Ambrose, Prince of Wessex;

Trader of Kiev.

 

 

 

By Bruce Corbett

 

Copyright © 2010  Bruce Corbett

 

Smashwords Edition

 

 



AUTHOR'S NOTE

 

You are about to read a fictional story set in an era several centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire; circa 859 A.D. Ambrose, Prince of Wessex; Trader of Kiev is the first novel of a series. It is a work of fiction, and I freely admit that when I was unable to discover the true facts, or when there was a conflict of opinion between scholars, I did not hesitate to use my literary license to invent facts that would best fit my story. The truth is, however, that most of my story is based on historical reality.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes were already involved in the first skirmishes of a quickly escalating struggle with Danish Vikings, though the major invasion of the Danish 'Great Army' was actually some five years in the future. The slave-trading port of Wyk te Duurstede did exist. The Rus, or some other Viking tribe, probably living in what is presently Sweden, really did travel the Russian rivers in their boats; even navigating as far as the Black and Caspian Sea. The trade to Constantinople is well documented. A Rus chief apparently was invited to Novgorod to help the native rulers.

There is considerable debate as to who actually founded Kiev, but it appears clear that Viking tribesmen were involved at some stage. The Khazars did control the mouths of several major rivers emptying into the Black Sea, and they fought off other marauding nomads who travelled the vast open steppes.

The Viking funeral is based on descriptions by contemporaries of the time. Many towns along the rivers of what is now Russia and the Ukraine were attacked by nomad raiders from the steppes, and this, in fact, continued for several more centuries. There was a documented attack on Kiev by the Pechenegs some twenty years after the date the Russian Chronicles tell us that Dir and Askold arrived in Kiev.

Ambrose clearly did not exist, nor Polonius, yet they may have. This was a time of great turmoil and change in the world. The travels they made in this book are at least plausible. First and foremost, however, this is a novel. I hope you enjoy it. 

 

 

CHAPTER 1.

 

The Vikings!

 

As the first rays of sun pierced the fading night, the throbbing note of a Saxon war-horn echoed through the little village. The sound swelled and then suddenly stopped. Roused by the eerie sound, several village dogs responded with a chorus of barks and yips.

Ambrose, young atheling of Wessex, raised his blond head from his sleeping pallet. His protector, Phillip, weapons-master to a king, was listening intently.

"Phillip, what is it? What is happening?"

"Sleep, Prince. I will investigate. It is probably nothing, but something has roused the dogs, and that worries me."

As Phillip spoke, he threw off his deerskin cover and stood naked.

Ambrose noticed the grizzled warrior did not seem to feel the cold. He reached for the broadsword that he had used in his life to protect three kings and his father had used before that. With the famed blade in his hand, the giant warrior stumbled through the doorway of the sturdy residence. Ambrose, wrapped in a deerskin, strode close behind.

The mystery of the blaring horn was quickly solved. The sentry in the watch tower over the main gate lay crumpled over the log wall of his post. His long signal horn lay on the ground below. The distance to the gate was considerable and the light still poor, but Ambrose could see what appeared to be a javelin protruding from the man's chest.

Even as Ambrose and Phillip stared, a motley horde of raiders poured through the open gate. Almost simultaneously, Ambrose's peripheral vision caught more motion at the other end of the village. He turned his head in time to see a second group burst through the much narrower harbour gate. Ambrose realized instantly that the sturdy log walls of the village had suddenly become a potential death trap.

"Sweet merciful Jesus!' Phillip muttered. 'The pagan devils are amongst God's sheep, and there is not even time to get the villagers up and prepared."

Ambrose stared at the hut where an even dozen of the king's own Personal Guard slept, not twenty paces away!

"Phillip, my brother's Personal Guard . . ."

"Nay, back you go, Prince. If you value your life, you will return to your lodging and bar the door! He raised his voice in sudden anger.

"Aldrich! Eadward! Get the king's thanes out here! Satan's devils are amongst us, and it is time to show the heathen bastards some good Saxon steel!"

