Viking 3: King’s Man, page 26
The marshal gave a weary sigh. He had heard enough of such bravado in his days as a soldier. ‘According to their reputation, one English huscarl is worth two of the best of Norway’s fighting men. Think of that when you come up against their axes.’
‘Enough!’ broke in Harald. ‘We may never need to face their axes. There is a better way.’
Everyone was straining to hear what the king had decided. It was another of Harald’s rules that everyone had to stand while in the royal presence, unless given permission to be seated. Harald was sitting on a low stool while we stood in a circle around him. It did not make it any easier to hear what was being said.
Deliberately Harald turned his head and looked straight at me. I felt again the power of his stare, and in that moment I realised that Harald of Norway would never settle down to the quiet enjoyment of his realm nor abandon his grand design of being a second Knut. The death of the English king had been something that Harald had been waiting for. To the very last, the king was a predator at heart.
‘Thorgils here can help,’ he said.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
‘If two claimants to the throne act together, we can depose Godwinsson and divide England between ourselves.’
‘Like in Forkbeard’s time,’ said a sycophant. ‘Half of England ruled by the Norsemen, the other half in Saxon hands.’
‘Something like that,’ said Harald dryly, though looking at him I knew him well enough to know that he was lying. Harald of Norway would never share the throne of England for long. It would be like his arrangement with Magnus for the Norwegian throne all over again. If Magnus had not died in an accident, Harald would have dispossessed him when the time was right.
Harald waited for a few moments, then continued. ‘My information is that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, is convinced that Edward left the throne of England to him and that Harold Godwinsson is a usurper. My spies also tell me that William intends to press his claim, just as I will, by invading England. With Thorgils’s help we can make sure that the two invasions are coordinated, and that Harold Godwinsson is crushed between the hammer of Norway and the anvil of Duke William’s Normans.’
A glint of humour came into my liege lord’s eyes.
‘William the Bastard is a devout Christian. He surrounds himself with priests and bishops and listens to their advice. I propose to send Thorgils to his court as my emissary to suggest a coordination of our plans. Nothing would be more appropriate than to send Thorgils disguised as a priest.’
There was an amused murmur from the councillors. All of them knew my reputation as a staunch adherent to the Elder Faith.
‘What do you have to say to this scheme, Thorgils?’ Harald asked. He was baiting me.
‘Of course I will carry out your wishes, my lord,’ I said. ‘But I am not sure that I will be able to pass myself off as a Christian priest.’
‘And why not?’
‘Though I had some training in a monastery when I was young,’ I said, ‘that was long ago, and in Ireland the monks followed a different version of the White Christ belief. Their way of worship has fallen into disuse. It has been supplanted by teachings from the All Father of the Christians in Rome, and by the new generation of reformers in the Frankish lands.’
‘Then you must learn their ways and how to think like them so that you are mistaken for one of them. I want you to get close enough to William the Bastard so that you can form an opinion of him before you reveal your true identity as my ambassador. You must satisfy yourself that the Duke of Normandy will make a worthy ally. Only if you think that he will carry out his invasion are you to propose that he coordinate his attack with mine. Otherwise you are to maintain your disguise, and withdraw quietly.’
‘And if I judge the duke to be a serious contender, what date should I suggest he launches his invasion?’
Harald chewed his lip, then glanced across at Ulf Ospaksson. ‘Marshal, what do you recommend?’
Ospaksson still looked doubtful. Clearly he was uneasy at the idea of launching a major onslaught with so little preparation. I heard the reluctance in his voice as he set out his advice.
‘We will need as much time as possible to raise an army, gather our ships and equip the fleet. Yet we cannot risk crossing the English Sea too late in the season when the autumn gales are due. So I would say that early September is as late as we dare leave it. But it will be cutting matters very short, and it will be impossible to supply the army once it is ashore in England. The distance from Norway is too great.’
‘Our army will live off the land, just as it always has,’ said Harald.
An image came into my mind of the dreadful famine that ravaged my home in the wake of the warriors. I took a deep breath and risked Harald’s anger by asking, in front of the councillors, ‘My lord, when I go on this mission for you I will be leaving my family and neighbours behind.’
Harald drew his eyebrows down in a scowl. I knew that he hated to be asked favours, and he had detected that I was about to ask for one.
‘What are you trying to say? All of us will be leaving families behind.’
‘The district where I spent the last four months is wracked by famine,’ I explained. ‘It would be a kingly act if you could send some assistance.’
‘I have two children, my lord, a boy and a girl. Their mother died only a few weeks ago. I would be glad if they could benefit from royal favour.’
Harald grunted – whether in agreement I could not tell – before turning back to the matter of raising his army. Half of the levies of Norway were to assemble at Trondheim as soon as the harvest was in, every available warship was to be pressed into service, a bounty would be paid to the smithies for extra production of arrowheads and axe blades and so forth. Only later did I learn that, to his credit, he had arranged for three shiploads of flour to be sent to Vaster Gotland, but that when his messengers reached my home they found they had been mistaken for raiders, and that Folkmar had disappeared. Last seen, he was heading in the direction of the Thor temple at Uppsala, taking my twins with him.
I spent the next two weeks trying to learn as much as possible about the man on whom I was being sent to spy, and the more I learned, the more I feared that Harald was overreaching himself if he thought such a wily ally would cooperate. William the Bastard attracted gossip like rotting meat attracts flies. His mother, it was said, was a tanner’s daughter whose heart-stopping beauty had caught the eye of the Duke of Normandy, and their illegitimate child was only seven when he had inherited the ducal title. Against all expectations the youngster had survived the power struggles over his inheritance because he possessed what the Christians liked to call ‘the devil’s luck’. On one occasion a hired murderer got as far as the boy’s bedroom, and he awoke to see his would-be killer struggling with his guardian, who had taken the precaution of sleeping in the same room. The murderer cut his guardian’s throat but made such a commotion that he was forced to flee before he completed his mission. Even William’s marriage was the subject of lurid description. Apparently he had married a cousin, although his own priests had forbidden the union as too close to incest, and, to add spice to the gossip, it was rumoured that his bride was a dwarf who had borne him at least half a dozen children. On one point, however, all the rumours and speculation met: William of Normandy had shown himself to be a master of statecraft. He had connived and fought until he had secured his grip on the dukedom he had inherited, and now he was the most feared warlord in France, as powerful as the king of France himself.
This, then, was the man that my lord had sent me to evaluate and perhaps ensnare within Harald’s grand design. It would be a dangerous assignment, and I was not at all sure that I still had the mental agility or the subtlety to act the spy. If I was to carry it off, it would only be with the help of Odinn, himself the great dissembler. It would be my last effort, and a distraction from the pain of losing Runa.
I began by acquir
A cog took me from Norway south to its home port of Bremen and then towards the coast of Normandy, where I intended to disembark. This cog was a vessel that I had never experienced before, and I was ill at ease throughout the voyage. Designed for cargo carrying, the sides of the ship rose rather too high out of the water for my liking, and the bow and stern were made yet more clumsy by high wooden platforms. I thought the cog resembled a large barn that had somehow floated out to sea, though I had to admit that she was uncommonly capacious. The cog on which I sailed carried twice as much cargo as any ship I had ever travelled on, and as she waddled down from port to port I watched her hold fill up with stores that was clearly war material. There were bundles of shields, bales of sword blades, flax cloth for tent making, large quantities of ship-building nails as well as more humdrum gear such as boots, spades and bill hooks. Our ultimate destination was Rouen, Duke William’s capital.
Njord the sea God, however, imposed a different outcome on our voyage. The cog loaded her final batch of cargo in Boulogne – a mixed consignment of metal helmets, tanned hides and pickaxes – and was working along the coast when, in the early afternoon, the weather turned against us. It was a typical spring gale when the sky swiftly darkens, clouds come scudding up from the west, and heavy bursts of cold rain spatter the sea with exploding raindrops. The sea, which had been a neutral blue-grey, turned a greenish black, and as the wind gathered in strength the swells began to mount and grow more violent until they toppled and broke. At first the cog’s size and weight made her seem impervious to the deteriorating conditions, but eventually the waves which are Njord’s servants gradually took control. Our Bremen skipper did his best to find shelter from the storm, but as luck would have it the gale had caught him at a point where he had no safe harbour to run to. So he ordered the sailors to shorten sail and tried to ride out the worsening conditions. Our deep-laden ship wallowed sickeningly as the waves rolled under her keel, and the wind buffeted the high bow and stern. It required all the steersman’s skill to keep her riding to the seas, and it was impossible to prevent her drifting downwind as her slab sides acted as an unwelcome sail. As the wind shifted further into the north, I saw the skipper begin to look alarmed. He sent his crew below decks to fetch up the spare anchors from the bilges and get them ready on the heaving deck.
By now the rain was so heavy that it was impossible to see more than an arrow’s flight in any direction, yet it was clear that the cog was being driven towards the unseen coast and into danger. I took care to conceal my own unease – priests are not supposed to be experienced mariners – but I noted how the waves were becoming shorter and steeper, and I suspected we were passing over shoals. That suspicion became a certainty when the churning of the waves began to throw up a yellow tinge of sand and mud. Once or twice I thought I heard the sound of distant breakers.
Then, abruptly, the rain stopped and the air around us cleared as if a hood had been lifted from our eyes. We turned to look over the lee rail to see where the wind had brought us. The sight brought an urgent command from our skipper. ‘Let go all anchors,’ he yelled.
Away to our port side, less than half a mile away, was a low shoreline. A beach of grey sand, glistening with the recent rain, sloped gently towards a ridge of dunes, and behind them rose a barrier of bone-white cliffs. To a landsman’s eye it might have looked as if our cog was still far enough from land to be in deep water and safely clear of danger, but our skipper knew better. The gradual slope of the beach and the white crests of the waves between us and the shoreline told him that we had entered shoal ground. At any moment our vessel’s keel might touch bottom.
