By age 21, Olaf Trygvesson had grown into a superb Nordic specimen. In climbing and swimming and leaping, he was unmatched, and it was said that he could juggle five daggers in the air, always catching them by the handle. A favorite of his warriors, he went west to Holland with a fleet of nearly 90 ships, manned by Swedish Vikings from Russia (where the Norwegian had been serving in the court of Vladimir I). When he had finished with the Dutch, he went to France, then back to Jutland, leaving in his wake a great harvest for the ravens and wolves.

And then to England, the greatest prize of the northern pirates. At the mouth of the Thames, he fought the battle of Maldon, extorting the tribute of 10,000 pounds of silver from the weak Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred. From there, he moved north, plundering in Northumberland and Scotland, then to the Hebrides and to fight other Vikings on the Isle of Man. After that, he turned south to Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall before he jumped over the Channel to taste again the pleasures of France. "The young king drove a bloody game," a poet wrote. "The Irish fled at Olaf's name, fled a young king seeking fame."

With his fleet now fortified to 94 ships, he came back to England and joined forces with the Danish king Svein Forkbeard. Together they raided England, "burning villages, laying waste the lands, putting numbers of people to death by fire and sword, without regard to sex, and sweeping off an immense booty." Seizing horses, they rode wildly through many provinces and slaughtered the whole population with savage cruelty, "sparing neither the women nor children of tender age." This time Ethelred offered 22,000 pounds.

In the weeks it took to consummate this shabby deal and to refurbish his fleet, ...

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