The dogs' noise turned to a shriller barking, and then a frenzied yapping as they charged at the strangers. The business end of axes and spears greeted the boldest, and suddenly there was no barrier at all between the Vikings and the villagers.

Ambrose heard muffled noises from the huts where his escort was quartered, but he feared that it was already too late for any systematic defence. Phillip would need more men and the few he had, had had more than their fair share of mead the night before.

The attackers, now safely through both gates and aware that they had lost the element of surprise, broke forth into battle cries. Their wild cries of "Odin! Odin!" woke any villagers who had not already been roused by the growing din.

As the mob of cloaked warriors fanned out in disciplined teams, Ambrose knew with a sinking certainty that the worst nightmares of Christian Wessex were being realized. These pirate raiders, the dreaded sea-Vikings, scourge of all civilized Europe, must have slipped past the shepherd sentries on the lower Meon River. The bastards had somehow managed a secret landing!

Moving efficiently in multiple pairs, the raiders swiftly moved to each hut, charged in, and cut down anyone who was armed or dared resist. Phillip spoke quietly to his young charge.

"Now, Prince! Inside and shut the God-cursed door!"

Ambrose retreated to the residence, but kept the door open a crack and watched his protector standing before an even dozen pair of barbarians advancing toward him at a run.

Phillip yelled again for his men. Even Ambrose could see that they had only seconds left to form a defensive line. "Get out here, you lazy bastards! I have work for you!"

The running line of pagan warriors closed the distance quickly, however, even as the first of Phillip's men stumbled out into the soft morning light. The befuddled warriors stepped into the light, only to be struck down by a fusillade of javelins. The three nearest Vikings, having already thrown their spears at the groggy Guardsmen, drew swords or axes and slowly sidled towards Phillip.

The attackers saw Phillip's giant sword and realized that few men living could effectively use such a massive weapon. The naked man holding it, however, twirled it with contemptuous ease while he awaited their arrival.

Buckler held high, the first Viking came within reach and swung his axe at Phillip. The Saxon warrior parried the blow skilfully and retaliated with a fast low swing of his long sword. Not expecting anyone to be able to swing such a huge weapon with such speed, the warrior was unable to lower his shield in time. The massive blade of polished iron hit the lower corner of the attacker's buckler with tremendous force and glanced off it on to the man's legs.

The powerful stroke, even slowed, almost cut entirely through the man's right leg. With a look of stunned disbelief, the Viking crumpled to the ground.

Ambrose watched Phillip turn toward the other two. They seemed to show a sudden respect for the Saxon thane. Calling a companion to join them, they formed a loose line and spread out, hoping to trap Phillip against the hut wall. Without their spears, they would have to close on him if they wanted to get him.

Three swords rose in unison, and Ambrose bit his knuckle in fear for the giant protector. Sighing, Phillip started his huge sword swinging in glittering arcs that threatened death or mutilation to anyone foolish enough to enter its reach. The defence was effective against any single foe, but it could not provide adequate protection on three exposed sides indefinitely. With precision born of obvious experience, the Viking directly in front of Phillip tentatively engaged him, while the other two edged in on either side.

Phillip's powerful vertical stroke split the front man's wooden shield in two. Before the surprised warrior could recover, the thane thrust right through the man's chain-mail. The hard-driven blade penetrated right through to the man's heart.

The Viking fell beside his own crippled comrade. As soon as Phillip thrust, however, Ambrose knew that it would take a few precious seconds for the weapons-master to withdraw the blade. In using the point of his weapon, he had left himself vulnerable on both sides. The Viking warriors, too, were veterans, and they had been patiently waiting for any opening they could exploit. While the fur-clad barbarian on his left aimed a cut at Phillip's shoulder, the man's partner on the right swung his own blade. Even as Phillip parried the first cut, the second flashing sword begin its descent. The big man collapsed.

