Jorvik, by Romeo Esparrago

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by Joe Vadalma


The year was 1977. The archeology dig at the site of an old candy factory in the city of Coppergate in the north of England had been going on for two years. Each week more thousand-year-old relics from the Viking city of Jorvik were being found. On this day, an entire human skeleton had been uncovered. A rib close to the man's heart had scratches on it, as though he'd been stabbed.

"Poor chap, looks like old Gunther here died a violent death," remarked one of the diggers.

"Not old Gunther. I'd say that he was quite a young man at the time of death," remarked his companion. "Probably a fight over a woman or money. Maybe he insulted his murderer. Those Vikings were a fierce race, and wouldn't take any bloody guff."

* * *

Gunther the Lost was eighteen years of age when the Viking knorr, Aurvandil, docked in Jorvik in Northumbria and already a three-year veteran of Viking raids in Ireland. Although Jorvik had been founded by Danes, for over fifty years it had been under English rule, and for the past ten, under the monarchy of the twenty-three-year-old King Edward. Although the Aurvandil's captain, Eric the Red, was a raider and an explorer, he was here for trade, not plunder. He'd been raiding the Irish coast and was ready to trade ill-gotten silver and gold for needed supplies.

Gunther stepped jauntily down the gangplank, gazing with eager eyes at the bustling town, anxious to explore it. Because he was the son of a weapon-maker and had apprenticed in the trade until he was fifteen, Eric had been entrusted with the important task of selecting and purchasing new arms. He'd also been told to keep his ears to the ground and report anything of interest. There had been rumors of a Northumbrian nationalist movement. Infighting among the natives of this island could only aid Viking raiders such as Eric.

To Gunther's eyes, Jorvik seemed prosperous. A large number of craftsmen made and sold a variety of goods. In the bustling narrow cobblestone streets were persons of many lands. New buildings were being constructed of planked oak with thatched roofs, some with second stories that hung over the thoroughfares.

Gunther's first stop was at an antler carver's shop, where he purchased a new handle for his utility knife whose wooden one had split. Communication was difficult. Although the carver spoke a language that sounded like Danish and used many Danish words, it seemed to be a mixture of Danish and the barbaric Saxon tongue which Gunther had heard a few times in his life. Nonetheless, using words that he and the tradesman had in common, Gunther was able to get across what he wanted.

His next stop was the blacksmith's, where he put in an order for several swords, battle axes, and shields, enough weaponry to replace what the Aurvandil's crew had lost or broken during the past year. The smithy's combination home and shop was different in that it was an older one-story building on that street, constructed of horizontal hazel rods woven together around vertical posts covered with a coating of mud and straw. Luckily, the blacksmith's ancient father spoke Danish well and acted as interpreter. Hence, Gunther's business was quickly transacted. When he handed the smithy a goodly sum from his heavy purse of gold and silver as a down payment, the wise old man told him to be careful, that there were many thieves and cutthroats in Jorvik.

When the afternoon turned into early evening. Gunther found an inn and ordered supper. As he drank his mead, he felt eyes upon at him. When he glanced up, he was immediately struck by the great beauty of the young maiden smiling at him. She was buxom, with dark reddish hair, full lips, and high cheekbones. He could not help but stare. It was a rare thing to see such a lovely creature. She reminded him of the beautiful colleens that he'd met in Hibernia. As their eyes met, Gunther's heart beat heavily. It was as though she'd put an enchantment on him. He found it impossible to turn away.

Her companion was a surly lad near Gunther's age. He'd been drinking heavily and boasting loudly about something. Gunther raised his glass to her, well aware that women found him attractive with his silvery blond hair, great height, and muscular physique.

When the surly youth noticed what passed between the girl and Gunther, he scolded and slapped her. Gunther intensely disliked men who treated women in such a way. He plunked down a coin to pay for his meal and swaggered over to the couple. "Stop abusing this maiden," he said gruffly.

"What's it to you, Danish dog?" His words were slurred and in that strange mixture of Danish and Saxon, but Gunther understood well enough. Although Gunther was Icelandic and descended from Norwegians, he realized that the man meant to insult anyone who came from the Scandinavian part of the world. "How dare you interfere with me and my slave?" He staggered to his feet and thrust his chin out pugnaciously.

