Bryggen in Bergen, Norway. Over a thousand years old and the inspiration for Straven.
Bryggen in Bergen, Norway. Over a thousand years old and the inspiration for Straven. (photo: James Kemp)

Straven is the title of the first chapter in my fantasy novel, provisionally titled Fierce.  I’m now looking for reviewers to read and review it. If you liked Chapter 1 – Straven, and would be willing to read the whole novel and provide an honest review please get in touch.  The story starts in Straven, the home of both Yngvild and Noren. I’ve linked to some of the story background I’ve put on my wiki.

Update 24 Mar 2024: This is a revised version of the chapter from the original posted years ago, taken from the version that comes out on 1 May 2024. (Pre-order link to Amazon UK for Fierce by James Kemp.)

Chapter 1 – Straven

‘Noren! What’s keeping you?’ I peered round the door of the boat shed.
‘I’m stowing the nets, Yngvild.’
‘Can’t you just throw them back in the boat like everyone else?’
Noren stopped sorting out the net and looked up at me. ‘Because, Yngvild, you can’t throw them well if they’re tangled.’
‘It’s a waste of time, we could be doing something more enjoyable!’
‘If they’re stowed well I catch fish faster, so I get to come home sooner. That means I get to spend time with you.’ Noren smiled widely, his blue eyes gleaming.
I stuck out my chin and pouted. ‘Well it’s time you showed me how much you appreciate my company.’ I reached out to grab Noren’s neatly patched sailcloth smock and pull him closer.
‘Noren! Yngvild! Dinner!’
‘Gods, her timing is terrible!’ I ran a finger down Noren’s sleeve and across his back. ‘later.’ I turned to leave.
‘Tell her I’ll be in as soon as I’ve finished stowing the nets.’
‘You are such a stickler.’ I blew Noren a kiss over my shoulder as I left the boat shed.

The light from the open doorway was eclipsed as Noren joined the rest of us in the main hall. The day’s work done, he’d hung his smock in the boat shed. He came in, dressed in his distinctive linen shirt with the extra wide panels under his muscled arms.
Noren crossed the space between door and table in two strides. He sat in his usual space in the middle of the bench nearest the door. I sat opposite him. Everyone else was already here, waiting for his arrival before starting.
The table was laden with bread, beer, bowls, and serving dishes with butter, eggs, peas, barley and salt. We had some fried fish fresh from today’s catch, the rest of which had filled the smoke house.
‘Let us pray in thanks.’ Old Bjorn stood at the head of the table. Helga the Red sitting on his right. Arne the Slow, the steersman, sat at the other end. Down the table there were ten others on each side, a third of the boat crew plus their family members shared the main hall. The rest were either in the old hall or the barn with the younger children.
‘Let us give thanks that we are all here today,’ Old Bjorn said. ‘and that we have a bounteous catch to eat and plenty to trade.’
‘I give thanks to the Gods for the health of all our children.’ Helga the Red said.
I stood. As the youngest adult present it was my duty to finish the prayers.
‘I give thanks to the Gods for the food we are about to eat.’
‘I give thanks’. The adults chanted in unison.
Dinner started with a rattling of dishes and utensils. Two fish dishes went round the table, one from Old Bjorn and the other from Arne the Slow. Others helped themselves to the side dishes while we waited for the fish to come round.
‘Have you picked out a lamb for First Night yet?’ Gunnar asked me as he stuck his knife into a loaf to cut off a chunk.
‘Yes, it was the first one born.’ I chose a piece of fish from the dish that Leif passed to me before passing it on to Birgitta.
‘So are you going to do it this year?’ Leif put a piece of the fish in his mouth and started chewing.
‘I’ve done it several times already, as you well know.’ I stuck my tongue out at Leif.
Gunnar laughed. ‘You walked into that one, old friend.’
Leif’s cheeks went red above his blond beard.
‘You’ve embarrassed him.’ I slowly sucked the grease off each of my fingers, looking at him.
Gunnar almost choked on the ale he was drinking, and Noren slapped him on the back.
I added some butter to the bread I’d torn off the loaf. ‘Yes, I’m doing the sacrifice to Malfin. Are you helping me?’
‘Me and Leif were planning to.’ Gunnar put the tankard down. ‘What about you Noren?’
‘Yngvild has sorted out a job for me.’ Noren put his knife down. ‘I’ve got to chop the wood for the fire on the hill.’
‘You could do some for us too.’ Leif said.
‘Why not.’ Noren popped a whole boiled egg in his mouth.

