Viking 3: King’s Man, page 21
The labouring oarsmen looked up at their leader standing on the deck above them and nodded. Every last one of them knew what Harald had in mind.
The line of rafts was very close now. ‘Get ready,’ Harald warned.
I jumped down from the stern deck and took the place at the oar bench that Harald had vacated. Next to me sat a Swede, a scarred veteran from the Sicilian campaign. ‘So they’ve finally got you at an oar handle, rowing and not scheming,’ he grunted at me. ‘That’s a change worth waiting for.’
‘Now!’ shouted Harald, and we began to count our twenty strokes, roaring out the numbers before Harald shouted out again, and behind me I heard the clatter of oar handles as the men in the forward benches dropped their oars and ran back down the length of the galley. I felt the angle of the vessel alter, the bow rising as the weight of the extra men came on the stern. Three strokes later there was a grinding, slithering wrench as the keel of our little dromon struck the chain with a crash. In a few paces we came to a complete stop. The force of our collision had sent the galley sliding up on the hidden links; we hung there, stranded on the chain.
‘Now! Every man forward!’ yelled Harald, and all of us left our benches and scrambled into the bows. Slowly, very slowly, the galley tilted forward. For a moment I feared the vessel would capsize, as she teetered half out of the water. Then the added weight in her bows pulled her forward, and with a creaking groan the ousiai slid forward over the chain and into the open water on the far side. We all lost our balance, trod on one another, and grabbed for oars that were sliding overboard as we cheered with relief. We had forced the barrier, and now the open sea lay ahead.
As we settled again to the oar benches, we looked back to see our second galley approaching the chain. She followed the same technique. We watched the ousiai accelerate, heard the shout of her helmsman and saw the men jump up from the forward benches and run towards the stern. We could clearly see the bow lift, then the sudden tilt as the vessel struck the hidden chain and come to a halt, straddled across the links. Like us, the crew then ran forward and we held our breath as the vessel rocked forward, only this time the ousiai did not slip clear; she was too firmly stuck. Another command, and the crew, forty or more men, scrambled back towards the stern, then turned and threw their weight forward, striving to break the grip of the chain. The ousiai rocked again, but still stayed fast.
‘Guard boats!’ Halldor shouted, and pointed. Close to the shore where the chain was attached to the land, five or six harbour guard boats were putting out to intercept us.
Once more our comrades on the stranded ousiai tried to rock their vessel clear. This time their frantic effort brought disaster. As the crew applied their weight, first in the bow and then at the stern, the strain proved too great. Like a stick which breaks when overloaded, the keel of the ousiai snapped. Perhaps the vessel was older and weaker than ours, or less well built, or maybe by ill fortune the chain lay directly under a joint in her main timbers where the shipwrights had scarfed the keel. The result was that the ousiai cracked in half. The long narrow hull broke apart, her planks sprang open, and her men fell into the sea.
‘Backwater with your blades,’ called Halldor. ‘We must save those we can.’
We reversed our vessel, and began hauling men from the water. Dragging them aboard was easy – our ousiai was built low to the water – but there was nothing we could do to reach those unfortunates from the stern of the shattered vessel; they had slipped into the sea on the far side of the chain. A few of them managed to swim and reach us. Others clung to the wooden rafts, and we collected as many as we could, but the guard boats were closing in and there was no time to save them all.
‘Row on!’ ordered Harald, and we began to pull away from the approaching guard boats.
‘Poor bastards,’ muttered the Swede next to me. ‘I don’t fancy their chances as prisoners . . .’
His voice died away as I glanced up.
Harald was standing on the stern deck, hard-faced and glaring down at us. The flash of anger in his eyes told us that it was time we shut our mouths, concentrated at the oar handles, and carried him towards his destiny.