 

 

Ambrose closed the wooden door and then realized that there was no bar to secure it shut. He ran to his bed to get his own sword when he felt the renewed chill of the cool morning air. He turned toward the door he had so recently closed. The door was open again, and the early morning light silhouetted two strange men!

Ambrose was momentarily paralysed with sudden fear. Though not the giants of Anglo-Saxon imagination, the northern strangers were nevertheless strong and fearsome looking men.

Hastily Ambrose remembered the catechism so well known to all civilized Britons. He repeated it silently. "Oh Lord, deliver us from the fury of the Northmen!"

Ambrose's brief prayer was interrupted as Dael, his tutor and a frail and old man of over sixty winters, rose stiffly up out of his own nearby bed to protest the intrusion. The old man's hearing was going, and he was near-sighted, which only increased his natural garrulousness.

The scholar stumbled towards the door to confront the intruders. "Just who are you that you dare to come in here and disturb my lord's sleep!? Get you gone before I have you thrashed!"

A quick swing of a sword ended Dael's protestations. The look of indignation never left the old man's face as he toppled backward with his throat slit.

Ambrose, splashed with his tutor's blood, was suddenly trembling. He drew his own sword from its scabbard. The second Viking swordsman noted both the movement and spotted the shiny blade. He stepped forward and swung his own weapon. At the last second the sword was twisted sideways, and the powerful blow descended on Ambrose's arm and numbed it. The sword fell onto the fresh rushes that covered the earthen floor.

Unable to understand the words thrown at him, Ambrose stood, irresolute, while cradling his injured arm with his other hand. Finally a sax point conveyed clearly that they wanted him outside. Still nursing his numbed arm and unmindful of his nudity, he stumbled outside of the hut that the villagers had so recently erected in honour of the young atheling's visit.

Outside, a scene of horror and debauchery greeted the young prince. The prince's mind struggled to accept what he saw. His entire Personal Guard lay butchered in front of their residence. Phillip, his mentor and guardian, lay unmoving on the ground. The entire town was some hundred odd paces in each direction, and was surrounded by a dry moat and palisade. The village was bathed in the reddish light from the sun just rising above the horizon. Under its gentle light, numerous victims were being driven towards the central square. Where men had fought in defence of their families or treasures, bodies lay still and blood-stained. Several more men were cut down even as Ambrose watched.

Nearby, young children were being callously butchered, along with old men and women. Perhaps, felt Ambrose in a momentary flash of pity, they were the lucky ones. The older girls and the women, most still naked from their beds, were driven, with much prodding and laughter, towards the central square.

Already some of the huts, having been stripped of their meagre treasures, were going up in flames. A touch of a Viking spear point encouraged Ambrose to keep moving. In shock, he shambled towards the fast-growing group of boys and women in the square.

The Viking warriors both fought and pillaged with grim efficiency. They were, in short order, through with the last Saxon home.

The blood-spattered Viking warriors gathered in the village square, along with their captives and the loot. For the first time, Ambrose saw that the 'great savage horde' in reality consisted of perhaps a hundred men; barely two small ship-crews.

The captives were allowed to cover their nakedness with rags from the piles of belongings that just the night before had been theirs. They were then tied with rope looped from neck to neck. Ambrose's mind, curiously detached from the terrible scenes he had just witnessed, idly compared the human pack train, now being secured and loaded down with the villagers' own goods, to the mule trains of the London traders.

The traders heralded spring when they arrived at the royal court on their yearly journey around the island. Faithful as the seasons, the trade caravans had visited his father's lands annually since beyond the memory of even the very oldest living men.

Ambrose suddenly remembered that the time for the yearly visit was soon. If he didn't return to his brother's court soon, he would miss the excitement of seeing the laid-out treasures, gleaned from a huge and mysterious world. He would also miss the festivities that would continue unabated for two full days and nights. It had even been his hope to celebrate by lying with a willing wench for the first time; an event he had recently been dreaming about a lot.

