Bjorn the Beardless [Short Story]
Bjorn the Beardless is an origin story for one of the supporting characters in Yngvild the Fierce. Here we see the first voyage of Bjorn Johansson (AKA Old Bjorn), and his original nickname of Bjorn the Beardless. There’s also the kernel of his later nickname, Counter of Battles, in the question that Ragnar the Red asks him.
Bjorn the Beardless
The tide was out in the fjord, and the ship’s prow rested on the strand. A red and white vertically striped sail was furled against the spar ready to be dropped when the ship sailed. Oars were still, ready to help the ship manoeuvre off the beach when the tide came in.
A black haired youth with his brand new battle gear, approached the ship. He bounced with each step, despite the weight of his plain black shield, the mail coat he wore over the blue hose and woollen tunic. The axe slung on his back shone, as did the full-face helmet hanging below it.
A grey bearded warrior shouted as the boy approached. ‘Hey there, kid, does your father know you’ve got his battle gear?’
‘I’m looking for Ragnar’s ship?’ the boy shouted back.
‘This is it, who might you be?’
‘I’m Bjorn Johansson. Known as Bjorn the Black’
‘We’ve already got a Bjorn the Black, although I’ll grant that your hair is blacker!’
‘Are you Ragnar?’
The big grey bearded warrior laughed. ‘You don’t give up easy, do you Bjorn the Beardless?’
By now Bjorn was at the foot of the plank leading up into the ship.
A golden red-haired berserker, wearing bearskin over a red woollen tunic, looked over the gunwhale of the ship. ‘What’s all the noise Bjorn?’ he said.
The greybeard stopped laughing, but pointed at Bjorn Johansson. ‘Ragnar. The lad here said he’d come to join the ship.’
Ragnar looked the boy up and down, and pursed his lips.
‘I was told you had a seat for me.’ Bjorn Johansson said. ‘I’ve— ‘
Ragnar waved his hand, and spoke. ‘We’re going raiding, how many fights have you been in?’
‘I’ve been practicing my battle drills daily since I was big enough to hold a shield.’
‘That’s as may be. Have you killed anyone?’
‘Just some goats.’
‘Been to sea?’
‘Not since I was young.’
‘How old are you?’
‘This is my fourteenth summer.’
‘You’re tall for your age, but still beardless.’
‘All the best warriors started out beardless.’
‘Fair point. But I need all the people in my seats to be useful, there are no passengers on Ragnar the Red’s ship.’
‘That’s why my father sent me to you. To earn my word fame.’
‘I’m more worried you’ll earn yourself a place in Meniaxter’s hall and leave me short-handed for the trip back.’
‘I’m ready to go raiding, and I won’t leave you short.’
Ragnar turned to the greybeard. ‘Bjorn, get your axe and shield and show the cub what I’m talking about.’
‘Right young man, show me your best fighting.’ Ragnar said.
Bjorn the greybeard nodded and crouched to reach down into the ship for his weapon, and then unhooked a shield from the side.
‘Will you let me join you if I win?’ Bjorn Johansson said.
‘Lad, if you last more than a few minutes without Bjorn the Black disarming you or knocking you on your arse then you can have a seat.’
‘Fighting for a disarm?’ Bjorn the Black came down the plank onto the beach.
‘Lads, come watch, Bjorn’s got a fight.’ Ragnar called to the men in the ship behind him.
Ragnar jumped over the side and joined the two Bjorns on the beach. ‘Some rules. Don’t go easy lad, Bjorn the Black is still here after four decades of raiding. I want to see how you defend yourself and attack others. Understood?’
The boy nodded as the three walked up the beach onto the grassy headland.
‘If I say stop, then you stop. If you lose your axe or shield it’s over.’
A dozen or so men, bearded all, joined the three on the headland and formed a rough circle about twenty feet across. The boy dropped the bag off his shoulders that carried his spare shirt and hose and some food. One of the ship’s crew took hold of it for him. He smiled and nodded at the boy.
Young Bjorn looked at his older namesake. He was taller, wider and had an easy stance. The Shield held out at an angle, bottom facing him a good foot forward of the man’s body. The axe stood proud in his right hand, the curved head just above eye level. The smell of the sea intruded his concentration. Kari wasn’t who he’d expected help from, this wasn’t a sea battle. Still omens were omens. He was going to sea if he won. He pulled on the helmet he’d carried slung on his shoulder and copied the older man’s stance.
‘Ready?’ Ragnar looked at the boy when he spoke.
The boy nodded.
‘Fight!’ Ragnar stepped backwards out of the middle of the circle leaving the two Bjorns facing each other.
They stared at each other. The boy blinked before Bjorn the Black, he turned his head and looked right.
Almost before he’d completed the turn the older man flashed forwards to attack.
The young man dived forwards, rolling on his shield, and springing back to his feet.
Bjorn the Black’s attack met the empty space where the boy’s shield had been.
The greybeard pivoted lightly, and pushed his attack onto the boy.
Shield met shield, and the boy stepped back twice and unleashed a low sweep of his axe at the greybeard’s legs.
The greybeard jumped over the sweep towards the boy, bringing them both crashing to the ground.
Greybeard’s axe spun out of the circle, embedding in the grass.
The boy twisted as the impact happened, dropping his axe so that he could use the momentum to push the greybeard away from him.
A cheer went up from the crowd.
‘Stop!’ Ragnar shouted.
The boy rolled back to his feet, still holding his shield. He stooped to pick something up.
Greybeard stood, and put his both his hands to his face.
Laughter and ribald comments came from the watching crew.
The boy held a scrap of grey wool up in his right hand. ‘I offer this gift to Kari, for my first sea voyage!’
‘To Kari! May our passage be swift and bountiful!’ the crew responded with the traditional prayer to the sea goddess.
‘Welcome aboard Bjorn the Beardless!’ Ragnar said.
‘Which one are you talking to?’ the greybeard asked.
One of the crew picked up the boy’s axe and others gathered round to clap his shoulder and welcome him to the crew.
‘No hard feelings?’ the boy offered the tuft of beard to the older man when it was his turn.
‘It was a fair fight lad.’ Bjorn the Black waved the beard away. ‘It’s your first beard, and you promised it to Kari.’
The crew started to drift back towards the ship. The tide was starting to come in and it would soon be time to push off.