Gunther's eyes narrowed. That this lovely maiden should be slave to this scoundrel seemed the height of injustice. "She's your property?"

"Yes. Now move on."

"I wish to buy her from you."

The man let out a short evil laugh. "You really want this wench? I guess you've been struck by her beauty as many men have. The evil one made her that way to tempt poor fools like you and me. Believe me, her soul is black as soot." He made the sign of the cross. "You would be worse off if I agreed to sell this witch to you."

Gunther disliked Christians with their strange superstitions. He believed in the old gods, who encouraged a man to be a man. "If she is of the evil one, as you say, I would think you would be glad to rid yourself of her." He pulled several gold coins from his purse. "Is this a sufficient sum?"

The man's eyes went wide. Gunther could tell that the amount was more than the man expected him to offer. The man's expression turned to one of greed. He snatched the coins from Gunther's palm. "She's all yours. May she make your Danish hide as miserable as she has mine. Mind you, she's a witch. Watch that she doesn't cast a spell on you." He grinned as he pushed the young woman at Gunther. "Or perhaps she already has."

Gunther took her gently by the arm and led her from the inn. She went along willingly, hugging his muscular forearm. Once outside, she said, "Thank you for buying me from that evil man. I promise to be a good servant if you treat me well."

Gunther chuckled. "How do you know that I'm not more evil than him?"

"You believe in the old gods, not that Christian one he tried to convert me to. He kept telling me how kind and gentle his god was as he beat me. I am Aine. I was kidnapped from my home in Hibernia across the sea."

Gunther began to speak in the Celtic tongue he'd learned while he and his shipmates were in Aine's fair land. "I thought I recognized your brogue. I have recently come from there. It's a beautiful place. My name is Gunther. Tell me, why did your former owner call you a witch and insist that you were a spawn of the one the Christian's call Satan?"

"Because I'm a Druid priestess."

Gunther gave her little bow and chuckled. "So I own a priestess of the Druids. My fortune is made."

"Don't mock me. I could do much to aid you. For instance, I can tell your future."

"Can you now? Well, tell me what you think I will do with you."

Aine stared into his eyes for a moment. She seemed to go into a trance. "You are planning on freeing me. That would be a mistake."

"So. You have the ability to read my mind. But, why do you say it would a mistake to set you free? I would think you would lie to achieve that goal. Freedom is the most precious thing in the world."

"You need me. Dangers lurk that you are not aware of."

"Perhaps I do need you, but not to protect me from danger." He sighed. He would've liked nothing better than to have this lovely woman as his own. But it was impossible. He couldn't take her back to his ship. As a common seaman, it would be ridiculous for him to have a servant girl. Where would he keep her? Not on the ship; Eric considered it unlucky to have women aboard. Besides, Gunther did not believe in slavery. He felt that every person had a right to his or her own life. It was the reason he'd become a Viking raider, to live the free life of a freebooter. "But I cannot. Go Aine. You're a lovely maiden whom I would love to have as my constant companion, but the most time that I can give you are the few days that I have here in Jorvik."

"I accept my freedom, but I cannot leave you until I pay the debt that I owe."

Gunther gazed longingly at her. He'd been aboard ship for months without a woman. "Very well. Spend one night with me, and we'll call it even."

She took his hand and made a mystical sign on his palm. "So our bargain is sealed. May the goddess of pleasure bring us both happiness."

They went to another inn, where Gunther hired a room for the night. He bought a bottle of wine, which they shared before the sharing of their bodies.

After they made love, Aine sighed. "You're a gentle and marvelous lover, Gunther. I'm thankful to the gods and goddesses that the fates brought you to me."

"And you're wonderful too, Aine. You gave me enough pleasure to pay for your purchase price many times over."

They whispered a while longer. Finally, an overwhelming tiredness overcame Gunther. He yawned mightily, turned over and fell into a sound sleep.

* * *

As sunlight streamed through the tiny window, Gunther reached over to snuggle against the lovely woman who'd spent the night with him. He felt nothing. The other side of the bed was empty. He opened his eyes, stretched, and gazed around. Aine was gone. He sighed, but was not surprised. After all, he'd freed her, and she'd paid her debt to him. It made him sad, however. She was a woman he could easily have spent many days with.

