This was not the life Ragnarr Jernside expected. He grew up in a fine hall, surrounded by brothers and cousins and fosterlings learning the art of being a Viking Jarl, and it was an art, you needed to be able to pick up a sword and inspire your men from the frontline of the battle, you had to be able to negotiate and strategize and impress the Althing with your knowledge and wisdom, you had to conduct yourself with honour and make your ancestors proud, you had to make sure all the rites and sacrifices were made so the Gods would look on you kindly, and you had to look the part not matter what you were doing. Of course you’d have help, the bonds created through family ties and fostering were practically unbreakable. When the norns wove the threads of wyrd together the pattern they made would always be there, invisible but unbreakable. That was one thing that had not changed.
Ragnarr still remembered the family stead in Denmark, but now his home was England and he answered to Ironside, the English version of his name, as readily as to the name his mother had given him the first time he staggered back to his feet after a lucky blow broke one of his ribs during combat practice. Spitting blood he had launched himself at his elder brother like one of his father’s berserks, swinging wildly until the fight was won. The bear shirts were sworn to Odin the Allfather and from that day forward Ragnarr was welcomed at their rites, feasting and drinking mead with the most ferocious warriors.
Like most younger sons of chieftains at that time, he had been sent a-viking when he came of age, told to win his own land and his own men where resources were more plentiful and treasures were ripe for plucking from the hands of those who were not strong enough to defend them. A few of his closest friends went with him including his foster brothers Geir and Halfdan. After a few adventures along the way they joined forces with Guthrum who was uniting the Danish forces in England and rising to the top as the natural leader.
Ragnarr, Geir, Halfdan and the warriors they fought with proved themselves again and again as Guthrum’s forces took on the Saxons. They were generous with the loot that was collected and saw that all who fought at their side were handsomely rewarded for risking their lives. Friendships were forged on the field of battle and Ragnarr’s camp grew as brothers in arms banded together. With their success Guthrum grew stronger and his influence spread. Soon he was ruling over huge swathes of Mercia and Northumbria and being hailed as King with Ragnarr counted among his Jarls.
In 875, Ragnarr went to East Anglia with Guthrum, and during a welcome respite from the endless battles he found himself a wife from a settlement not far from Cambridge. Astrid’s family had owned the land before the Vikings came and although they could not stand against the Danes they were still accorded the respect their ancestry demanded. After several years under Danish rule they were now loyal to Guthrum and saw him as a just and brave leader.
There was little time for Ragnarr to enjoy married life, in 876 Guthrum’s ambitions drove his army to take on King Alfred of the Saxons. The army marched south to join forces with other Vikings and sailing around Poole Harbour they were able to subdue Alfred’s fyrd, capturing Wareham from where they could raid the surrounding country. Alfred was forced to hand over money and hostages to persuade Guthrum to withdraw his forces, and as one of the loyalest Jarls, Ragnarr grew rich from the spoils.
The next two years saw many battles and skirmishes between the Vkings and the Saxons, often peace was agreed only to be broken by a new battle in a new area just a short while later. In the winter of 878, Guthrum scored his biggest victory with a surprise night-time attack on Alfred and his court. The Saxons were taken by surprise and Alfred fled with just a few retainers. For several months it seemed Alfred was defeated, but he was using the marshes of Somerset to regroup and prepare his men. When he was ready Alfred called his loyal men to Egbert’s Stone, and from there they travelled to Edington to fight the invaders.
This time it was Alfred who the Gods favoured and Guthrum’s army scattered. The peace that was agreed this time was longer lasting. Alfred divided the country giving Guthrum rule over the Danelaw area while he would rule over Wessex. To seal the agreement Guthrum had to forsake his heathen gods and swear himself to Christianity with Alfred becoming his godfather. Guthrum took the new Christian name of Æthelstan and the fighting between his men and Alfred’s ended.
Ragnarr was torn, he had sworn loyalty to Guthrum, but he had also sworn himself to Odin and the Aesir. He called together his closest advisors and they gave sacrifice to the gods while they considered what to do. Lots were cast and Kelda, the seiðkonur took to the high chair to listen to the word on the winds as Odin would sit at Hliðskjálf to know what was going on in the world. As dawn approached she made her proclamation, Ragnarr had sworn allegiance to Guthrum not not Æthelstan and in the eyes of the Aesir Guthrum was no more.
Ragnarr gave his men a choice, those that wished could stay and follow Æthelstan, those that were sworn to Odin and the Aesir could leave with him. They would be his Aett and he would protect them and guide them so long as Odin favoured them. All of Ragnarr’s camp bar one choose to leave with him. The new Odin’s Aett still considered East Anglia their home, and built their stead near Peterborough on the lands Guthrum had bestowed on them. Even though the peace held with Wessex beyond Guthrum’s death in 890 there was always coin was on offer to seasoned fighters so the Aett travelled far and wide, and Ragnarr led them with honour for the rest of his days.