In the dead of night, a band of Vikings ravage a lonely convent on the Brittany coast –and their fearsome leader makes a decision that will eventually lead to his downfall.
Ranulf de Lannion is fifteen years old. Crippled, deformed and abandoned by his family to the charity of the convent, he is seized by the Vikings during a midnight raid. Contemptuously nicknamed 'The Scraeling" by his captors, his future appears grim.
Harald Sigurdsson, or 'Hardrada' as he will come to be known, is the leader of the Viking band. A violent mercenary with designs on the throne of Norway, Hardrada abducts The Scraeling on a whim.
Ranulf grows into an invaluable asset, smoothing Hardrada's path over their thirty-five years together from mercenary to commander of the Varangian Guard, all the way to king of Norway.
But all is not as it seems in the heart of Ranulf de Lannion. Having sworn secret revenge upon Hardrada for the murders at the convent, he vows to end the day of the Viking forever. When the king of Norway launches an attack against the Anglo-Saxon throne of England in 1066, what role will The Scraeling play in bringing the age of the Viking to an end?
It is Yuletide in Nidaros, Norway in the year of our Lord 1066 and that needs to change soon. This pagan holiday must become Christ's Mass or the Feast of Our Lord at least. Indeed, since its last professed Christian monarch, this land has lain under the hand of a known pagan and before him a king much too busy for Christ. Yes, much must change. If God will allow me to do so, I will work for that change. I, the cripple, once the lowest of the low; once a captive and a trembling second away from the bite of the knife across my throat; once an object of derision and pity.
How did it begin, this story of mine? Much as any man's life begins – in the blood and suffering of women. It began thirty-five years ago when ruin and death burst from the sea to wash over a place where women practiced love in the service of God, reminding those who shut themselves away from the world that no refuge short of the Kingdom of Heaven is safe from Lucifer and his devils.
My story continued through blood, shed both in battle and out, through greed, envy and ambition. It saw me become wealthy. It saw me in the company of the great ones of an empire and in the bed of a queen. It made me the confidant of kings.
On the other side of things, it led me into the sin of easing my conscience by telling it that many small evils are excusable if they lead to the ending of a great evil.
Truly, the Book does not lie when it asks, "How are the mighty fallen?"
From henceforth I will make what amends I can and perform such penance as will mitigate my debt to God. I will build where once I helped tear down; I will heal where once I wounded; I will lead and guide where once I schemed and deceived, and I will pass my life in love where once life only nursed and fed my hatred. And I will do these things for the good of my adopted country and for my own hope of eternal life.
But if I am truly to atone for my past I must begin by confronting it; by living it once more, for the last time. So in these pages I lay it before you, as truthfully as it is already laid forth in God's great book.
By that same care for truth I say that mine is not a pretty story, and it does me no credit when I tell of how I passed my life in serving a man I hated and feared. Aye, I served him in battle, in council, in murder and intrigue, always to one end — to have my revenge. For what he was mocked God who had given him physical stature, shrewdness, charm and a skill at arms that made him the foremost soldier of my time. But the Devil gave him his soul, and in the end it outweighed the other gifts.
The man I knew as leder was born in 1015 in Ringerike, a district of Norway known as the Uplandende. He was of royal blood, on his mother's side at least, for Aasta Gudbrandsdatter was first queen to Harald Grenske of Norway and then wife to my leder's father, Sigurd Syr. It was always his boast that his father was the bastard grandson of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway; but the skald Askell's lips would twitch when this was mentioned. He would say as much or as little as would suggest to the speaker that tales told usually stretch with the telling and that being half-royal was surely better than being not royal in any degree.
Whatever the truth, the sons of Sigurd were half-brothers to the child of Aasta and Grenske, Olaf II, called St Olaf after his death, who unwisely made an enemy of the Dane called Cnut the Great, and died at the battle of Stiklestad. Olaf's youngest half-brother, the man who would become my master, Harald Sigurdsson, nearly died with him. Indeed, the then fifteen-year-old had fought a man's fight all that day and left the field senseless from the loss of blood that had followed the sword cut he took in killing a Danish berserker who had broken through the shield wall to Olaf's standard.
Only the devotion of some of Olaf's carls had got Harald from the field to the safety of a peasant cottage where he spent long weeks of healing hidden from Cnut's hunters, while a drakkar, a Viking longship, was found and crewed to take Aasta's youngest into exile.
What was there for a princeling marked for death in his own land? Only exile and the chance to sell his sword to one in need of it - but in that, the strapping youth had one or two advantages. He was of royal descent to begin with, but was also a born leader of men who had known his own mind since the childhood during which he had boasted to his royal half-brother that he would rather harvest enemies than corn.
He remembered the sagas sung by the wandering skalds who sought the meal and bed they could always find at the hall of Sigurd Syr, and the sagas, in turn, made him a youth who would go out of his way to confront danger that he might stare it down in the manner of one worthy of Valhalla. And this he did with a ruthlessness and a strength of purpose that caused those who came to know of it to shake their heads and murmur prayers to their god.
I am The Scraeling and I served Harald Hardrada.