After dinner I followed Noren from the hall, there was unfinished business to attend to. I enjoyed watching him move, seeing the smooth strides. His woollen hose clung to his legs and showed his muscles rippling as he walked. He was V shaped, tapering down from his broad shoulders. He rolled across the landscape like a thundercloud towards our favourite outcrop overlooking the beach.
I couldn’t keep up with him when he moved with a purpose, but I knew where he was going and I could enjoy the view. He stopped on the top of the smooth rock and stood looking out at the sun low on the horizon across the fjord.
I took my time getting to him, he wasn’t going anywhere else tonight and I thought about my dreams of being with Noren in the forest. All our work was done and the evening meal eaten. There was nothing else to do but enjoy the sun, and each other’s company, before bed.
‘Good weather again tomorrow I think.’ Noren said as I arrived.
I climbed onto the rock and, tucking my skirt behind my knees, sat at the edge, my feet dangling over the beach. ‘Come, sit with me.’ I patted the edge of the rock next to me.
Noren took the cue and sat beside me. I put my arm round his waist and leant into him, resting my head on the side of his chest. I thrilled at his scent, there was something about the combination of salt, sea, wool and Noren that enticed me to be near him and, if I’m honest, melted my insides a little.
He hugged me with his left arm, pulling me into him. ‘It’s a beautiful evening.’
We sat in silence, watching the waves hit the beach and straggly pink clouds scudding on a horizon flecked with tiny islets and white foam where rocks broached the surface. Gulls swooped and heeled into the sea, emerging moments later with fish in their beaks glinting in the sun.
‘You ever wonder about going away from here?’ I said.
‘One day I’ll have my own boat. Who knows where my haven will be.’
‘I’ve been dreaming about us in a forest.’
‘Boats aren’t great in forests.’
‘The seagulls took us to the forest, so the bear could find us.’
‘Is this like the dreams you had about the raiders?’
‘Maybe, although Old Bjorn says that sometimes dreams are just dreams. But I keep having this one.’
‘How exactly does it go?’
‘A giant seagull picks us up and carries us off. It drops us into a forest, and there’s a bear looking for us. It can’t find us, but it wants to help us.’
‘How do you know the bear wants to help us?’
‘I just know. There are ravens everywhere in the forest, but they’re not friendly, and they’re scared of the bear. I get flashes of them trying to peck out the bear’s eyes.’
Noren stiffened. I stopped talking, slightly annoyed that he wasn’t listening properly.
Noren pointed. I couldn’t see anything where he was pointing, even though I squinted into the setting sun.
A speck on the horizon broadened. ‘Is that a ship?’ Noren said.
‘Over there, between Portree and Brevik.’ Noren indicated both places as he mentioned them.
‘Oh. I see it now. Isn’t it a bit late for being out?’
‘Well it’s not like it’s getting dark soon, is it?’
I laughed. ‘Not for a fortnight at least’ I squinted at the smudge on the horizon ‘I wonder who it is and where they’re going?’
‘They’re a bit far away, but it doesn’t look like one of the fishing boats I know’
‘How can you tell? It’s so small’
‘The sail is wrong, we’ve just got the one mast with a square rig.’

