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In the early years of the raids upon Britain, it came about that Håkon IronToe, a high chieftain of the Norse, heard tales told among his Saxon thralls that the men of Odinsbrigga, in the Kingdom of Anglia, guarded a great treasure. Determined to have it, he sent his fiercest warriors, led by Brand Einarsson, called Thor’s Hammer, to take the village and bring the gold to him. But the treasure was protected not only by the swords of men, but by the sorcery of the witch, Cwen, who conjured warriors from her own blood and sent her son to lead them.
When Brand saw his men being slaughtered, a great rage came over him, and he gained the strength of ten berserkers. He set upon the ghosts, slashing and hewing until his blade found solid flesh, and he did kill the son of Cwen.
In the fury of her grief, Cwen used her magic to bind Brand and those of his men whose hearts still beat, and she had them carried before the treasure they had come to take, and she cursed them. She turned them into shadow beasts, living half as animal, half as man, each taking the form of his fylgja, the spirit companion whose image he wore on a chain. When she had done, Cwen took their amulets and scattered them across the face of the earth, and she drove the men off into the forest to be hunted.
When word of Brand’s fate reached Håkon, he trembled in fear and ordered his boats to sail, but a great wave arose and his ship vanished from the face of the sea. He never knew of the greater curse that befell his men, for Cwen also made the warriors immortal, so that their torment should go on and on. Forever.
After a time, the men of Odinsbrigga lost interest in their sport, and Brand searched out his men to gather them together. But those who were beasts set upon those who were men, and were set upon in turn when the sun fell or rose, and the vileness of the magic protected them from death but not from pain. When it grew clear they could not live together thus, each warrior set off to make his own way. Before they scattered, Brand swore a vow to every man that he would hunt Cwen until he found her, and that he would make her pay for what she had done.
The years passed into centuries, and still Brand hunted. One by one, his warriors learned to live among men once more. The first of these was Ivar, son of Thorli, called Greycloak, who spent his days in the form of an eagle . . . .
-from the Dyrrekkr Saga of Ari Sturlusson
(E.L. Branson, trans.)
Madness. That’s what it was.
Ivar stood before the keep of Salisbury castle, his heart thudding as though he were going into battle, and wondered what had possessed him to come to this place.
In all the long years since Odinsbrigga, he had never been among so many men. Usually he was called to someplace isolated-a country chapel, a small manor, a forest glade–with only a few trusted men present to know who he was or what he did. On the rare occasions he ventured into a town, he kept to the edges, where the refuge of the forest was only steps away. Now, he was here, in the ward of a mighty castle, with an army camped in the bailey below and an entire city just beyond the walls. Every bone in his body screamed that this place was a trap, that he would be caught here within these walls, that the semblance of a life he had finally pieced together in the past three decades would be shattered.
Yes, it was clearly madness, yet he was going to walk into the tower, because William had ordered him to come and he wanted to know why. Ivar took a deep breath and climbed the stairs to the door.
“Sir Ivo de Vassy,” he told the guard, using the name by which he was known to these Normans.
“Solar,” the man grunted and pushed the door open.
The sheer crush took Ivar’s breath away: nobles and knights and servants mingling and calling to one another; dogs fighting over the bones; a jongleur playing; and over it all, the smell of sweat and mead and grease and smoke. The memory of other times and other halls, full of kith and kin now long dead, hit Ivar in the stomach like a mailed fist, and he had to suck in air to keep his knees from buckling. He crossed the hall without glancing to either side and trotted up the stairs. Entering the solar, he stopped a few paces from the ruddy, barrel-shaped man playing at a game of tables and dropped to one knee.
“You are late, de Vassy,” said William Rufus, son of the Conqueror and king of all England. “I bade you appear before me on Friday.”
“It is yet Friday, Your Grace.”
“Only just,” growled William, rising. He paced a slow circle around Ivar, his green slippers scuffing on the stone floor, his gaze burning into the top of Ivar’s head. “The abbey bells have already rung for Compline.”
“Yes, Your Grace. But you are no monk.”
The slippers came to a stop at the corner of Ivar’s vision, and he braced himself for a blow. This game he played with William was always dangerous and could end badly at any moment-but not tonight. Instead, a snort of laughter escaped the king.
“God’s truth, I am not.” William thrust a beringed hand before Ivar to kiss and then grabbed him and hauled him to his feet with an impatient, “Rise, man. Rise. The rest of you, out. I wish to speak to my gray knight alone.”
The noble lords loitering around the table hesitated, and Ivar knew each now assessed him to see whether this unknown upstart would challenge his position. Small chance of that. A man could provide little challenge to anyone when he spent his days flapping around after pigeons.
“Out!” bellowed William when his barons failed to move quickly enough. He jabbed a finger at a young page. “You. Fill my bowl before you go.”
The boy scrambled to comply as the lords filed out. As the door shut behind the page, William lifted the silvered mazer and sipped from it as he paced another circle around Ivar, this time regarding him closely.
“How it is that you change so little from year to year? You look the same as when you first began serving my father.”