The coast of Brittany, August 1031
There was menace in the air as the field mouse moved uncertainly through the moonlight that slid in and out of the clouds, dappling the land below with light and shade. The shifting light held danger in the mystery of its shadows, and the tiny creature in the long grass at the edge of the clearing suspected it enough to flare pink nostrils to the sky in search of the threat that lurked in the dark.
But nothing moved at ground level save the faintest of breezes and on it there was nothing but the faint tang of the sea a mile distant; nothing to alarm the rodent by sound, smell or vibration. So, hesitantly at first and then more boldly, it made towards the raspberries that clustered where the parent plant hung low in the deep shadow of a tree and there, its forebodings gone, the little creature began to gorge. Completely taken with its meal, it never saw the glint of moonlight on a silver streak of fur, and if it felt the air displaced by the armored claw that smashed it to extinction it had no time to react.
The badger dragged mouse, earth and berries towards its mouth and, in its turn, began to gorge. It was an old badger, ever alert for the scent and sound of man, so as the faintest of vibrations rolled through the ground and registered in its belly, it reared back and up to sniff the air just as the mouse had done. It caught a scent that caused it to move slowly back until a rear claw touched the lip of its sett and the thickset animal oozed slowly back over the edge of the burrow.
The vibration grew greater and the creature pressed backwards into its burrow as a shadow fell across the edge of the clearing. For a long moment nothing moved. A low hiss whispered through the air. The source of the shadow moved swiftly across the moonlit glade, followed by other shapes, grotesque and huge in the shifting light.
The men from the sea sank to cover in the trees on the far side of the clearing, waiting for the scout to return. Across the glade they grouped together, and although no word was spoken by any, a longer shaft of light from the moon lit up bearded faces tense with expectation and alight with the anticipation of what was to come. Here and there a tongue moistened dry lips while broken-nailed fingers flexed on the shafts of swords, axes and spears.
At length, the scout returned and spoke in a low murmur to one of the crouching men, one whose face in the moonlight was incongruous in its youthfulness, his only flaw an arm hideously scarred by a crudely-done cauterization.
"Nothing moves, leder. No lights, no sound. What now?"
Harald looked about him, gestured to another shadowy form and pointed wide and to the right.
"Skallagrim - your party to cut the road."
Ten men rose and moved off at a trot in the direction given while the main body moved carefully and slowly through the trees until they thinned, revealing the outlines of several buildings clustered about a small, whitewashed church with a bell tower at its seaward end. Harald whistled softly and two men turned to him.
"Thorkill and Sweyn— to the church," he said. "That bell must not ring. Go."
And the two men slid forward to the door beneath the bell tower, losing themselves in the shadows of its deep recess.
"Bakehouse. Alehouse. Stables. There – " Harald said as he lifted his scarred arm in the moonlight, "there's where they sleep, and where we'll find them. Take your pleasure, but take it swiftly. What you take will be all you will eat in these next days, so if you would fill your bellies then, be quick about filling theirs now!"
The group parted for Harald to move through and to the right, in the direction of the sleeping quarters. But they had hardly begun to skirt through the trees at the edge of the clearing when a dog's high bark of alarm sounded in the stillness and was immediately answered by several more.
"Odin's balls!" Harald snarled. "Skallagrim's clumsy bastards've roused the dogs. On! On!"
At his command, twenty men broke cover to sprint for the largest building, brandishing weapons and baying like hounds. A door at the far end of the building flew open and a woman in a white shift burst from it, racing toward the stables. She threw herself through the wicket door and slammed it shut behind her. Her pursuers arrived just in time to hear the thud of a heavy bar dropping into the sockets, locking the door from inside.
"Is there a door at the end?" Harald shouted. "Make for the door at the end!"
The raiders at the locked door swung axes and hammers against it. A few moments later and well ahead of the nearest raiders who were racing down the length of the building, a door at the other end of the stables crashed open and a horse erupted through it with a young man sprawled along its bare back. With its rider digging in heels, the horse bounded forward on to the road that led inland past the buildings that surrounded the convent.
"Leave it!" Harald snarled to those who bellowed their disappointment in the dust of the horse's passing.
"Leave him to Skallagrim! The church! The larders! The alehouse! Move, you droppings of the raven, move – look, there! See!"
The soft moonlight reached into the stable and a white shift gleamed in its radiance as two men sprang through the door left open by the horse and its rider to grab the woman who had barred the other door in their faces but a moment before. She was of middle age, her pock-marked face twisting as she screamed in terror and struggled against the rough hands that mauled her as the Vikings yanked her forward into the open yard.
"For you, Harald? First right?" one of the Vikings who held the struggling woman asked as he tightened his grip on her arm.
"No, let those nigh as old and ugly as she is have her – you and Ulf. The younger women are still abed! Come on!"
And Harald raced across the yard for the door through which the woman had come from the main building, and from which came a babel of cries as those within awoke to the tumult of Vikings rampaging through the buildings of the convent of Les Trois Étoiles, smashing doors and shutters. Then, the men were upstairs at the door of the nuns' dormitory.
The nuns fell silent and for a moment no one moved as the women looked wildly about them for deliverance from the nightmare of bearded faces and iron helmets as the rank odors of the male bodies pressed in upon them. Just as Harald arrived, one young nun screamed and hell was unleashed.