The ship approached, becoming clearer. Two masts were under sail, and a third furled. The fore mast had a huge triangular sheet. Above it a smaller rectangular sail bulged ahead of the ship. Both sails had the large blue circle of the King’s ships painted on an otherwise plain sail. It seemed to be coming straight towards us.
‘I think we ought to go tell the others about the King’s ship’ Noren said.
‘Won’t someone else have seen it?’
Noren looked back at the houses, two parallel tenements running inland from the jetty. ‘I can’t see anyone, if they’d seen the ship then they’d be getting ready to welcome it.’
‘We’ve got a few more minutes.’
‘We have. But others might have gone to bed, you know what Old Bjorn and Helga the Red are like.’ Noren disentangled himself from me and rolled away, launching himself off the rock.
‘Wait for me!’ I scrambled after him with my skirts hiked above my knees so that I could crawl.
Noren didn’t wait for me. He broke into a run towards the houses.
‘Ships!’ he yelled. ‘Ships!’
I turned to look back out to sea, surely there was just one ship?
There, behind the first ship, and obscured by its sails, were two others. They were much further out, but following the same course. Neither had the blue pennant nor the blue circles on the sails. One had a red pennant with patched sails. The other a green pennant with green and white vertically striped sails.
‘Gods above! Raiders!’ I swore under my breath and hurried to the houses. I could see that Noren had already reached the decking ahead of me. He was shouting to wake up the households.
‘Raiders! Raiders! To arms!’ Noren shouted. He reached the horn hanging on the front of the building, next to the alley entrance.

FFFRROOOUUU! The horn sounded.

An upstairs shutter thumped open against the thick wooden boards of the tenement. Arne the Slow glowered down at Noren.
‘What’s the panic, dwarf?’
‘Ships! Raiders! Coming here.’ Noren pointed at the incoming ships. ‘First one is a King’s Ship, but the two behind look like raiders.’
Arne looked out at the ships. ‘Best get tha battle gear on, then.’ he ducked back inside, leaving the window shutter open.
The thudding of my feet on the planking echoed off the walls as I dashed down the alley. My room was upstairs at the back of the alley. As I ran full pelt along the alley people began to appear.
‘Raiders, get ready!’ I shouted as I passed them.
Noren’s footsteps rang on the boards behind me.
No-one was asleep now, children hollered and cried as they were grabbed from their beds.

I took the stairs two at a time and crashed through the door into my room.
I tore off my skirts, stepping out of them as they fell to the floor. My shield came out from under the bed, with mail, dagger and helmet.
A bright red padded woollen coat covered me to mid-thigh. I bent my head forwards to catch my braids in a bright red knitted woollen cap. Once they were safely enclosed I threw the mail shirt over my head and shrugged it down over my body.
My dagger and a quiver of arrows were on the broad leather belt that pulled the mail tight around my waist.
I took my bow from the corner, it’s string loose, and bent it against my foot with one hand while stringing it with the other.
Then the helmet went on my head, hinged cheek pieces and a human featured face plate covered everywhere except my eyes and mouth.
The shield and a sharpened stake were taken in my left arm and I ran back out the door.
We’d practised weekly since the beginning of last winter. The alley had two way traffic. Young mothers and oldsters herded children inland. Everyone else moved towards the jetty. Not all were wearing battle gear. Some carried it to dress on the jetty.
On the jetty Noren had a pile of battle gear in front of him. His padded jerkin discarded behind him, he was pulling a mail shirt over his head. Noren’s arms flailed above his head, the mail clanking loudly.
‘No point continuing, dwarf, tha’s too large for yer mail.’ drawled Arne, who stood close by, already clad in armour. His shield bore a black snail on a blue field, with two wavy lines below.

A loud splash drew my attention to the King’s Ship. Both sails were furled and sailors stood ready to throw lines. The ship was at least three times as long and twice the width and height of any of the fishing boats on Straven. The people on the King’s Ship were mostly unarmoured, although an armed contingent was assembling on deck.
The other ships were closing in too, sails furled and under oars. There were archers in the prows.
‘I’m not going back with the bairns!’ Noren said. ‘My place is here with the rest of the crew, mail or no mail’
‘Stay in middle of th’ back row, dwarf. Tha’s too good a fisher to lose just cause tha’s too large for yer mail.’ Arne said.