As he dressed, he realized that his purse was missing. "Oh no," he cried. "That blasted female isn't a witch, but a thief." He cursed himself for a fool. Panic seized him. The gold and silver in that pouch was the money Eric had given him to pay for the weapons he was to purchase. What would the captain do when he learned that Gunther had lost it all by being too trusting of a woman he'd been warned against? He'd have his head. At best he'd be given a good lashing. Hanging was not out of the question. It was what he deserved.

He held his head in his hands. He dared not return to the ship without the weapons or the money. He had to find Aine and get the pouch back. But how? He finished dressing and hurried down to the common room. He asked the innkeeper, "That woman I came with last night, did you see her leave?"

"Aye. Before daybreak. She was with three men."

"With three men? What did they look like?"

The innkeeper described them. The appearance of one was suspiciously close to that of the fellow he'd purchased Aine from.

"Thank you."

Gunther strode swiftly to the tavern and inquired about the man who'd owned her previously. He learned that his name was Matthew and that he lived on the Street of Money Changers. It didn't take him long to find Matthew; he was at a pub celebrating with two ruffians. As soon as he spotted Gunther, he said, "Well, if it's not the Dane who bought the witch. Where is the wench? Has she placed a spell on you and escaped?"

"Perhaps you might know that better than me. Did not she, you and your two companions abscond with my money?"

Matthew pretended indignation. "Us? We're good Christian men. How dare you, a Danish pirate, accuse us of stealing your money?. If your money is gone and the witch too, it's she who took it. Why accuse us?"

"The innkeeper saw you with her. She and you schemed all along to part me from my gold."

"You have a goodly imagination, Dane. I've heard enough of your ravings. Oliver, Daniel, throw this offal into the street."

The two ruffians came at Gunther with drawn swords. It was a huge mistake on their part, since they had no knowledge of Gunther's prowess with a blade. He whipped out his own weapon and quickly showed them swordsmanship as they'd never encountered before. When Matthew saw his companions being bested by Gunther, he joined the fray. He was too late, however. Oliver had received a stab wound in his sword arm, had dropped his sword and fled. Gunther had hacked Daniel at his thigh, causing him to collapse. Matthew was slightly better than his companions, but after a very short clash of swords, Gunther had him backed in a corner. With the tip of his blade against the rogue's throat, Gunther said, "Give me my purse."

Matthew drew it from his jerkin and handed it to the Viking.

"Where's Aine?" Gunther had it in mind to punish the woman as well for her duplicity.

"She's back there." He pointed with his thumb toward a door in the rear of the pub.

"Take me to her."

Gunther kept his blade at Matthew's throat as the man led him through the door into a courtyard and up a narrow staircase to the second story. They entered a tiny room. Aine was tied by her wrists and ankles to the bedposts. She was in tears. Her robe had been ripped to her waist. It was obvious what the men had done to her.

Hate for Matthew and his henchmen rose up in Gunther like bitter gall. He pressed his sword blade against Matthew's throat until it broke the skin. "You foul rapist. Pray to your Christian God. Your life is over."

"No. For Jesus' sake. She only got what she deserved. It was her that took your money. I and my friends only relieved her of it."

"That still makes you thieves and rapists. I'll let you live for now. But if I see you or your two knaves again, that will be the end of you. Untie her and depart Jorvik if you value your lives."

Gunther released Matthew, but held his sword ready, should the man disobey his command. Matthew untied Aine's ankles, watchful that she had no opportunity to kick him. When he then untied one wrist, Aine did not move, but kept sobbing. Matthew went around to the other side of the bed to untie the other wrist. Suddenly, he let out a strangled cry, stiffened, grabbed his chest and fell backwards. A dagger protruded from his body.

"You killed him," the startled Gunther cried.

"He deserved worse." Aine sat at the edge of the bed staring at the corpse.

"I suppose you're right. Tell me, Aine, did he lie when he said that you were on your way out of the inn with my purse?"

She gazed up at him with those mysterious, mesmerizing eyes of hers. "Nay. He didn't lie. But I did it to help you. He and his henchmen were on their way to steal it from you. I saw it in a vision. But I was too late. They were already on the stairs."

Gunther's eyes narrowed. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"There was no time. As there is no time now."

