Chapter III – He Learnt What Fear Was
25th of March, 1088 Anno Domini
Wilderness, Amt of Riga
Somewhere deep in the woods, a crashing boom echoed from tree to tree, passing over the land. It was accompanied by the stirring of birds and a great snapping and tearing of branches, then followed by a deep silence. Erik's horse glanced to one side as if curious, but the lord's own gaze remained transfixed upon the path, lost in his own thoughts.
The huskarls chattered to themselves, wondering about the nature of the sound and where it had come from. Karl af Borgeby insisted it was simply a tree felled by loggers, while old Harald Svendsen took the chance to share an ghost tale learnt from a dairymaid he laid with during the Baltic Crusade. Normally Erik would have leapt at the chance to partake in such fun – after all, he rarely enjoyed such good conversation with the men he called his “handlers” in Skjalmsborg - but today his thoughts were captured by the coming confrontation with his mother.
To his side, another huskarl noticed the lord's dark mood, and looked upon him with worry. Erik noticed the stare but did not pay it any mind, still focused on what he would say to his mother. Erik and Gro had a difficult relationship, as did most of Gro's younger children. Throughout their upbringing, Harald and Ernst had received the bulk of their mother's attention and care (although Harald would protest otherwise) and this had left a sense of bitterness in the hearts of some of the boys. Envy ate away at him, blackening his heart with sinful thoughts as he debated all the things he could say or do to her now that he had the power. It was not a good sensation and he admitted the sinfulness of it, yet he was forced to indulge it in now while it remained just fantasy. If he didn't, there was no telling what he might do once she was within his reach.
“My lord?” His companion finally asked. “Are you feeling unwell?”
Erik spared him a glance – he was one of the younger of the men, only perhaps five years Erik's senior. His name was Tor Ingridsen, a loyal family who had followed Skjalm across the sea to do battle here in the Baltic. Despite missing out on the best bits of distributed land, his mother Ingrid still ruled a sizeable manorial parish upstream from Skjalmsborg. Erik had made a note to ensure they received a better title at some further date as a reward for their long servitude, but in the meantime they would remain simple hirdmen in his service.
“Aye, somewhat, although I feel healthy. It has simply been years since I have seen my mother.” Erik frowned.
“You are not happy with his occasion?” Tor raised an eyebrow. “I would have thought you would be pleased to see her again.”
“My mother and I have a difficult relationship. I do not wish to speak of it further...”
The young hirdman thought about this, then nodded. “As you wis-”
There was a soft thwip and Tor collapsed from his horse before Erik's very eyes, struck by an arrow through his shoulder. Several more arrows shot through the column of men. The men of Erik's escort erupted, drawing weapons and calling out warnings as dozens of tribesmen descended upon them from the woods. The huskarls were caught in the midst of a sudden and brutal battle, outnumbered by lightly armed pagans who were nonetheless out for blood. Erik's own horse was hit by an arrow and it reared up, throwing him from the saddle and onto the hard dirt path.
Erik's retinue was under attack by a large, angry war band of Baltic pagans. Attacking from out of the woods with the sun at their back, his men didn't see the attack coming until it was too late. They were led by a powerful noble whose family once ruled further to the south. While most were armed with farming or woodsman's tools, there was a scattering of Russian-made weapons to give them some hope in a direct fight against the heavily armoured Nordic huskarls.
The young lord gasped for breath as the wind was knocked from his lungs. With great difficulty he pulled himself to his feet, only to see a pagan appear before his eyes with an axe, a sinister grin on the rugged man's face. Panicking, Erik fumbled with his sword and tugged it free just in time to catch the axe's handle with his blade. He stumbled back from the force of the blow, still unable to breathe properly; Erik suddenly wished he had his brother's strength or his father's courage and faith as fear crept into his heart. There was no choice, however, but to fight for his life, even with his muscles as weak as they felt.
Erik managed to drive the pagan back a step, slowly catching his breath. The two were locked tight against one another, the noble's blade wedged slightly into the axe's dark wooden haft. Desperation set in as Erik realized he could not simply overpower his foe. He worked up the dregs of his throat and then spat into the face of the pagan, trying to blind or distract him. It worked, somewhat, as the pagan closed his eyes and cried out in surprise and disgust – he continued to push against Erik as strong as ever, though. This time Erik brought his head down to firmly crash against his enemy's and the pagan stumbled back, losing his balance. As the pagan fell to the floor, Erik thrust his blade's point into him.
Sword-point remained buried in human flesh, and Erik stared for a moment in a combination of contempt and horror. The pagan dropped his axe and grasped at the sword's blade a little, paying no heed to the blood drawn from his hands as he tried ineffectually to remove it. At last, the strength drained from his hands and his eyes glazed over, devoid of life, his face locked in a mask of fear. Erik stared into the lifeless eyes for a full ten seconds.
“Your Grace! Behind you!”
Erik heard the warning too late – a sharp pain shot through the back of his head and knocked him forward onto his knees. He struggled with consciousness for a moment before the world went black.
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15th of March, 1088 Anno Domini
City of Roskilde, Hertugdømme of Sjælland
Dozens of eyes watched on as Karl Hansen and his men rode through town, heavily armed and armoured. As lords of the realm and close friends of the city's ruling family – Rosenkrantz - they had made their entrance through the gates without obstacle. Now they descended upon St. Lucius' cathedral, gazing up at the travertine structure as it loomed nearer, casting a great shadow over the group. An eerie silence fell over the group and their observers as they came to a halt before the great steps and dismounted.
Karl unslung his axe, and his lackeys silently followed his cue: unsheathing blade, preparing axe and hefting shield at the ready. Without fear, Karl led them up to the doors of the cathedral, cracking the door open slowly and peering in. They moved through the foyer and into the main hall of the cathedral, moving towards the back of the church. Somewhere near the back of the church, a hooded figure stood near the altar, looking downwards and ignoring the approaching gang of men.