Old Bjorn, in plain black battle rig minus helmet, stood on the jetty to meet the King’s Ship. Many white tally marks covered his shield.
‘Hello there!’ Old Bjorn waved at the ship.
A man in a blue cloak waved back.
‘Bjorn Johansson, the Counter of Battles?’
‘Aye, that was me. Who are you?’
‘Captain Ragnar Ragnarsson, of the King’s ship, Seagull.”
‘Ragnar the Ready! Have you got any better at finding your gear?’
‘Much better, sir.’
‘Wouldn’t have been hard to improve. Why have you brought me a battle at midnight?’
‘I was going to ask you the same thing, sir.’
‘No need to sir me any more, Ragnar. All I’m in charge of is a fishing boat.’ Old Bjorn gestured at the other ships. ‘Who are your friends?’
The Seagull thudded gently into the side of the jetty. While Bjorn had been talking to the captain, Erik the Dark, Leif, Gunnar and Freya had caught ropes thrown by the Seagull’s sailors and tied it off.
‘The green sails are merchant venturers from the Aelfheim Company. But I don’t know the other.’ Ragnar said.
‘We reckoned them as raiders on first sight, chasing you down perhaps.’
‘That would be a bold move, but at two to one it might pay off.’ Ragnar stroked his black beard. ‘I guess we might stay trimmed for battle until they’ve docked.’
The boat crew formed a shield wall across the end of the jetty, the only place larger boats could land. Noren was in the middle at the back, with two full rows in front of him. I stood to the side with three other archers ready to shoot into the flanks of anyone attempting to force the shield wall. Old Bjorn stayed at the end of the jetty with Captain Ragnar. The sailors formed a group on the jetty, with their archers in the stern of the ship.

We didn’t have long to wait. The two ships rowed towards them. Fifty yards out the leading vessel shipped oars and hailed Old Bjorn.
‘Ho there! Permission to dock?’
‘Who are you?’ Old Bjorn shouted back.
‘Merchants from the Aelfheim Company out of Kronstadt.’
‘You don’t look like Aelfheim.’
‘No. We ran into a raider early this morning. We captured their ship. I’ve got a prize crew and some prisoners.’
Old Bjorn looked at Captain Ragnar and raised an eyebrow. Ragnar nodded.
‘Why have you come here rather than Portree?’ said Bjorn.
‘We saw the King’s Ship and thought we’d be better off handing over the prisoners to the King.’
‘One ship at a time, and we don’t want to see anyone armed on deck.’ Said Bjorn.
‘Of course.’
Ragnar gestured to some of his sailors. They disappeared from deck. Moments later a second contingent of armed and mailed people came out of the King’s Ship and surrounded Bjorn, facing the other side of the jetty.

The first ship, the alleged former raider, slowly drifted towards the jetty. It was shorter and wider than the Seagull, and higher than the jetty. The man that had hailed them still in the prow. As he approached it became clear the shields around the ship were identical.
‘How many have you?’ one of Ragnar’s crew shouted.
‘Ten as prize crew, and thirty two prisoners.’
‘How are you holding them?’
‘They’re lashed to the oars.’
‘When you tie up I want you down here on your own. Then we’ll come aboard and take control.’
‘Fine by me. Can I have a receipt for the ship please?’
Bjorn laughed. ‘Don’t worry lad, I’ll see they don’t do you out of your prize money’.
Bjorn stood back and let Ragnar’s crew deal with the raider. They filled the deck with their crew while the locals stood on guard at the end of the jetty. Once the ship was secured they started bringing out the prisoners an oar at a time. Two came out on their own, the raider captain and his steersman.

As the raider was emptied the locals took the oars, each with three prisoners lashed to it, down the beach. Each oar was spaced out along the beach front and guarded by a spearman or archer. The raider captain was taken into the main hall by Old Bjorn, and I was set to watch him. His steersman went with Arne into the old hall. Ragnar’s crew stayed back to land the other ship.
‘This is Yngvild the Fierce, you’ll not be her first kill.’ Bjorn said to the raider captain. He turned to me, saying ‘If he tries anything put an arrow through his heart.’ Old Bjorn winked at me as he turned away from the captain.
I knocked an arrow and took a good look at the raider captain. He looked tired and worn out, but his hair was dark to match his weather beaten skin. The cold blue eyes showed intelligence and darted around appraisingly. His clothes were rich, proper loom woven wool, with an even felt. Not the home worsted we all wore on Straven. The colours were bright, twice or thrice dyed, and with lots of braid and ribbon. His buttons were bright too, silver most likely, and he had rings on his fingers. He was shorter than Noren, but only a little. He’d ducked slightly to get under the door lintel.