There were sounds of running boots in the courtyard. Gunther went to the window. The English king's soldiers were on their way, led there by Oliver.

"We're in bad trouble, Aine," Gunther cried.

Aine retrieved her dagger from Matthew's corpse. "Go to the roof, Gunther."

They scrambled out the window and unto the thatched roof. The roof across the narrow lane was but a short leap away. They crossed this and slid down into a deserted alleyway. Somehow they evaded all the king's soldiers and slipped out of town and into the woods.

"What now, Aine? We dare not return to Jorvik. I may not even return to my ship without the weapons I was sent to buy. We cannot live in the forest forever."

"You've rescued me from that rascal Matthew twice. I owe you a tremendous favor. I'll provide the weapons you need."

Gunther gazed at her skeptically. "Are you a weapon maker as well as a priestess?"

"Nay. But I know magic. I'll get them using wizardry."

"Then Matthew told the truth. You are a witch."

"If that's what you wish to call me. But I know nothing of his Christian devil, nor do I do black magic. We druids have a saying, 'Anything that thou doest, whether good or evil, to another, returneth to thee threefold.'"

"A wise saying. Very well. Do your magic and make the weapons. I wish to see this miracle."

"Not here. There's a place that the ancient dwellers in this land have built in which powerful supernatural forces dwell. We must first travel to that place."

Gunther was skeptical, but felt he had no choice but to go along with what Aine proposed. He knew magic was possible and that Druid priestesses were versed in it. He'd seen as much when he'd been in Hibernia himself. "How far is this magical place?"

"Not far. Two days' walk."

"Very well, let's be on our way." Gunther wondered how he'd explain to Captain Eric why he'd been so long obtaining the weapons he was sent to buy.

They traveled all that day. The woods had petered out, giving way to moors, swampy peat bogs, and rolling hills. Gunther hoped that the king's soldiers would not follow them. He and Aine would be sitting ducks in such open country. Nonetheless, he did not worry overly much, as Matthew was not an important enough person for them to go through such trouble.

As the sun set behind distant hills, they made a campfire using dried peat as fuel. Gunther used his throwing knife to kill a rabbit, which they roasted on a spit of twigs Aine had gathered when they were still in the woods. This they washed down with water from a nearby brook.

"We'll need to keep a watch," said Gunther.

"Not necessary. I'll cast a warning spell around us."

Aine drew a circle in the earth around their camp, sprinkled it with a powder from the pockets of her garment and chanted in an ancient form of the Celtic tongue. When she returned to the fire, she said, "We may sleep now. Nothing may approach closer than that circle."

"So you say. On my part I prefer keeping one eye open."

"Suit yourself." She snuggled up against him. He put his arm about her and thought how pleasant it was to have her so close. He wished that moment would go on forever.

Although Gunther planned to stay awake, he was tired from walking all day and began to nod. Soon he was fast asleep. He awoke once from the sound of a wolf baying at the moon in the distance. Again he tried to stay awake, but could not. In his half-asleep state, it seemed that semi-visible beings danced around the circumference of the circle that Aine had drawn. He couldn't help thinking, ëAm I asleep and dreaming, or are those the spirits Aine set to watch our camp?'

Soon the early light of dawn was in his eyes. Aine was asleep in his arms, and the fire had burned to embers. He gazed for a long time at the girl. In sleep she was more beautiful than ever. Her relaxed features seemed to be the epitome of innocence and beauty. He felt sad that she'd to endure abuse and rape at the hands of Matthew and his ilk. She opened her eyes and, looking up at him, smiled. "Why, Gunther, you've been staring at me."

"Aye. You're the loveliest woman I've ever known."

"And you're a handsome, kind, and gentle man. 'Tis sad, that soon we must part." She raised herself up and kissed him on the lips.

They made love then. Afterwards, they walked on, hand and hand, through the light mist that began to fall. Toward twilight, they came to a strange sight, enormous stones, twice as tall as a man, set in a perfect circle upon a mound. "This is it, Gunther," said Aine. "The magical place."

Even to Gunther the spot seemed somehow unworldly. He could feel the power emanating from those stones. He wondered who had moved them there and how they'd accomplished such a tremendous undertaking.

