Prologue - Soul Is Bound
Due northwest, the soul is bound
And I will go on ahead free
There is a light yet to be found
Midsummer, 804 AD
The midsummer sun illuminated the ocean and dappled the azure waters with flecks of crystalline silver. Even tasted salt on his lips; the spray from the sea as his oar hit the water, and the physical exertion of rowing both hard and long, combined to form a fine sheen on his sun-darkened face. He grunted with exertion, his voice lost amongst the chorus of the men who surrounded him, and amongst the gulls’ cries overhead.
There was a palpable sense of relief when Erik declared land. From the southernmost ports of Viken, they had travelled two days and nights in order to reach the smaller villages of Jutland that were scattered by the coastline. Here, the sun shone brighter and the vista revealed fields of endless green that reflected warmer climates.
They navigated their longboat over to the shallow waters with one last push and then they jumped in so they could haul the boat to the shore. The water had been warmed through by the sun and was a pleasant relief to those they had travelled from. It reached Even mid-thigh; he smirked with childish pleasure when he saw Christoffer Schistad, just up ahead of him, submerged to the waist.
“We will head for the higher lands,” Erik instructed them once they had pulled the boat far enough away from the tide. “The further inland, the greater the abundance of produce.”
They shrugged off their fur skins and marched. The trek through the clusters of small farming villages was arduous; Even’s stomach rumbled with hunger, unsatisfied with the meagre portions of dried fish and bread dished out on the longboat, and around him the men of his tribe complained and whined in ways unbecoming of warriors. Though, perhaps the term ‘warriors’ was too kind. Some of those travelling were barely men, their bodies unscarred and their faces guileless. They acted with according ignorance.
Even paid them no mind. He did not generally keep company with the other men of his village if he could help it, and even within his hoard he cared nothing for friendship. In fact, those closest to his age were those he was most wary of. He looked ahead to see Erik Magnusson flanked by his two sons; dark-haired William, who towered above everyone in the tribe except for Even, and blonde-haired Nikolai, a good half a foot shorter, his legs working tirelessly to keep pace.
William and Nikolai were as different in personality as they were in looks. Though Even held no fondness for either, William was by his nature silent and impenetrable and slow to respond to all but the rallying calls of battle. Nikolai was short-tempered and cruel, his reputation for anger and unpredictability exceeded only by Even himself. Erik had seemed to split himself in half when he had created Nikolai, and then given the other to William upon his arrival into the world.
But Erik seemed not to hold affection for either son. He was a commanding mixture of silence and malevolence that had propelled him forward as the natural successor to the last of their chiefs, a role that would have been taken by Even’s own father had it not been for his untimely death. But it was a combination of traits that made him an uneasy father figure. In point of fact, he often appeared to entrust Even with more responsibility during raids and battles, which perhaps explained Nikolai’s longstanding hatred for Even.
It was not an affection that Even had asked for, but Erik had given it to him anyway, and Even found he was compelled to follow Erik’s orders. After all, he was the only person that seemed to see through the lies about Even.
“What do you think, Berserker?” Christoffer asked from beside him, pulling Even from his ruminations. Even looked over to the small wooden hut he was inclining his head towards, built on the edge of a settlement that looked as though it would blow over in a strong wind.
“I think they would be short on food for eighty odd men,” he said levelly. Christoffer groaned in frustration.
“Not that.” He gestured more specifically, and Even realized he was appraising a woman stood outside of the hut, a baby pressed to her chest as she stared at their party with trepidation. She was typical of the women of Jutland; tall and sturdy with wide hips and fair hair. Even saw nothing spectacular about her but Christoffer continued to smile, clearly hoping to engage him in some sort of conversation.
“Oh,” Even said.
“Worth a quick detour?”
Even simply tightened his mouth and Christoffer immediately stopped talking. He was not unintelligent, which was possibly the only thing Even tolerated about him. In truth, he was widely regarded as a joke figure within their tribe: a vain and narcissistic pretty boy who would sooner charm his enemy than fight them. Still, his father was Erik’s right hand man, and he was generally considered to be quick-witted and good company. Therefore he was permitted to travel with their tribe, much to Even’s chagrin.
“Keep on!” Erik called out to them. The tiny settlements that dotted the green rolling hills would provide no useful offerings and so they continued to walk until the small wooden huts became more thickly populated and the makings of a small village, complete with a small wooden church at the highest point, arrived on the vista ahead.
They headed towards this and their arrival was met with the usual yelling and panic and fear. It was always the same. They were men of the North: taller than most, darker and sturdier and physically imposing in a way that struck terror into the hearts of villagers such as these.