The crew scrambled to carry out their captain’s orders. Their greased leather sea boots slithered on the slippery deck as they wrestled the largest of our anchors, a great iron grapnel weighted with bands of lead, across to the side rail and heaved it overboard. The anchor rope flew after it, the first few coils disappearing quickly, but then suddenly slowing as the anchor hit the sea floor close beneath the surface.
‘Jump to it!’ bellowed the captain. ‘Get the second anchor down.’
This time the anchor was smaller, a wooden shaft with a metal crossbar, easier to manage but less effective. It too was flung overboard, and by now the skipper had run forward and laid his hand on the main anchor rope. He was feeling its tremor, trying to sense whether the anchor itself had dug into the sea floor and was holding firm. His conclusion was evident as he shouted at the crew to throw out more anchors. ‘Everything!’ he yelled. ‘She’s dragging!’ Desperately the crew obeyed. Four more anchors were tossed into the sea and their anchor lines made fast to strong points on the deck. But these emergency anchors were feeble affairs, the last one no more than a heavy rock with a wooden bar thrust through it, intended as a fang to bite into the sand.
All this time the cog was heaving up and down as each wave rolled under her hull, the anchor ropes went taut and then grew slack as the vessel worked her tethers, and the motion tugged the anchors treacherously across the soft sea floor.
There was nothing we could do but wait and hope that one or more anchors might take a firmer grip and halt our slithering progress. But we were disappointed. There came the deeper trough of a large wave, and we felt the keel of the cog thump down on the sand. Several moments passed, and then the vessel shuddered again, though the wave trough had been less obvious. Even the most inexperienced novice on our crew knew that our ship was being pushed farther into the shallows. Inexorably the gale drove the cog onward, and soon the shocks of the hull striking sea floor became a steady pounding. The cog was a credit to her shipwrights. Her stout hull stayed watertight, but no vessel could withstand such a battering for ever. The gale was showing no sign of easing, and each wave carried our ship a few inches farther towards her tomb.
Before long she was tilting over, the deck at so steep an angle that we had to cling to the rigging to prevent ourselves slipping into the sea. The cog was halfway towards her death. Even if her hull stayed intact, she would be mired in the shifting sands until she was buried and her timbers rotted. Her skipper, whose livelihood depended on his vessel, finally recognised that the sand would never let her escape.
‘Abandon ship,’ he called despondently, shouting to make himself heard above the grumbling of the waves which tumbled all around us.
When the gale had first hit us, our vessel’s main tender – a ten-oared rowing boat – had been towing astern on a heavy cable, but when the cog struck the sands, the lighter boat had been carried ahead by the waves, the cable had parted, and our tender had been swept away. The remaining boat was a square-ended skiff, clumsy and heavy, suitable only for sheltered waters. The crew took axes and hacked away the low bulwarks to open a gap through which they pushed her into the seas. Even as the skiff slid overboard and hit the water, the breaking crest of a wave rose up and half filled her. The sailors shoved and jostled as they began to climb over the rail.
The skipper held back; probably he could not bear to abandon his ship. He saw me hesitating at the spot I had chosen. I was clinging to a shroud at the highest point on the vessel so that I did not tumble down the sloping deck. He must have thought that I was too fr
‘Come on, father,’ he shouted, beckoning me. ‘The boat is your only hope.’
I took a second look at the squabbling boat crew and doubted what he said. Gathering up the hem of my brown priest’s gown, I tucked the material into the rope belt around my waist, waited for the next wave to crest, and the last the skipper saw of me was my flailing arms and naked legs as I launched myself out into the air and flung myself into the sea.
The water was surprisingly warm. I felt myself plunging down, then rolled and turned by the waves. I gasped for air and gulped down seawater, gritty to the taste. I spat out a mouthful as I came to the surface, looked around to locate the shoreline, and began to swim towards it. Waves broke over my head again and thrust me downward so that I was swimming underwater. I struggled to keep my direction. Another wave tumbled me head over heels, and I lost my bearings. As I came back to the surface, I squeezed my eyelids together to clear my vision, and my eyes stung with the salt. Once more I looked around, trying to realign myself with the shore, and caught a glimpse of the ship’s small boat and its desperate crew. Four of the sailors were rowing raggedly, while the others bailed frantically, but their craft was dangerously low in the water. Even as I watched, a breaking wave lifted up the skiff, held the little boat there for a moment, and then casually overturned it, stern over bow, and flung the crew into the water. Most of them, I was sure, did not know how to swim.
Grimly I battled on, remembering my days in Iceland when I had taken part in the water games when the young men competed at wrestling as they swam, the winner attempting to hold his opponent underwater until he gasped for mercy. I recalled how to hold my breath, and so I kept my nerve as the waves crashed over me, trying to smother me, but also washing me closer to the shore. I was an old man, I cautioned myself, and I should dole out my last remaining strength like a miser. If I could stay afloat, the sea might deliver me to land. Had Niord and his handmaidens, the waves, wanted to drown me, they would have done so long ago.