Paul Sandford

The Assembly Field

Paul Sandford

Made in Wirral illustration by Paul Sandford. Collage of a large bonfire burning on a black ground at night, with a full moon in the sky


The village of Thingwall, Wirral is believed to have been a seat of Viking power. The name is derived from Þingvöllr, which is old Norse for “Assembly Field” and this would have been the location of a Ting (pronounced Thing), a governing assembly that would have met regularly to provide legislative functions, as well as social events and opportunities for trade.

I didn’t like the smell of burning bodies. It wasn’t like roasting a pig or goat. The sickly odour caught in my throat but I was told this was our way – we were Viking. Tonight we would burn the body of my grandfather, as we did my mother many years ago, but for now, the cold evening air was fresh and free of ash, carrying only the squawks of the gulls above the cliffs.

The clouds glinted orange as the goddess Sol’s chariot streaked over the estuary, heading out to sea. Her brother Mani would soon be nudging the moon into view. My father stood at the clifftop with a torch burning at his side, the silhouette of a giant bear drinking from a horn and staring at the Welsh lands on the other side of the river. “Arne,” he shouted, waving the horn. “Bring a jug of ale.”

My stomach turned. I gathered up the fishing nets and placed them next to the oars in the lean-to at the side of my uncle’s house and then poked my head through the gap in the door. “Hagan, my father wants ale,” I called inside.

A moment later, Hagan appeared. Rope in one hand and a jug in the other. He was shorter than my father but just as wide, solid like a longship’s mast and with a mass of straw growing from his head and face. He smiled and although his eyes were grey like the river in winter, they hid warmth behind them.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the rope and the jug.

“Come straight back – I need your help with the wood for the pyre. And tie the goat to the stake before you go, so he doesn’t wander tonight.”

I headed over to the goat and Hagan called out behind me, “tie the knot like I showed you, Arne.” I might not have his strength, but I can tie a strong knot.

With the goat secured, I carried the jug across the field. With every step, I felt a different burn or bruise vividly, like they’d just been inflicted. Why was he always disappointed in me? Because I wasn’t built like him or unable to throw an axe accurately? Because I reminded him of my mother? Red hair and lean, like a fox. In my father’s eyes, it seemed to be simply disbelief that I was a true Viking.

The bear’s paw snatched the jug from my hands. Horn refilled. Emptied. He leaned over me, swaying slightly and wiped froth from his brown, furry muzzle. “What took you so long?”

“The goat needed tying.” I swallowed hard.

His nostrils flared and a growl rumbled from deep inside his chest, leaking out from beneath his leather tunic. “Now the old man has gone, I will lead us on raids – it’s what we are born to do.”

“Grandfather wanted us to settle and farm the land. I don’t think Hagan is going to let–” The torch was whipped round so fast, the flames hung in the air like a fiery snake, its hot tongue flicking at my face; a favourite method of punishment.

“The old man was a fool and my brother has forgotten what it is to be Viking. We need a real leader. A warrior, not a farmer.”

My father gripped my shirt and continued to waft the torch at my head. My braids were singed and sweat trickled down my neck. I felt along my belt, searching for my knife, finally gripping its bone handle.

“What are you going to do with that? Gut fish? Clean hooves?” My father dropped the torch and pulled me closer. The odour of sweat and ale clawing at me. “If you’re going to kill a man, you look him in the eyes and you do it. That is the Viking way.”

“Is that right, little brother?” Hagan boomed as he lunged at my father’s chest with both hands, sending him stumbling backwards. “Watch out for the cliffs, Torben, you’ve had a lot to drink.”

My father straightened up and roared with laughter. “So it’s Jarl Hagan now. Look at you protecting the boy again. How will he ever become a man?”

“I will come of age next year,” I tried to shout but my voice was raspy. I was shaking. Several villagers had now gathered nearby and watched as my father picked up the torch and waved it at them, laughing.

“Torben, we will send our father on his journey to Valhalla tonight. I expect you to show him respect and accept me as his rightful successor. If you don’t like it, you can challenge it at the next Ting,” Hagan looked at me and tilted his head towards the house. “Let’s go, Arne.”

My legs were unsteady as we made our way back across the field and I struggled to keep up with Hagan’s huge strides. “I fear that my father is going to do something before the next Ting.”

“I think you’re right,” Hagan said and then he stopped and placed his hands on my shoulders. “Your father was a furious warrior, Arne; we were all proud to fight at his side. He yearns for the raiding and the old ways, before we settled here.”

I glanced back at the clifftop and there was no sign of my father. “Why does he hate me?”

Hagan sighed. “Most of all, he misses your mother. He’s never been the same since the fever came and the gods took her. He may have never told you, but you caught the fever first. It seems that Eir smiled upon you.” Hagan squeezed my shoulders hard for a moment and then walked on.

Hagan’s house was a short distance from my father’s dwelling but I would often stay with my uncle; I felt safer there. We walked over to the pile of freshly chopped branches that were lying on the track next to his horse and cart.

“Load the wood for the pyre and then feed the pigs. I’ll prepare fish for supper,” Hagan said.

I nodded and his eyes narrowed.

He gripped my forearm. “Torben is my brother but he’s cruel and he angers the gods. We must be prepared.”

I didn’t feel prepared for anything and a dark foreboding was welling up inside me. Allfather, give me strength. Hagan headed inside the house and I sized up the job that lay before me.

I worked hard, bundling up branches and heaving them into the back of the cart. By the time I’d finished and made my way to the pigsty, it was dark and the moon was a perfectly round, silver shield, lighting the mist rising from the river. Apart from the grunting pigs, nothing appeared to stir in the village. A shiver prickled at my back. Was there something moving in the darkness?

