Secret Murder

As you may remember, my friend Ellen has been writing a book. It's out now from FTL Publications, and is called Secret Murder. You can also get it at Amazon in both trade  paperback and Kindle e-book

Ragnar Forkbeard is on the cover. He's a master smith living in Surtsheim District, near the headwaters of the Great River.

Each Spring, he and several boatloads of his men travel downriver to an important trade fair at the Falls that mark the boundary between the upper and lower rivers. Below the falls, the settlers are a mix of English and French. Above the falls, settlers are mostly Norse, though if you go further north you will find Finns.

Normally he takes iron and ironwork down the river, and comes home with silver and luxuries, spices, and maybe some gold. This year, he's not sure he's going home at all. For the laws of the Norse and the laws of the English are very different in the way they handle killings.

He sounds like an interesting man. I wish I could have met him, but Kagato had me prisoner at the time.

Eleanor Arnason gave the book a very nice review. She knows Old Norse and the sagas well.

"I just finished Secret Murder. It's charming - very Norse, and a fine alternative history. How can I explain how neat it is, without giving away the plot? Let's just say the ending was satisfying and unusual, and makes perfect sense given Viking ideas of justice."

Buy the book at Amazon, and if you like it, leave a review!

And now for - The First Chapter!

Sunday: A Meeting with Trouble

"There have been rumors of thieves, yes indeed," Benedict said. "More rumors than usual."

Ragnar Forkbeard looked the trade booths over. They were about five paces wide, ten long, and there was fresh stonework and mortar at the top of the walls. Clean and weather-tight, Ragnar Forkbeard thought. Olaf Far-traveler, Ragnar’s partner in this merchant venture, agreed. He smiled at the little agent. "Excellent job, Benedict! I see you’ve even had the walls heightened!"

"Strong men are your best protection, but strong walls are good also."

Ragnar looked back to the river, where his men were busy making sure the riverboats were well-grounded and moored. Nobody wanted them to get loose and go over the waterfall. "I think," he smiled, "I will go back to the boats and set our strong men to work carrying our goods inside of these strong walls. I’d hate to have thieves making free with my cargo."

Olaf grinned. "Haw! I’d like to see them running away with their booty!" Much of Ragnar’s cargo was heavy bars of iron from the smelters of Surtsheim, though he had quite a few lighter items as well. Olaf had cloth and furs. His cargo was at greater risk.

Ragnar pointed. "I’ll take the booth on the end nearer the river. You take the one on the other end, and we’ll use the center booth for extra sleeping space and storage. Knute, you check everything out and make sure it’s ready for us."

"Yes, Father."

Soon lines of men were carrying furs and fabrics into Olaf’s booth and chests of knives, axes, arrowheads, and iron into Ragnar’s. "Put the goods in the back," Ragnar said. "Set my bed up just this side of the wares." The man holding the carved dragon-posts leaned them against the wall and began fitting the sides of the bed to them and weaving the support cords together. Other men tossed canvas over the roof-beams and snugged it down tightly. Gunnar, the cook, went directly to the cooking area. He had started a fire, and was making quick bannock bread to feed them all.

Ragnar saw a friend across the way: a burly man with dark hair and beard cut short, well-dressed in a tunic of yellow linen trimmed with interlacing embroidery at neck, sleeves and hem. They headed towards each other, and grasped shoulders warmly. "James! It’s good to see you again!"

Ragnar paused, and examined the tunic. "But even dressed for trade you’re at the anvil." His hand reached out to brush a small burn-mark.

"I went through the smithy on the way here," James explained. "One of the ‘prentices was drawing out a bar with his fuller at an angle. I had to show him how to do it properly. Let a ‘prentice learn the wrong motions, and it can take weeks to get them out of him. A spark must have flown in my direction."

"Don’t those sparks always fly! Tell me, James, how have things been with you? Cecily was with child last time I was here."

James smiled. "A boy, strong and healthy, with his mother’s eyes. We named him Mark. You can ask the same question next time, because Cecily is working on another. I just wish the business were as strong. I’m turning out more ironwork than ever. I have a new type of sword which is selling nicely."

"A new type of sword?" Ragnar interrupted.

"You’ve heard how the Saracens sometimes temper swords by heating them, then thrusting them into the belly of a slave? They say the swords take on the slave’s life-strength. I don’t know about that, but by all accounts such swords are uncommonly hard and tough.