Bjorn got himself a tankard of beer from the keg we’d broached at dinner. The foam piled over the top of the rim like shorn wool. He set it down on the end of the table and collected some leftover fried fish from the sideboard. Replacing the cover he sat down in his usual seat and ate half the fish, washing down each mouthful with some beer.

Old Bjorn looked up at the raider captain and broke the silence. ‘Do you know who I am?’
The raider captain looked hard at Old Bjorn for a moment before replying. ‘Should I?’
‘Not especially, I’m just a fishing boat captain. How about you?’
‘Pretty similar really. My company are independent traders, not as successful as we’d like. Small fry. Not worth attacking. Yet that’s exactly what those elvish bastards did.’
Bjorn raised an eyebrow, watched the raider captain and ate more fish.
‘They’re taking out the small competition by claiming that we’re raiders. They get prize money and they sell more stuff.’
Bjorn stayed stubbornly silent and swigged some beer.
‘Look we’re legitimate traders, and it’s a scandal that we’ve been attacked and then held prisoner.’
Bjorn stood up and left the room.

I watched the captain closely. Was what he said true? Why would you make up a story like that? He certainly looked like he could be legitimate, his clothes were finer than any I’d seen in Straven. Or even at Portree, which was the richest port with a day’s return trip. But those eyes searched like he was looking to escape, maybe the clothes and jewellery were his ill gotten gains from raiding?

Old Bjorn returned, with Captain Ragnar. Bjorn sat back down, leaving Ragnar on the corner bench.
‘I’m Captain Ragnar Ragnarsson of the King’s Ship Seagull. Who might you be?’
‘Captain Ranald Magnusson, an independent trader and co-owner of the Flower of Skyss.’
‘Ranald, I have reason to believe that you have been acting as a raider. What do you say to this?’ said Ragnar.
‘I’ve already told the old man there that I’m the victim. The elves attacked us and took me and my crew prisoner. They’re the raiders.’
‘That’s not what your steersman told me.’
‘Either he’s lying or you are. Ask the rest of the crew.’
‘My crew are doing that as we speak. I’ll have the truth, one way or the other.’
‘I certainly hope so. What about the elvish crew? Have you made them prisoners?’
‘Are you aware of the penalty for leading a raiding crew?’
‘Yes. That’s why I’m not a raider. Besides you’d need a King’s Justice to pass sentence, you don’t have that authority in Skyssian waters.’
‘Correct. But the old man here is a King’s Justice. He can pass sentence any time he likes.’
Ranald’s face drained of colour.
They say that you cannot lie to a King’s Justice and live. This isn’t quite true. You cannot lie to a King’s Justice without them knowing about it. You only die if they decide that sparing you isn’t helpful. Or so Old Bjorn had told us.
‘You can confess now, or I can compel you. It’s less painful if you confess voluntarily.’ Bjorn said to Ranald.
Ranald confessed. His crew hadn’t attacked the Aelfheim Company ship, he’d been telling the truth about that. However the Aelfheim Company was large, well resourced and had a long memory. Ranald’s crew had boarded one of their smaller ships in the spring. The crew had given a description of the pennant and the distinctive patching on the sails. That had been enough for the larger ship to identify them and deliberately take them.