I held my breath and peered into the gloomy space between my father’s house and my uncle’s. There it was; a dark shape, lumbering towards Hagan’s house. My heart was pounding as the shape of a huge bear became clearer. He was carrying an axe.

I sneaked my way down the track to the side of the lean-to and peeped around to see the shaggy bearskin disappear inside the house. There was no time to think. I reached for one of the oars in the lean-to and gripped it tightly with both hands, raising it over my shoulder and slowly entered the house.

Embers in Hagan’s fireplace popped and cracked, casting a red glow over the interior and the aroma of grilled fish hung in the air. Hagan lay dozing in a wooden chair, his sword loosely held in one hand across his lap. My father’s broad fur-covered back loomed ahead of me as he edged towards Hagan, slowly raising the axe in front of him. Was this the night I became a man?

My palms were sweaty and the oar became heavier with each passing moment. I took a step nearer to my father and suddenly a squeal pierced the air. I gasped as Hagan’s ginger cat ran past me, a rat hanging from its mouth. My father span around, the axe above his head. He glared at me.

I closed my eyes and swung the oar as hard as I could. The snap seemed louder than Thor’s hammer and my wrists jarred as the wood splintered. I opened my eyes to see Hagan spring to his feet and we both watched as my father slumped to the floor, the axe thumping into a table.

Hagan sheathed his sword and rushed over. “I think you’ve broken his nose.” He nodded, beckoning me.

I threw the remains of the oar down and moved closer. Blood trickled from my father’s cracked nose and across his face, soaking his long beard. But the bear appeared as if it were only hibernating, with a slow rise and fall of the chest and guttural groans.

“You have saved my life tonight, Arne. Now I must save yours.” Hagan pulled a length of rope from an assortment of tethers and harnesses on the wall and passed it to me. “Remember, tie the knot like -”

“I know. Don’t worry, he’ll not get free,” I said as I bound my father’s hands and feet tightly, just like a deer.

Hagan knelt down next to my father and looked up at me, his grey eyes searching mine. “Do you understand what we must do?” I nodded and watched as he tore a piece of linen and pushed it into my father’s mouth. “Now help me load him into the cart.” Hagan looked quickly around the room. “And bring his axe.”

Hauling my father outside and onto the cart was like lifting all of the wood for the pyre in one go. My arms were trembling and I gasped for breath as Hagan jumped onto the cart and grabbed the horse’s reins. In a breathy voice he said, “fetch his drinking horn and a jug, and leave them at the clifftop. Drop his axe to the sands below and meet me at the assembly field for the funeral.”

Hagan snapped the reins and the cart trundled up the track.

I walked with a group of fishermen, Hagan’s friends. Others appeared from different directions, emerging from the black cloak of the treeline, converging in a ring around the pyre at the centre of the field. We waited for a while. Hundreds of eyes gazed up at the tower of wood. I couldn’t see my grandfather’s body properly, just a cloak, his sword and rows of garlands.

Suddenly, the crowd parted next to me, and Hagan strode through holding a burning torch high above him. He welcomed everyone and spoke of the journey that my grandfather, Jarl Olaf, would make to Valhalla. The crowd began a chant to The Allfather, and Hagan walked over to me. He knelt on one knee and held the torch upright in front of me. “I give you the honour of lighting the pyre.”

I took the torch and looked round. The chanting changed; quieter, different words. A drum thumped a steady rhythm and some in the crowd banged swords against shields. Hagan’s shadow danced behind him and his eyes flickered with flame. He leaned in close to me. “Everything that happened tonight was already decided by the gods. Your father fell from the cliff, drunk, washed away. Do not worry, young Arne. Remember, reach into the pyre to catch the kindling.” He stood up and stepped aside.

I crept toward the pyre. The cold night air nipped at one side of my face and the torch warmed the other. Leaning toward a gap in the wood, I held the torch forward and peered inside. Beyond the bundle of kindling, in the darkness of the pyre’s core, a pair of wide eyes darted back and forth. My father’s figure was barely visible, fleeting moments of flickering orange shapes that revealed he had been tied to a stake, just like the goat. My knots had held fast.

“Are you ready, Arne?” shouted Hagan.

I glanced back at my uncle. Yes, I am ready. It was time.

My focus returned to my father. My tormentor. The bear. I looked directly at those wide eyes. They were perfectly still now. The kindling ignited and I lurched away from the flames as they enveloped the base of the pyre.

Turning back to the crowd and holding the torch high above me, I took a deep breath and shouted, “I am Viking!”

The Gods: 

Odin, The Allfather

 Odin is the Norse king of the Aesir, the principal race of Norse gods and was considered the father of all the gods. He is the god of war and of the dead, ruling over Valhalla – “the hall of the slain”. Earning a place in this great hall was an honour. His name gives us the day of the week, Wednesday – Wōden’s Day.


Thor is probably Odin’s best known son. The brawny god of thunder and lightning, which he created as he rode over the clouds in a chariot drawn by goats, swinging his hammer Mjöllnir. Like his father, his name gives us the day of the week, Thursday – Thor’s Day.

Sol and Mani

Sol is the personification of the sun in Norse mythology. She along with her brother Mani would travel across the sky as the sun and moon, respectively, as the wolves Skoll and Hati continuously chase after them. Thus, the movement and passages of day and night are formed.


Eir is a goddess or valkyrie associated with medical skill and healing. Her name means “help” or “mercy”. As a Valkyrie, she accompanied her battle-sisters. While the other Valkyries chose the slain to be taken to Valhalla, Eir would choose who would live and recover, and return to health.

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum