FOREBODING WALES

Dane Wulfdin glanced with foreboding at the bleak coast of Wales. As he watched the dangerous surf batter nearby beaches and cliffs, he heaved mightily at his oar until his biceps rippled beneath his drenched tunic. Wind ruffled his reddish mane, and salt spray stung his face, pushing him to exert more effort. The grunts of the other rowers told him the ocean’s wrath inspired his shipmates as well. Suddenly, his gray eyes steeled when a monstrous wave rolled to engulf the crew. At the last instant, the coxswain steered into it, and Dane felt the longship, rise, plunge, and then surge ahead through the pitching sea.

The vessel rounded a rocky headland awash with wild spray. Here, an undertow gripped the Vikings and dragged them perilously close to shore. Dane rowed with even more urgency until his thews ached and the blood throbbed in his temples. The other oarsmen wheezed and panted as they responded to the curses of their wild-bearded chieftain.

“Pull, damn you, pull!” howled Snuatgar, and somehow they shot within inches of a reef and past axe-sharp rocks jutting from the foam. Just when they reached the limit of their endurance, their longship swept into a sheltered cove where the sea turned glass-smooth.

Dane Wulfdin joined the crew in a ragged cheer. Then, the Vikings stowed their oars and raised their sail. As a gentle breeze pushed them along the coast, the weary warriors rested and refreshed themselves. While the others gulped mead and wolfed down salted fish, Dane said a silent prayer to Odin for delivering them.

The raging sea had not been the only peril Wulfdin’s mates had faced in recent days. As the Viking surveyed the shoreline, he pondered their escape from Anglesey. They had gone there to raid the granaries but instead had been routed soundly by the fyrd of Rhodri Mawr. The rest of the fleet had been destroyed, and Mawr had hung many vanquished Norseman from the Welsh battlements. If not for the fearless leadership of Snuatgar, they, too, would have been rook bait.

Dane’s black thoughts disappeared when the longship approached a village built at the mouth of a wide estuary. A grin flashed in his red beard as he watched peasants streak for the woods upon recognizing the Vikings’ square sail. The men reminded him of a herd of frightened reindeer as they nearly ran out of their baggy pants in their haste to escape. Their women rushed along at their sides, clutching whatever possessions they could carry. The bolting children bawled and dug dirty knuckles into their streaming eyes.

Because of our fierce attacks, these people think of us as “slaughter wolves,” reflected Dane. But my father was a wolf hunter and knew the beasts better than they knew themselves. When I was a mere lad, he taught me to track, trap, and skin wolves with great skill. And I studied the brutes until their instincts were mine. I could sense game before I saw it. And danger! Watching wolves drag down a stag taught me what happens to the weak in battle. That’s why I fight with a ferocity those Welsh can feel from the shore!

Dane’s hearty laugh echoed across the water as he watched the last of the villagers flee for the forest. He turned to share his amusement with Snuatgar but stopped smiling when he saw the thunderhead settled on his leader’s brow. The chieftain was ten years his elder and flecks of gray showed in his grizzled beard and tangle of straw-colored hair. His face was furrowed from many battles. A long maroon scar ran along his broad cheekbone below his left eye. Although he was rough in his actions and demeanor, Dane thought of him as an older brother.

“What’s wrong, Snuatgar?” Wulfdin inquired at last. “Why not land and sack yon town? That’d put you in proper spirits.”

“Nothing will help until I cut down Rhodri Mawr and carve the nose from that weasel’s face. Haven’t we won wherever we landed? The Picts, Celts, and Irish all tremble at our name. But not these Welsh dogs. They must be aligned with the powers of darkness to have humiliated us!”

“But look at those Welsh run,” chuckled Dane, pointing toward the shore.

“Those are mere peasants, not worthy of my revenge!”

Scowling, Snuatgar unrolled a scroll of maps and examined them closely. Finally, a satisfied sneer spread across his face, and he set a course south along the coast of Me. For hours they glided through the serene ocean, with the chieftain staring expectantly ahead. Just before they reached Ridnia, he motioned shoreward, and the navigator steered up a river muddy from a recent rain.

