The fury of a northern winter was always a formidable experience, but the winter of the year 1056 was particularly harsh.
Howling, icy winds tore through delicate human flesh, penetrating the very bones; days were short, and when the brief rays of sunlight succumbed to the darkness once more, the nights were bitter and black.
Even the most hardened of men were struggling to survive, and many poor farming folk had already perished due to a shortage of crops that year. Even meat was now a rarity, thanks to diseases amongst livestock and now the crippling winter which had felled both beast, and now man.
There were whispers that this was the beginning of Fimbulwinter – the precursor to Ragnarök – which was causing widespread uneasiness and fear all over Denmark, as well as further afield.
Even King Harald was not immune to this harshest of seasons. Indeed, it was the worst he had seen in all his days. But it wasn’t only the weather that was making Harald shiver…
Word had reached him around the end of Autumn, warning him of the colossal temper of King Andrei of Gårdarike (Russia). Andrei was a tyrant who had already exerted his terrible wrath all over Europe, and now he was apparently turning his attentions to Harald’s small nation, which would be easy prey for the bloodthirsty brute of the east.
Had Harald still been a young man, he might have risked a war with Andrei. But now he was old, and his only wish was to placate his biggest rival. Harald had already converted to Christianity, much to the surprise and disgust of his late wife and subjects. Jarls from all over his kingdom had expressed their disdain for the conversion, and from his many spies Harald knew that they all thought he was growing mad with his age. In actual fact, the king of the Danes was just as sharp minded as he had been in his youth.
Once a proud pagan and viking, he had only converted to help further his political influence and status. He knew that his small country was vulnerable to attacks from their neighbours, and that having himself baptized was a brilliant way to keep Denmark in the rest of Europe’s affections. Shrewd Harald was content to let his contemporaries and subjects believe in his supposed weakness, for now at least.
He knew that waving one’s axe in people’s faces was not the best idea, particularly when one was growing old and only ruled a small nation who’s inhabitants were now starving and freezing to death.
In order to succeed in politics and kingship, one had to know how to play this elaborate game – and Harald was a master. He knew that once the rivers and seas thawed, and conditions were more favourable, Andrei’s men would make the long journey northwards, and inevitably end up on his doorstep.
Despite his already considerable wealth and status, he was not content. As was typical of Harald’s nature, he always wanted more. That the king of Gårdarike had set his sights on Denmark had rattled the old man.
As he gazed intently at the fire crackling and dancing in the hearth of his opulent home, listening to the sound of the roaring wind and lashing icy rain beyond the ornate wooden doors, Harald finally came up with a plan which he believed would not only gain him yet more fame and fortune, but would also help to deter the advances of the ruthless King Andrei.
He decided that he would offer his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. Andrei had already shown a keen interest in the beautiful, but feisty and spirited, Gyda. With her piercing blue eyes and reddish blonde hair, she had attracted the attentions of many men already, much to the annoyance of her father.
Harald loved all his children, albeit in his own rough way. But his Gyda, his youngest child, was his pride and joy. He had already successfully negotiated the marriages of Gyda’s siblings to noblemen and women all over Europe, but Harald had chosen to save his precious sixteen year old daughter for a higher goal – royalty.
Offering Gyda to Andrei sounded like an almost foolproof plan, but little did Harald know that this final act of greed would ultimately lead to his undoing…