Saturday, 5 August 2017

From the Frankish Skald: The Song of Charlemal

I - Ubba's Last Stand

Charlemal, new-crowned Frankish King
Had heard the tales of Viking wealth
So sought to take it for himself.
His longships sailed upon the wind
Northward o'er the waves that rolled.

In Hedemark they made landfall
There to raid with axe and sword
The land of Ubba, Viking Lord.
The Jarl with greatest wealth of all
So rich even his teeth were made of gold.

Charlemal,  King of the Franks, stood on the shore as his men disembarked from their longships, and sighed. They had landed some hours before sunrise in this sheltered cove, the closest beach suitable for their ships to their prize, a building of evident importance. It solemnly stood at the top of a cliff that they had spotted from some distance offshore the previous evening. Almost certainly it was some sort of temple to one of the strange gods of the pagans who inhabited these Norse lands. And, more importantly, it was almost certainly filled with gold and other treasures - or so he had assured his men.

But it had taken an age to unload the ships in the darkness and make ready for the journey inland, and the Frankish scouts had searched for longer than expected before they had found a safe route to the top of the cliffs. Worst of all, they had spotted Viking lookouts and without doubt the alarm had been raised and the defenders would be on the alert. Not the ideal situation, but it was far too late to change the plan now.

More than an hour had passed before the warband reached the top of the cliff. The path, once they had found it, had been easier to climb than expected for the men, but getting the stumbling horses along it safely before the sun had risen had been a challenge. Once at the top, though, the going was easy towards the building - there was even a path to follow. The scouts led the way as the sun rose to reveal the mouth of the Great Fjord of Hedemark in the distance, and with the light, their journey, along with Charlemal's mood, eased considerably.

It was not to last for long. News from the scouts was that a baggage train, escorted by warriors and berserkers, was moving inland from the building. Charlemal reasoned quickly - the alarm raised, the defenders must have understood the target of the raiders and were moving their valuables away into safety - it was time to act. He ordered his men to change direction, cutting across the low hills inland instead to cut off the path of the baggage train.

The Franks caught up with their target at a small hamlet tucked away between hills and moorland. Two units of Viking warriors and a handful of berserkers kept close formation beside two carts and several pack horses laden with goods. A brawny Viking warlord was barking orders at them sharply. Occasionally the sunlight glinted off his one, golden, tooth. Ubba, Jarl of Norway, was here in person. Charlemal had heard the tales and knew of his adversary, a veteran of many battles in many different lands. He ordered his men into formation, archers to his right in one of the buildings, more to his centre in the open, and two smaller units in reserve at the rear, and he and his knights on the left, mounted and ready to swing around his enemy's flank when the moment was right.

Slowly, the baggage train advanced. Warriors protected its flanks while the berserkers held back, keeping their distance from the threat of the Frankish archers, while Ubba Goldtooth, in the centre, considered his options. It was clear that the Franks lay in his path to victory and the Jarl was intent on fighting his path through. Partially shielded from the bowmen by a small hill, the Vikings advanced.

Charlemal, battle-seeking Frankish King
Had found the Vikings with their wealth.
Taking it now was down to himself.
But his battle board was horribly confusing
Regardless of the dice he'd just rolled.

Charlemal ordered his men to wait. It was tempting to attack immediately, but there was advantage in preparation and patience, so he readied his force for a counterattack. The Vikings, emboldened by the apparent inaction of their foe, pressed on, but almost before they could move, the foremost of their warriors were charged by the Frankish knights, who forced them back without loss and, though surrounded, threatened the first of the baggage carts.

Charlemal, counter-charging Frankish Lord
Surprised the Viking warriors now.
His horsemen charged and mowed them down.
But now alone in the middle of the board
They were at the mercy of their berserker foe.

Ubba, surprised and enraged, signalled to his berserkers, and charged with them into the knights, who were doing all they could to keep their formation in readiness for the inevitable counterattack. And fortune was on their side. Mud, from a small stream leading down the hill, or something similar, must have caused the Vikings to be unsure of their footing, for their attack was half-hearted and the knights stood their ground, while several of the berserkers met their death beneath horse's hooves, and were driven back.