Suddenly the state of passivity and shock lifted, and Ambrose felt the keenness of fresh loss and grief. It cut into him like a sharp knife. His own men were lying butchered nearby. Phillip, friend and mentor, had died defending him. His tutor had his throat slit, and around him men, women and children were still dying. These were his brother's subjects! These people had sworn allegiance to the crown of Wessex, sacrificing a measure of their personal freedom in exchange for guaranteed protection from the pagan hosts. In God's own time, they would have sworn allegiance to a nephew, to another of his brothers, or even to him, if the Witan so willed it.

Brought back to reality by the dawning implications of what was happening, the adrenaline coursed through his arteries. For the first time since he awoke, he was both fully alert and not disoriented. He saw that he was soon to be added to the coffle. The rope would effectively end any chance of escape.

Darting between two Vikings who were more than a little distracted by the glimpses of soft curves on a pretty girl stooping to pick up a load of goods, Ambrose raced madly for a pile of logs stacked against the palisade. Using them as steps, he quickly scrambled up to within a few feet of the tops of the sharpened stakes. From that height, he was easily able to vault over the top.

With the expectation of a spear in his back at each step he took, Ambrose had leapt without hesitation or estimation. He landed hard, but exultantly, twelve feet below.

Remembering the Weapons-Master's training, he let his body absorb the shock by collapsing and rolling. Scrambling to his feet, he quickly climbed the embankment of the dry moat and raced across the budding fields. Less than a thousand foot-lengths away lay the dense forest and freedom. Lithe of body and unencumbered by any sort of clothing, Ambrose felt sure he would now be able, since he was out of spear-range, to give the sea-pirates a good run for their gold.

Lungs heaving and heart pounding, he ran with a last desperate burst of speed. Ambrose safely reached the forest's edge. He hoped its cover would make his recapture impossible.

The prince knew that the Vikings had to move quickly, for within hours the alarm fires would have been lit both up and down the coast, and, for a day's journey in every direction, the thanes would gather their sworn men and march to the smoke.

In his eye's mind Ambrose could envision the Saxon Fyrd now, as he had seen it so many times; the thanes and wealthy churls that made up the core of the force, heavily armed and mounted. And behind the Fyrdmen of the king, who held land in exchange for their military services, would come their retainers and the landless churls. Many of these would march on foot. Some would carry bows and axes, while others carried mattocks or spears. All, however, would be armed and ready to fight the heathen invader.

Ambrose knew that these assorted weapons could be used to deadly effect in support of the better-armed fyrdmen, as long as the force was leavened with enough well-armed veterans. The Saxons of Wessex, when they managed to gather enough forces quickly enough, had turned the table on the Viking invaders more than once. Even as the image of brave Saxon warriors filled Ambrose's mind, his eyes caught a flash of movement to the left. From behind a giant oak, an evil-looking warrior stepped forth. For the second time that day a sword blade hit Ambrose flat-side on, and this time he toppled heavily to the ground, like a poleaxed ox.

 

 

CHAPTER 2.

 

Phillip Carries Ambrose, and They Reach the Ships.

 

 

As Ambrose regained consciousness, he felt a terrible throbbing in his temples. As long as he didn't attempt to move any part of his body, the pulsing thunder remained bearable.

Gradually the prince regained control of his senses. Very slowly, as if his mind was returning from a very long nightmare, he searched through his memories. As he reconstructed the confusing events, anger, mixed with self-pity and fear, pushed aside his previous preoccupation with the pain.

Abruptly Ambrose realized that the constant jarring he felt was his bruised body moving. He opened his eyes and forced his pupils to focus. The prince shifted his weight, and instantly a gruff voice responded.

"Lie still, Prince. You're safe enough for now," it said.

Ambrose slowly forced his thoughts to go past the pain. He ran through the catalogue of voices he knew. The voice was one he had never expected to hear again . . . Phillip! Fearless warrior; long-time member of the king's Personal Guard, and Weapons-master to royal princes!