WE ENTERED KIEV in great style. Harald led our column on horseback, dressed in his finest court robes from Constantinople and wearing the ceremonial sword with its gold handle and enamelled scabbard which marked his rank as spatharokandidatos. Behind him marched his war band, all in their best costumes and adorned with their silver and gold jewellery. A column of porters and slaves, loaded with the bales of peach silk and the other valuables we had stripped from the ousiai, brought up the rear. I too was on horseback, riding with Halldor and the other members of Harald’s inner council. After our escape from the Queen of Cities, Harald had formally appointed me as his adviser. In return I promised to be his liegeman, to serve and support him as my superior lord, even to the day he took his rightful place upon the Norwegian throne.
‘Cheer up!’ Halldor said to me as we clattered through the city gate and King Jaroslav’s guards cheered us. News of Harald’s prowess had gone ahead, and the guards, many of them Norse mercenaries, were eager to lay eyes on the man who had been sending back such a mass of treasure for safe keeping.
I gestured towards the red-tiled domes of a large monastery on the hill ahead of us. ‘I hadn’t expected to see so much of the White Christ here,’ I said morosely, for I was in low spirits.
‘You’ll have to get used to it,’ said Halldor. ‘I expect Harald will soon be getting married in a place just like that.’
His remark took me aback.
‘Thorgils, you’ve forgotten that on his way to Constantinople, Harald asked for the hand in marriage of the king’s second daughter, Elizabeth. He was sent away with a flea in his ear. Told to come back when he had riches and renown. Well, now he’s got just that, and more. Elizabeth and her family are devout Christians. They’ll insist on a wedding in the White Christ manner.’
I listened without enthusiasm. I had been congratulating myself that my appointment as councillor to Harald would give me the chance to shape his policies in favour of the Old Ways. Now, it appeared, I would find myself competing with the views of his wife and the retinue of advisers she would surely bring with her. The thought made me more depressed than I was already. Pelagia’s death had hit me hard, depriving me of both a friend and a confidante, and on the way to Kiev I had been feeling more and more isolated amidst the often ribald company of Harald’s followers.
‘Then this is not the sort of place where I’ll be comfortable,’ I concluded. ‘If I’m to serve Harald, I can be of more use to him in the northlands. I’ll ask his permission to go ahead and prepare for his arrival in Norway. I can try to find out which of the powerful nobles might support him, and who would be against him when he makes his claim for the throne.’
‘You’ll be a spy again?’ asked Halldor, to whom I had related my role as an informant for John the Eunuch. ‘Harald will like that. He’s always in favour of subterfuge and trickery.’
‘Part spy, part envoy,’ I answered.
Harald agreed to my proposal, and as soon as I had collected the money arranged for me by the banker in Constantinople, I headed onward with those of Harald’s ex-Varangians who had asked to go home early. By the time Halldor and the others were celebrating the glittering wedding of the Prince of Norway to King Yaroslav’s second daughter, I was back in the northlands where my own Gods belonged.
My first impression was how little had changed in the twelve years I had been away. Among the three main kingdoms, Norway and Denmark still regarded one another with suspicion, while Sweden stood aside and quietly fanned the flames of rivalry between her neighbours. Norwegian raided Dane and was raided in return. Alliances shifted. Leading families squabbled, and wherever Norsemen had seized land across the sea – in England, Scotland or Ireland – there were great magnates who nominally owed allegiance to an overlord in the homeland, but acted independently. Through these turbulent water
I made a start by visiting the court of Harald’s nephew, Magnus. He held the Norwegian throne, and also claimed the kingship of Denmark. I found him to be personable, energetic, proud, and shrewd beyond his years. He was only twenty-five years old, yet had won the affection of his people by his fairness and his habit of winning his battles against the Danes. Harald, I concluded, would find it difficult to dislodge the man his people called Magnus the Good.
