heavy jug to his lips and pulled out the cork with his teeth, then poured its contents into the golden horn. Thin, yellow mead poured out quickly and released the sweet scent of honey, but the horn was so large that it took some time to fill. Eric filled it all the way to the top, until it spilled over the edges and splashed onto the floor. Then he stuck the cork back into the jug and raised high the golden horn.

“Behold!” Eric cried, his voice booming distressingly inside the hall. “This is the Horn of Friendship, from King Svenson Two-Sword to Baron du Harmon of Castle Bristlen. To empty this horn is to agree to a pact of peace and honor between the peoples of Bristlen and Norway. Let now this truce be sealed!”

Eric stepped forward and held out the overflowing, dripping horn. Baron du Harmon took it gingerly and feigned a smile. The fat baron eyed the mead suspiciously and glanced about at his people, especially Sir Gunderson. The black-bearded knight only shrugged and the rest just looked frightened. Hesitantly Baron du Harmon raised the overflowing horn to his lips and sipped. Instantly he gagged and coughed; the horn shook, spilling mead upon his robes.

“Have more!” Eric said sternly. “It’s only mead, and I must witness you drain the horn entirely before I return to my king.” Eric pulled out the cork with his free hand and leaned forward, overfilled the horn once again and spilled more mead upon the baron.

Sir Gunderson seized the earthen jug and pulled it from Eric’s grasp. Cautiously he sniffed it, and then tasted it.

“By my sword!” Sir Gunderson swore. “Mead it is, but I’ve never tasted the like! It kicks like my horse, and is stronger than Irish whiskey!”

“It was brewed by Gunthar the Ale-Master, the finest there is,” Eric said. “But perhaps it’s too strong for womanly Saxon throats. If need be, you can prop it in a corner for a while; its power wears away quickly when left open to the air. By morning it’ll taste like mother’s milk; a sad waste of good mead. I’ll suffer the night here and witness you drink it tomorrow, if there’s no other way. But I must leave tomorrow morning, and take the Horn of Friendship with me if I don’t see you drink it.”

“Of course,” Baron du Harmon said, although his sneer belied his disgust. “Captain Sir Gunderson will see that you have a place to rest tonight. Tomorrow you’ll see this horn emptied, We promise, and you may return to Our noble cousin King Svenson Our most glad greetings.”

“If it would be no trouble,” Eric said, “I’d like a guard to attend me, who can bring me food and ale while I stay. Karl has already served me in this manner; I’d welcome his service again.”

Karl, who’d obviously heard every word, startled. The baron glanced questioningly at Sir Gunderson.

“One of our new recruits from the Ferny Creek affair,” the old knight explained.

“Of course,” Baron du Harmon said. “Lad, run to the kitchen and fetch a plate for Our guest. And now, We retire for the evening. We thank you for your service to Us and your king, good Eric, and We shall meet again at dawn to complete your mission.”

Eric bowed deeply, and then he turned and walked back to where he’d left his empty burlap sack. Sir Gunderson followed him, but the baron took the brimming, dripping, priceless horn and exited the hall through a door behind the throne. Eric noted his passage carefully while pretending to pluck something from his beard.

Captain Sir Gunderson showed Eric to a small room in the castle to one side of the great hall. Karl arrived with a huge platter of food and a pitcher of beer; Eric took both and sat down before a small table. Sir Gunderson gave Karl orders to keep the Viking in the room and allow no disturbances during the night. With stern glares at both of them, Sir Gunderson closed the door behind him.

Eric doubted if he’d ever see the brave Sir Gunderson again. Outside, night had fallen. Soon Svenson Two-Sword would sail into Demril Harbor with thousands of young Viking warriors, led by hundreds of fierce berserkers. By dawn not a single Saxon would be alive in Castle Bristlen.

“Dine with me, Karl,” Eric smiled at the youth. “There’s much about this castle I wish to ask, and if you answer well I’ll get you that sword.”

Karl pulled up a chair and sat down opposite the old Viking, obviously nervous. Eric grinned; this youth would serve him well whether he wanted to or not.

“This is a mighty castle,” Eric said. “Is it the first you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes,” Karl tore off a chicken leg and began to eat.

“How many warriors do you think this castle could repel?”

“Only fools would attack a fortress like Bristlen,” Karl chuckled.

“Really?” Eric laughed. “So, you think that if a hundred warriors, say, Scottish clansmen, attacked this castle, they’d never make it inside your walls?”

