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Feasting the Wolf
by Susan Price
Farm boys Ottar and Ketil love to hear stories about the Great Army; the ruthless warriors ruled by pirate kings, the glory and riches won in blood-soaked battles. They can only dream of such adventure until a Viking ship comes to port and the boys decide to join the raiding party. As blood brothers, they have sworn to protect each other. But now the arrows of war threaten to pierce their loyalty, the axes to sever their friendship. If they cannot stand strong together, their bodies may be left on the battlefield to feast the wolves.
Susan Price was never very fond of school and saw reading and writing books as an escape from it.
At eleven, she first saw photographs of the beautiful Gokstad Viking ship, and read the Norse myths. After that, she wanted to learn everything she could about the Vikings. She now knows a great deal about them, has visited Scandinavia, and seen the Gokstad ship. Several of her books are set in the Viking age.
She wrote her first book, "The Devil's Piper", at the age of 16 and it was accepted for publication by Faber and Faber. She has gone on to win The Guardian Children’s Fiction Award for "The Sterkarm Handshake" and the Carnegie Medal for "The Ghost Drum".
Visit www.susanprice.org.uk/ to find out more.
FEASTING THE WOLF
Chapter One: Geese Going South
The axe smashed down on the shield, the force of the blow driving Ketil’s raised arm into his face and buckling his knees under him. The inner side of his shield hit his head. Splinters flew. He yelled, “Hold! Hold!”
Ottar laughed, and laid on harder, yelling, “You shall feed the ravens!”
Ketil tried to stand under the blows, but they pounded down too fast. He saw splinters of wood, hacked from his shield, falling around him. Soon there’d be no shield left to protect him from the axe’s edge. He gave up and fell to the ground, holding the shield above him, trying to curl up under its shelter.
“Ha!” Ottar smashed down another blow. “Feast the wolf!”
He backed off, panting, stooping to lean on his knees.
Ulfbjorn sat nearby, with folded arms, on an upturned bucket. He laughed at them both.
When Ottar had a little breath back, he looked and saw that Ketil was still trying to hide his big body and long legs under his shield. He laughed too. Laughing and panting, he said, “You can come out now!”
“I’m dead,” Ketil said. “Go away and stop bothering me!”
Ulfbjorn got up and walked over to them. He kicked Ketil’s leg gently and said, “In a real battle, you would be dead. You’ve got to be quicker, Ketil. You want to look round and watch the grass grow – but there’s no time for that in battle.”
Ketil rolled and sat up, his hacked shield held before him. He grinned up at his uncle. “Ah, but if we’re ever in a real battle, I shall put on my bearskin and run berserk.” The War God, Odin, was supposed to send his followers mad with battle-frenzy. They were even supposed to put on bearskin shirts, turn into bears, and fight with the strength of bears.
“What if Odin doesn’t come to you?” Ulfbjorn said.
Ketil clambered to his feet, a long-legged, long-faced lad with light brown hair. He was as tall as Ulfbjorn, and a head taller than Ottar. “I promise you, Uncle, when I come among the enemy, their dead will number more than their living.”
“Be serious,” Ottar said. “If you won’t be serious, we’ll never be any good.” Ottar was wiry, with a small, neat round head. His hair, brows and lashes were all very dark, though his eyes were light grey. He took after his Pictish mother. It offended him that Ketil treated their weapons-practice as a game. Ottar wanted to be the best at axe-play and swordplay, the best there was, and that meant practising and practising. But Ketil wouldn’t practise at all if Ottar didn’t make him. He said to Ulfbjorn, “Tell him to be serious.”
“If we went up to the house now,” Ketil said, “I wonder if we could get something to eat?”
“Ketil!” Ottar said.
Ketil laughed and kicked aside the remains of his shield. It had only been a practice one – a few pieces of wood nailed together, with straps and grips made of rope. Good enough to be battered to flinders in a game. In one of the farm’s storehouses, he had a real shield – nothing fancy, but a good, strong shield, fit for battle. He had an axe, too, and a spear, a bow and twenty-four arrows, just as the law said every free man should have, in case the King of Norway called on him to fight. Ulfbjorn had given him the war-gear on his twelfth birthday, when he’d become a man; and it was mostly Ulfbjorn who’d taught him and Ottar to use them. “Don’t fret, Ottar,” Ketil said. “We’ve plenty of time. How long has the Army been pestering the Saxons now? Five years?”
