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The Atheling Chronicles 
-Book 4-

The Sea's Edge

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Garth Pettersen has turned Harald into a true hero, not just a brave and skilled warrior, but also a thoughtful, decent, level-headed man with a strong sense of morality.

- Lisabet Sarai

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Prologue

The Kingdom of Gwynedd, Northern Wales – (Æftere Giuli – After Yule) 1030 C.E.

 

King Rhydderch sent two of his retainers to ride a distance ahead, scouting the horse trail that wound up the forested mountainside. The sun had begun thinning the mists blanketing the weathered crags of the Eryri, the mountains of northern Wales. The bite of the morning air after a night’s frost reddened the king’s face where skin lay exposed above a full beard. Thick, dark hair that looked red in certain lights cascaded over his shoulders.

Behind the king, four armed retainers followed. It was not a large band, for Rhydderch wished to appear as if he had gone hunting. And if they happened to encounter a stag, his archers would make it so.

Rhydderch smiled on finding the meeting place still well below the snowline. He raised his hand to halt the riders on the narrow track. Before him lay a sloping meadow used to pasture sheep in the summer. His scouts would be in the forest on the other side, keeping watch, making sure their king was not disturbed. Sitting on a rock in the middle of the pasture was the man Rhydderch had ridden to meet. The man’s horse grazed nearby; it lifted its head and cocked its ears forward to investigate the new arrivals.

“Keep watch,” The king told his retainers. He pressed his horse forward.

The other man watched him approach and waited for the king to address him.

“Grimmwolf,” Rhydderch said in greeting, halting his horse and dismounting.

“Greatness.”

Grimmwolf dressed in black, a colour favoured by the Danes. King Rhydderch had known Grimmwolf for many years and knew not to be misled by the severe aspect of Grimmwolf’s gaunt face and deep-set eyes. Another stern-faced man might have similar stark features but would balance the fearsome effect with a ready smile. Rhydderch had not seen Grimmwolf amused or even pleased by anything or anyone. The face he showed the world was ruthless and cunning, and the king of Gwynedd had only once found reason to think Grimmwolf to be otherwise.

Rhydderch tied his horse’s reins so the beast would not step on them and then turned the horse loose to graze. “So, what news from Dubhlinn?”

Grimmwolf exhaled and stretched his back. “King Sigtrygg Silkbeard is building ships and manning them. His storehouses are full and he buys more livestock than he can use.”

Grimmwolf spoke without passion—a quality that Rhydderch prized. His value as a watcher was unrivalled. Grimmwolf made no attachments, had no bias. He reported only what he saw and heard. Rhydderch believed his man had no particular love for anything, be it power, women, or wealth. Faults that made him more worthy of trust than men who were more entertaining company.

“You believe Sigtrygg is planning a raid?” Rhydderch asked.

Grimmwolf leaned to one side and spat. With the back of his hand, he wiped his bearded mouth. “It would appear so, or something more permanent. Sigtrygg always turns a profit. Now he over-extends himself. One must ask: where will he reap the gain?”

“What else?”

“Sigtrygg is getting older. His son Olaf is well-liked and anxious to lead. It would suit the father to find a place where the son could rule.”

“A land such as Gwynedd?”

Grimmwolf did not answer.

Rhydderch looked down the mountainside. The mist had lifted enough that he could see where the forest gave way to farmland and farmland to the strait that separated the north coast of Gwynedd from the island kingdom of Onglisey. “Gwynedd is not a land to be ruled by an outsider. The Welsh would not stand for it. We are many kingdoms, but we all hate the outsider.”

“Outsiders can still slice meat from a roasted pig if their knives are sharp enough.” Grimmwolf got to his feet and kneaded his bony buttocks where they had rested on the boulder. He was taller than King Rhydderch and made no attempt to humble himself before the ruler.

Rhydderch said, “We still don’t know if Sigtrygg looks toward Gwynedd. That’s what you need to find out—in time for us to be ready for him.”

“As you wish.”

Grimmwolf turned to locate his horse when Rhydderch grasped his shoulder firmly. Grimmwolf met the king’s gaze.

“Do me this service, Grimmwolf, and I’ll reward you well. Fail, and my name will be but a memory when you return.”

“Then I shan’t fail,” Grimmwolf replied.

Rhydderch watched him turn and climb the hillside to recover his horse.

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