“Three times that,” Karl said seriously. “The guards here are well-trained.”

“Ah, yes,” Eric smiled. “The Battle of Ferny Creek. But what of a thousand warriors?”

“If a thousand Scottish clansmen were marching here we’d know about it.”

“No doubt, but if they were here, a thousand warriors, you’d be outnumbered ten to one.”

“Bristlen would endure,” Karl said, “or few would be left to boast of its conquest.”

“I’ve seen far greater castles fall to fewer men,” Eric said flatly. “But what if even more attacked? How many would be required for Bristlen to fall?”

“More than a thousand, I guess, and there’d be no hope. Why?”

“I’m just curious. My people don’t pile stones and hide inside them as Saxons do. I just wondered what you’d do if enough warriors attacked that you had no hope. Would you stay and defend Bristlen … and throw your life away?”

“I’d do my duty.”

“Of course you would. You have honor: I see it in your eyes. But no pile of stones is worth my life, and I doubt if any Norseman would willingly die for rocks. Are you Saxons so different?”

“I never asked to become a soldier.”

“How did you become a guardsman?”

“Sir Gunderson watched me fight at Ferny Creek,” Karl said. “I guess he was impressed.”

“Doubtless,” the older warrior smiled even though Karl hadn’t fully answered his question; Eric liked this boy. “Do you enjoy your job, here at Bristlen?”

“They feed me; slop, but edible,” Karl said, “and I have a place to sleep.”

“How exciting …”

“Better than begging.”

“Warriors don’t beg!”

Karl sipped his beer and said nothing.

“Food and beds can be bought anywhere,” Eric said. “If you had countless wealth, would you stay … or leave?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I must depart soon. I’d welcome your company on my journey. We could go wherever we pleased, eat the best foods, and sleep in beds that come with wenches.”

“I’m not sailing to Norway,” Karl said.

“Nor am I. I must leave by morning; that’s true, but I intend to depart on horseback and see as much of England as I can before the Valkyrie take me.”

“Valkyrie?”

“The Handmaids of Odin,” Eric said. “Choosers of the Slain, from Ygdrasil, the Immortal Lands where the Norse Gods live: beautiful women warriors who ride over all battlefields. Know you not of the Valkyrie? They’re the last sight that every true warrior hopes to see! The Valkyrie choose, from the fallen, those of skill and daring enough to serve Odin in Valhalla, the afterlife of dead warriors.”

Karl threw back his head and laughed, almost tipping his chair over backwards.

“Believe what you will,” Eric said, “but I’ve seen them myself, their tall forms outlined in the swirls of dust over battle. I’ve seen them swoop where heroes fall, in battles forgotten before you were born. You’re a soldier now, trained to kill others; what reward has your Christian God for such deeds?”

“I worry more about this life than the next,” Karl said, still chuckling.

“That’s a foolish choice,” Eric said. “Many elders I once respected thought the same. Now they’re old and withered, unworthy of the attention of the Valkyrie. They await their deaths joyless, objects of pity and scorn. I’m forty-five years old, just beginning to feel their pain. My skills have earned me great acclaim, but they betrayed me; my sword arm would keep me alive, if I let it, beyond the measure of my fighting prime. I won’t. No man lives forever in this world; I’ll have my immortality in the next.

“Yet I’m not ready to die this instant. My offer stands: I wish to see England one last time, and a Saxon to travel with would prevent many troubles.”

“I saw you give your golden horn to the baron. Your bag looked awfully empty after that. Where’s your ‘countless wealth’?”

“Only fools tell others where their wealth is hidden.”

“Only bigger fools believe in wealth they haven’t seen. There are only three places you could have gold: on your ship, on your person, or buried somewhere between the dock and Bristlen.”

“There’s one other place, but you’ll never guess it.”

“Then you’ll be traveling alone.”

“I think not. Before this night’s over I’ll wager that you’ll beg me to take you.”

“I’ve no money to wager ...”

“You will,” Eric smiled. “When all in this castle are asleep, I’ll tell you where it is.”

Karl shook his head, stretched out, and closed his eyes, a knowing grin plastered on his face. He thinks I’m mad, Eric mused. No matter: his fate is decided.

Eric scooted his chair around to face the small fireplace and used one of the sconces to light a fistful of straw. The kindling ignited the piled, half-charred logs, and Eric pulled out a bench to prop his feet upon, sat back, and tried to relax. His plan was working, but Svenson was coming, and he had to be gone before his vengeful king arrived.

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