The gruff familiar voice brought tears to Ambrose's eyes. Once again he felt the cocoon of security this brave warrior and faithful friend represented. The feeling was only momentary, however, as Ambrose's vision also followed the loose rope from Phillip's neck to that of the several peasant girls following. In the periphery of his vision, he saw one of the cloaked and armoured raiders stalking along, his naked and blood-stained sword poised to punish disobedience.

Ambrose, with his head pounding and his stomach churning, managed to croak a few words. "Phillip, put me down. I think I can walk."

Phillip responded quietly. "Nay Prince, for if you are on your feet and unable to keep the pace, they will kill you where you stand. Lie still and let me carry you until you have regained some more of your strength."

Secure over Phillip's shoulder, Ambrose was about to let himself succumb to his weakness, until he saw the upper extremity of a terrible gash that was on the back of Phillip's lower neck. He spoke more easily now.

"By the good God, Phillip! You're injured!"

"The pagan twisted his blade as he struck me so that it is nothing more than a surface cut. 'Tis nothing, Prince, except that it stopped me from being at your side when they took you. I am so sorry that I failed you!"

Touched by the eloquence of this man of few words, Ambrose started to demand that Phillip put him down at once. As he was trying to organize the words, however, he slipped back into unconsciousness.

 

 

When next the blackness lifted from Ambrose's mind, he found himself lying on soft, yielding moss. As he opened his eyes he had an ant's view of Phillip looming above, sitting cross-legged beside him.

Not more than fifty feet away lay the gentle ripples of the Meon River. The tide being out, an expanse of wet sand and gravel was exposed that stretched almost all the way between the beach and two long-ships that lay close offshore.

Ambrose noted with sudden surprise that the Vikings seemed totally unprepared for any hostile action. An attack from an avenging Saxon force could cut the Vikings to pieces! Instead of being in a military formation that could quickly transform into a defensive posture, the enemy warriors were strung out along the entire length of the slave coffle. Equally important, the Danish ships seem to have been stranded by a retreating tide.

Ambrose felt a surge of sudden hope. Saxon horsemen charging along the wet beach could separate the Viking marauders from their ships, and archers and spearmen from the near-by woods could easily finish off any cores of resistance.

Where was his brother's fyrd? The smoke from the burning village should have alerted the fyrdmen for miles in all directions. Why weren't his brother's brave warriors charging the disorganized and stranded enemy? Instead of brave Saxon fyrdmen charging across the tidal flats, he saw only a human chain of captives ripple and struggle to its feet. Shouts and prodding spears made it very clear that the prisoners' break was over.

Phillip spoke warningly to Ambrose. "Stand now, Prince, if ever you could. Now that they have seen you conscious, they will kill you where you stand if you do not seem capable of keeping up."

Doggedly, and calling on sources of energy he didn't know he had, Ambrose struggled to his feet. "Except for a splitting headache and some nausea, I think I'm all right, Phillip."

Unfettered, he was able to stand at Phillip's side. The coffle of captives in front of Phillip were now in motion, and Phillip was forced to walk across the wet sand towards the beached long-ships.

Ambrose continued to walk at Phillip's side. He saw that, as he started to move, a gaunt Viking clasping a wicked-looking spear moved silently along, paralleling his route. Ambrose spoke quietly to his giant companion.

"Phillip, I'm confused. I thought that you were killed when the second bastard struck you. I ran to get my sword when two Vikings burst through the door. One killed old Dael and the other disarmed me. When I didn't see you in the square, I leapt the palisade and ran for the safety of the forest. That's about all I remember. I was about to enter the woods when I caught a glimpse of a warrior and then darkness closed over me."

Phillip's gruff voice was music to Ambrose's ears. "There's little enough to tell, Prince. I was struck a glancing blow from the side, but it didn't crack my thick skull. When they saw I wasn't mortally wounded, they dragged me to the square. I only awoke after you made your run for freedom. I'm told that you had the bad luck to run into the arms of one of their outer sentries."

As they spoke, the human baggage train neared the closer of the two long-ships. Ambrose, a keen sailor, studied the two ships critically. He could see that they were clinker-built of overlapped planks, and he could even see the rust spots where iron rivets held the hull together.

