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The Viking’s Touch

By:Joanna Fulford

Prologue

Northumbria—AD 889

Tongues of flames from the roof leaped thirty feet into the night sky and the heat grew so intense that it forced the spectators back. Grim-faced, they watched helplessly as the hall was consumed, beam and rafter and shingle backlit in a blaze of scarlet and orange. Acrid smoke oozed from the timbered walls and poured from the doorway, thickening the eerie glow. No one spoke. The only sounds were of crackling wood and the roar of the fire.

 Wulfgar stood unmoving, like a man petrified by fell enchantment, and looked upon the destruction of the place he had once called home, the pyre of those he loved most. The light of the flames dyed his face blood-red and lent his gaze a terrible aspect. All the thoughts behind lay buried, overwhelmed by grief and anger too deep for utterance. His sword companions stood a little way off with the rest, watching in horrified silence from the edges of a vast darkness.





Time lost all meaning. Oblivious to fatigue and chill, Wulfgar remained there until grey dawn stole through the trees. Its pallid light revealed a black and smoking ruin. He did not notice the soft thud of hoof falls on turf or the creak of saddle leather as the rider dismounted. Only when the horseman stood beside him did he look round and, as one emerging from a long sleep, come slowly to consciousness.

 The vivid blue gaze that met his might have been the mirror of his own. The face, lined now with age, also bore a striking resemblance to his. However, his father’s hair was now more grey than dark. Similar in height to Wulfgar, he bore himself erect and his powerful frame carried yet its familiar aura of power. For the space of several heartbeats the two men surveyed each other in silence. Wulfgar was the first to look away.

 ‘I should have been here,’ he said.

 Wulfrum shook his head. ‘It would have changed nothing.’

 ‘I failed them when they needed me most.’

 ‘You could not have foreseen this.’

 ‘She begged me not to go, but I paid no heed. Tried to convince myself it was for her and the child I was doing it.’ Wulfgar’s voice shook. ‘It was my own selfishness that brought them to this.’

 ‘You could not have saved them, any more than you could have saved all the others who died.’

 ‘I could have tried.’

 ‘Aye, but the result would likely have been the same. The fever makes no distinctions. It kills noble and base-born together.’

 ‘That doesn’t help.’

 ‘No, only time will do that.’

 ‘Will it?’

 Wulfrum paused. ‘What will you do now?’

 ‘I don’t know.’

 ‘You could return to Ravenswood for a while.’ The words were casually spoken, but underlain with something quite different. ‘There will always be a place for you.’

 ‘My place was here,’ replied Wulfgar, ‘but there is no going back.’

 His father pursed his lips and looked away, past the ruin to the trees beyond. ‘So, you will rejoin Guthrum then?’

 ‘Guthrum grows old and his days of war are over. It’s my belief he’ll not live much longer.’

 ‘What then?’

 ‘I don’t know. Something else.’

 ‘You don’t have to decide now. Take some time, think about it.’

 ‘Ah, what was it you once said? “We are the decisions we make.”’ Wulfgar’s lip curled in self-mockery. ‘Well, mine are turned to ashes and I am to blame for that.’ He turned to face his father. ‘If there is any future for me now, it will not be found here.’





Chapter One

East Anglia—Six years later

Wulfgar stood at the ship’s prow, his keen gaze scanning the curve of yellow sand and the rolling dunes beyond, but the small bay was deserted save for the gulls riding currents of air. Heavy cloud scudded across a lowering sky, the remnant of the previous night’s storm. The only sounds were the wind and the crash of the surf along the shore where churned sand and a line of bladderwrack and driftwood remained to testify to its passing.

 ‘This will do well enough,’ he said. ‘We’ll bring her in here.’

 Beside him Hermund nodded. ‘Where do you reckon here is?’

 ‘The Anglian coast probably, although it’s hard to be certain.’

 ‘Well, it seems quiet enough, my lord.’

 ‘All the same, we’ll send out a party of men to check.’

 ‘Right you are.’