Charlemal's pious Frankish knights
With God's strength and armour, stayed
The charging berserkers and Ubba's blade
They forced them back and were now in sight
Of a baggage cart laden with gold.

Charlemal's emboldened Frankish knights
Readied themselves, charged once, then twice
Plundering the cart, claiming their prize
While the rest of the baggage took flight
On long flank manoeuvre to go.

With the sense that destiny was on their side, the knights charged the baggage several times before the cart was destroyed and plundered. Losing men in the inevitable counter-charge, they fell back, but enough damage had been done. The Vikings were in disarray, berserkers and many warriors lying dead on the hill, and only a few brave men holding their positions close to Ubba's side.

Seeing the main threat to the remaining baggage from Charlemal himself, Ubba ordered his baggage to find a way around the hamlet to escape. He and his warriors would hold the Frankish warlord where he was while they made their bid for freedom.

Ubba, embattled Norse Viking
Drew his men close and once more charged
Engaging Charlemal and his bodyguard
Both warlords fiercely fighting
Neither giving any ground.

With their leader in battle with the Viking Jarl, Frankish resources were stretched to the limit and it was all they could do to send one unit of archers on a wide march to the left flank in an attempt to hold off the baggage. Just in time, they were able to take position to the side of the hamlet, blocking the escape route for the remains of the Viking baggage train. In the meantime, supported by Warriors, Charlemal and Ubba faced each other off at the side of the hill. Again and again they met in battle and warriors of both sides died, before Ubba, in a wild charge, met Charlemal in single combat.

Charlemal, who steel cannot bite
Met Ubba's charge; his blade was true
(The Viking Jarl was run right through)
And Ubba, giving up the fight
Fell dead upon the ground.

Charlemal had anticipated this moment well, and met the Jarl's charge with even greater force. Ubba's blade could not pierce the Frank's armour, nor could he withstand the ferocity of his foe's defence, and this was Ubba Goldtooth's last stand, falling on the bloodied hillside to Charlemal's blade.

The Viking force, reduced to a single man, gave up the fight and fled the field. The Franks, rejoicing and not a little surprised at the fortune of their venture, rounded up the baggage and returned with their plunder to their boats.

Celebrations were in order, for Charlemal's first victory. Mead flowed, and Charlemal ordered a great banner to be made to honour Ubba's noble death as well as the brave deeds of battle done by the Franks that day, to be carried into battle flying from a pole topped with the most treasured plunder of that day - Ubba's golden tooth.

Charlemal, victorious Frankish Lord
Let the last Viking warrior run to fight again.
While his men rounded up the baggage train
And took all the treasure home with them, including
Ubba's tooth of gold.

The eldest son of the late Ubba Goldtooth, Jarl of Norway, sat at the head of the table in the Great Hall, brooding. The smell of charred wood from the boat burial was still strong on the fur lining of his cape. The throne he occupied felt more unfamiliar than uncomfortable. He knew the men before his expected him to stand and speak shortly, before he would let them feast and drink, celebrating his father's entry to Valhalla. But he was judging the moment, timing his move with care. They would assume he was managing his grief, but the truth was much more complicated than that. It wasn't as if he hadn't given his father the respect he had deserved, or that he would miss him now he was gone. But he had longed for years to take his father's place and sit in this throne and lead. And now, as his father watched from Valhalla, he was expected to do just that.

The Frankish upstart Charlemal - the foreigner who had has raided his father's - his - lands would die for this deed, to be sure. The blood feud had already been declared. But in the back of his mind Ubbason (his father had lacked imagination when naming his children) felt he had been done a favour, by being brought to his inheritance earlier and without any need for scheming on his part. And his father had died with great honour, as a Viking should. He would be respected for that, and for the leadership he would show in the years to come.

Ubbason the Bastard stood, as the Great Hall fell silent, and with forced tears in his eyes, but real passion in his heart, he made the greatest speech of his life so far....

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