Ahead of him, Erik pulled out his sword and his men followed in unison. It was for show rather than function. There was no point bloodying their weapons on a defenceless village of farmers and their dependents. There was no fight here to be had.
They saw villagers rushing into the huts, hiding themselves away, and by the time they walked through to the centre of the settlement, there were no signs of life whatsoever.
They had more joy when they approached the fields where the farmers toiled; twenty or so in total, their fair skin red from the low hanging sun. Even watched as some from his tribe approached with swords; he rolled his eyes as the farmers cowered in fear. They were dragged from the fields and back into the village centre, demands made of the produce that would sustain the tribe for the journey to Northumbria, violence bursting through unchecked from the North men when they walked too slowly or trembled too pathetically.
Even was already weary of this exhibition. There was no sport in terrorizing farmers; he only came alive for warriors worthy of his attention.
And so he lingered a little longer, his sword sheathed again, as the rest of his tribe followed the farmers back through to the village.
He was taken in by the sheer vastness of the fields surrounding the village. There was some greenery to be enjoyed in Hålogaland when the warm weather was finally upon them, but nothing as limitless as this. He dreamt sometimes of pastures such as these, but he was a product of the North; frostbitten and hardened, his presence intolerable to the simple folk of Jutland.
And then he heard loud laughter, followed by screams of delight, and he blinked against the sun, bringing his hand up to shield his eyes. They scanned for the source of the noise, which seemed so unexpectedly placed given the fear he had just witnessed.
He soon found what he was looking for. Three people - children, really, no older than fifteen or sixteen years of age, emerged from the thicket of trees that lined one of the fields to the West. They had not yet noticed the arrival of the North men, and so they were unafraid.
Even watched as they played at wrestling; the game essentially one of chase as they conspired against one another, then attempted to evade capture, before falling back to the ground and pinning their current opponent. There appeared to be no fixed rules or method to their physical contact, and their piercing laughter suggested they were not taking it seriously.
He was some distance from them but his eyesight was keen and once he had finished appraising their activity, deciding it was of no value to make his presence known, he began to look more closely at their appearance.
Two were female. The loudest of the party was auburn haired and womanly, her curves as generous as her laughter. There was another, strikingly blonde with pale skin and a sweet voice that carried over to Even from some distance.
The most beautiful of the three, however, was the boy. Like the second girl he was pale skinned and fair haired, but his face was unrivalled. With the sun behind him, his blonde hair shining like gold, Even assumed he must have been created by Sól himself. There was no other explanation for his perfection.
His body was slim and proportioned, his legs long, his shoulders small and his waist narrow. This was not a boy who had been expected to toil on the fields, despite his age, and Even wondered the reasoning behind it.
Something twisted inside him, something dark. But he was also fearful of these feelings which appeared so unexpectedly. He watched the two girls fight the boy to the ground as he screamed with laughter.
A single word thudded through his consciousness. Mine.
But before he could decide what there was to do about this, he heard his name being called from the village. He had lost all concept of time watching the three youths, and now it was time to go.
Reluctantly he tore his gaze away from them and headed back. There is nothing you can do now , he told himself. You cannot steal him away before the voyage.
The realization left him bereft.
As they headed back to their boats, loaded up with supplies that would no doubt leave the villagers on minimum rations for months, he felt himself growing angry. The boy was precious and the farmers of the village were woefully ill-equipped to protect him, to protect any of their vulnerable children. Every day, bands of travellers came from across the sea to colonize, to rape and to destroy. And though a tiny village in Jutland proved no real pull for tribes such as Even’s, the teenagers he had seen today would sell for large amounts as thralls. Of that he was certain. The boy in particular would be seen as a prize worthy of a king.
Ahead of him, he heard Nikolai talking to another of their tribe, Knut, about how one of the farmers had pissed his pants in terror when Nikolai had put a sword to his neck. “I simply laughed and left him bleeding across his jawline. Sometimes these idiots humiliate themselves enough without my assistance.”
Even clenched his jaw, wondering who would defend the boy if someone came to take him.
“To Northumbria!” Ludvik Schistad yelled, and his rallying cry was met with cheers from the North men. All but Even, who was lost in his own thoughts.
Though the journey to Northumbria was long, Even did not forget the boy’s face, or his body, or his laughter. And with each passing day, the need to see him again grew stronger until it consumed him completely.
Early Winter, 804 AD
The journey back had not been as smooth sailing as the journey going. Njord, the sea God, was angry on this particular day, and their boat was at his mercy as he toyed with the strong currents that tilted them back and forth.