 Wulfgar gave the order and a few minutes later the ship’s keel ploughed into sand. The crew shipped oars and Wulfgar, with half-a-dozen others, vaulted over the gunwale into the surf and waded ashore. They sprinted up the beach and climbed the dunes. Beyond lay an expanse of heath interspersed with rough turf and clumps of yellow gorse. In the distance were cultivated strips and stands of trees.

 ‘It’ll do,’ said Wulfgar.

 Hermund surveyed the surrounding landscape, his weathered face thoughtful, shrewd grey eyes missing nothing. At three and thirty he was six years older than his companion and a few strands of grey hair showed among the brown, but the quiet deference with which he treated the latter revealed their relative positions in the world.

 ‘Aye, my lord. All the same those fields must belong to someone.’

 ‘We’ll post guards.’

 ‘The local inhabitants may be friendly, of course.’

 ‘Perhaps,’ replied Wulfgar. ‘Although I wasn’t planning on staying around long enough to get acquainted. We have an appointment to keep.’

 ‘Rollo won’t quibble; he needs warriors and he wants the best.’

 ‘He’ll get them, and pay handsomely for the privilege.’

 Hermund grinned. ‘Naturally.’

 They turned and led the way back to the ship where teams of men had already begun to drag her higher up the beach.

 ‘We’ve done all right in the last six years,’ Hermund continued. ‘If luck stays with us, we’ll be able to retire soon on the proceeds.’

 Wulfgar made no reply. His silence was not due to inattention; he had heard the words perfectly well and privately acknowledged their truth. He commanded a body of fighting men whose reputation went ahead of them: they could name their price in the full expectation of it being paid without argument. And luck had certainly been with them in that respect. Some even went so far as to say that their leader bore a charmed life for he emerged unscathed from every conflict. He had no fear of death; for a while he had actively sought it. Yet, perversely, death mocked him, often tantalisingly close in the heat of combat, but remaining always out of reach. He had resigned himself to it now, watching with cynical amusement as his wealth increased.

 Unaware of his chief’s thoughts, Hermund surveyed the damage to the ship. ‘Torn sail, broken yard, cracked rudder…but we got off lightly, all things considered. Only three men hurt, too.’

 ‘Aye, it could have been worse.’

 ‘Several times back there I thought we were food for the fishes.’

 ‘If we don’t fix the damage, we soon will be,’ said Wulfgar. ‘Organise a work detail while I check on the injured.’

 Moments later Hermund’s voice rang out, ‘Thrand! Beorn! Asulf! Get that sail down! Dag and Frodi, help them to free that yard! The rest of you over here…’

 As they hastened to obey, the ship became a hive of activity. Wulfgar watched for a few moments, then went over to see the injured men. In the course of the storm one had fallen and concussed himself and a second had a deep and ragged gash along his arm, which was going to require stitching. The third had broken ribs. However, now that they were ashore the injuries could be treated more easily, and Wulfgar offered what reassurance he could.

 Having done that, he rejoined the others. Several days’ hard labour lay ahead, but he didn’t mind it; hard labour meant forgetfulness, his mind focused on the present. Time dulled pain, but not memory. Only work could do that, for a while at least.





It was about an hour later when one of the lookouts recalled his attention. ‘Riders approaching, my lord.’

 Wulfgar looked up quickly, narrowing his eyes against the wind. He saw the strangers at once: six horsemen reined in on the edge of the bay some hundred yards distant. Their attention was clearly focused on the ship.

 ‘Damn.’

 The word was softly spoken, but Hermund caught it all the same. ‘What do you want to do?’

 ‘That depends on them. We’ll wait and discover their intent. It may just be curiosity.’

 ‘Perhaps.’

 Wulfgar surveyed the newcomers. ‘We’re not looking for trouble. Tell the men to keep their weapons within reach, but no one’s to use them without my say so.’

 ‘Will do.’ His companion glanced at the riders again. ‘At least there are only six of them.’

 ‘That we can see.’

 ‘Point taken.’

 The horsemen rode out on to the beach at an easy pace. Now they were closer Wulfgar could see that all of them were armed. However, their hands were conspicuously clear of their sword hilts. He noted it; if there really were only six, they weren’t about to stir up trouble, particularly when they didn’t know as yet whom they might be dealing with.

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