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The Great Danes
By Sean Bracken
Strong muscles glistened with sweat in the early morning light. In perfect unison, powerful strokes moved the ships against the current of the river Seine. The beat of a large drum, mounted at the stern of the lead ship, provided rhythm to the oarsmen as they pulled against the fast-flowing river.
The fleet consisted of one hundred warships, each crewed by sixty to a hundred warriors. The battle group was supported by a further twenty-four cargo craft, carrying extra arms, provisions and live goats for milk and fresh meat. The men aboard these support ships were also fearsome fighters. The sides of the longboats were protected by rows of shields, hung over the sides, just above the oars.
Above each ship, a tall mast hewn from mighty spruce trees, supported a single square rigged sail, furled and tied securely to a crossbeam.
The men were in jovial spirits. Paris was but two days away and the men looked forward to taking the city and the riches it contained.
They chanted in time to the drum, “Heave… Ho, Heave… Ho. To conquer Paris, we all go. Heave… Ho, Heave… Ho. King of Paris, fear your foe.”
The strong currents gave way to gentler waters, as the boats rounded a bend in the river into a wider expanse, and the men eased back on the oars. High on a hill overlooking the river, the old monastery of Saint Benedict stood tall and proud. Six ships pulled away from the main group, heading towards a shingle beach. The riches of this place were renowned throughout Europe and beyond. The Norsemen meant to have it all.
Word of the advancing Viking fleet had reached the monastery two days earlier. The Abbot, Brother Cornelius, had responded to the news by organising the monks into a hurried but effective concealment of the rich treasures and holy relics. Chalices, encrusted with precious gems, joined golden crucifixes and ornate tabernacles. Beside these riches, piles of illuminated books and scriptures were assembled. Each work painstakingly created over centuries by the hands of monks working into the dark nights by candlelight.
All traces of the treasures were gone with only hours to spare, before the invading horde arrived.
Led by Gulag Jacobson, the Norsemen were quick about their business. No sooner than the ships reached shore, the battle-hardened men were climbing the hill. The vine fields and vegetable gardens were left unattended. Goats, sheep and cattle ignored, as the raiding party reached the cloistered halls of the monastery.
At first the structure seemed abandoned. The warriors made their way from building to building, from room to room, finding nothing. The chant of holy song called out through the empty halls and, following the sound, the Viking warriors found the church.
Monks, dressed in brown, rough sack-cloth robes, tied at the waist by plain ropes, stood singing their songs of praise to their God. Not one monk showed any sign of fear. Instead they seemed to be joyous.
Filled with bloodlust, the Vikings descended on the praying monks. Broadswords and battle axes rained down on the heads and bodies of the monks. In moments, it was all over. Fifty monks lay dead or dying. Their blood seeping into the crevices of the chapel floor. The holy song replaced by the cries and whimpers of the injured.
Perhaps, had the Norsemen spared even one monk, they might have discovered where the treasure was hidden. But no, as the last monk expired his final breath, he took the secret with him.
The Vikings ransacked the monastery, upending furniture, desecrating the church. Their search was in vain. Frustrated beyond belief, in anger they put torches to the buildings. Fuelled by ancient oak rafters, wooden pews, timber floors and the corpses of the dead, the monastery was soon an inferno.
Before returning to the ships on the beach, the Norsemen rounded up the cattle, goats and sheep, and herded them aboard the boats.
Pulling hard on their oars, they rowed fast and furious, intent on rejoining their comrades for the assault on Paris.
Behind them, flames from the burning monastery soared high in the sky, and black clouds darkened the sun.
Baldur and Frya
Jenny Rider’s heart heaved from exertion. The trek through the forest and the final climb up to the clearing would have been taxing enough, but the oversized pack on her back slowed her progress and weighed heavy on her shoulders. Despite the discomfort, Jenny relished her environment.
The area had been a national park and wildlife preserve for many years, but because of poor access, remained unspoilt and untravelled. Here, there were no sign-posted nature trails, park benches, picnic areas, camping sites or any other signs of humanity. The only paths were animal trails, made by foxes, deer, badgers and other wild creatures.
This was where Jenny felt whole. This was where her spirit soared. This was where she became alive.
In the real world, Jenny worked as a day trader for a major banking corporation. Her days were spent studying computer screens, monitoring subtle changes and fluctuations in commodities, shares and currencies. She was good at her job, some said that she was gifted, so much so that between her salary and performance bonuses, Jenny had become a very wealthy woman. In her late thirties, with a mane of rich auburn hair, piercing blue eyes, and gifted with a tall athletic body, she was envied by many and loved by all who knew her.
At her heels ran Baldur, a Great Dane. Baldur and his sister Frya had been her constant companions for many years. Today, Jenny’s normal joy of the forest was missing. Along with her tent, sleeping bag and provisions, Jenny carried an urn containing the cremated remains of Frya. She had come here to bury her beloved and loyal friend at the top of the hill, on the fringes of the forest.
“Nearly there now, boy,” she said, as she reached the edge of the forest.
The shadows of the foliage gave way to a broad expanse of meadow, leading up to the ruins of a now desolate abbey. Little remained of the monastic settlement. A single arched wall stood tall and proud against the sky. Devoid of its splendid stained-glass windows, it defied the centuries, a testament to the masons and craftsmen of old. Wisps of cloud drifted overhead in the late June sky. Below, the majestic river Seine continued its journey to the sea. Undergrowth from the forest threatened to invade the clearing. Gorse and ferns encroached into the sacred grounds, as if testing and probing, in preparation for nature’s final incursion and takeover of the land.