I came to Magnus’s court posing as an Icelander returning after service in Constantinople and wealthy enough to dawdle on the way. It was near enough to the truth, and no one questioned me too closely about my background. The only time I nearly dropped my guard was when I heard that the dowager queen Aelfgifu had died. She was the woman who had first taken me to bed. ‘Good riddance, for all that she was the great Knut’s first wife,’ commented the man who told me of her death. ‘Her husband sent her to us as co-regent, along with that callous son of hers. They weren’t popular, and we drove them out. Can’t say I’m sorry that she’s gone.’ His remark made me feel old. No one likes to think that their first lover is in the grave. Not when you remember their warmth and beauty.
IT WAS TO be nearly two years before I was able to tell Harald of my impression of Magnus, because King Jaroslav insisted that his new son-in-law stay on in Kiev for longer than Harald had intended. But I scarcely noticed the delay, for I had at last found a place where the Old Gods were revered, and I was happy.
I was travelling from Magnus’s capital at Nidaros on my way to Denmark to assess the strength and character of Earl Svein Estrithson, who ruled there, and it was autumn. I had taken the land route over the mountain passes and reached the area known as Vaster Gotland. It lies on the border between Norway and Sweden, but is such a bleak and unforgiving region that no one really cares about the exact position of the frontier. It is a place of rock and forest, small lakes and shallow streams, and a large expanse of inland water – the Vaner Lake – which, like everything else, freezes over in winter because the climate is very harsh. I was on foot because the trail is difficult for horses and there is no fodder to be found. Nor did I have a servant to accompany me, but was travelling alone. Vaster Gotland has a reputation for outlawry, so I was beginning to wonder whether I was wise to carry so much gold and silver with me when I came across a memorial stone beside the track. On the rock was carved an epitaph to a lost warrior who, according to the runes, had ended his life in Serkland, ‘the land of silk’. The mason who had cut the inscription was no rune master, for the gouges left by the chisel were plain to see, and the lettering was crudely done. Nor could I tell who was commemorated, for the rock had split away where the dead man’s name had been written, and I could not find the broken piece. But I took it as a sign from Odinn, and after clearing away the undergrowth I buried half my hoard.
There were no villages along the trail, only an occasional farmhouse set well back from the path. The land was so poor and grudging that these dwellings were no more than small log cabins with roofs of wooden shingles and perhaps a shed or two. I was expecting to encounter the farmers returning home, as it would soon be dusk. But I saw no one. Whenever I passed a house, and that was rare enough, the door was shut tight and nothing stirred. It was as if the plague had struck, and everyone had retreated indoors or died.
The chill in the evening air warned of a cold night to come, and I had already caught a glimpse of a wolf in the forest, so I left the track when I saw the next house and went towards it, intending to ask for shelter for the night. I knocked on the heavy wooden door planks and called out. For a moment there was no response. Then, from deep within the house, a low voice said urgently, ‘Go away! You disturb us! Go away!’ I was as shocked as if someone had struck me in the face. The country folk had always been hospitable. That was their tradition. They enjoyed hearing a traveller’s news and they appreciated the small coins paid for food and lodging. To turn away a stranger on a cold evening seemed unthinkable. I knocked again, more insistently, and called out that I was a traveller, on my own, hungry, and would pay for my lodging. This time I heard the shuffle of feet, and very slowly the door opened, just enough for me to see that the interior of the cabin was in darkness. Someone had covered over the small windows. From the gloom within, a voice said, ‘Go away, please leave. This is not the right time to visit us.’
Something about the atmosphere of the place made me say, ‘In the name of Odinn the Roadwise I ask for shelter.’
There was a long pause, and then the door pulled back a hand’s breadth and the voice asked softly, ‘Tell me, stranger, what is the name of the steed who westward draws night over the glorious Gods?’
The accent was local and strong, but the rhythm of the words was unmistakable. The man, whoever he was, was reciting lines of poetry. Long ago my tutors in the Old Ways had taught me the next verse, so I answered:
‘Hrimfaxi’s his name who draws the nights
Over the glorious gods
Each morning he dribbles down the flakes of foam
That brings dew upon the dales.’
The heavy door eased back, just wide enough to allow me to step inside, and the moment I had entered, it was closed behind me. I found myself in total darkness.
