A Very Dangerous Man
I had spent a restless night trying, for the most part without success, to find sleep. Though my body was weary, my thoughts would not rest. Would we be in time? Would we find Sigrid in Aldeigjuborg?
When the stars overhead finally faded from view as the blackness of night slowly gave way to the grayness of dawn, I conceded defeat, threw off the cloak that had covered me, and rolled off of the simple pallet of furs that I had lain on. The furs, part of the sizable accumulation of belongings brought aboard by Rauna, the young Sami woman who had somehow come to be under my care and protection, had been loaned to me by her to make the hard planks of the Gull’s deck a slightly less uncomfortable bed.
I folded my cloak and rolled up the furs. As quietly as I could, I knelt by my sea chest, placed the bundle of rolled furs beside it, and stowed the cloak inside. Rauna was sleeping on the other side of the chest, her back against it, with the three large leather bags that held her possessions lined up along her other side. There is no way to be alone, to have privacy, when living aboard a longship, but Rauna tried to create an illusion of it when sleeping by creating barriers around herself.
The Gull and the Serpent were tied along either side of a wooden pier jutting out from the shore near one end of the harbor in the town of Birka. Though we no longer faced the risk of attack from the town’s garrison, sentries still stood watch in the bow of each ship.
I walked across the deck to the steer-board side of the ship, away from the pier, and at the rail loosened the cord that secured the waistband of my trousers, lowered them, and added the contents of my bladder to the sea. As I resecured my trousers and lowered my tunic back over them, a figure, gray and featureless in the dim light, approached from the Gull’s stern. As it drew near, I saw that it was Hastein.
“You cannot sleep?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“It is the same for me,” he said, and let out a low sigh. “In truth, I have slept poorly these past three nights.”
He was quiet for a time, and looked as if he was weighing whether to say more. Finally, he did.
“Over the years there have been many times when I was in grave danger, but the Norns chose not to cut the threads of my life, and I lived to see another day. I have never feared the thought of death. I have always accepted that when my time came, I would die, for no man can escape his fate.
“But three nights ago—the night before we expected the Sveas’ final attack upon us—I found my thoughts for some reason recalling the day we left Jutland. Do you remember it? Our sacrifice to the gods for a safe journey did not go well.”
I did remember. Hastein had cut the throat of a ram, while standing in the shallow water along the shore. After letting the sea drink first of the ram’s blood, he was going to paint the ships’ bows with the sacrificial blood, and anoint any who wished it. But when Tore, who was bearing the copper basin to catch the blood in and the spruce branch with which Hastein would apply it, had approached, he’d slipped and fallen, and had dropped the branch into the sea.
“The woman,” Hastein continued, “the shrewish one, Toke’s mother…”
“Gunhild,” I said.
“Yes, her. She called it an omen. She said the sacrifice had been rejected. She said we were all doomed to die. That night—the night before we expected the Sveas to attack and to kill us all, for they surely would have—her words, and the memory of the sacrifice, came back to me. When it did, I felt a chill run down my spine, to think our deaths had been foreseen by her.”
Tore had been very shaken for days after the sacrifice, and had believed that Gunhild’s words had cursed us. But I was surprised to learn that Hastein, too, had been affected.
“Gunhild has never had the second sight,” I said. “Her words came only from her own anger and bitterness. She saw nothing. She knew nothing. And the Sveas did not attack. We live yet.”
“This voyage is not over,” Hastein replied, “but already many of our company have died. The fight with the pirates cost us dearly.” He sighed, then frowned and stared into my eyes. “I do not fear death,” he said. “You do know that, yes?”
I nodded. “I do.”
“It is just that I find it…unsettling, to think my death, all of our deaths, may have been foretold. What if I had heeded her words, and we had not sailed? Would our fates have been changed? Would all those of our crew who have died on this voyage, our comrades, still be alive? Does it not make you wonder?”
In truth, I did not want to wonder about such a thing. I did not wish to feel the weight of all of the deaths of our comrades that had occurred on this voyage, comrades who had chosen to come at least in part to aid me in my quest for vengeance, and my hope of rescuing my sister, Sigrid. If I believed their deaths could have been avoided, would I not be responsible for them? But to Hastein, I said, “No. It does not,” and shook my head. “Gunhild’s words were just bitterness and anger. Nothing more.”
As I finished speaking, I recalled that Hrodgar had felt certain, when we had sailed from Jutland, that he would die upon this voyage, though that belief had not deterred him from joining us. Was the dream that had warned him of his own death a vision into part of the pattern the Norns were weaving for us all? What if Gunhild had somehow seen it, too?
Hastein nodded, but did not look convinced. I spoke again, trying now to convince myself of the truth of what I said, as well as Hastein.
“You told me once that it can be possible, at times, for a man to discern the path the Norns wish him to travel. Have there not been many signs that this voyage is a path we are meant to follow? Back in Jutland, you had decided that pursuing Toke was not to be, because too few of your men were willing to join in a voyage of unknown length so soon after returning home from Frankia. But then men from the estate and from the village asked to join, making our numbers strong enough to take on the hunt. Was that not a sign? And here in Birka, we were spared from death at the hands of the Sveas. If our deaths are to be a part of the pattern the Norns are weaving, if dying on this voyage is to be our fate, why would it not have happened then? If the Norns did not wish us to find and rescue Sigrid, would they have sent Rurik to guide us? Surely this is the path the Norns wish us to follow. For now, at least, death is not our fate.”
“So you have already argued. And you have managed to persuade all of our men that we should take this as a sign. Even Torvald, which surprised me greatly. I have agreed. We will follow this path, at least as far as Aldeigjuborg. But if we do not find her there….”
* * *
The town of Birka, where we had come so close to losing our lives, was located on an island in the middle of a great lake deep within the kingdom of the Sveas. The lands between the lake and the coast were marshy and filled with a maze of streams and channels, only one of which was navigable by sea-going ships the entire distance from the lake to the sea. When we had sought to reach Birka several days earlier, we’d been forced to hire a pilot to guide us here.
Yester-eve, Herigar, the commander of the garrison of Svear warriors who manned the fort on the hill above the town and watched over Birka for the King of the Sveas, had told us we would not need to secure a pilot to guide us back down the winding channel to the sea. “I will have one of my ships lead you,” he’d said. It was another of the several acts of kindness he had shown us since he had realized he’d wrongly suspected us of planning to attack the town, and had tried to kill us because of that mistaken belief. I could not help but respect him for trying to make amends for his error. In truth, once he had explained to us the reasons for his suspicions, his actions were not unreasonable. Had our roles been reversed, in his place we might well have done the same.
Hastein had told Herigar that we wished to depart Birka early in the morning, so that we might travel as far as possible before nightfall. To that end, as soon as the sky had lightened enough from the darkness of night to set the cocks within the town crowing, Hastein and Torvald had awakened those of our two crews who still slept. I knelt beside Rauna, where she slept on the Gull’s deck beside my sea chest, and gently shook her shoulder. She started awake with a frightened look in her eyes.
“It is just me,” I whispered. “It is time to awaken.”
The startled expression faded as she recognized me, to be replaced by a frown. “It is not yet morning,” she said.
“We sail today,” I reminded her. “Hastein wants to depart as soon as possible.”
In the gray light of early morn, the crews built fires upon the shore and hung the ships’ cook-pots, filled with barley and water, on spits above the flames. The simple porridge with which we were breaking our night’s fast would be our last hot meal for several days.
During the forced close association with the members of our company, and especially the crew of the Gull, over the days of the journey from Oeland to Birka, Rauna had become far less shy, especially around Einar, my closest comrade on the ship. After she and I filled our bowls at the cook-pot and each took a slab of dried, smoked herring from an open barrel near the fires, we walked over to where he had seated himself on a large driftwood log, and sat beside him.
Rauna dipped her wooden spoon into her bowl of porridge, and sighed loudly. Einar glanced over at her at the sound.
“You do not like barley porridge?” he asked.
“It is not a thing my people eat,” she answered.
“It is simple fare, but good food,” he said, as he broke his slab of herring into small pieces and stirred them into his bowl. I did the same with mine.
Rauna looked unconvinced. “It is warm, and I suppose it is filling.”
“And it is not that difficult to grow,” Einar added. “But your people do not grow it, then?”
“My people do not grow anything.”
Einar looked surprised. “What do they eat?”
“What the forest and the rivers and the streams provide us.” She poked at the porridge again. “I suppose it might be good in a meat soup. It has been long since I have had a good meat soup. It has been long since I last tasted…” she paused, frowning, then said, in her own language, “Raingo. I do not know the word for it in your tongue.”
“What is raingo?” I asked.
Balancing her bowl in her lap, she put her hands up beside her head with the fingers extended. “They have…”
“Horns? Antlers?” Einar suggested.
Rauna nodded. “Antlers.”
“Ah,” I said, “raingo are deer.”
Rauna shook her head. “I have seen what your people call deer. My father hunted and took one when we traveled to Birka. Raingo are not the same. They live deep in the forests and in the high mountains, in great herds, some with as many raingo as there are stars in the sky. My people follow the herds, and hunt the raingo. Their meat feeds us, and from their skins we make our clothes, and our tents.”
Einar glanced over at me and grinned. “A herd of beasts as many as the stars in the sky? Think of it, Halfdan. It would be a fine thing to see.”
* * *
The meal had long been finished and the cooking gear was once again stowed away. Like most of the others in the crew, I was repacking my sea trunk and securing my shield in the shield rack along the ship’s side in preparation for our voyage. Hastein walked over to where I was working.
“Here comes Herigar,” he said. “Come with me. I have been thinking, and have some things to ask him that you should hear.”
I glanced up and saw that what he said was true. Herigar was approaching from the edge of the town. Unlike the first time we had seen him, this day he had no retinue of warriors behind him. He was accompanied only by Rurik, the traveler Herigar had introduced us to the day before, who had offered to guide us to Aldeigjuborg, the town for which the slave traders who had purchased my sister, Sigrid, had sailed upon leaving Birka.
As Herigar and Rurik walked down the long wooden pier to which our two ships were moored, Hastein stepped up onto it and strode forward to meet them. I clambered over the Gull’s side and followed.
“Greetings,” Herigar said. “One of my ships will be here soon to guide you to the sea. And I have decided that I will accompany you on the journey through the channels, if you do not mind. I would like to learn more about your expedition against the Franks. We have heard only a few rumors of it.”
“It will be our pleasure,” Hastein replied. “On another matter, I have been thinking about what you told us, about how Toke sold Sigrid. You said there were three slave traders who travel the eastern road who were here in Birka at the time, and who bid on Sigrid. You said the men who bought her, an Arab and a merchant named Hugliek, left Birka the day before we arrived. What of the other two slave traders? Are they still here in Birka?”
“Yes, they are. I believe they are hoping to buy more slaves before returning to Aldeigjuborg.”
“Can you take us to them? They may possess knowledge of the men we are pursuing that will help us on our hunt.”
Herigar looked surprised at the request, but nodded. “Yes, but we must hurry. As I said, one of my ships is making ready, and will be here soon to guide you.”
“Agreed,” Hastein said, and called to Torvald, who was standing beside the mast on the deck of the Serpent, “Torvald! Halfdan and I are going into the town with Herigar. We will not be gone long. Be sure both ships are ready to sail by the time we return. Our guide ship will be here soon.”
Torvald waved his hand in assent.
Hastein, I noticed, was wearing his sword. I had only a short-bladed knife at my belt, having stowed all of my weapons in anticipation of the Gull’s departure.
“A moment,” I said, as I clambered back down onto the Gull’s deck. I trotted along it to where my sea chest was located near the ship’s stern. Opening the chest, I pulled out my sword, then trotted back to where the side of the ship’s curved hull bumped against the pier and climbed up onto it.
Herigar frowned when he saw that I was carrying a sword. “Why did you fetch a weapon? You will not need one. Not in Birka, when you are with me.”
“It is just habit,” I assured him, hoping I sounded convincing, as I unwrapped the sword belt from around the scabbard and strapped it around my waist. “Except aboard ship when we are sailing, I always go armed. I suppose it is because so many have tried to kill me.”
“Many have tried to kill you?” Herigar asked, looking surprised.
I nodded. “Aye,” I said.
“But you are just a young man.”
“Yet what Halfdan says is true,” Hastein told him. “There have been many who have tried to kill him.”
I noticed that Rurik was now staring at me with a twisted grin on his face. “Obviously, none of them succeeded,” he said. “Does that mean, then, that there are many whom you have killed?”
I thought it a somewhat rude question to ask. I let silence hang between us for a time, then curtly answered, “Aye.”
He grinned again, but said nothing more.
Although we had arrived in Birka five days ago, none of our company had ever actually entered the town. Even after Herigar had realized that we were not part of an attacking force that he feared was en route to Birka, and the hostilities between us had ended, he had asked that none of our men venture into the town. The folk of the town were on edge, he’d explained, fearing that the long-rumored attack would soon begin, and he wished no further violence to occur.
Even this day we were not to see much of Birka. Herigar led us along a wide path, paved with split logs laid side by side in the ground, that paralleled the shoreline of the harbor. At regular intervals, opposite where piers jutted out into the harbor, simple wooden structures—sheds with walls on three sides but open on the fourth—stood just off the path. Many were empty, but some, that were facing ships moored along the shore, were occupied by the ships’ crews and their wares.
“The men you wish to speak to are staying here,” Herigar said, pointing to a shed we were nearing. “Their names are Bjartr and Ketill.”
A man was squatting by a stone fire-ring just within the open side of the shed, arranging wood to build a fire. At the sound of Herigar’s voice he turned his head and stared at us, then stood up. He had black hair that hung down loose around his head to his shoulders, and a belly that bulged out over his belt.
“You seek me?” he asked.
“This is Bjartr,” Herigar told us. Then gesturing at us, he told the man, “This is Hastein, and Halfdan. They have asked to speak with you and Ketill.”
As he spoke, another man stepped forward from the shadows of the hut. He was taller and thinner than Bjartr. His light brown hair hung in two thick braids on either side of his head, and he had also twisted his beard into three narrow braids. A large seax hung in a carved leather scabbard from his belt.
“And this,” Herigar said, nodding at him, “is Ketill.”
“What do you want of us?” Bjartr asked. “Do you have slaves to sell?”
Hastein shook his head. “No,” he said. “We are looking for a man. Like you, he trades in slaves, and travels the eastern road. We thought you might know him, and be able to help us find him. His name is Hugliek.”
“You are a Dane,” Bjartr said, sounding surprised. To Herigar, he said, “Are these men from the two ships of Danes that were supposed to be leading an attack on Birka?”
Herigar looked embarrassed. “They are. From the Danish ships, that is. But they did not come to attack. That was a mistake. My mistake. They came to Birka in peace.”
“Do you know Hugliek?” Hastein asked. “Can you help us?”
“Aye, we know him,” Bjartr said.
Ketill stepped closer. “Why do you seek him?”
“It is a private matter,” Hastein answered. “We mean him no ill.”
“Well,” Ketill said. “He is not here. He left Birka days ago. He sailed for Aldeigjuborg. But I would think that Herigar here has already told you that.”
Three more men moved forward out of the shadows in the shed, and stood behind Bjartr and Ketill.
“It is true,” Hastein told him. “We know he sailed for Aldeigjuborg. But we are hoping to catch up with him. Do you know his plans, after he reaches Aldeigjuborg?”
“I do not see why we should tell you anything,” Ketill said. “Two shiploads of Danes—warriors in longships, not traders, not merchants—come to Birka, looking for Hugliek? On a private matter, you say, but you mean him no harm? That does not sound right to me.”
“It is I who have business with Hugliek,” I told him. “He has something of mine. A woman, a member of my family. She was sold as a slave. He bought her. I only wish to buy her back from him.”
Ketill and Bjartr looked at each other, and began laughing. “Now I understand,” Ketill said. “The woman. She was a Dane, too, as was the man who sold her.”
I did not see any humor in this. “Will you help me?”
Ketill looked me up and down, sneering, then said, “No. This is none of my concern.”
Rurik spoke up. “Like Hugliek, you both came to Birka to buy slaves. Like him, you will travel down the eastern road to sell them. Were you planning to travel together? There is safety in numbers—I have traveled the eastern road myself. Will he be waiting for you in Aldeigjuborg?”
Ketill spat on the ground. “Our plans are none of your concern.”
“It is a good thing,” I said in a quiet voice, “that Herigar is here with us. I have great respect for him, and because of that would not break the peace of this town. But I am not used to letting pass being treated with such ill manners. Especially not by scum such as you.”
Ketill sputtered, then clawed at his belt for the hilt of his seax. Herigar stepped forward and shouted, “Hold! Do not draw your weapon!”
Turning to Hastein and me, he said, in a voice quivering with anger, “Leave now. Both of you. Go back to your ships.”
Glaring at me, Hastein told him, “I apologize for Halfdan’s behavior.”
Ignoring them both, I turned to Bjartr and spoke. “That knarr, moored opposite this hut. That is your ship?”
He did not answer.
“It looks to be sturdy, but hardly a fast ship,” I continued.
Bjartr still did not speak.
“Our own ships, on the other hand, are quite swift. And we have many men in our two crews, all of whom, as your comrade here has observed, are warriors. As I have said, we will not break the peace of this town. But out upon the sea…?”
“Leave,” Herigar growled. Still ignoring him, I continued. “It is a simple thing that we have asked. Do you plan to travel the eastern road together with Hugliek? Will he still be in Aldeigjuborg, waiting for you to join him? That is all we wish to know. But if you force me to wait for the answer until we catch you out upon the open sea, there will be a price to pay for the time and trouble you put me to.”
“You should answer Halfdan,” Hastein told him. “Here, and now. He may appear young, but in truth, he is a very dangerous man.”
Are You A Bad Man?
The decks of the Gull and Serpent were bustling with activity as we prepared to get underway. Herigar’s guide ship was standing by, out in the harbor behind us. As the members of the two crews who would be manning the oars began pulling them off of the oar racks, others stood on the pier, waiting to untie the bow and stern lines.
I walked to the overhead rack running up the center of the Gull’s deck, straddling the mast, where the long oars used by rowers in the bow and stern were stored, and searched for the oar marked for the position second from the stern where I usually rowed. Rauna, whose considerable accumulation of possessions—three large leather bags full, plus her rolled up tent made of animal skins—were stored under the overhead rack while the ship was underway, was standing nearby, trying to keep out of the way.
Hastein stepped off of the raised deck in the stern and walked to where I was standing.
“Asbjorn will row in your place. If Herigar wishes to learn about our time in Frankia, you should be available. Your role was important.”
At the mention of Herigar, I glanced at where he was standing on the pier between our ships, watching the activity with his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face.
Torvald strode over from the Serpent, stepped down onto the deck of the Gull, and spoke to Hastein.
“Herigar looks angry,” he said. “Did something happen in the town?”
“Halfdan angered him,” Hastein replied.
Torvald looked at me. “What did you do?” he asked. Einar and Gudfred, who were preparing to draw their oars from the overhead rack, paused to listen. Rauna, too, drew closer.
Hastein answered before I could speak. “We went to talk with the other slave traders who had bid on Sigrid. He became angry with them, and threatened to kill them.”
Einar and Gudfred looked at each other and grinned.
“Why did you want to kill them?” Torvald asked me. Hastein answered again.
“We wanted to know if they knew anything of Hugliek’s—the slaver who bought Sigrid—plans. Whether we were likely to find him still at Aldeigjuborg. Rurik asked them if perhaps they were planning to travel down the eastern road together with him.”
“That does not seem an unreasonable question to ask,” Torvald said.
“I did not think so, either,” Hastein agreed. “But they refused to tell us. That is when Halfdan became angry, and threatened to kill them.”
I had been expecting Hastein to tell me how disappointed he was in my behavior. It would not be the first time. But he surprised me.
“You were right, of course,” he said. “Men like those two should not behave with such rudeness toward men like us.”
Men like us? I was surprised, but pleasantly so, that Hastein considered me to be a man like him. It was high praise.
“And I thought your threat was very clever,” he continued. “You made it clear you would do nothing to break the peace of Birka.”
“Then how did he plan to kill them?” Torvald asked.
“He told them we would catch them, once they came out upon the open sea.”
“So why is Herigar angry? This does not seem to be a matter that concerns him.”
“Halfdan did insult them. He called them scum to their faces.”
Einar and Gudfred grinned again.
Hastein continued. “At that, one of them started to draw a weapon. Had he succeeded, blood would surely have been spilled—almost certainly his. But Herigar stepped in and made the man stand down. It was the fact that Halfdan had almost provoked a fight—that a killing, or likely more than one, would have occurred had he not been there—that angered Herigar.”
Turning to me, he said, “It would be a good thing if you were to apologize to Herigar. Your threat to those two was both deserved and well made, and what we learned as a result of it was valuable. But by insulting them to their faces, you humiliated them. It would have been surprising if they had not reacted. And insulting them was not needed. The quiet threat afterwards was much more effective. You must learn to curb your temper.”
“What did you learn that was valuable?” Torvald asked.
“Hugliek and the two slave traders still here in Birka do plan to travel together, down the eastern road. So, he will not have left Aldeigjuborg. It seems we will be able to find Sigrid there. Halfdan can buy her back from him, and we can be on our way. Back to Oeland and our comrades awaiting us there, then on to Jutland, and home.”
Gudfred stepped forward and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I confess, I did not have strong hope that we would find Sigrid. I feared she was gone. But now it seems we will. You will bring her home. The Norns are surely smiling on you. I will tell the others from the estate. This is welcome news.”
“And now,” Hastein said, “let us get underway. We have tarried here in Birka long enough.”
He turned and looked back at the man standing on the pier beside where the stern line was tied to a piling. When their eyes met, Hastein raised his hand over his head and waved it in a circle. The man nodded and loosened the rope. Once it was free, he coiled it and tossed it into the ship, then trotted down the pier to mid-ship and climbed aboard.
“Herigar,” Hastein called. “We are getting underway. Will you come aboard?”
Herigar nodded and stepped down onto the deck as Torvald climbed up off of it onto the pier, and crossed over to the Serpent.
Three of our crew—Bjorgolf and Bryngolf, the two brothers known as the Ravens, and Berg, another of Hastein’s men—were standing by the bow line. Hastein walked back to the raised deck in the stern and took his position at the steer-board. Again, he raised his hand above his head and waved it in a circle.
The three men on the pier untied the rope from the piling it was wrapped around and, each man grasping it tightly with both hands, their backs toward the Gull’s stern and the end of the pier, began heaving on the line.
Slowly the Gull began to edge backwards along the pier. The three continued pulling on the rope, now slowly walking backwards as they did, and the ship gradually began to pick up momentum, sliding faster through the water. When the broad mid-ship of the Gull’s curved hull neared the pier’s end, they tossed the line to the outstretched hands of Ari, waiting to receive it, and jumped onto the ship’s deck. As they did, Hastein pulled back hard on the handle of the steer-board, and the Gull began to turn, her stern angling away from the pier as she continued to slide backwards through the water.
On deck, those manning the oars took their positions sitting on their sea chests with the shafts of the oars resting on their thighs, and slid the oars through their hands until the blades were at their laps, ready to be run out through the oar-holes in the side.
The bow of the Gull slid past the end of the pier. “Oars out!” Hastein called.
The oarsmen slid their oars through the holes and extended them to their full length, then held them at ready above the water.
“Ready…pull!” Hastein shouted. As one, the long oars dipped into the sea and the oarsmen heaved back on them. When they’d completed their stroke, they raised the blades up out of the water and rocked their bodies forward. Again, Hastein shouted “Pull,” and they stroked again.
At first the Gull moved jerkily, surging forward as the oars cut the sea in unison, then slowing when they were raised. But with each stroke she picked up speed, and the time between Hastein’s chants of “pull” grew shorter, until finally the long, sleek ship was slicing through the waters of the harbor, heading for the opening in the breakwater, constructed of log pilings embedded in the harbor floor, that enclosed and protected Birka’s harbor. The rowers, now working in a smooth, steady rhythm, rocking forward and leaning back as they pulled, no longer needed the cadence called.
Herigar, who was standing on the afterdeck beside Hastein, said, “This is a fine ship. She is very fast.”
“Aye,” Hastein said, nodding his agreement. “And as you will see, she is swift under sail, too. I call her the Gull because she moves over the sea as easily as a gull glides above it.”
Ahead of us, Herigar’s guide ship was raising its sail.
Bjorgolf, Bryngolf, and Berg, who had taken up positions at the mast, were watching Hastein intently. He held up his right arm, fist clenched tightly, and pumped it up and down two times. At his signal, Berg unwrapped the halyard from where it was secured to a large cleat on the mast, and the three began letting the thick rope slowly slide up the mast and through the wooden block near its top from which the yard hung. When they had lowered the yard, with the furled sail tied to it, to a height just above their heads, Bjorgolf and Bryngolf held the halyard tightly while Berg once again clenched it around the cleat. Others in the crew stepped up to the yard to help. Working quickly, they released the short loops of rope holding the sail bunched against the yard and let them hang loose, while two other members of the crew, Yngvar and Helgi, pulled the sheets through the wooden blocks attached to the two bottom corners of the sail.
When they were finished, the five— Bjorgolf, Bryngolf, Berg, Yngvar and Helgi—turned to face the stern where Hastein stood on the small raised afterdeck, manning the steer-board. Hastein nodded, again raised his right arm with fist clenched, and pumped it up and down three times.
Berg uncleated the halyard while Bjorgolf and Bryngolf, standing aft of the mast, held it taut, belayed under the cleat. Then Berg jumped up and grasped the halyard as high as he could with both hands and hung from it. The weight of his body dragged the thick line down, raising the yard and sail. Quickly Bjorgolf and Bryngolf took up the slack Berg had created in the end of the halyard and pulled it taut once more. Again and again the three repeated the process, Berg jumping the halyard while Bjorgolf and Bryngolf secured the gain he’d made. As the yard slowly raised up along the front of the mast, the big sail gradually unfurled and began to catch the gentle breeze that was blowing across the water.
“Raise…oars,” Hastein shouted, and as the rowers finished their stroke, they raised the blades of the long oars up out of the sea and held them steady.
The yard had reached the top of the mast now, the sail hanging fully extended below it. Berg secured the halyard once more, wrapping it around the cleat on the mast. Yngvar, on the steer-board side of the ship, pulled back on the sheet he was holding, turning the sail to more fully catch the wind, while on the other side Helgi fed his sheet out. Once they were satisfied with the sail’s angle, both tied the ends of the sheets to cleats on the ship’s sides. With the wind pushing against the back of the sail, making it billow out, the Gull began to pick up speed.
“Ship and stow oars,” Hastein shouted, and the rowers slid their long oars in through the oar-holes. Taking turns, they stood and carried the long oars to the overhead and side racks and stowed them.
“And your fast ship has a well-trained crew,” Herigar told Hastein. “But you seem shorthanded. I notice not all of your oars were manned.”
“Aye,” Hastein agreed. “I told you we fought with and killed the pirates who were in the waters near Oeland. We lost a number of good men in that fight, and had to leave others, who were badly wounded, on Oeland to recover.”
“I remember,” Herigar said. “And as I told you, I will send a ship to let them know you will be delayed in returning for them.”
Hastein shook his head. “It seems that will not be necessary. Now that we know Sigrid will still be in Aldeigjuborg with the slaver who bought her, we can expect to recover her quickly, and return to our comrades on Oeland.”
Hastein turned toward me and raised his eyebrows, staring at me expectantly. Because I had been told not to row, I had been standing in the center of the deck near the end of the overhead oar rack, watching the activity. I sighed, and walked to where he and Herigar were standing on the raised afterdeck and stood before them. Rauna followed silently behind me, and seated herself beside my sea chest, which was pushed against the side rail near the afterdeck on the steer-board side.
Looking at Herigar, I said, “I wish to apologize. For angering you, back in the town.”
He stared at me, frowning silently for a few moments, then said, “So you are apologizing for angering me, but not for your conduct?”
It was true. Hastein looked less than pleased.
“Yes,” I answered. “I am trying to find my sister, Sigrid. As you know, she was stolen and sold into slavery. If there is any way I can find her, can save her from a life of slavery…. “ I shrugged. “Those two men, Bjartr and Ketill, refused to tell me what they knew, what might help me find her. I would have killed them if I’d had to, as I would kill anyone who tries to keep me from finding Sigrid. She is the only member of my family, besides myself, who still lives. My mother, my brother, my father are all dead. And the life Sigrid is facing as a slave would be worse than death. So, I do not apologize for threatening Bjartr and Ketill. And had they not told me what they knew, I would have followed up on my threat. But I did not intend to break the peace of Birka. That, I did out of respect for you.”
Herigar stared at me silently for a time, pondering my words. As he did, the scowl slowly faded from his visage. “Hmm,” he finally said. “In truth, there did not seem to be any good reason for them to refuse to tell you what you asked. I wish you good fortune in your quest to find your sister.”
He turned his head and looked at Rauna. “That woman. She is one of the forest people, yes? She is staring at me. Do you know why?”
I glanced over at Rauna. She was, indeed, staring at him—or, more accurately, glaring.
“You do not recognize her?” I asked.
He frowned. “Why should I? I do not know any forest people. They do not come to Birka.”
“She did. She and her father. In fact, you met her father twice. A merchant who traded with their people—his name was Barne—brought her father with him to Birka several times. On one such trip Barne introduced him to you.”
“Barne. Yes, I did know a Barne, who traded with the forest people who live up in the mountains. He died…” he paused, frowning, then said, “a year ago? Perhaps longer? And now that you say that, I do recall that sometimes he had one of the forest people with him, though I do not recall ever meeting him.”
I continued. “Some months ago, her father made the journey, with his family, from their homeland to Birka. Raiders had been attacking their people, and her father planned to ask for your help.”
Herigar shook his head. “Why would they come to ask me for help? What happens in their homeland is of no concern to me.”
I nodded. “I understand that, but they did not. Her father thought, from what Barne had told him about you, about how you ruled Birka for the king of the Sveas, that you would not allow bad men to attack their people. But before they reached Birka, they were set upon. By five Sveas, who lied and said they would carry her father across the water to Birka to meet with you. But instead, they robbed him of the furs he had been intending to give you as a gift, and tried to kill him. They raped and killed her mother, and killed her young brother. She—her name is Rauna—only survived because she fled into the forest before the men could catch her.”
Herigar turned and stared at Rauna again, and a look of recognition came over his face. “Now I recall. Her father stopped me on the street in Birka, and tried to tell me about how he and his family had been attacked. At first, I thought he meant it had happened in Birka, so I listened to his tale. But when I realized it had happened somewhere away from the town, somewhere off along the shore of Lake Malaren…” he shrugged. “They are a simple people. They live a primitive life, deep in the forests, from what I have heard. They do not understand our ways. It was not my concern.”
I understood what Herigar meant. He was the commander of the garrison of Svear warriors who manned the fort overlooking Birka. He was in charge of protecting the town, and collecting the king’s share of all trade that occurred there. Acts of banditry out in the wilds of Svealand were not his responsibility to prevent, or to punish—particularly if the victims were merely some “primitive” people, not even subjects of the Svear king. All the same, I found his dismissive attitude about the murder of Rauna’s family repugnant, though I tried to keep my face from showing my feelings. It would not do to offend him again. Yet I could not help but compare Herigar’s reaction upon hearing of the murder of Rauna’s family—his lack of caring about the wrong that had been done—to that of Hastein, when he had heard my tale about the murders of my brother Harald and his men.
I turned away, walked over to my sea chest, and sat down on it. Speaking quietly, so as not be overheard, I said, “I am sorry,” to Rauna.
“My father was wrong,” she said. “He is not a good man.” She glared at Herigar for a while longer, then turned to me, and said, “I am glad you are going to be able to find your sister.”
I had not realized she had been paying attention to the conversation between Hastein and Torvald. It was a kind thing for her to say. I felt touched by it.
* * *
We were in the channel now, that led from Birka to the sea. The sails on the Gull and the Serpent were furled and the oars once more manned. Ahead of us, the guide ship periodically shifted from one side of the channel to the other, to avoid the hidden obstacles that had been sunk underwater to damage any unwary raiders who might try to approach the Svear town without warning and attack it.
Hastein had been recounting for Herigar the tale of how of the Danish army, led by Ragnar Lodbrok, had carried war deep into the heart of the western kingdom of the Franks. Herigar was not his only audience: Rurik and Rauna were also listening raptly.
“After Ruda fell, we made the town our base, and began sending mounted raiding parties out into the countryside, to gather whatever plunder they could find, and to round up the supplies needed to feed our army.
“We had not faced any serious opposition from the Franks, save for the garrison of Ruda, which we crushed when we took the town. But Ragnar knew that eventually the Frankish king would muster his army and move on us, and he did not want our army to become surrounded at Ruda. So, we decided to send scouts—eight men, each traveling alone—out into the Frankish heartland, far upriver from Ruda, to try to locate the Frankish forces. They were brave men. It was very dangerous. Not all of them survived.”
Hastein raised a hand off the handle of the steer-board and pointed at Einar, who was rowing at one of the two oars closest to the raised afterdeck, and said, “Einar here was one of the scouts. He is a good man. Halfdan was another.”
“It sounds a very dangerous undertaking, going that deep into the land of the enemy, all alone,” Herigar said to Einar. “How did you do it? How did you manage to stay alive?”
“In my village, back in Jutland,” Einar replied, “I am considered to be very skilled at tracking and hunting. It is far more difficult to stay unseen by a deer than by a patrol of Franks on horseback.”
“And you?” Herigar asked me. “How did you manage it?”
I shrugged. “I am…comfortable in the forest. And being alone.”
“Ha! He is too modest,” Einar said. “I have never seen anyone as skilled in the forest as Halfdan. I could tell you stories about him.”
I hoped he would not. I noticed that Rauna was now staring intently at me, as if she was seeing something she had not seen before.
“It was, in fact, Halfdan who discovered the location of the main Frankish army,” Hastein continued. “Although all of the scouts who returned, from both sides of the river, saw many mounted Frankish patrols. From that we realized that the Frankish king had divided his army, or at least the mounted warriors in it, and sent them out along both sides of the river in order to try to stop the raiding parties.”
“You should tell Herigar how you found Halfdan,” Einar said.
“Aye, in truth, he was lucky to escape with his life. After he had discovered the Frank’s main army, Halfdan happened upon a small group of traveling Franks.” Hastein paused. “Halfdan, you should tell the story.”
I sighed. I did not wish to. I did not like talking about myself. It felt too much like boasting.
“I had run out of food and was feeling weak from hunger,” I said. “They—the Franks—were cooking sausages by the roadside. The smell drew me close. One of the party—a warrior—saw me and snuck up behind me. He took me unawares.”
“And?” Herigar said, expectantly.
I shrugged. “I had to fight to save myself. There were three men. Two warriors, plus a servant who was armed. I was fortunate. I won. They did not. I killed the two warriors, and wounded the servant.”
“Hmm,” Herigar said. “Hastein did say you are a dangerous man. I begin to see why.”
Hastein chuckled. “There is more to the tale that what Halfdan is telling. One of the warriors was a nobleman and an officer in the Frankish army. He had a fine sword and armor, which Halfdan took. And there were two women traveling in the party: a young noblewoman and her maid. The noblewoman was the daughter of a Frankish count. Halfdan took her prisoner.”
“What is a count?” Herigar asked.
“It is a nobleman who rules over lands and towns for the king. Much like a jarl among our people.”
Herigar nodded. Hastein continued. “By taking the girl, it was as if Halfdan had tossed a stone into a hornet’s nest. The Franks sent out many mounted patrols, searching for her. And eventually, one of the patrols caught up with Halfdan. When we found him—we had been rowing up and down the Seine River, searching for our scouts to bring them in—he was pinned against the river bank, surrounded by a sizable force of Franks. He had managed to fight them off for a time, but if we had not found him when we did….” Hastein shook his head. “More than once since I have known him, Halfdan has somehow survived when by the odds, he should not have. He has a charmed life, or else the Norns have some purpose for him, which he has not yet fulfilled.”
“Why did you take the girl prisoner?” Herigar asked me. “When you were deep within the Franks’ lands, and all alone? It would seem a great risk.”
In truth, looking back on it now, it did seem an unwise choice to have made. I shrugged. “I thought she might be a rich prize.”
“Aye, and that she was,” Hastein said. “Her father paid ten pounds of silver to secure her release. In one stroke, Halfdan became a wealthy man.”
Einar started chuckling to himself. I glared at him, but he did not see.
“Why do you laugh?” Herigar asked.
Einar shook his head, and took a deep breath. “It is just…Halfdan. It is true that the Frankish woman was a rich prize, for her father paid handsomely for her return. But there is more to the tale than that. You would not expect a prisoner, a hostage, to be fond of her captor. But later, in Paris, they met again. They looked to be fine friends from what I saw. And I have never known a prisoner and hostage to give a parting gift to their captor.”
“A gift?” Hastein asked. “I have not heard of this. What gift?”
Einar was a good comrade—the closest I had. But there were times when I wished he would learn to keep his mouth shut.
I reached inside the neck of my tunic, and pulled out into view the small gold cross, on a chain of gold, that Genevieve had given me.
“You are a Christian?” Herigar asked. “I did not know that.”
I shook my head. “I am not,” I said.
“Then why do you wear the cross?”
“It was a gift,” I answered. “And she who gave it to me said she had prayed over it, and asked her God to protect me. I do not know if it has any such power, but I see no harm in wearing it, in case it does.” I did not mention the rest of what she had said—that she hoped it would cause me to remember her.
* * *
Hastein had by now reached, in his tale, the battle fought between the Danish army and the Franks. He had not left out of the story our army’s secret night crossing of the river, how I had discovered that Frankish sentries were watching from the forest on the far bank, and how Einar and I had swum across, crept through the forest, and had found and killed them, so that the army could cross undetected. Einar, of course, had to add to the tale how I had, in the dark, used my bow to slay the last sentry by shooting him in head. He knew by now that the shot had been luck, not skill, but he still would not tell it that way. He preferred telling his version of the tale to the truth.
“Halfdan is the finest archer I have ever seen,” Hastein said, when Einar had finished.
“Aye to that,” Einar agreed.
I shook my head. “I have seen one better.”
Hastein looked surprised. “Who?” he asked.
“The Finn archer who fought with the pirates. Rauna’s father.”
