In England just after the Norman Conquest, high up among the fells of the Lake District is a secret valley where the Northmen (or Vikings as they are sometimes loosely called) have their last stronghold – or shield ring – struggling to keep the Lake District free. The Normans want to crush this last group of Northmen, so they build a castle in Carlisle and an army is sent north under Ranulf de Meschin. Frytha a young, orphaned Saxon girl seeks refuge in the valley after her home is burnt by the Normans. She witnesses the waning power of the Norse as she joins Jarl Buthar’s Viking band after her family are slaughtered by the Normans.
Bjorn, the Bear-Cub, is the foster son of the old harper. He longs to be allowed to play the ‘sweet-singer’, the special harp owned by his foster father which is smaller than the hall harp and strung with Irish white bronze, not horse hair. The old harper realises that one day Bjorn will indeed be a harper and he starts to teach him how to play it.
Life goes on in the valley – lambing, shearing, spinning, harvesting, and singing and story telling in the great hall in the evenings. But always there is the need to prepare for a Norman attack and Bjorn has a secret fear. Several times in the past the Normans have captured Northmen and tortured them to try to force them to reveal where the hidden valley is – but no Northman has ever betrayed the vital secret. Bjorn wonders how he would act if he were ever in that position and fears he would not be able t keep silent.
The outnumbered Northmen try to outwit the Normans by building the Road to Nowhere – a road which will lead the Normans into an ambush. But they also need intelligence about the Norman army. They need to send someone into the Norman camp. Bjorn volunteers; he speaks enough Norman to get by, and a harper can go anywhere. So Bjorn sets out for the Norman camp knowing that if he is found to be a spy he will be tortured – his secret fear from childhood. But he does not go alone. Frytha follows him.