The trial was brief, and Bjorn told Ranald that he was being spared for crown service, as was his crew. There was relief on his face as Bjorn and Ragnar performed the geas binding him to the King’s Service. Ranald volunteered to speak the words.
‘I pledge my life in atonement to the service of the Crown. I will follow all orders given to me by the King and officers appointed over me, even unto death, as diligently as possible.’
‘Ragnar, ask Arne to find Ranald the Raider a room up the middle stairs. Put his steersman in with him.’ Bjorn said.
‘What about the crew?’
‘Any that freely confess can be bound to service and put in the barn. They won’t run. The others can be put in the hold pending questions from a King’s Justice.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Ragnar and Ranald left me alone with Old Bjorn in the main hall.
‘Why didn’t you tell us you were a King’s Justice?’ I asked.
‘That’s my old life, I’ve retired to live peacefully.’
‘Does anyone else know?’
‘Helga does. Arne too. No-one else. And you won’t tell them.’
‘I promise.’
‘Why did you tell Ranald that he wouldn’t be my first kill?’
‘Because it was the truth.’
‘I haven’t killed anyone.’
‘And you didn’t kill him. So he wasn’t your first kill.’
‘You couldn’t possibly have known that when you said it?’
‘Couldn’t I?’
I was perplexed. What powers did the King’s Justices have? Could they see people’s fates? What else did he know?
Bjorn stood to leave.
‘Wait! Can you see our fates?’
‘I see a future. It’s bed shaped.’ Bjorn left the hall.

The Aelfheim Company left at noon, after they’d slept off the previous day’s exertions. It took the whole crew to warp their ship out far enough to row away from the jetty.
Noren was busy with Captain Ragnar, and Freya wasn’t available either. So I found Noren’s discarded mail and took out my frustration by opening its links with a hammer and chisel in the forge. Straven didn’t have a smith these days, Aksel the Steel came through every now and then to do repairs, but he wasn’t due soon.
If Noren needed armour then he could lace it up the back with some rawhide strips until Ragnar visited to make it big enough. It was better that than not wearing anything and praying to Meniaxter not to be hit. Noren was too big a target to be missed. I took Noren’s armour with me to dinner. The sooner I could make it work for him the better.

‘Noren, I’ve adjusted your armour. Please try it on so that I can see if I’ve done enough.’
‘Thank you Yngvild’ Noren took the armour. ‘Here, or in the forge?’
‘Here will do.’ Noren unfolded the mail and put his arms into the sleeves. ‘I’ll need some help doing it up.’
‘I thought it was better to make it usable than to wait.’ I threaded the rawhide through the iron rings and laced it up Noren’s back.
‘Thank you. We were lucky yesterday.’
‘I think you were foolish you know.’
‘It was all fine in the end.’
‘It might not have been. I don’t want you fighting, especially not without armour.’
‘I’ll keep myself safe, there’s no rush to die.’
I stepped round Noren looking for pinch points in the mail. I tugged in a couple of places.
‘My point exactly Noren. What did Captain Ragnar want with you?’
‘Nothing much.’
‘Took a long time for nothing.’ I tested the left sleeve by bending Noren’s arm into a shield hold.
‘He was extolling the benefits of being a King’s Messenger, he thought I might like it.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I turned him down. I’m happy here, and one day soon I’ll have my own boat to captain.’
‘You know that Old Bjorn used to be a King’s Messenger?’ I moved Noren’s right arm up and down, like he might use a spear.
‘Ragnar mentioned it.’
‘He knew Old Bjorn didn’t he?’ I pulled at a loose flap of mail at Noren’s behind.
‘Ragnar said he was still a midshipman when Old Bjorn retired, although not long before he got promoted.’
‘Old Bjorn must be unspeakably ancient then, Ragnar didn’t look that young.’ I started to unlace the mail so he could take it off.
‘They don’t call him Old Bjorn for nothing.’
‘I heard Ragnar call him the Counter of Battles.’
‘I heard that too. The older folk joke about the tally marks on his shield, some say it’s his kills, others his women. Never heard anyone talk about his battles.’
‘You can take it off now.’
Noren shrugged himself out of the armour.
‘Does anyone recall him adding a tally marks to his shield?’
‘Not that I know, but he’s been the captain here since before I can remember.’



To be continued…

PS If you liked Straven, then you might enjoy my published works, both are free on Kindle Unlimited.