Sailors at his brother's royal court had told him that the swift Viking vessels could withstand even the most violent pounding of the North Sea. Relatively shallow of draft, the ships could sail with impunity through shallow and treacherous water. Above each ship towered the dread symbol of these pagan Northerners; an intricately carved dragon's head. The heads were exceeded in height only by the single masts, which towered overhead. By their sheer size, they looked fully capable of supporting the weight of a single huge square sail.

A Viking strode purposely towards the middle of the coffle. He drew his sax, and Ambrose wondered momentarily if he was going to kill someone. The warrior, however, only sliced the rope between two women. The captives were now in two separate groups.

Ambrose and Phillip were part of the second group. They were herded out into knee-deep water and then forced to climb aboard the nearer ship. Once again, Ambrose's mind was stimulated by the novel situation, even as he obeyed the threatening gestures and obediently moved amidships, towards the base of the bare mast. Once seated, the prince inspected the ship from his new vantage point. Though he saw the hull was decked, Ambrose knew that relatively little room lay below, except for some limited storage space. In the stern, there was a small but gaily striped canvas tent.

The loot stolen from the village was carefully wrapped and then stored under the planking, and the captives all sat just aft of the great mast. Surrounded by the fierce sea-raiders, exhausted by their ordeal of the last few hours, and again mindful of their terrible vulnerability, several of the younger women began to wail. Finally a short, swarthy crew-member, who had been with the commander in the stern, was sent forward to where the wailing women were. His accent was abominable, but his Anglish was comprehensible.

"We not able to sail for another little time, until tide come higher. Any noise until then, you sorry!"

Matching his gestures to his words, he uncoiled a stout length of rope. One woman, the grief of having both her baby and husband killed in front of her fresh in her mind, was still unable to stifle her wails. The rope lashed out with a vicious whistle, struck her back, and curled around to tear at her breasts.

The woman responded with a scream and then a renewed wail of horror and pain. When the Viking next drew his sax, one of the other women, sensing his intentions, placed her hand firmly over the wailing woman's mouth. Although the distraught woman bit the hand until it bled, the neighbour would not let go, and her cries were effectively stifled.

Satisfied, the swarthy sailor resheathed his weapon and continued his speech. "Some of you will be chained. No chains for all, so some must be tied with rope. You touch knot, you die - understand?"

Even as he spoke, he beckoned to a group of waiting sailors. The crewmen stepped forward with a long chain and an armload of massive iron collars. With less than twenty metal collars, and over thirty captives, they collared only the most mature of the captives. One by one the chosen were led to a massive oak stump that lay amidships. There, a brawny man, presumably the ship's smith, placed a rivet through a hole in the neck collars, and, with the captive laying his neck on the stump, hammered each rivet open.

Within minutes all of the men, and a few of the most intransigent women, were connected together by iron links going from collar to collar. One end was fastened to itself through the last person's collar. The other end was permanently fastened to a large iron bolt set into the mast mounting. Ambrose was mortified to be tied by rope with the beardless youths and the girls, until he realized that his own sparse beard and small statue had caused the Vikings to misjudge his age.

Again the swarthy sailor approached them from his post in the stern. "The ship, soon she float again. You give us no trouble, we no hurt you. Any trouble - you die. No one to move without you ask him." At that he pointed to a young sailor, little older than Ambrose himself, who was sitting idly on the deck just behind them. At his shipmate's gesture, the young man smiled slightly, exposing bad teeth, and hefted an axe.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3.

 

The Ship.

 

The ship lifted free of the sand with a sucking sound. As each warrior was sitting on his storage chest and had his oar pushed out and ready, the ship rapidly got underway. Ambrose was surprised to see how many empty chests there were. The vacant seats seemed to indicate that the crew had somewhere suffered severe casualties. To the tune of some chant unknown to Ambrose, the warriors stroked rhythmically. Noise was obviously no longer a concern. The sea pirates were again free of the land.