"So I thought: if a sword can be improved by taking on the life of a slave, how about that of a bull? Bulls die for the butchers near my smithy in any case, but now they temper my blades in the process. The swords go for a premium, and I’m told by those who have used them that they hold their edge for an entire battle."

"It sounds to me as if your business should be doing very well," Ragnar said.

"There is one problem," James replied. "And here he comes, at this very moment." A cluster of men was approaching, led by a tall, wiry Northman with lank flax-colored hair. He was wearing a blue tunic embroidered with red and gold animals, and carried a polearm. All his men had swords, and two carried axes hooked over their shoulders as well.

Ragnar’s face was neutral as the fourteen men stopped before him. "Thorolf Pike," he said to the Northman in the blue tunic.

"Ragnar Forkbeard," Thorolf Pike replied. The two looked at one another in silence. They were much alike in body, each half a head above the others. Thorolf had shaven chin and drooping moustache, thin mouth and cold blue eyes. Ragnar’s hair was red-brown and thinning on top. His moustache flowed into his beard, which was neatly plaited in forks. He had seaman’s wrinkles around his brown eyes, and still wore travelling clothes.

James Smith had quietly left, and Ragnar felt very much alone.

The man next to Thorolf spoke. He had red hair, and a face like a fox. "Nothing to say, then, Ragnar? Have you been studying the wisdom of Odin from the Book of the High One?

The ignorant man had best stay silent
When he moves among other men.
None will know what a fool he is
Until he begins to talk."

Ragnar flushed. "Let me finish that for you, Otkel.

No man knows less what a fool he is
Than the one who talks too much."

Thorolf Pike moved between the two. "Otkel! Be more polite to our friend." He turned toward Ragnar. "After all, he is a Northman in the lands of the English. He should be gladdened by the sight of men from his homeland."

Out of the corner of his eye, Ragnar saw James with Olaf Far-traveler. Olaf turned and signaled within his booth, and Ragnar breathed more freely. "Thorolf, I am sure you have a reason for speaking with me, other than the joy of seeing a Northern face here in your exile."

"Why, yes," said Thorolf. "It seems to me that at recent fairs you’ve not been doing as profitably as you might. Perhaps you don’t know these English traders well enough to protect yourself against their wiles."

"Who knows what can happen to a trader, alone among foreigners?" Otkel added with a sly grin. He was one of the men with an axe.

"And so, I am offering to conduct your trades for you," Thorolf continued. "I have lived among the English, and understand them. For a share in the profits, I am sure I can get you better prices. It is the least one Northman can do for another."

"I admit, I would feel at a disadvantage among the English, without Northmen to come to my aid," Ragnar agreed. "That’s why I brought thirty Northmen with me." He gestured, indicating the area beyond the men facing him.

Thorolf and his men turned. Olaf and the crews of the boats had taken up weapons, come up silently, and stood in a semicircle behind them. Olaf smiled at Thorolf, then made the sign of Thor’s Hammer—his fist across his chest, then down—as he was known to do before a battle. Gunnar, the cook, scowled at Otkel. Knute moved forward to stand by Ragnar.

"I like to think I’m a good trader, Thorolf," Ragnar’s voice cut into the silence. "Humor me. If I’m right, I’ll take the profit. If wrong, at least you won’t take the loss. And now, I must oversee the storing of my wares."

Ragnar turned, and went to his booth. Thorolf and his men strode briskly off, though Otkel glanced several times over his shoulder. Olaf and the crewmen relaxed, and the normal bustle of setting up camp resumed.

"This sort of thing," Ragnar told his son, Knute, "is just one of the reasons you want your men to like you."

James was at their booths, and Ragnar thanked him for his help. "That could have gone badly if you hadn’t called out my men, and Olaf’s. It’s bad enough that there are rumors of thieves, without adding Thorolf. How much trouble has he been causing?"

"Things were bad when his band arrived here six years ago, after Surtsheim outlawed them. They were pressuring all kinds of tradesmen, insisting on a share of their profits. Several merchants were beaten, and their families were threatened. Thorolf and his men promised to protect them from that kind of thing for a ‘moderate’ fee." James spat on the ground. "After that year Thorolf had enough money and influence to use silver, rather than violence, to lean on people. But nobody forgot. Thorolf and Otkel were good with the kind of smile that reminds you. These days, the way Otkel has been behaving, all the merchants are worried the threats and violence might start up again. And now I have a wife and a newborn son to protect."