Aine said, "Now I must enter the circle of power. Stay here. Sit down and concentrate on the weapons that you need to bring back to your ship. I must take your pouch of gold. I'll need it for the magic I'm about to perform."

Although Gunther became a little suspicious, he handed the sack to her. He could watch everything she was doing. He did not see any way for her to abscond with the money.

Before entering the circle, Aine removed her garments except for a silver necklace she wore whose single ornament was a five-pointed star within a circle. While Gunther watched trying to recall the number and type of weapons he'd ordered from the smithy in Jorvik, Aine kneeled in the center of the circle and faced the shortest of the stones. She stretched out her arms, and prostrated herself so that her forehead touched the ground. Gunther could hear her speak words in that ancient Celtic as she'd done when protecting their camp. She came to her feet again and gazed into the sky, her voice rising to a shout. Suddenly the skies darkened. A fierce wind blew up. There was a crash of simultaneous lightning and thunder. Where Aine had been, a light so bright that it blinded Gunther appeared. He leaped up, afraid that she'd been struck, and ran into the circle of stones.

Aine lay upon the ground unmoving. Where the bag of gold had been lay the weapons that Gunther had been sent to purchase. But, he paid no mind to them. He took Aine in his arms. "Oh my darling, my darling." Tears ran down his cheeks like a stream.

After a few moments, however, he felt Aine move. She opened her eyes, smiled and said, "'Darling' is it? You sweet man. I believe you're in love with me."

"Aye. You are really a witch, for you've bewitched me. For what you've done, I want to do something for you. What is your greatest wish, Aine?"

"To return to my native Hibernia."

"And so you shall. I'll beg Captain Eric to take you with us."

"Oh Gunther, you wonderful man." She hugged and kissed him so ardently that soon the inevitable happened.

* * *

Meanwhile, at the smithy in Jorvik, the smithy's wife gasped. The weapons her husband had put away until the Viking lad returned to claim them vanished before her eyes. In their spot was a leather pouch. Not daring to touch it, she called her husband and told him what had happened. He scratched his head. He did not know whether to believe her or not. Something had definitely happened to the weapons which had been there but a few minutes before. He cautiously approached the sack. It contained more money than he'd hoped to charge the Viking, which was good as he'd been afraid that the lad wouldn't be returning. He'd heard rumors that he was in trouble with the law.

* * *

"We are still not out of the woods, love. How are we to tote these heavy weapons all the way back to my ship?"

"No problem." Aine gave a whistle. A strange animal galloped up from somewhere. It resembled a horse in all features except one; it had a large horn growing from the front of its face.

"What's this?"

"A unicorn. It will carry us and this baggage to Jorvik."

Aine cut the bottom half of her skirt into narrow strips which she wove into a dual set of string baskets attached in the middle. She and Gunther loaded the weapons into them and slung the contraption over the unicorn's back. Aine mounted the animal, and Gunther, no horseman, struggled his way on behind her, hanging onto Aine's waist for dear life once they set off. They did not go directly to Jorvik, but skirted around to the other side of the river, where it emptied into the sea. Aine sent the unicorn away, and they persuaded a fisherman to row them to the Viking ship.

As Gunther and Aine boarded the Aurvandil, Eric watched with a scowl on his face and his hands on his hips. "I see that you brought the weapons that I sent you to fetch. But you've been gone four days doing it. I've also learned that you're wanted by the authorities for murdering one man and wounding two others. And now you appear with a beautiful woman? What's the meaning of your actions?"

Gunther looked down at his feet. "It's a long, complicated story, sir. Will you turn me over to the English?"

Eric's countenance turned to mirth. "Certainly not, lad. Killing men in a brawl, stealing away with a beautiful maiden, getting into all kinds of trouble. I would expect nothing less from a member of my crew. You're a true Viking raider." He laughed and slapped Gunther on the back. "On the voyage back to Hibernia, you must tell me the whole story. It must be a dilly."

* * *

As they carefully packed the skeleton for shipment, one of the archeologists asked the other, "I noticed that you called this fellow Gunther. Was there a particular reason for that?"

"It simply sounded like a good Viking name. But for all I know, his name could be Matthew."

Story © 2004 by Joe Vadalma

Illustration © 2004 by Romeo Esparrago

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