“Gather round and let me set the scene to tell you how my adventure began.”
The old man shifted his position on the stool by the fire and waited for his listeners to get comfortable.
“I was just fifteen, my sister Ingir was a year older than me. Our mother had died two years earlier from the coughing sickness. We lived in the town of Birka on the Isle of Birches. It was a small, but busy town which had become wealthy from trading with the whole Viking world and far beyond. But wealth brought trouble and every year raiders tried to grab a share of the town’s riches.
My father, Sten Brightsword, was the chieftain of the town and a fearless warrior. He led a band of men trained to defend the Island.
It was in the ninth month of the year, a time when we did not expect trouble from unwanted visitors, for autumn was upon us and would-be raiders should have returned to their homes for the harvest. Some island fishermen returning home in their boat noticed masts on the other side of a narrow island. They stopped and tied their boat to a pine tree on the water’s edge. One of the fishermen clambered over the grey rocks to look down on the other side of the island, and there he saw a fleet of vessels at anchor in the bay beyond, well hidden from the lookout at Birka. The fishermen recognised the style of the ships as those of the Jomsviking. These were the most ferocious and merciless of Viking warriors. The fishermen hastened home to forewarn their Chieftain about the presence of the Jomsviking.
Having been warned, Father immediately made a plan to take the Jomsviking by surprise. We children watched the whole battle from the top of Lookout Hill, the highest point on the Island. From there, in the fine weather, we had a clear view right across the bay in front of the town..
A trap was set. Very soon, as expected, the Jomsviking fleet appeared. They were heading for the town. Two of our boats were rowed out towards them by crews of six women. The unsuspecting enemy in the ten Jomsviking ships could see the women, but not the twenty warriors who crouched low in the boats. The raiders watched as the women approached them and assumed they were no threat. Their attention thus distracted, the Jomsviking sailors did not notice six longships pulling out of the creek they had just passed. With the help of oars and sail, these Island longships quickly caught up with the Jomsviking.
With a following wind, the crews on two of the longships from Birka lit the seal oil barrels on their decks and then, as their vessels erupted into flames, they leapt over the sides to be picked up by a following boat.
This lighting of the fire ships was the signal for the women to row forward as fast as they could and for the crouching men to come out of hiding. They would tackle the raiders from the front while the other ships attacked from the rear. The wind pushed the fire ships alongside two of the Jomsviking vessels, spreading the fire and forcing the enemy warriors to leap into the sea. The flames were intense and soon several other ships were on fire.
The surprise was complete! Many of the unsuspecting raiders had not yet put on their chain mail armour or their helmets when the Islanders started to clamber aboard their boats and set about their deadly purpose to defend their island.
The fighting was fierce, but many of the Jomsviking warriors had been drowned trying to evade the inferno on their boats so the Islanders now outnumbered the raiders. With his sword in one hand and an axe in the other, father led the defenders to attack the enemy flagship. We saw Father wielding his axe and his sword, battling his way to confront the enemy captain on the afterdeck. It was very exciting for us to see, though of course we were frightened that Father might be wounded or worse. After a bitter combat, during which Father got a sword slash to his leg, he defeated the captain and forced him to surrender.
In victory, Sten, my Father, was generous to his enemy, too generous as it proved. He allowed the survivors to leave in some of their undamaged ships, hoping they would warn others with evil intent that the Isle of Birches was heavily defended and not an easy target to raiders.
Father’s successful defence of the Island cost him dear. The wound to his thigh did not heal and eventually red streaks on his leg foretold that his blood had been poisoned. The Shaman tried all his mystical powers to cure him, even calling for the support of Odin, the god of war, but to no avail. Father died a long, slow and painful death.
The whole island community grieved for the loss of their great leader, the man who had time after time vanquished those who would threaten their lives and livelihoods. But no one grieved as deeply as Ingir and me, for we had lost our father and now we were orphans. Of course we knew how precarious life was for the islanders. We had been prepared by mother since early childhood to expect that death and disaster were an inevitable consequence of life. Nevertheless, it was extremely painful and upsetting for us both to watch as the great man became weaker and weaker every day and we gradually realised that we were going to lose someone we loved so much.
Now father was dead and there was a special ritual for great men. His cremated remains were to be spread on the waters which provided life-giving resources to the community. But those same waters, besides being dangerous in themselves, were also the means by which people with ill-intent might threaten the well-being of the islanders.
The ritual began as it should. Later however, things did not go according to plan, but let me start at the beginning…”