"It’d worry me, too," Ragnar said sympathetically. "Thorolf may have been polite, but there was plenty of threat in the air just now, when I faced him and his men. And it wasn’t all coming from Otkel, either. Hasn’t the baron done anything about it?"

"All he seems to see is the wealth Thorolf gathers in. Thorolf’s probably safe from the baron as long as he pays his taxes."

"I’m glad I live up north in Surtsheim district." Ragnar shook his head. "If it gets too dangerous down here, come to Surtsheim. I can always use another good hand in my smithy. Thorolf and his men were outlawed from Surtsheim after they killed Snorri Crow, so they won’t come around threatening you."

"Your land and ways are too different. I don’t think Cecily would be willing to go."

"Men can’t do much about things like that. But at least we don’t have a lazy baron up in the North."

By early afternoon, their goods had been put safely away. Half of Ragnar’s bar iron was still in the riverboats, with samples stored among the chests of finished arrowheads, knives, and silver-inlaid axe-heads, the moose antlers and the silver jewelry. Olaf had his cargo of furs, and eastern fabrics from Miklagard. And the fair wouldn’t fully start until tomorrow.

Ragnar was restless, anxious to be away from the fair-meadow, and thoughts of Thorolf, for a while. He changed into a green tunic with cream embroidery, and a rich yellow cloak which he fastened with a heavy silver brooch. He combed his hair and re-braided his beard, then put on silver arm-rings and bracelets. He transferred several small items from his chest to his pouch, donned his good sword-belt, and hung the pouch from it. He talked with his son Knute, told him to watch over the men and merchandise, then went to Olaf’s booth.

"I sacrificed to Thor before we left Surtsheim," he told Olaf. "Now we are in Christian lands, and I should pay my respects to the White Christ."

"Off to visit your friends at the Abbey, then?"

"Yes. Abbess Margaret is a scholar—it’s a pleasure to talk with her. And their steward, John Freemantle, knows a lot about the happenings in this town. He can speak from a viewpoint we’ll not find among our fellow merchants here at the fair."

"Benedict says Thorolf stays away from churches except at Christmas and Easter, so he won’t be there to bother you. Me, I’ll stay here to make sure he doesn’t steal the iron—boat and all." Olaf became serious. "Try to find out how Thorolf stands in the community these days, could you? We may have to do something about him."

"After this morning, be assured I won’t forget Thorolf." And Ragnar went outside to claim a well-outfitted horse from Benedict’s man.

Mounted, Ragnar stood high in the saddle and scanned the fairgrounds. Thorolf and his men were at the west end, talking to a trader in copper. Ragnar took the road to the south.

Carters and drovers filled the high-road to the fair. Porters carried bundles up the path to the left, slanting up the bluffs from the landing below the falls, then rested for a moment at the top. All the world was going to the fair, it seemed.

And all the world was going armed. This troubled him. The great falls was a border of sorts, and the Northmen from above came to trade with the English and the French from below. There was always tension when men of different lands gathered—but this fair was usually far more peaceful.

A great merchant rode by, with two dozen pack horses and half a dozen guards. A peasant with a sturdy knife thrust into his belt followed, driving hogs before him. That knife looks like James’s work, Ragnar thought. There were a jester and a gleeman, armed only with their wits. Then came a well-dressed burgher with a sword swinging awkwardly at his side. Ragnar rode on, thoughtful.

He came to a small river. The road to Northlanding went ahead. Ragnar took the path to the right. He passed through a long forest hallway of trees and bushes, and was in another world.

There were sheep, herded into a milling mass to one side of the river, kept together by dogs and a circle of nuns all dashing back and forth. Men were in the stream, washing the sheep. Ragnar chuckled when one old ewe reared up, planted her hooves firmly in the shepherd’s chest, and gave him a sudden dousing. Lambs bleated for their mothers, and shepherds watched over their cleanly flocks as they dried. In the distance, men were shearing and dressing with tar any wounds the sheep might have gotten in the process.

Not a one of them wore a sword.

Near the abbey was a small knot of men and women, the steward John Freemantle among them. He was dressed too finely for dealing with sheep—his clothes were a clear green, and had loose sleeves – but just right for dealing with servants. Ragnar rode to them, dismounted, and handed the reins of his horse to a villein. "Master John!" he said, smiling broadly.