Trapped. Ivar pushed the thought aside as he accepted the wine William held out. He took a long draught before he answered. “I am fortunate in that I do not have the weight of a crown to wrinkle my brow.”
“‘Tis a burden most men would carry willingly,” said William.
“Most men are fools, Your Grace.”
Ivar met the king’s belligerence with a smile. “You were born to the crown, Your Grace. It fits you well, even if it does weigh heavily.”
William preened a moment, then pressed on. “And what were you born to? My heralds found no record of your birth in France or England.”
“I assure you, I was born, Your Grace.” He’d had his heralds search? He was up to something.
“But where? And who was your father?”
“Will my answer make a difference to how well you think I serve you, Your Grace?”
“It will not,” William roared, laughing. “Thanks to you, de Mowbray, Tyson, and the rest are in chains, and we hold the north firmly again. Your aid gave us quick victory and allowed me to shift my attention to the matter in Wales. You could be the devil’s own spawn and you would still have my gratitude.”
Ivar dipped his head in acknowledgement and to hide his smile. Devil’s spawn, indeed. The king had no idea how close he was to the truth. He gave William what he wanted to hear. “My father was a riddari-a knight, in our land. Your lord father changed my name when I first became his man. He said he wanted those I dealt with to be certain I was not Saxon. As did I.”
“And well you should. They are little more than animals,” said William. He sat back down at the board and started pushing men idly from point to point. “Tell me how you managed to bring me de Mowbray’s plans. Every other man I sent either failed or died.”
“Yes, Your Grace. I saw some of them die.”
“There are those who claim you killed them yourself.”
William’s expression suddenly darkened, “You d-dare to admit murder to your k-king?”
Ivo ignored the stutter that arose when William was angry. “Murder in defense of my king. He would have betrayed you.”
Fury hoisted William up off his stool. Spittle flew as he roared, “Aldaric M-montrose was no t-traitor!”
“No. But he was careless,” said Ivar giving no ground even though William was mere inches from his face. “I did not do it lightly, Your Grace. He had been taken and was being . . . questioned. A single arrow saved you considerable trouble, and saved him from the hands of William of Eu.”
William’s rage cooled as quickly as it had arisen and he backed off, turning to step the few paces to the hearth. He stared into the dying flames for a long moment, his jaw working with some emotion Ivar didn’t care to identify. The fair Montrose, it was rumored, had been more than friend to the king. True or not, a confession of sodomy extracted from the man under torture might have meant the end of William’s rule-and Eu employed a torturer of some skill.
“I will have Eu’s balls for a n-necklace,” William vowed, so softly that Ivar barely heard him.
“Would you like me to bring them to you, Your Grace?”
A long moment passed before William answered. “No. I will tend to it myself, and take great d-delight in it.”
He drew himself up and turned to face Ivar, every bit the king once more. “You have served me well once again, messire, even if not as I intended. What will you ask as your reward this time?”
Gold. It was what Ivar always asked and always got, in quantities enough to make his life tolerable and occasionally pleasant, and it was on the tip of his tongue to ask for it again. But a shout of bawdy laughter rang up from the hall below, once more conjuring visions of home and the company of friends. How long had it been since he had laughed with other men?
“Land,” he said abruptly, and once the thought was spoken, it took form. He wanted land and a home, even if only for a while. They would cost him, he knew. Sooner or later he would be seen changing, or William would demand he appear at the Curia Regis by daylight, or some other mishap would find him out. He would have to vanish into the wilds and start over again, in some other place and time when memories had faded. But for a while . . . He would trade his soul for even a month. “An estate.”
To his astonishment, William simply nodded. “Then it is good my father renamed you. The peasants will never guess you are not one of us.”
Ivar’s head throbbed as though he had downed an entire cask of wine. “What peasants would those be, Your Grace?”
“Those of Alnwick and whatever other estates Gilbert Tyson held in Northumberland. I had already thought of settling part of his lands upon you before you came up the stairs in that gray mantle of yours. Your honesty only confirms my mind on it. To tell a king the truth even when you know he will not like it-that is a rare courage, messire. You shall have Alnwick, and you shall build me a castle to hold off those bastard Scots.”
“Sire, I-” A castle?
“Ah, where is that wit of yours, now?” demanded William, laughing. He strode across the room, threw the door wide, and bellowed into the hall below. “Attend me, all of you. Fetch my sword and a priest. And a scribe. By the by,” he said, turning back to Ivar as the great barons of England began filing in. “Tyson has a granddaughter, a pretty red-haired creature, I’m told. You are to seal your hold on his lands by marrying the girl.”
A wife? By the gods, he had not considered the possibility that William would give him a wife. Ivar’s nails curled into his palms as he contemplated the pleasure and the danger inherent in that word, wife. How was he to keep the truth from a wife, even for a little? This truly was madness.
But there was no stopping William now as he began introducing Ivar to the men who would soon be his peers. “Step forward, Lord Ivo of Alnwick. ‘Tis time for you to come out of the shadows where you have hidden for so long.”
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