A hand took my wrist, and I felt myself carefully guided forward. Then the pressure of the hand indicated that I was to stop where I stood. I felt something touch the back of my knees, and knew that someone had placed a stool behind me. I sat down quietly. Not a word had been said, and still I could see only blackness.
There were people in the room: not many of them, though I could sense their presence. The floor beneath my boots was plain beaten earth. This was a humble home. I heard the rustle of clothing, light breathing. Then a point of dull red appeared a few feet away, close to the ground. Someone had uncovered an ember. I guessed that it lay in the family hearth. The glow vanished as a shadow moved between me and the fireplace. There was the sound of a person blowing gently on the ember, and then the shadow moved aside and I could see the hearth again. Now there was a small dance of flame in the fireplace, which gave just enough light for me to make out that there were half a dozen people in the room, three adults and three children, all dressed in the plain dun and brown garments of farming people. It was difficult to distinguish whether the children were girls or boys, but the adults were two women and a man. I guessed he was the person who had brought me into the house.
One of the women was moving towards the fireplace. She placed something on the ground in front of the hearth. It was a small bowl. She tilted a jug and I heard the splash of liquid. I sat completely still. Now I knew what was happening. This was the alfablot, the household’s annual sacrifice to honour the spirits which live in every home. As landvaettir, they also exist among the trees and rocks and underground. They are the spirits of place, the ancient inhabitants who were there before men came, and they will be there long after men have gone. Their approval helps men prosper, their hostility brings ruin.
There were soft footfalls as the woman moved away from the fire, and her dark shape moved around the room, pausing in each corner. She held something. I guessed it was a small offering of food for the alfar.
I felt a nudge on my fingers. It was the rough crust of a hunk of bread. Then I was passed a wooden cup of beer. I tasted the bread. It was peasant’s rye bread, coarse but wholesome. The beer was thin and watery. I ate and drank, taking care to move gently and carefully. Alfar are easily frightened away. I left a few dregs of beer in the cup, leaned forward when I had finished, and tipped the last few drops on the earthen floor. I knew that my offering had been observed by my hosts.
Not a word had been said from the moment that I had entered the house, and I knew that, out of respect for the spirits, all would be silent until daylight came. When the family completed their offerings, they retired to their communal bed, a wooden box against one wall, like a large manger. I wrapped myself in my travelling cl
‘WE ARE ALL pagans here,’ were the first words of the farmer next morning. He spoke apologetically. ‘Otherwise you would have had a kinder welcome.’
‘Old Believers,’ I corrected him gently.
He was a middle-aged man, unremarkable except for the bright blue eyes in his weather-beaten face and an unruly fringe of almost pure white hair around his bald scalp. He had the careworn look of someone who laboured hard to support his family. Behind him his wife, a handsome woman who also showed signs of an exacting life, was washing the children’s faces. The second woman appeared to be her sister, for she had the same thick reddish-brown hair and fine bone structure, as well as a gracefulness in the way she was collecting up the small offerings that had been set out during the night. The milk that had been left in the bowl for the alfr, I noticed, was poured back into the jug after a few drops had been sprinkled on the hearth. There was no surplus food in this household.
‘You are a devotee of Odinn?’ the farmer asked in a deep, quiet voice. He was probing, wanting to know more about me and to establish some sort of common ground between us. I liked him.
‘From childhood. I have followed Odinn since I was a boy. And you?’
‘Here we worship Frey. We are farmers, not warriors or sailors. We need Frey’s generosity.’ I knew what he spoke of. Frey is the God of fertility. He multiplies the seed that is planted in the soil, brings the rain and warmth which ripens crops, and makes good harvests. With Frey’s help the cattle thrive, lambs and calves are plentiful, sows farrow generously. Even the milk we were drinking we owed ultimately to Frey’s bounty.
‘Last evening you invoked Odinn Vegtamr,’ the farmer continued. ‘Do you travel far?’
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