“Fellow Vikings and warriors,” bellowed Snuatgar, “we are entering Rhodri Mawr’s home shire, and no one needs to remind you what we owe that cur! With broad sword and ash spear we’ll pierce the life-house of his retainers. Oh, how he’ll mourn when we steal his wenches and the gold he treasures! Stab his horses and leave them for the ravens!”

“Yes!” cried Dane. “And death to Mawr!”

“Death to Mawr!” echoed the crew. “And death to all his house!”

The Vikings continued their incensed howls as they furled the longship’s sail and then strapped on their battle gear. Meanwhile, the vessel’s shallow draft allowed the coxswain to guide her to a beach. The dragon-headed prow had barely touched the shore when Snuatgar and his crew leaped over the side to moor her. To fend off enemies, they threw up a rampart of earth and stone and posted alert guards on the perimeter.

When their ship was secure, the warriors raced off to pillage and kill. They were so eager to spill blood that they turned a blind eye to the signal smoke rising from a nearby ridge. Forty battle-hardened stalwarts armed with spears, axes, and sharp swords rushed from the river spewing bold threats. As they streamed across a meadow, sunlight flashed on their helmets and mail shirts. Cloaks of gray, brown, and forest green flowing behind them cast sinister shadows in their wake. Sensing imminent victory, they yipped like beasts sniffing a wounded quarry’s scent.

When they entered a brushy wood, Dane plunged behind his chieftain through the thick oaks. After a long sprint, they burst sweating onto a well-traveled trail. The trail cut through a jumble of boulders to a town ripe for plucking. Snuatgar gave an exultant shout when he saw the village was unguarded. The sight of Rhodri’s dragon flag fluttering above a bright manor made him even more eager to attack.

Dane peered cautiously through the rocky gap. Instinctively, he raised his shield to protect his heaving chest. In the other hand he gripped a long-handled axe. With the perilous rocks rising above him, he wished he had chosen a weapon more suitable for throwing.

As Snuatgar led them into the shadows, Dane grabbed his chieftain’s arm and hissed, “Do you think it wise we enter this pass? I’d stick to the woods and approach Rhodri’s village with stealth.”

A roar rumbled from Snuatgar’s mottled beard. “You dare question my judgment, Dane Wulfdin?” he growled. “If your thirty winters have made you timid, go back and protect the ship.”

“I didn’t slay a hundred men by cowering in camp,” snapped Dane. “The lack of sentries is what makes me wary.”

“But Thor demands vengeance, and vengeance demands bold action. Forward, men, and quench your thirst for blood!”

The Vikings charged headlong into the narrow pass. They had barely dashed halfway through when a rockslide thundered down the mountain before them, blocking their way with boulders and choking dust. Glancing up, Dane saw a frenzied Druid priest. The priest was dressed in a white robe and waved a handful of mistletoe. Wailing and cursing, he pointed dramatically at them. In the next instant, a shower of spears, arrows, and rocks cascaded upon Wulfdin and his mates. Then, the roar of taunting voices burst from the Welsh fyrd as the soldiers leaped from hiding to unleash more hissing death.

Leading the army was Rhodri Mawr, and Dane gasped when he spotted the earl brandishing a wicked-looking sword. Mawr’s clean-shaven face glistened with sweat. Although his slight frame made him an unimpressive warrior, his distinctive shield struck fear into the Viking’s heart. It was emblazoned with a rampant blue dragon painted in such hideous detail that it seemed to squirm with life.

The sick thump of shafts striking flesh rose all around Dane. He also heard the harsher clang of stones smashing helmets. In an instant, half of the Viking host lay bleeding on the ground as the torrent of deadly missiles pouring from the hillside found their mark.

To rally his shaken comrades, Dane snatched up a dead man’s spear and flung it at a Welsh soldier cheering in the rocks above. The point struck the thane in the throat, and he fell, shrieking, to his death. The other Vikings then hurled their weapons until wails rose from many wounded ambushers.

The fyrd answered with a flight of arrows that forced the Norsemen beneath a hedge of head-high shields. As the whack of shafts struck Dane’s buckler, he backed from the doomed passage, only to find it blocked by a wall of swordsmen. Rhodri Mawr miraculously appeared in their midst. A triumphant sneer twisted his ferret face.