“Nine!” Ottar said. He thought Ketil should know that.
“Nine! Well, they’re going to hang around while we get something to eat, then, aren’t they, Cod-Face?”
“Aye,” Ulfbjorn said. “Let’s go and get something to eat.”
Ketil and Ulfbjorn started back to the house. Ottar stayed where he was. He called after them, “We’ll come back and practise afterwards!”
“It’ll be dark,” Ketil said, over his shoulder.
“We’ll practise tomorrow then!” Ottar said.
Ketil threw back his head and groaned. Weapons-practice was all right now and again – and the law said a man had to be able to use his weapons – but honestly, Ottar thought about nothing else lately. It was becoming a bore.
“You have to eat,” Ulfbjorn said. “Keep your strength up! Grow a bit taller!”
Ottar was stung by that reference to his height – but the light was dimming, and he was hungry. He followed them.
It was late summer, still warm, and the sheep were in the hills. Only the farm’s five strong little northern horses were penned in the home-field. They came trotting over. “I’ve nothing for you,” Ketil said to them, but he stopped to rub noses with them.
Ottar, catching up, said to Ulfbjorn, “They call it ‘the Great Army’, don’t they?” If he had to give up weapons-practice, then he would get Ulfbjorn to talk about his favourite subject. And he loved to roll the words “Great Army” over his tongue. “Why’s that?”
“Because it’s the biggest army ever seen,” Ulfbjorn said. “More men than anybody could count. Hundreds and hundreds.”
Ottar’s heart swelled at the thought of that. Imagine being one of them! Knowing yourself to be part of the greatest army ever! “And it’s led by Halfdan?” he asked – though he knew perfectly well who the Army’s leaders were. Ketil guessed his game, and was grinning at him. Ottar ignored him.
“There’s more than one leader,” Ulfbjorn said. “Halfdan’s one – then there’s Guthrum – and Ivar, before he died. There are others, but those are the ones I’ve heard of.”
“Dad says they’re nothing but Vikings – just pirates and raiders,” Ketil said, and laughed when Ottar frowned. He’d known that would irritate him.
“He’s not far wrong,” Ulfbjorn said. “They’re outlaws – or younger sons with no land to call their own – or men who just want to grab some loot and land.”
It all sounded fine to Ottar. If you were born a younger son, with no land, you could accept that you’d be poor all your life – or you could join the Great Army, and fight, make yourself famous and win gold. And when you came home, you could buy the family farm from your brothers, if you wanted to be bothered.
“And was it nine years ago they first came?” Ottar asked. He knew it was.
“Aye… Well, when they first came to the Saxon lands.” He meant the lands far to the south, even south of Pictland. “They’d been across the sea before that, raiding over there. In Frankland. There’s a big city over there, called Paris. They besieged that.”
“Where did they first come?” Ottar asked. “Was it Wessex?”
“No, not Wessex!” Ulfbjorn said. “Wessex is strong. They came to East Anglia – that’s ten, fourteen days’ sailing from here.” Even Ketil looked impressed by so great a distance. “Before that they’d been even further south, down in the Frankish lands, getting gold, horses – drinking wine, not ale, wine.”
Ottar shook his head wonderingly, his eyes wide. It was his secret ambition that, one day, he would serve a king, as one of the king’s fighting men. He would be a great warrior and the king would reward him with horses and gold, and give him a beautiful noblewoman for his wife – maybe even one of the king’s own daughters. And he’d come back home to Shetland to visit. In his own ship. And he’d ride to visit Ketil and Ulfbjorn on his prancing horse and – he’d give them great gifts, to show he remembered them.
“The Army came over to East Anglia,” Ulfbjorn said, “because all the Saxon kings are too busy fighting each other to get an army together to fight anybody else. So, easy pickings. It wasn’t East Anglia the Army were after, though – it was York. They just made winter quarters in East Anglia, and took horses – they’re famous for their horses there.”
Ottar’s eyes shone, as he imagined horses with arched necks and coats shining like silk – rich men’s horses. To win one in battle was far more glorious than buying it.
