Across the waves there once lived the mightiest Viking King to ever be called to Valhalla.
His fame and power was such that people feared to speak his name, lest they summon his lust for blood and revenge that haunted the memory of the land and troubled the sleep of the bravest of men.
It was said that his hunger for the treasures of the world was so insatiable that even his family and friends worried for their lives, lest his greedy eye would see a thing or person or speck of land or sky that didn’t yet belong to him.
For many years he led his armies far and wide, taking what he could, enslaving, raping and pillaging all before him. Clans became his allies through sheer terror of his reputation and the stories of his lack of mercy became weapons of war that fought battles before he had even arrived.
Then one day, in a small town by the sea, his desire seemed to be stopped in its tracks like never before, much to the relief of his exhausted men at arms.
A beautiful girl less than half his age caught his eye and like a magic sent from the gods, he was smitten. Her hair was gold like the summer wheat. Her eyes as dark and blue as ocean beyond. Her figure and poise as fair and gentle as the rarest, finest of flowers that bloomed in a land as cold as ice.
He promised her father great wealth and titles; that he would spare the town and all he dwelt there in honour of the wedding that he was surely in no position to refuse.
But so mighty was the king that even this irked him and when the father reluctantly gave of his only child and daughter to spare his town the horrors of so many others, the town was ransacked anyway. Its men were mutilated, and their bodies and limbs piled high on the field of battle. Its women and children enslaved. Its buildings razed to the ground.
Then for one brief summer did the land enjoy peace and the king his happiness. The clans, thinking nothing of the fate of this poor girl, relaxed for once with the knowledge that the great king’s joy would calm his murderous disposition.
Yet one mild morning, when the King awoke with an appetite and entered his young queen’s chambers, he discovered a trail of blood that led to the lifeless body of his now dead love. Her throat was cut, with wounds to her hands and arms that spoke of an unseen struggle.
As he staggered to the door, overwhelmed with grief and rage, he spied the only clue of who might have committed the deed that would throw the kingdom into chaos.
There, caught on the sharp corner of the bed, was a strip of cloth that he had never seen before. It was the finest of needle work and the brightest of colours that could only have come from the most skillful of seamstresses.
Then the great king’s rage took flight as that of an eagle chasing the flock from on high. His men searched, bullied, tortured and threatened the people of half the land. Threats and recriminations rippled from clan to clan. Paranoia stalked the people, as revenge stretched fragile threads of trust to breaking point.
Finally, one of the slaves, taken from the town of his new bride, admitted, for fear of her children’s fate, that she recognised the cloth from the seamstress of town where she was born.
Wasting no time, the king and his army marched back to the place by the sea where a fleeting moment of bewitchment had almost put an end to so many years of constant war.
There by the cliff edge they found a frail and haggard old woman, already waiting for his arrival.
“I know why you have come, great king. But know this: I will jump from this very cliff if you do not listen to what I have to say.”
The king bayed his men stay back and he approached her cautiously, keeping his distance so as to ensure that the only woman who could help him enact his revenge did not vanish to the rocks and waves below.
“Come now old woman, tell me what you know of the walking corpse that robbed me of the only peace that I have ever known.”
“I will tell you,” she replied, “on three conditions and only after each has been granted.”
“First you must free the slaves that you took from this town and return them here at once.”
The king nodded and motioned to his men to do as she asked. Several days passed and though she seemed close to collapse, the old woman refused to eat or drink or sleep until her request was satisfied. A slow procession of women and children eventually arrived, and she traced the faces of them each until memory served her that all were accounted for.
The king, growing impatient, demanded her second request.
“Now you must behead the men who burned and pillaged this town.”
Without flinching the king assented.
Shocked and panicked at the order of their master, the army quickly rounded up the men who had been at the town that day. For if it they did not it would surely be those of the greater number who would be made to pay instead.
Struggling and wailing as they were dragged, fifty men soon met their ends and their spurting heads and torsos fell to the ground in front of the old woman’s stoic gaze.
“Now old woman, give me your final condition and I will have my revenge this very day”.
“Very well,” she replied, “you shall, as you always do, have what you desire, no matter the cost. My final condition is that you must kneel before us all and beg for your answer.”
The king’s eyes burned with a rage like never before. His men exchanged glances as they waited for him to let loose the lightening and thunder of almighty Odin on the old woman’s withered old body.
Yet after a pause, to the amazement of the watching slaves and waiting army of Viking men, he dutifully dropped to his knees in supplication.
“I beg of you, before all who bear witness, grant me escape from my grief, free me from the pain of my betrayal, let justice be done to those who have robbed me of my only love and peace.”
The old woman looked down at the king, every second twisting a knife slightly deeper into his wounded pride.
“You have done as I bid you. And you shall have your reward. The truth is buried at the top of the mountain beneath a rock as dark as your heart, dear king. May the answers you seek bring vengeance to the kingdom.”
The king sighed and rose from his knees. Then in one single sweeping motion he drew his sword and split the woman’s body in two; her top and bottom halves slumping to the earth like freshly butchered meat dropped upon the table.
The army and its generals marched to the top of the nearby mountain, just as the severed woman had advised and close to the top, where even the summer winds blew cold against their skin, they were ordered to stop.
Only the king and the leaders of the three great clans were permitted to continue to the summit. Once there, they found the dark stone of which they were told and started to dig; the king looking on at his generals scrambling in the dirt.
Soon, many feet deep in the earth, they had sight of a chest and inside the chest a scroll.
“Read it to me!” the king cried out from above the pit.
The lords of the clans crowded round the scroll and the king could not make out the words or runes that the paper bore. With looks as pale as the winter snow, the lords exchanged silent terrors such that each knew the horror without the need for words.
Again, the king called out to them:
“In the name of all the gods, you will tell me who must die!”
But the lords shook their heads and averted their gaze for they could not bear the consequences.
Enraged, the king leapt into the pit with the lords of the clans and reached for the scroll. As they attempted to restrain him and shield the scroll from his bloodshot eyes the mighty king withdrew his sword. Then in a struggle that could only have one winner, he dispatched the clansmen one by one, each fighting hard to hide the bloody scroll in turn until all were laid to waste in the puddle of gore that became of their final moments on the earth.
Then as the king scrambled over their corpses and out of the hole from which the scroll was buried, he pulled open the paper and held his cold breath in the mountain air:
To my king,
Rather than live in the company of a man who would steal my body, enslave my people, murder my father and burn my town to the ground, I would sooner take my own life.
May you suffer to the end in the knowledge that no one but your own appetite has been your demise.
I can only hope the uncertainty of my murderer brought you as much pain as the parents of my town must have had for the fate of their children.
My dear old Grandmother taught me well…
The Queen (thankfully no longer)
With their masters disappeared from view, the loyal armies of the clans’ lords and allies, whom they were sworn to protect, approached the scene at pace.
And with tears in his eyes, broken, bloodied and beaten, with the wind drawn out of his sails, there ended the story of the mightiest Viking King.