Behind Dane, whizzing arrows continued to rain death. In desperation, he rushed the fyrd’s battle line, slashing with his axe and howling with fury. He advanced to where he had last seen Rhodri Mawr, but the earl had disappeared.

Just as Dane closed on the enemy, heavy footfalls sounded at his side. It was Snuatgar, blaring, “Death to them all! Let Thor guide our strokes to smite these foul dissemblers!”

“Let not our weapons fail us,” yelled Dane, “until all the dogs are dead!”

The Vikings chopped wildly with their keen-edged blades, splitting shields and hewing off the hands that held them. Mechanically, they struck again and again, ignoring sword blows to their bucklers and helmets. Their axes did deathly work splintering wood and spewing blood until a path was cleared through the carnage.

Dane was the first to hack his way out. Breaking from the reeling ranks, he dashed toward the woods. But archers were there, causing him to veer up the hill. Arrows missed him by inches as he darted and dodged.

Snuatgar then staggered from the melee, bellowing like a gored ox. His shield hung on his shattered arm, and blood seeped from a deep gash in his thigh. A feathered shaft hit him in mid-stride, and he fell facedown.

When the fyrd rushed to seize Dane, he turned and fled. To escape his pursuers, he scaled a treacherous summit. He climbed higher, using his feet as much as his grip, until he had shaken all but one thane.

Just as Dane reached the peak, a hand grabbed his ankle. He tottered backward to the brink of the cliff, not daring to kick his antagonist lest he lose his own balance. Instead, he let his foot go limp, and it was the other climber who lost his hold. While he clung to the mountaintop, he heard the screams of his foe plunge ever downward and end in abrupt silence.

Dane mumbled a thankful prayer to Odin for his rescue. Then, he heard the clash of armor echo again from below. Peering over the precipice, he saw a host of nimble soldiers renewing the chase. The lead climber was anchoring a rope that the others used to scale the heights. Rolling rocks from the summit, the Viking crushed them in bloody fashion.

Dane scrambled down the rear of the mountain. Watching an eagle snatch up a rabbit, he muttered, “The churls have me cut off from my ship. Like that hare I’ll be meat if I don’t go cross country to the ocean. My only chance is to signal my cohorts when they sail past.”

A hopeful grin gleamed in Dane’s beard as he descended the slope. He had no sooner entered an overgrown grove when a flash of movement caused him to duck down. There, a company of spearmen led by Rhodri Mawr burst through the trees. The warlord wore mail of a strange blue hue and carried his shield decorated with the hideous dragon.

With his cheeks flushed an angry red, Mawr growled, “Find the Viking, and gold coins will be yours. We’ll stick his head on a pig pole and place it near the river with his decapitated mates. Then, no sea wolves will dare darken our shore!”

Frozen with horror, Dane lay flat on the ground, hardly daring to breathe. Somehow, the soldiers passed within twenty yards without seeing him, and he waited until they disappeared up the mountainside before stirring. Rising noiselessly to his feet, he crossed through the vale and up another rise. He had barely reached the ridge top when the wild baying of hounds sounded through the woods, heading straight for him.

Dane had no choice then but to sprint for a shimmering lake visible through the oaks. The dogs closed in quickly behind him, followed by three fleet thanes armed with bows. When Dane saw he had no chance of reaching the water, he whirled round to dash in the lead dog’s skull with his axe. A second cur smashed itself senseless leaping against his shield, while a third fell victim to a neck-snapping kick in the jaws. When the other beasts veered off in fear, he charged the archers before they could nock their arrows. With vicious blows he hacked the men down.

Expecting a counterattack from the curs, Dane backed steadily into the frigid tarn. When he was in so deep that only his helmet showed, he trod along the lake bottom until his legs grew numb from the water’s chill. With chattering teeth and a racing heart, he scanned the woods for other enemies.

After circling half the shore, Dane tramped, shivering, onto the beach. He slunk into a steep ravine as darkness and an eerie silence descended upon him. There, he flopped on his belly to consider his options. He had been in dire situations before and had survived them. He gritted his teeth with grim determination and prayed the moon wouldn’t rise. He also mourned the death of Snuatgar until an exhausted sleep stole over him.


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