“They moved up to York the next year,” Ulfbjorn said. He knew, because he’d been trading himself, to York, and across the North Sea to Hathaby in Daneland, and he’d picked up all the news. Often, when ships put into their Shetland port of Lerwick, he’d go along and gossip with the shipmen, and learn what was going on in the world. “Some went in ships and some went by horse. There are these stone roads in the Saxon lands, built time out of mind by the Roman giants. You can make good speed along them. They came at York by land and sea, in the early winter, and they walked in. Took it without a fight.”
Ottar gave a little skip as they walked. He loved hearing this sort of talk. “The Saxons don’t know how to fight!”
“The Saxons were fighting each other,” Ketil said. “Isn’t that right?”
Ulfbjorn nodded. “That’s why Ivar and Halfdan took the Army there. They knew that while all the Saxon leaders were fighting each other, not one of them could get enough men together to fight them. It was a Saxon feast day as well – they were holding a fair and drinking. The last thing they expected was to be attacked.”
“Ha!” Ottar said, and cut short the life of some nettles with his axe.
“That was what, eight years ago?” Ulfbjorn said. “You and Ketil were just wee lads. Since then Halfdan and Ivar have been roaming about with their men, up and down through the Saxon lands, through Mercia and back to East Anglia, and into Wessex. The Christians have these ‘monasteries’ where their holy men live, and they have dishes of gold and silver, and gold candlesticks, and bits of dead people in boxes of gold studded all over with gemstones – Ivar and Halfdan put all that in their treasury. And slaves, they took slaves – sold ’em in Dublin and Hathaby. Good pickings.”
They reached the farmyard, which was paved with flat stones, so that people didn’t have to wade through deep muck and mud in wet weather. They came to the storehouses first, and stopped to duck inside, and hang their axes on the pegs driven into the stone walls.
Beside the storehouses was a little smithy, where farm tools could be made and repaired; and a bathhouse. The farmhouse was on the other side of the paved yard, beside the stable and the byre. All of these buildings were long and low, with stone walls and turf roofs. Smoke drifted from the smoke-hole of the house.
“Ivar died about a year ago,” Ulfbjorn said, as they came out of the storehouse. “Things changed a bit then. The Army split up.”
“King Halfdan came north, didn’t he?” Ottar said.
“King?” Ulfbjorn said. “He calls himself ‘king’. His brother’s the King of Daneland, but he’s no king.”
“Halfdan made himself a king!” Ottar said. “By fighting! By being the best – by winning gold!”
“By feasting the wolf and raven,” Ulfbjorn said, and laughed. Wolves and ravens came to eat the dead after a battle, so that was the way poets described battle – spreading a feast before the wolf and raven. “But aye, Halfdan brought his part of the Army north, while Guthrum took his men south. Halfdan came up into Northumbria – there’s a lot of monasteries and gold in that part of the country. He’s making his winter quarters on the river Tyne, I hear.”
“Gold,” Ottar said. He looked at the farm around him. It was a well-kept, comfortable farm, and he envied Ketil for being the only son of his family to inherit it. He, Ottar, was the third of three brothers, and if his father split the land between the three of them, none of them would have enough to live on. If he gave all the land to his eldest son, then Ottar and his other brother would have none – unless they could somehow earn gold enough to buy some. Or win such favour with a king that the king gifted them gold and farms.
Of course, it wasn’t just the land and the buildings that made Ketil’s home so comfortable.
Three days before, Ottar had been at his own farm, and his mother had learned that he was going to visit Ketil for a few days. She’d been furious. She disliked him going, because she missed his company.
“Oh, aye, it’s a rich, comfortable farm,” she’d said. “Why wouldn’t it be? They came in from the sea and took the land. They didn’t have to serve a chief for it. They didn’t break their backs clearing stones and carrying basket after basket of seaweed up from the beach to dig into the fields. They stole land that had already been worked over, the heathens!” She’d been banging about in her kitchen among her Pictish slaves and servants, speaking her own language.