Einar nodded. “Aye, he was very skilled. He shot very true, and very fast. He felled three of our archers in the battle, before you finally killed him.”
I regretted having brought this up while Rauna was listening.
“If you bested him, are you not better than he?” Herigar asked.
I shook my head. “He was but a single archer, shooting alone, yet he managed to pin down our entire force of archers—thirteen men when we started—and as Einar said, he felled three of them before….” I did not want to say, in front of Rauna, that I had killed the Finn. I did not want her to hear those words again. “It took four of us, all shooting at him together, to defeat him. He was the most skilled with a bow I have ever seen.”
“Coming from Halfdan, that is high praise indeed,” Hastein said.
“Ragnar chose the ground we fought on well,” Hastein said, continuing his tale. “Our shield wall was stretched across the side of a steep ridge, so that the Franks would have to charge uphill to attack us. And thick woods lay off one end of our line. We hid a strong reserve of warriors there, among the trees.
“But it was a close thing. The Franks fought bravely, and well. We lost many of our warriors there. And in their final charge, the Franks broke through our shield wall in the center, and came close to killing Ragnar. Had they done so…few armies continue to fight well, when they see their leader fall.
“It was Halfdan who saved the day for us. He ran to a position on the hillside just above where the center of our line had broken, and single-handedly killed many of the Franks who had pushed into our ranks. He shot down a Frank attacking Ragnar, who had fallen and was in grave danger, and he rallied our archers, who had been scattered in the Franks’ final attack, to join him and drive the attacking Franks out of our lines. And it was he who signaled our reserve to attack. When they did, the Franks were caught between two attacking forces. In the end it was a great slaughter of our foes that day.”
Herigar stared at me musingly, as he spoke to Hastein. “It is very strange for one so young to play so large a role in great events such as you describe. Had I heard this tale without having seen him, I would have expected this ‘Halfdan’ you describe, clearly a warrior of renown, to be much older and more experienced.”
Einar chimed in. “I have said more than once that he is a rare killer, for certain.”
Hastein nodded. “After the battle, Ragnar honored Halfdan before the whole army, and gave him the warrior-name of ‘Strongbow.’ If, in years to come, you hear skalds tell tales about such a one, it is Halfdan here, whom you have met, they will be speaking of.”
* * *
We had reached the bay which the channel, that led from the inland lake on which Birka was located, emptied into. The Gull floated motionless now upon the water as her crew stowed the long oars upon their racks. Aboard the Serpent, lying a short distance off our steer-board side, the men under Torvald’s command were doing the same. Soon we would be raising sail and getting underway.
Herigar’s guide ship had pulled alongside and was being held close, the side of its hull bumping lightly against ours, by lines tossed from her bow and stern to members of our crew.
Hastein and Herigar clasped wrists as they said their farewells. “I am glad your fate caused our paths to cross,” Herigar said. “Though our acquaintance did not begin well, for which I fault only myself. I have enjoyed getting to know you. And thank you for sharing your tale about Frankia. It was in truth a great victory, which will no doubt be oft told of by skalds for many years to come. Rurik, too, has had adventures in Frankia, though of a different sort than yours. He told me of them last night, while we dined. You should ask him to share his tale with you.”
Turning to me, he said, “And I am also glad to have met you, young Strongbow. I wish you good fortune, and hope you find your sister in Aldeigjuborg.”
* * *
At Rurik’s direction, we headed due east once our ships cleared the entrance of the bay.
“Sailing east will carry you directly across the Austmarr, to its far side,” he told Hastein. “Depending on the winds, we will reach it sometime on the morrow. Once we have crossed the sea, we must look for a great, very long gulf that runs from west to east. With luck, and if our course holds true, we will find ourselves at its mouth when we reach the other side. But if, on crossing, we find ourselves facing a coastline that runs roughly north to south, then we will have to search for the gulf’s mouth. To the south of it, there several large islands offshore. If we find them, we will know the mouth of the gulf lies but a short distance to the north. The coastline to the north of the gulf’s mouth runs north by west, and is broken up with many small bays and skerries, but no large islands.
“This gulf, which we must travel from its mouth to its end, is very, very large. It is much broader across than the bay that leads to Birka, and the distance from its mouth to its end is greater than the distance we will sail to cross the Austmarr. At best, it will take a full day, and a long day at that, to sail its length. More likely it will take a full day and part of a second, depending on the wind, even in these ships.
“At its far end the gulf narrows greatly. A river empties into it there. The river is not very long. Even if the winds do not cooperate and you must row its entire length, you can easily reach its headwaters in in one day.”
“And then?” Hastein asked.
“The headwaters of the river are a very, very large lake, almost more of a freshwater inland sea.”
Surely, I thought, Aldeigjuborg will be on an island on this lake, like Birka was.
Rurik continued. “The river from the gulf flows from the southwest corner of the great lake, where its western and southern shorelines meet. To reach Aldeigjuborg, you must sail along the southern shore until you find the mouth of another river.”
My heart sank.
“And how far must we travel to reach this second river?” Hastein asked. He was clearly displeased by Rurik’s description of the route we must follow.
Rurik shrugged. “Eh, not too far. There is a large peninsula that juts out from the shoreline which you will have to sail around. But you should probably reach the mouth of the second river in maybe half a day, maybe a little longer. Most of a day at worst, if the wind is against you.”
Hastein’s jaw looked to be clenching tighter and tighter. “And then?” he said again.
“Aldeigjuborg is located on that second river, some distance south of the lake. Even if you must row the whole way on that river, it will be less than a half day’s journey. In all, from where you first enter the inland sea to where the town lies upon the second river, could easily be but a single day’s journey in a fast ship such as this. And in these ships, if we are blessed with good winds, we could possibly travel all the way to Aldeigjuborg from the end of the gulf in a single day’s journey. A long day, to be sure. But these are fine ships.”
“Hmm,” Hastein grunted. “Aldeigjuborg is not an easy place to find.”
Rurik nodded, grinning. “That is true. It is good that you have me as a pilot.”
“This is a much longer journey than you led us to believe, when you described it back in Birka. It makes our odds of catching up with the slave traders seem longer. They already have five days’ lead on us. And now…? We are looking at perhaps four, five days more before we reach Aldeigjuborg.”
I well understood Hastein’s doubts. Rurik’s description of the tortuous path we would have to follow to reach Aldeigjuborg had left me with a sinking feeling that we were too late, that we would not find Sigrid.