John Freemantle broke free of his conversation, and strode over. He clasped Ragnar’s hands. "Ragnar! It’s good to see you! What manner of wares have you brought this year?"

"Iron, moose antler, knives, axes, and arrowheads. Silver jewelry. Olaf came too, bringing furs and cloth of Miklagard. The cloth should make fine vestments. And I see you will have much wool to trade."

"We must speak of this, later. But come! Lady Margaret is inside doing accounts on this fine day. She’ll be glad of your interruption."

They were walking as they spoke, and as they passed the inner gate of the abbey John sent a servant to fetch the abbess. They sat on a bench in the shade of an oak, stretched, and talked companionably.

Abbess Margaret appeared with her crosier, accompanied by a novice carrying a silver ewer of warm water, a bowl, a carved wooden box of soap, and a fresh linen towel. The abbess was dressed no more finely than the novice, which said much about her.

"Abbess Margaret," Ragnar said.

"Master Ragnar," she replied, as she bent to wash his hands.

Ragnar quoted:

Handcloths and a hearty welcome,
Courteous greeting, then courteous silence
That the traveler may tell his tale.

"You always have a saying, and it always seems to fit here," the abbess replied. "Are you sure your poets were not Benedictines in secret?"

"I choose my verses carefully, fitted to my surroundings. Peaceful lands bring forth peaceful sayings. I needed a stronger verse at the Fair. There is a great deal of tension there."

"It’s Thorolf Pike," John Freemantle said. "He hasn’t harmed anyone, hasn’t even said anything that looks like a threat when written down. But he goes about with those men of his, and half the merchants in town are so frightened they let him broker their trading for them. The remaining merchants see the momentum Thorolf is getting, and the riches he’s piling up, and are afraid of being trampled."

Ragnar flared his nostrils and made a sour face. "Thorolf has learned subtlety since he was outlawed from Surtsheim district. It must come from living in a land where they hang lawbreakers. But I can’t say he sounds any better to live with."

"I wish you Northmen would hang your killers, instead of outlawing them. It would have saved us having to live with Thorolf."

"What, and then you’d want us to hang people that take the King’s Deer? That’s where it can end up, you know—though here on the borders, nobody much cares about deer yet."

A small brown monk had joined them: Father Hugh, the abbey priest. "I worry for the souls of our merchants. Surely many of them are considering desperate measures, which could easily lead to mortal sin."

Ragnar’s eyebrows raised. "I should hardly consider measures taken against Thorolf to be a mortal sin."

Father Hugh frowned. "Such measures would be under-standable. But understandable or no, to answer his threats with violence would be a sin. I fear it will come to that."

Abbess Margaret made a gesture of distaste. "I see there are still advantages to living in cloisters. I had not heard of this man until now."

John and Ragnar laughed, and John said, "Such a blissful state should be preserved. Let us speak of other things!"

Ragnar opened his pouch. "It is good to once again see distant friends. Such moments should be celebrated with gifts." He drew forth a small meat-knife with staghorn handle. A silver cross was set into the horn, and silver runes decorated the blade. He gave it to John Freemantle.

Ragnar smiled. "I know rune-blades have a reputation for magic, and magic is not welcome among Christians. These runes say simply, ‘Ragnar made me’. But if you wish to impress people, you need not tell them that."

For Abbess Margaret there was a string of prayer beads worked of polished hematite. "In the fires of the foundry," Ragnar said, "hematite becomes iron. Some say faith can be formed and strengthened in a similar manner. I thought you might appreciate the symbolism."

"And for you, Hugh, a cup." It was of soapstone, with a band of reindeer inlaid about the rim in alternating silver and niello. Father Hugh’s plain face filled with delight, for he loved both animals and wine.

"I couldn’t ask for a finer gift!" He filled the cup with burgundy from the south, raised it to his mouth, and drank. As he was setting it down, the conversation became interesting. He gestured, the cup lurched and spilled over, and there was a dark new burgundy stain on his habit to keep the old stains company.

The abbess raised her eyes to the heavens, and the novice hurried up with her hand-towel, soap, and water. Ragnar and John laughed. "It’s yours, Hugh, it’s truly your cup now," John said.

"Like Father, like son," Ragnar added. And so the afternoon passed, in conversation and laughter.