With some twenty long oars to a side, the craft was soon turned about and heading towards the open sea. Almost immediately Ambrose was able to spot, on one of the headlands, a large party of horsemen. The armour of many men glinted in the sunlight. Because of the distance, they looked like children's' carved wooden toys.

Anger filled the young prince. In spite of the fact that the Saxons should have been able to muster almost 500 men with a few hours notice, they had chosen to let the pirates just sail away! Where was the courage that had brought the ancestors of his brother's people over the water in ships, and, along with the tribes of the Jutes and Angles, allowed them to conquer this land from a formidable enemy? Where were the glorious warriors of song and legend who had successfully defeated entire British armies almost single-handedly? He turned to Phillip and pointed.

"Look, Phillip! The fyrdmen have gathered, and they knew where we were.'

A single tear rolled down the prince's cheek. 'Why? Why did they not come to our rescue?"

Phillip stared hard for long moments before he answered. "I count enough warriors to be a match for two ship crews. That leaves only treachery or cowardice."

Ambrose glared at the mounted fyrdmen. "Who would betray us, Phillip?"

"There are many royal Athelings, Prince, and few enough shires to go around. I do not know if you were betrayed, but I do know there are many jealousies in the royal household. Your own father promised your mother on her deathbed that he would someday give you Dorset to rule."

"But Phillip, my mother's British ancestors once ruled it as sovereign kings."

The burly thane shrugged "That fact does not make it yours, Atheling. A major province of Wessex's heartland was promised you, and that is enough to cause jealousy."

"But of who?"

"Well, Ethelbert is new to the throne, and he does not much love you. Unlike Ethelbald, he intends to keep the various subject kingdoms united under his crown."

"True, Phillip, but Dorset is not going to make a difference to Ethelbert's power, even if he did choose to honour my father's request."

"Ethelbert is ambitious, Prince. One less atheling around would simplify matters."

"But Ethelbert has not even agreed to give me Dorset!"

"With you gone, there is no need to even consider honouring your father's promise."

Ambrose sat silently for a long time. At last he spoke. "Do you really think Ethelbert could have done this to us, Phillip?"

"I do not know, Prince, but it is at least possible. Someone kept the sentries on the river-bank from sounding the alarm, and perhaps held the fyrdmen back from riding to our rescue."

A new resolution grew in Ambrose. Just let me return safely to my brother's court, and I will hunt down my betrayer! If only . . . Ambrose knew he dreamed the thoughts of adolescents. Reality was that he was a captive of a cruel and pagan people. His fate might yet be to be castrated so he could safely serve in the boudoirs of noble women in the East, or perhaps he would be hitched to an iron plough; to live out his life as a human beast-of-burden.

The ship started to rock more violently and Ambrose feared that soon they would be on the open sea. The faint sound of a ram's horn wafted to his ear, and Ambrose knew that the shepherd sentries had finally decided to announce the movement of the sinister ships now nosing their way towards the open sea.

Within what seemed like only a few hundred heartbeats, the two ships cleared the last headland, and Angleland had been left behind. The rest of the prisoners sat as quietly and glumly as Ambrose. Until the land had been left behind, there had been hope for some kind of miracle. Now, it was clear that there would be no miracle.

Casting aside his despairing thoughts with a great effort, Ambrose spoke to Phillip, who had pulled on the chain until he could sit near his charge.

"Phillip, do the Vikings coast the shores, as do our ships, or do they really venture beyond sight of shore and sail directly across the great Northern Sea?"

Phillip answered quietly. "Of that I know little, my Prince, but I suspect that they will coast east to the white cliffs. From there they can see across to land friendly to their kind. From the Narrows, south to the mouth of the Seine, lie settlements of Danes. The Frankish king is too busy elsewhere, and the Danes too powerful, for him to drive the heathen pirates from his shores."