It was not simply Njord who had disfavoured them. Their ship was twenty men less than they had set out with, and the riches they had raided from Northumbria were far less bountiful than they had expected. Erik was furious; he stood now at the stern of the ship, his voice harsh and ragged above the wind. “Keep rowing, weaklings!”
His face had taken on an almost haggard quality during this voyage, his soul blacker now than when they had left.
They were headed back for Jutland. Upon stopping in Nortmanni to refuel, they had discussed next steps. Erik knew he would be disgraced if he come back with twenty less men of the village than had set off, particularly as they had little to show for their raid. And so Erik, Ludvik, Nikolai, William and the others had debated their options well into the night as they replenished with wine and hot food at a tavern near the port.
Even sat at the end of the benched table, turning a small carved wooden horse over in his hands. He had taken it from one of the villages, attracted to the intricate craftsmanship of it; the mane was textured and flowing, the mouth open as though the horse was mid-neigh. One leg was lifted, ready to gallop away. It was a carving intended for a child but Even had always been attracted to those small, beautiful objects that seemed to contain part of the makers’ soul.
Perhaps he had believed he would give it to the boy one day. The beautiful golden haired boy who seemed a world away. And then he blinked, realization setting in.
“We should just go home,” William had grunted. “It is done. We should cut our losses.”
Nikolai fixed his younger brother with a cold stare. “Perhaps you wish to take the coward's route, but I would prefer to bring something of substance back to the village. There is a great many options we can undertake now, such as -”
Erik glared at them both, cutting off Nikolai’s posturing with a small growl. “You would do well, the pair of you, not to discuss strategies as though you understand what you are talking about.”
Even had cleared his throat. He was aware of the sway he held with Erik. It was a sway that had been there for many years, even before he had covered himself in glory during this voyage, but certainly his prowess during the voyage aided his words. He had fought relentlessly even as the rest of the raid had fallen apart. Besides Nikolai and William, no other North men had proven themselves on this voyage.
“I have an idea,” he said, and he almost smirked with amusement when he heard tankards slamming down on the wooden benches, the men around him looking in barely concealed interest at Even, the Berserker , voluntarily addressing them.
“Well, let’s hear it,” Erik encouraged him.
“In the village we visited in Jutland, on our way to Northumbria, I stayed a while in the fields and I saw three youths of sixteen years of age, more or less, and of unsurpassable beauty. They would make fine thralls, and I suspect there are more within the village.”
They had all listened to him, even Christoffer who had a serving girl pulled into his lap, his face buried in her cleavage as she murmured to him encouragingly.
“We are in need of new thralls in the village,” Erik agreed. “And we could sell any others we do not desire on the way home.” Beside him, Nikolai glared balefully at Even, seeing any accordance between Even and his father as a personal slight against him. But he had no cause to argue.
“New thralls? Why not just go from port to port and pick up all of Christoffer’s illegitimate offspring?!” Knut had asked, and the men laughed raucously as Christoffer looked up from his distraction and grinned sheepishly.
But it had been decided during the evening that Even’s suggestion was a good one, and they vowed to set out in the morning for the long stretch of sea to Jutland.
Even’s heart was at once like stone, weighed down by the feelings of guilt that engulfed him - this boy, a boy he had seen only once, was to have his life ripped apart because there was no other option for him, or for Even. But his heart was also delirious with excitement, with anticipation. Within days of travel, he would see that perfect face again, he would feel the boy’s eyes on him when he addressed him for the first time.
That is, he thought darkly, if nobody has got to him first.
This was unthinkable to Even. He had known as soon as he had seen this boy that he belonged with Even. No, he belonged to Even. There was no future for him in a village that could not protect him, and Even would be willing to lay down his life to keep this boy safe. And so his guilt was temporarily assuaged. He had made the right decision bringing the North men back here.
As they disembarked from the boat on the inlet they had set sail from three long months ago, the waters were cold through, though still nothing compared to those in the fjord that surrounded his own village.
It was to be a night raid, and their torches lit the way had as they began to march. They had little time ahead of them but each footstep felt like torture to Even.
“I was wondering,” Nikolai said from beside him, and Even looked across to face him, “Why you did not mention these prizes before? It seems a strange thing to keep to yourself.”
“To what purpose would talking about them earlier have served?” Even asked. Nikolai smiled at him, deceivingly soft, and shrugged his shoulders.
“I suppose you are right. Still. They must have been memorable, for you to remember them after three months of battle and bloodshed.”
And then he was gone, his bear skins sweeping behind him as he walked faster to catch his father up.
Soon, Even told himself. Soon you will see the boy again. And all this shall fade into insignificance.
Ahead of him, the fire crackled on the torches, the flames dancing with impatience.