Jenny and Baldur sank to the ground below the arched windows. Exhausted from the hike, Jenny sat with her back against the structure and released the clasps on her pack. Baldur lay beside her, resting his huge head on her lap. She pulled a dish from her pack for the dog and gave him some water from her canteen. The thirsty beast lapped it up in a few seconds and Jenny gave him a refill. She chewed on an energy bar while she rested. Then it was time to pitch camp.
Jenny led Baldur over to the edge of the clearing. Many years ago, when she was still a young girl, she had helped her father to choose the site, and she had used this spot ever since. The big firepit they had built all those years ago only needed a little cleaning, and soon it was as good as new. Well practised and trained, Baldur vanished into the treeline, returning moments later carrying a branch in his mouth. The dog continued to search for firewood and kindling until Jenny gave him the command to stop.
Jenny set about unpacking her tent and camping gear. By the time Baldur had amassed enough branches and twigs, the campsite was ready. As the sun began to set, Jenny had a warm fire blazing in the pit with a pot of water coming to a boil for coffee.
Frya’s ashes sat in an urn at the side of the tent.
“It’s getting dark now, Baldur,” Jenny said. “We’ll take care of Frya in the morning.”
They both enjoyed a filling meal, cooked on the open fire. Jenny sipped on the last of her coffee and gave the last of the water to Baldur. She knew that there was a pristine stream nearby for fresh water and that she could refill the canteens in the morning.
They sat quietly together, enjoying the nighttime sounds of the forest, until the dying fire had fully extinguished. Under the light of a full moon, they crawled into the two-man tent and slept soundly until dawn.
The following morning, after replenishing their water bottles and enjoying a hearty breakfast, Jenny picked up the urn and began to scout for a suitable place to bury the ashes.
She eventually decided to dig under the arched window of the monastery. Bandur nodded his head as if in agreement with her choice.
As she began to dig, Jenny reflected on the history of this sacred place. It had once been a thriving community of monks. Their life devoted to prayer and contemplation of holy scripture. The monastery was reputed to have been rich in treasure, and religious art and manuscripts. Until one morning the Vikings had arrived. They sacked the settlement, killed the monks in a bloody slaughter and torched the buildings, before making off, laden down with the riches they had stolen.
A dull metallic thud interrupted Jenny’s digging. She cleared the dirt from the hole and looked down. Expecting to see bedrock or a flagstone from the floor of the old church, she was surprised to see what looked like a stone trapdoor with a circular brass handle attached to it.
“What have we got here, Baldur? Perhaps an old wine cellar or storage area. Come on, let’s keep digging and see what we find.”
Baldur joined in to help, scraping away at the dirt with his front paws. An hour of constant excavation revealed the full extent of the trapdoor. It was roughly three feet by two feet with two handles, one at each end of the longer sides. Jenny pulled on the handles, but the door stood firm. It was firmly embedded in the soil. Jenny redoubled her efforts, straining to lift the stone slab. It was futile, the slab refused to budge.
“Baldur, fetch the rope, boy. Go to the camp and fetch the rope.”
Baldur immediately obeyed her command and ran back to the camp. He picked up Jenny’s climbing rope in his mouth and ran back to her, wagging his tail.
“Good boy, good boy,” she said, scratching the dog behind his ears and feeding him a reward from her pocket.
Jenny looped the rope through the brass handles and threw the slack up and over the arched window frame. She ran around to the other side and, using the arch for leverage, pulled with all of her strength on the rope. At first, the slab refused to budge, but slowly, ever so slowly, Jenny felt movement. With one final heave on the rope, the massive stone slab slid up and free from the hole. Jenny sank to her knees, gasping for breath. Her arms and back ached from the strain.
“Come on boy, let’s see what we’ve found,” she said. “I hope it’s not the grave of some long-dead monk.”
Jenny switched on her torch and shone it down into the excavation. Rough hewn steps, carved into the rock, led down into the gloom.
“Sit, Baldur, sit. Stay, boy.”
The dog obeyed and Jenny began to climb down into the dark chamber.
At once she knew that this was no grave site or wine cellar. She was surrounded by a treasure trove. Gold and silver relics, stacks of ancient books, chalices and crosses filled the room.
Leaving Baldur to stand guard, Jenny set out on the twenty-mile hike through the forest back to civilisation. Three hours later, she found a roadside service station and a Wi-Fi signal. She Googled a number for the National Institute for Antiquities. She explained her discovery to the man at the other end, Professor Tibot. She told him that the find was now open to the elements and needed urgent attention.
Professor Tibot must have been a man of some influence. Just over an hour later, he alighted from a Bell helicopter, in the parking lot of the service station. After quick introductions, Jenny was in the air, heading back to her camp.
When they landed, they found Baldur still patiently standing guard over the excavation.
The professor was astounded at the wealth of Jenny’s find. He contacted his institute in Paris on the Bell’s radio and, by that night, the area was swarming with people removing and cataloguing the treasure. Floodlights and generators had been installed, allowing the team to work through the night.
Jenny was entitled to fifty percent of the find’s value, but she waived her rights to the claim on one condition.
And so it came to pass that a great treasure trove, missed by the Vikings all those centuries ago, became named after two other Great Danes, Freya, goddess of love and war, and Baldur, god of peace.
Despite the great excitement at her discovery, Jenny left the dig site with a heavy heart. Frya was interred at the forest edge, and Jenny knew that her private place, known only to her and her late father for all these years was gone. From now on it would be famous. Public trails would be opened and soon coach loads of tourists and day-trippers would take over.
Please visit Sean’s blog for more of his work: https://sean-bracken.site123.me/