"But if', Ambrose mused, 'the raiders sail east, they might pass the mouth of the Thames, where even now my brother's continental courier fleet sits idle. Is it not possible that our vessels would give chase to two pirate ships?"

Phillip spoke glumly. "I wish I could give you hope, Prince, but it's been many years since the Saxon fleet tried to clear the waters of pirates. These ships are under-manned, but they are very impressive to the watchers-on-the-shore. I think your brother's captains count themselves lucky if they can successfully escort ambassadors and official royal messengers to safe territory on the Frankish coast."

"Phillip, old Dael told me many times how our ancestors broke the back of massive Roman fleets. We still sing the ballads!"

"Truth be told, they broke the backs of a few local ships long after the main Roman fleet was withdrawn. We have become land-people, farmers, and the Vikings are now the daring sailors. Each year now they come south again. The islands to the north of Briton no longer swear allegiance to us. Instead, they have become bases for the pirates. The northern Saxon lands are all facing raids from the Danes, and the Norse are sweeping down the Irish coast. There are few island kingdoms left which have not suffered the calamity of having the pagan Vikings raid their shores. And finally, Prince, if it is your brother who is the culprit, then there is little chance his ships will dash out after two Viking long-ships. Even if not, there is little likelihood that news of your abduction has yet reached your brother's ears, let alone the commanders of the fleet in far-away Kent."

As they talked quietly, the two ships moved parallel with the coast. Ambrose realized that they were moving steadily towards the Thames, but he had lost all hope.

Whenever the fickle breeze gave evidence of blowing from their stern, ten or eleven sailors eagerly hauled up the great square sail. This done, the oars would be shipped and all the sailors would relax on deck. When the breeze shifted back, however, as it often did, since they were still near the coast, the sail would come crashing down and the oars would be pushed out again. The Vikings were clearly in a hurry to leave the area.

Further, Ambrose noticed a strange transformation of the warrior-sailors. Although when not on duty they tended to cluster about the captives and ogle the younger women, they did not lay a hand on them. Rude comments and obscene gestures were the worst things that befell the captives. The women, already more humiliated than they had ever been in their lives, took the visual inspection of their bodies mutely, or broke into sobs of mortification and despair.

Ambrose cast about for an explanation of this in his mind. Finally, he ventured to ask his faithful weapons tutor. "Phillip, why don't they take our women? They seem to ache to pleasure them."

"Prince, I can only guess. I would like to think it is because they think of their own women and children at home, but I doubt it. The Vikings are known as brutal masters."

"Then why?"

"Most like, they are forbidden by the captain. At sea is not the time to fight over women. It doesn't lend itself to ship-board discipline."

Ambrose sat quietly for a few minutes, digesting the comment. His mind, normally very active, sped on, questioning the events of the last day, as well as the reason why they occurred.

"Phillip, I had heard that on Viking ships all men are free companions. Why then, do the men man oars like galley-slaves, and obey their leader as if he were a god?"

"Prince, Galley slaves require extra food and water, and must be constantly watched to prevent rebellion. By replacing the slaves with warriors, you more than double your ship force and, at the same time, need to carry less food and water.

I understand that each pledges obedience to the commander for the duration of the voyage. It seems to me to be the only way any expedition can work effectively. I expect no less from my fyrdmen when I lead them into battle. It also occurs to me, Prince, that we must soon learn their heathen tongue if we are to survive."

It was as the royal Weapons-Master talked that Ambrose for the first time became aware of the fact that none of the other prisoners were talking. Instead, they all seemed to be looking at him and Phillip with pleading eyes. They seemed pathetically hopeful that these two noblemen could somehow solve their problems.

The looks of desperation cut Ambrose deeply. Once again he remembered that, to these villagers, he was the king's representative. As an atheling, he was so far above their status that they were normally afraid to even talk to him. Shame for his ineffectiveness and humiliation for his own plight filled him. He bowed his head forward until it was resting on his knees, and there he sat, mute with despair.

Phillip, seeing the disinclination of his young charge to talk further, slipped into a state of apathy himself.

 

 

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