Return of the Viking Warrior

By: Michelle Styles
Chapter One

Early autumn, AD 793—Sand, Raumerike,

south-eastern Norway

Seven years and Ash Hringson refused to think about how many thousands of miles it had been since he last set foot in Sand, the capital of Raumerike. He would have preferred to go straight home to Jaarlshiem, but he had a duty to inform the king of his travels and his plans for the future.

Ash rubbed a hand over his chin, fingering the small half-moon scar there. He had seen over thirty battles and minor skirmishes since he’d left. His face might be clear of all but the most minor scars, but he walked with a distinct limp, the legacy of a battle three years ago, which aggravated the injury he had received in a Frankish dungeon. He knew that he was not the same carefree youth who had left Raumerike’s shores, with a thirst for adventure and the certainty of a glorious future. In his mind, Raumerike and all he’d left behind remained the same.

A great unexpected feeling of long-awaited belonging rose up in his throat. He was in his home country. On his native soil. A foreigner no longer.

Ash gave a wry smile. He must have done enough to regain some measure of his father’s respect. Hanging his head in shame or walking in the shadows of life was no longer his destiny. He’d become a leader of men rather than a coward who left others to die in a fiery inferno.

The town had seen a few changes over the seven years he’d been gone, expanded with an air of bustling prosperity, but the streets were laid out the same. The blacksmith where he’d purchased his first sword looked to be under different management and the king’s hall appeared to have been rebuilt. The market by the quayside was larger with a broader range of fabric and fur, but the fishmonger still traded in the right-hand corner, calling about fresh herring and salted cod.

Several market dwellers gave him sideways glances, paled slightly and turned away the closer he came, hurriedly pulling the shutters down. Ash’s hand tightened instinctively on his sword’s hilt. He forced it to relax.

Did they remember the shame he had brought to his father and the country? The brothers, friends and cousins who had died because of his recklessness on that fateful night? Was that why they looked at him as if he were one of the walking dead? Or was it the typical Raumerike distrust of an outsider?

He might be dressed in Viken clothes, but his heart beat with a love for Raumerike. He’d always remembered where he came from. It was why he’d returned—to make peace with his father if he could and to offer young Raumerike warriors true opportunity for advancement, rather than facing likely death on an unfriendly sea.

A temptation filled him to shout to the curious, doubters and naysayers that shame and coward were no longer carved on his chest. The youth who had run his ship aground in a storm because he was far too eager for wealth had learnt his lesson. A man’s life was more precious than objects or gold. He kept his mouth shut, his hand firmly at his side and strode silently on.

Ash set his jaw and turned his feet towards the king’s hall. First the king, then his father and finally his wife. He knew the proper order of things. Now.

Kara would understand. He remembered that about her, even if he could not conjure up the exact tenor of her quiet voice or the precise colour of her golden hair. She’d always been his most loyal supporter since they had first met when they were children and she’d bound his falcon’s broken wing. His last memory of her was her head held proudly aloft and a single tear trickling down her cheek as she begged him to return a hero.

Ash pushed the thoughts about Kara away, just as he had done for the last seven years. Soon, soon he’d be able to remember. First he had to do his duty to king and country.

‘Why are you walking amongst the living, Ghost?’ an elderly voice called out from a stall hung with cooking pots. ‘Today of all days?’

Ash winced as he mistimed his step, and put all of his weight on his bad leg. Of all the people to greet him first, it would have to be this woman. He forced himself to recall each of her sons’ deaths before answering. The elder two had died in the storm, but the youngest had endured captivity with him, keeping him alive with his tales of long-ago bravery. He had wept when his last friend died. For a day and a night, he had lived in that hell hole with the body. Eventually, he’d been able to overpower the Frankish guard who had been sent to check on them and escaped through the narrow stinking drain. Even now, after more than six years, he found it impossible to sleep inside or to go underground.