Ottar’s father, Harald, had been sitting in the hall, on the other side of the leather curtain that screened hall and kitchen from each other. Harald was a Northman, and a heathen. His grandfather had come by ship from Norway, and had taken land in Shetland. According to Harald, there hadn’t been much fighting. “If the Picts let us alone, we let them alone,” he said. “If there was fighting, they started it. We only wanted to farm.”
Hearing his wife’s words, he’d shouted out, in Norse, “Shut up, you old witch!” All his men, and Ottar’s brothers, had laughed. Harald understood Pictish, though he never spoke it except when giving orders to slaves. He always spoke Norse to his wife and children.
Ottar thought Ketil lucky because his mother and father were both Norwegian Shetlanders. They worshipped the same Gods and spoke the same language, though they could both speak a little Pictish when they had to speak to slaves or other natives who’d never learned Norwegian. Ketil’s home wasn’t divided between Pict and Northman, Christian and heathen, and was much calmer and happier for it. Ottar liked to spend time with Ketil, away from the pot-banging, the shouting and the crying at home. His mother always wanted him to be Pictish, and he couldn’t be. Whatever she said, he was half-Northman.
“We should join the Army,” Ottar said to Ketil. “Go and get us some gold. And when we’ve fought in some battles, we can take service with the King of Norway.”
“We should!” Ottar said. “Do you just want to stay at home your whole life? Ulfbjorn went travelling – we should go, shouldn’t we, Ulfbjorn?”
“You should travel while you’re young,” Ulfbjorn said. “See a bit of the world beyond the farm walls, have some adventures… And it’s better to be rich than poor in this world, that’s a sure thing.”
“See?” Ottar said. “Ulfbjorn thinks we should go!”
Ketil laughed. “One day.” As they crossed the yard, they could look between the buildings and see the hayfield, with its rows of hayricks that everyone had worked so hard over. Further down the slopes were the fields where the barley and oats had been grown. The last sheaves had been brought into the barn only a few days before. Some other men could be seen down there, taking stones from the walls, to make gaps, so the animals could get in to graze on the stubble, and also manure the ground. And beyond those fields were the paths leading down to the beach, and the racks where they dried fish.
Ketil came to a stop and stood staring. Ottar went on a step or two, following Ulfbjorn, but then turned, wondering why his friend wasn’t with him.
Ketil was looking out over the green hills, and the grey stone walls; at the white and yellow of the stubble-fields; and at the blue sky over all. The wind brought him a scent of grass, and heather-bells and sea. He drew in a deep breath, and felt a deep, wordless contentment rooting him to the ground; his ground.
“Come on,” Ottar said, and Ketil dragged his feet, and his heart, from the spot, and they went on towards the house.
They were nearing the door when a cry from overhead made them look up. “Geese!” Ottar said. A big V of wild geese was flying overhead, honking, as they made their way south, to Pictland, for the winter. “The wind’s from the north!”
It was the wind that would carry a ship southwards, towards the Saxon lands, where the Great Army was winning fame and gold. Ketil shook his head, and ducked in through the house door, into the dimness, the smoke, heat and smell of food.
Ottar remained outside, looking up, watching the geese, and wishing he was going with them.
A ruthless and rich story, warmed by the theme of friendship.
Carousel Christmas Supplement
Susan Price has researched the history behind her story very fully. She gives you a real sense of life aboard a Viking ship, the farming communities in Shetland and life in northern England in the period known as "The Dark Ages".
newsademic.com children's newspaper
Susan Price, multi-award-winning author of "The Sterkarm Handshake" (winner of the Guardian Prize) and "The Ghost Drum" (winner of the Carnegie Medal) is on familiar territory here presenting a harsh picture of Viking life, in this assured historical novel. "Feasting the Wolf" maintains the theme of brotherhood from her earlier novels "Elfgift" and "Elfking". "Feasting the Wolf" is a dramatic story of courage and honour set in the merciless and, literally, cut-throat Viking world. How the boys deal with strains on friendship and with bullying, however, is as relevant to youngsters in the 21st century as it was in the times when ruthless warriors fought ferociously in blood-soaked battles.
Books for Keeps
Susan Price has written a dramatic and poignant story. She has produced a work that does not hide the brutality of the age and where the reader has a strong sense of physical background, as well as being totally absorbed in the lives of the two young men.
School Librarian journal Spring 2008
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