“Paterni!” Karl snarled. “Come to your death, wretched knave. Your deceitful practices are at an end!”
The hooded figure looked up at Karl, glaring with darkened eyes at his opponent. Karl was taken aback for a moment as the realization struck him: this was not the Bishop. The stranger reached beneath the folds of his cloak and drew forth a long, sharp blade. Karl finally recognized the man after a moment of peering into the shadowed face, his eyes widening.
“Hvide? What the hell are you doing here?”
Harald Audensen's response was short and simple. “These men are traitors, as I've said! Deal with them at once!”
Upon the words, dozens of well-armed Danes burst out of hiding places in the Chapel and moved towards the would-be assassins with lethal intent. Harald himself unfastened the cloak and shrugged it free of his shoulders. Karl stepped forward to meet him and the two locked in combat, a great melee raging around them. Harald knew his opponent's axe was a fierce and deadly weapon, but it lacked the speed or finesse of his own sword. Karl hacked wildly at his own liege and Harald avoided the strikes with graceful footwork, searching for an opening. As he thrust, Karl pulled himself back out of reach and the two squared off, eye to eye in the heat of the moment.
The duel of Harald and Karl became a popular tale in the years to come. The above depiction by popular 17th century artist Johann Pitt shows the two face off in a dramatized Nordic landscape. Most depictions mention nothing of the blood shed in the church and the event was largely sanitized by church records in favour of the Hvide.
”I have to be careful...if I die here, there is no bright future for this land or my family...” Harald thought to himself. He stepped forward to attack but was forced back again by a second opponent: Sigtryg Hansen. The two brothers renewed their attack together and it was all Harald could do to defend himself against axe, haft and sword. He brought his blade up to meet Sigtryg's blade and they were locked for a moment as Karl hesitated. He started to move to Harald's back, not wanting to hurt his brother.
”No...not here...I will not die!”
His heart froze with fear for a moment as he sensed Karl moving in to attack from behind. With more speed and power than he himself thought he could muster, Harald pushed forward, raising one foot and bringing it crashing down straight on the knee of Sigtryg. Harald easily pushed him back onto the floor and turned just in time to catch Karl's axe-haft with his own sword's blade. Brothers' eyes met momentarily and Harald sensed the fear creeping into his foe's eyes. Although Karl was older, Harald was taller, stronger and had more fighting experience than either of the siblings; one on one, it seemed unlikely that he could be beaten.
Harald pressed his advantage and grabbed hold of the axe in one arm and holding it tight against his side, preventing it from moving. He pried the sword loose from the wood and swung it at Karl, forcing the jarl to drop his weapon and roll back onto the ground to keep his head. Harald calmly, no, almost casually gave the axe a twirl in his hand and grinned.
“You're out of weapons, Karl; what now?” Harald grinned down at him.
Pain shot through Harald's side and his mouth gaped in surprise as something pierced the side of his armour. Sigtryg pulled his blade free from the Hertug's side and Harald nearly collapsed to one knee. He was not content, however, to die easy; pulling away from the wounded brother, he felt the blade withdraw from his ribs and saw that Sigtryg was still only on one leg, his other twisted at an uncomfortable angle. Harald's kick had broken his knee, but he still fought to save his brother's life. Commendable, and Harald was berating himself for forgetting that the man was technically still a threat.
Growling in a combination of frustration, pain and embarrassment, Harald dropped his blade and turned towards Sigtryg. Raising the axe over his head with both hands, the blow was both too swift and powerful for a wounded man on his back to stop. The axe's head dug in without mercy and buried itself deep in the now-shattered ribcage of his foe. Sigtryg clutched at the axe weakly, coughing up blood and staring up in a mask of horror as his strength drained from him.
Karl went for the fallen sword in a scramble, but even as his fingertips brushed the hilt, Harald's boot fell upon its blade, pinning it into the stone floor. His young eyes burned with rage and he stood over the other Hansen like a giant with two great, clenched fists. “I will end you, Karl Hansen. I will end you just as I ended your brother.”
Karl was not content to go down without a fight. He leapt at Harald, hoping to catch his legs out from under him and drag him to the floor, freeing either sword for fighting. This was not as easy as hoped – Harald was an accomplished grappler and fist fighter, a far better one than a swordsman or soldier, and he knew how to deal with such attacks. The smaller man's efforts were rewarded with a sharp knee in the nose, followed by a series of swift and brutal blows to the back of the head and neck. After the fourth punch, Karl stopped moving.
The battle was now more or less over as Harald's men dispatched the rest of the Krøldrups' guard. Numbness began to fade away and pain slowly returned to Harald's side. He reached for the spot, then drew his hand away to find it stained red and wet. His fist clenched and he turned to Sigtryg, ready to finish him off, but the last life had left his veins already. Harald instead retrieved the man's sword, holding it aloft as a momentary trophy. It did not hold the same quality as his own Hvide blade, but it was good enough for the purpose all the same.
“Karl Hansen of Clan Krøldrup...” Harald began. Karl began to very slowly stir, but seemed to be drifting in and out of unconsciousness following the severe beating he had received. “For your attempted murder in cold blood of the Bishop of Roskilde, may he live long in peace, your brother has died and your men too have lost their lives or surrendered. Now I do my duty as the Hertug of Sjælland and Chieftain of the Hvide. May your noble family rest in peace in the Devil's domain.”
Harald's sword fell upon Karl's neck. His men watched in silence as a second blow was delivered, and then a final and third strike to finish the job. The last sons of the Krøldrup were dead. Harald turned towards the altar's crucifix with a solemn stare, and then crossed his chest in respect. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned...”