Book 2 of The Saga of Hasting the Avenger
King Horic is dead. The oaths that once bonded the Danes and Northmen in the islands of Aquitaine have broken. Hasting’s new land is imperiled by fearsome challengers and old foes alike. A rumor from the continent will shatter the brittle veneer of his strength and expose his deepest wound from the past. His greatest trial will not be fought with a sword, ax, or shield, but with his heart.
A supposed son of Ragnar Lodbrok, and referred to in the Gesta Normannorum as the Scourge of the Somme and Loire, his life exemplified the qualities of the ideal Viking. Join author and historian C.J. Adrien on an adventure that explores the early life and adventures of the Viking Hasting and his crew.
Read an excerpt from In the Shadow of the Beast
he night before the duel, I sat alone in my tent while my crew feasted and drank with Bjorn’s men around a campfire. They sang songs, told stories, and cheered all night. My name was mentioned once or twice in the stories Rune told, no doubt to impress those who did not yet know me for the caliber of my deeds. Several of my crew returned to the tent and offered me a drink, but I abstained. Instead, I sat in the dark with a sharpening stone and my father’s sword, and I focused on the work of readying the blade for the fight against Ragnar. The leather straps that wrapped the grip had worn through, so I tore them off and applied fresh leather from hilt to pommel. Ragnar, I thought, would use an ax or a spear. Most Danes preferred such weapons. But I believed my father’s sword brought me luck above and beyond my abilities, and the Celts had trained me well in the art. Swords are graceful weapons, and the skill to wield one harkens to the profession of a skald who recites the songs of heroes and gods. Most warriors, at least those I had met in the North, did not possess the finesse needed to wield one. Swords such as mine were thought of as symbols of wealth and power and not particularly useful weapons of war. The Northmen and Danes did not forge them—they were made by blacksmiths in the Carolingian empire. To gird one was to flaunt one’s wealth. I hoped Ragnar thought this of me, and that my martial skill with the blade would surprise him.
At sunrise, I walked through a mass of mead and wine-soaked bodies to reach the opening of the tent, and I traveled the muddied path to the burial ground. It was a beautiful resting-place. The sea surrounded us in all her majesty, and waves headed for the Morbihan crashed and broke on the jagged rocks, spewing foam and mist into a cloudless sky.
The salty sea perfused my nostrils with every breath. A constant roar of waves and wind filled the air and drowned out the barks and moans of seals on the protected side of the island that stirred from their slumber to begin their day’s hunt. Cormorants and seagulls squawked, chirped, and wailed behind me in a ferocious struggle for which of them would have the chance to feast on the remnants of last night’s feast. It reminded me of the pernicious squabbling of men over the scraps of lords and kings.
The Christians say we men are different from all other creatures in Midgard, but the more time I have spent in the wild, the more I have found fault in such a belief. The birds and seals and dolphins of the sea, and the stags and wolves and hawks of the land, all seem to hunger as we do, to feel pain as we do, and to desire what they do not have, as we do. We are not so removed from them as some might want to think. We are all temporary beings caught in the same cycle of life, death, and renewal. Though men dream of life eternal, removed from the natural order, nature returns to claim what it owns. Even the Aesir, our gods, cannot escape it. They, too, will perish—not by the hand of a god-like foe but the onslaught of wild beasts unleashed upon them by nature. Their time in the great cycle must end to make room for a new order. We cannot live without nature, and we cannot survive it.
Reminded of the closeness of my death, I closed my eyes, took in the sounds and smells around me, and fell to my knees in front of Horic’s burial mound. A single tear coursed down my cheek.
I wish you were here, my friend. I had not yet acknowledged what Horic’s passing had meant to me. The first days and weeks after his death, my mind had focused on all the challenges ahead of me. My heart had not begun to grieve. Horic had seen something in me, supported me, and taught me how better to lead my men. Bjorn had even said he believed Horic saw more of himself in me than in his own son. I had not met his son; he had not bothered to make the journey with his father in the years since we had established our foothold off the coast of Frankland.
On that, I agreed with Skírlaug—the king’s son would not bother to travel to my island to ask me to swear to him. Part of me felt anger toward the king. How reckless he had been not to settle his succession when he felt illness upon him. A king should never die with his legacy in anarchy. We Danes and Northmen spend our lives forging the stories of our adventures that will survive our death, and Horic was no different. His failure to prepare his affairs imperiled his reputation and his memory.
Had I been a skald composing a song for him, I would not have sung much beyond the chaos his death dealt to the islands of Aquitaine and my land. What wars would the Danes fight in their homeland, how many children might be orphaned, all due to Horic’s willful ignorance of his own demise? Was it fear that had paralyzed him? Or arrogance?
Not long after I arrived at the king’s gravesite, I heard Skírlaug’s horn on the wind. The burial ceremony had ended, and all that remained was Ragnar’s challenge. I looked back at the camp and saw men begin to stir. Some walked with staggered steps, while others hunched forward. I knew all too well the pain they felt. I scanned the tents for Ragnar, but I did not see him, though I did spot Skírlaug emerge from the camp with a dozen of her men behind her. She had washed and applied fresh makeup, and she had let her hair down. Her gown reached to the muddy ground, so she lifted it up at the hips. We locked eyes as she approached.
“Are you ready to die?” She smiled.