A bell spoke, and the abbess rose. "It’s time for vespers. Will you join us for worship?"

Ragnar stood. "That’s one of the reasons I came." And together they went into the small church: Father Hugh to the lectern, Abbess Margaret to the choir, Ragnar and John to the pews.

"Deus, in adjutorium meum intende," Father Hugh intoned. "Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina," the congregation replied. "Gloria Patri, et Filio...."

The rolling phrases went on. The church was comfortably warm, and the candles were just beginning to show against the bright twilight shining through the windows of colored glass. Ragnar did not understand Latin, had not been raised with it, but the holy pictures of the windows spoke to him.

"...Tu es sacerdos in aeternum...."

One window caught his eye: a powerful bearded man with a hammer, light shining about his head. Could it be Thor? Many of the people back in Surtsheim worshipped the White Christ—though belief in Him was not as strong as it had grown in the days before the Saracens took Rome and sent the Christians fleeing. Perhaps the Christians were learning to believe in Thor, as many Northmen had learned of Christ? Both gods were strong for protection and generosity. They made a good pair.

No, he decided. That was a carpenter’s hammer, not a war hammer. It had to be the Christ, or perhaps his father Joseph. Both had been carpenters. Still, the images of Thor and Christ came together in his mind.

I must talk with Father Hugh of this, he thought, as Father Hugh turned and gestured, in movements solemn and formal as a pavane. I’ll consider speaking with Abbess Margaret after I hear what Hugh has to say.

The service had drawn near its end as Ragnar mused. He joined the others in the final amen, then rose and left the church with John Freemantle.

The sun was almost down, and the long northern twilight of May filled the air. Clouds above shone brilliantly, from heights the shadows of evening had not yet reached.

"I must go now," Ragnar said. "The light lasts a long while, this time of year, but it’s a considerable distance back to the fairgrounds." John whistled and waved, and a villein brought up Ragnar’s horse. Ragnar mounted.

"Visit us at the fair," he told John, "and be sure to bring a wool sample so we can speak of trade with all the goods handy for inspection." He waved farewell, and the horse cantered out along the path.

Ragnar passed through the woods. As his horse was about to turn onto the fairgrounds road, he reined it back into the concealment of the bushes. Well, well, he thought. What have we here? And he took his bow from its case upon the saddle.

Only the darkest blue was coloring the heavens, and the stars were out, when Ragnar saw the campfires of the fair glowing against the treetops ahead. He led his horse to the fire where perhaps a dozen of his men were lounging. Instead of going directly to the paddock, he went into the darkness between two of the booths. He motioned Gunnar to follow him.

There was a form on top of the horse, covered by Ragnar’s cloak. He lifted the cloth to reveal as plump a buck as ever one could wish for, at least in the spring. "He came to the edge of the woods at twilight, as deer will do, so I shot him. Don’t you think venison stew would help sustain us through tomorrow’s trading?"

Gunnar’s teeth gleamed in the shadow of his beard. "Stew it’ll be, and I’ll make sure nobody sees me doing the butchering—especially the gamekeepers. They don’t seem to care that much about the King’s Deer in Northlanding, but there’s no sense tempting Fate."

Ragnar went back to the fire, leaving the horse and the buck to Gunnar. He made a quick guess where the best balance would be between smoke and mosquitoes. Two men scooted apart to make room for him in the circle.

He rolled his cloak into a cushion and leaned against it. Knute handed him a horn of ale. He drank. "Ah!" he sighed, and was quiet for a while as he listened to one of the men telling the tale of Thor and the giant Thrym. He thought it well done, and joined in as the crew applauded afterwards.

I must tell a saga soon, Ragnar said to himself. Perhaps the history of Duke William? But not tonight—there is no patience for saga, the first night at the fair. Less than half the men are here at our fire.

A woman’s laughter drifted across the camp. Smiling, Ragnar remembered the days before he had married, then rose and stretched his bones, which had stiffened from sitting on the ground. He picked his way past sleeping Northmen to get to his waiting bed.

He unbuckled his sword, hung it on the bedpost, took off his clothes, lay on one bearskin and pulled the other over him. Nights could be cold, this close to the river. From outside there was a burst of drunken Norse song—some of the men back from the tavern, no doubt. The interwoven ropes creaked beneath him as he rolled on his side. He slept.


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