They dropped to their bellies, watching the monastery from behind a ditch in the salt fields. The monastery had been aptly named. In the pre-dawn light, shadows settled over the buildings, blanketing everything in darkness. The structure was surrounded by rows of salt fields and copses of trees. The main buildings, which rose two stories high, were joined together at a right angle, forming a half square. A tall crenellated stone wall met each end of each building, extending out to complete the square. The open space in between would be the monastery’s inner courtyard. Sloping tiled roofs reached up to meet a stone bell tower where the two buildings met. The windows in the stone walls were all thin, dark slits, devoid of signs of life. Asgrim peered intently at the tower, looking for a sentry, but saw no one. He didn’t see anyone moving about the many sheds and small huts of the monastery grounds. He smiled. They must all still be sleeping. Good.
Just west of the monastery, no more than two or three thousand ells away, sat the garrison’s fort—a log palisade surrounding a single wooden longhouse. There was a village to the southeast, Asgrim knew, if the Saracen’s description was correct—and everything else the man had said so far had turned out to be right—but it was at least a half hour’s walk away, which was too far to influence the coming battle.
“Twenty, thirty soldiers?” offered Bjorn, peering at the dark bulk of the fort.
Asgrim nodded. “Enough to cause us trouble. More than enough to hold the fort.”
Bjorn snorted. “I can take that fort from them. Shove those wooden logs right up their Frankish asses.”
Asgrim frowned at his younger brother. “They can sit all day in their wooden fort, just as long as they don’t try to stop us. We’re here for silver, not blood.”
“Well… some blood,” Bjorn muttered in a hurt voice.
“Take twenty killers—none of the un-blooded boys. Stay hidden. If the soldiers try to come out and help, then you smash them. Send them running.”
“Aye,” said Bjorn.
Asgrim stared at the monastery again, seeking signs that the inhabitants were waking. In the east, the sky was beginning to turn red, and far off, a rooster crowed. It was time.
Bjorn reached over and squeezed Asgrim’s forearm. His brother watched him closely with an uncomfortable look on his face.
“Brother,” Bjorn said. “I… know how you must feel, but the gods will forgive you. Men make mistakes. We do things we never meant to do. All of us. A madness took you that night, that’s all. You’re not a monster. The gods watch over you now: Odin and Thor. They approve of your courage. That matters, what we do now. All else will pass in time. You will pay the earl’s wergild, and if Freya’s brothers—”
“Freya had no brothers, and her father is old,” said Asgrim. “But old man or not, if he comes to me with sword in hand, I will not… not…”
“It won’t be like that, brother. I will talk to her father for you, explain things.”
A rush of shame threatened to crush Asgrim, and he closed his eyes. Bjorn was wrong about the red dragon, and he was wrong about him. Asgrim was doomed. The crones spun their damned bloody thread from which dangled the lives of men, and some acts could never be smoothed out or explained away.
Asgrim exhaled and nodded once, quickly, as he pulled free of his brother’s grip. “I know.” But he didn’t know at all, and a thickness clogged his throat. “Fight well. You have my back, as always.”
Asgrim was surprised and pleased that his voice did not crack.
Bjorn’s face betrayed his doubt, but he nodded and rose to pull together his men. In minutes, they were gone, moving off toward the fort. The soldiers there would not interfere this night, Asgrim knew. He trusted his brother completely. Bjorn was as clever as an otter. Many a fool had made the mistake of thinking him stupid because of his size. More than a few had died for that mistake.
When he was certain he’d given his brother enough time to get in place, Asgrim stood and turned to his men, who also rose. The faces of the younger ones betrayed some trepidation, but he saw the mounting excitement in the eyes of others.
He spoke loudly enough for all to hear him, putting steel into his voice. “Anyone who stands against us dies, but if they run, let them go, let them live to spread tales of us. It’s time for these Frankish holy men to know the wolves of the northern seas have descended upon them!”
Harsh laughter and murmurs of agreement drifted from the men. Their heads bobbed, and their teeth flashed in unpleasant grins.
He thrust his sword toward them. “But listen carefully! I’ll have no fires until I have their treasure. After, then we burn everything.”
Asgrim’s gaze swept their faces, making sure they understood. When their blood was up, men acted like idiots. Such things were to be expected, but the last thing Asgrim wanted was his silver melted.
Once satisfied they understood, Asgrim slapped his sword blade against his wooden round shield. The sharp crack rang out in the early morning air and the blade of Heart-Ripper vibrated. The time for silence was over.
“Let’s go get our treasure.” Asgrim stood at the center of his men, who formed a long line facing the monastery. The red glow of the rising sun began to burn away the darkness in the east, creating just enough light to see. Again, Asgrim smashed the flat of his sword against the metal boss of his shield and stepped off. Hopp ran beside him, his tongue dangling, and the men followed. After several paces, they broke into a trot. Their hobnailed ankle boots crunched the salt beneath them as they quickly closed the distance to the monastery.
Asgrim knew the men would be building up a murderous rage and getting ready to slaughter anyone they came across. He felt no pity for the Frankish holy men. All men died at their preordained time, but dying in battle, that was how real men died, not in some bed, fouling themselves while women cried. The priests should thank him.
As the first of his men reached the wooden gate in the stone wall, he began to sense something was wrong. At first, he thought the wooden gate had been left open by mistake. But then, as he drew closer, he saw the door was smashed and shoved inward.
His men screamed in fury as they funneled through the open gateway, hungry for blood. Asgrim pushed through the throng of men and came out in the monastery’s inner courtyard. One of his men tripped over something and fell flat, dropping his spear. The others fanned out, but then faltered. Silence dropped over the raiders as they ground to a halt, their mouths hanging open, their eyes betraying their confusion.
Asgrim lowered his shield and sword and gaped at the inner courtyard. Bodies of armed warriors and unarmed priests lay scattered everywhere. Clearly, the soldiers and priests had killed each other. Many of the corpses were ripped apart, their limbs lying nearby. Entrails lay scattered everywhere, and the soil was soaked in congealing blood. The stench of feces and rotting flesh washed over Asgrim, and clouds of flies buzzed angrily. Although he was no stranger to death and battlefields, the stench still almost gagged him. Beside him, Hopp whined once before turning and disappearing back out the opened gate.