Rurik shook his head. “As you say, Aldeigjuborg is not easy to find, and the path to reach it is not a direct one. But for you, that is a good thing. Remember, those you pursue are traveling in a knarr. It is true they have a five day lead on you. But their ship is much slower under sail than your ships. That alone gives you some advantage in trying to catch up with them. And where they will truly lose time, and you will gain on them, is when they reach the rivers. A knarr is a heavy, slow ship when it must be rowed. Their ship likely has only two or three pairs of oars, and on both rivers, they will be traveling upstream, against the current. Your ships, on the other hand, move swiftly under oars. It is not impossible that you might catch up with them before they even reach Aldeigjuborg, but even if you do not, you should reach the town no more than a day or two after they do. And remember, even after they reach the town, they will wait there to be joined by Ketill and Bjartr before setting off down the eastern road.”
Rurik’s last words gave me hope. Apparently, they had at least some of the same effect on Hastein. He shook his head, “I confess I have doubts,” he told Rurik. “But we will see. Hopefully you are right. Turning to look at me, and smiling grimly, he added, “Hopefully this is a path the Norns wish us to follow.”
* * *
We made good progress through the afternoon and into early evening, with a steady wind blowing out of the south. Because I had not manned an oar on the journey from Birka to the sea, I was standing duty as we sailed, but in truth, there had been little to do. I was sitting on the low edge of the raised afterdeck, watching the Ravens, Bjorgolf and Bryngolf, throwing dice with Gudfred and Einar, to see who had the stronger luck. It seemed that Bryngolf did, for he threw the highest number far more frequently than any of the others.
Bram approached and spoke to me. “There is something wrong with your woman,” he said.
I scowled at him. “Rauna is not my woman,” I told him.
Gudfred snorted, grinning. “She is not? Then why is she sailing with us? There is no other member of our crew she is with.”
Hastein, who was standing at the steer-board, chuckled. “That is a fair question, Halfdan. Why is Rauna with us, if she is not your woman?”
“You know why,” I snapped. “She saved my life. But for her, I would be dead. That is a debt I must honor. She has no one. Her family are all dead. I could not leave her in Birka. She would not be safe on her own.”
“But what do you plan to do with her?” Hastein asked.
That was a question I tried to avoid thinking about.
“She is not a member of my crew,” he added.
“Do not forget that it was she who discovered that Herigar’s men were going to attack us. We all owe her a debt for that.”
Einar and Gudfred nodded. “Huh,” Gudfred said, “that is true.”
I noticed that Rurik, who was also seated on the edge of the afterdeck, but on the opposite side from me, had been listening closely to the exchange, staring intently at each of us as we spoke. He seemed strange to me: always watching us closely, but rarely saying anything.
Turning back to Bram, I asked, “What is wrong with her?”
“I do not know,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders. “But she seems very distressed.”
Sighing loudly, I stood up and walked forward along the Gull’s deck. Rauna’s considerable possessions—three large leather bags, plus a rolled-up tent made of deer-skins—were stowed under the center oar rack, just aft of the mast. She was sitting in the midst of them, barely visible.
As I drew near, I saw that she had her knees drawn up tightly against her chest, with her face pressed down against them, and her hands cupped over her head. She was rocking back and forth, and whimpering softly.
“What is wrong with you?” I asked her.
She shook her head, but did not reply. I wondered if perhaps she had the sea sickness, though she had sailed with us from Oeland to Birka, and had had no problems on that voyage. I squatted down in front of her.
“Do you feel ill?”
She shook her head again.
“Look at me, Rauna,” I said. “Tell me what is wrong.”
She mumbled something.
“What? I could not hear what you said.”
She raised her face and looked at me. Her cheeks were wet with the tracks of tears. “I am afraid,” she whispered.
I did not understand. “What are you afraid of?”
“The land is gone.”
Her answer made no sense to me. “I do not understand. What do you mean?”
“The land is gone. There is only water, as far as I can see, in every direction. I do not know where the land is. I am afraid.”
“You have sailed on the sea before,” I reminded her. “With us, from Oeland to Birka. And you and your father sailed aboard Sigvald’s ship.”
“But I could always see the land. Now, the land is gone.”
“It is not gone. You just cannot see it.” I pointed back toward the stern. “The land we sailed from, where Birka is, it is back there. And on the morrow, we will reach a new land. It is there,” I told her, pointing toward the Gull’s bow.
“I am lost,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper. “I do not know where I am. I will never see my home again. I will never see my people again. I am all alone. I am afraid.” She hid her face down against her knees again, and began quietly weeping.
I did not know what to say. I wanted to comfort her, but did not know how. What she said was likely true. There was little chance she would ever see her home or people again.
I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently. “You are not alone,” I told her. “You are safe. You do not need to be afraid. I will protect you.” But for how long, I thought? I could not carry her with me forever.
* * *
A short time later, the wind began blowing stronger. Although the evening sky had been clear until now, and lit by the stars and a half moon shining brightly in the sky, to the south, from whence the wind was blowing, the sky was dark.
“A storm is coming,” Hastein muttered.
The Serpent had been sailing abreast of the Gull, a spear throw’s distance off our left side. Hastein pushed on the long handle of the steer-board, and eased the Gull closer to her.
“Torvald!” he called. “A storm is coming.”
“I see it,” Torvald answered. “And I can feel it in my head.”
Torvald had a weather-head. It ached when the weather was about to change, especially when a storm was coming.
The darkness to the south was advancing rapidly toward us. The wind was blowing hard enough now to make the surface of the sea choppy with small waves.
“I am going to shorten the Gull’s sail,” Hastein called again to Torvald. “I do not want to risk a sudden gust tipping her, and swamping us.”
“I will do the same,” Torvald answered.
“If the wind grows too strong, we may have to turn and run before it,” Hastein continued, shouting now to be heard above the rapidly rising wind. “If we become separated, we will look for each other at the mouth of a large gulf on the far shore of the sea. Rurik told me we would have reached it on the morrow on our current course. If we do get blown off course by these winds, they will carry us north of the gulf. The shoreline north of its mouth runs north by west. If you reach such a shore, sail south along it to find the gulf. We will meet on the northern side of its mouth.”
Torvald waved his arm to show he understood.
Hastein turned back toward the deck of the Gull, where the crew had gathered, watching him and awaiting his orders.
“Bryngolf, stay here at the stern with me through the storm, in case I need help with the steer-board. If the sea becomes too rough, we will lash ourselves to the rail. Bjorgolf, go to the mast and be my midship man. I will call my orders to you, to relay to the men. The rest of you: Half sail, now!”
I hurried with most of the crew to midships, where we took positions lined up across the deck, just in front of the mast. Einar stood at my side. Bjorgolf and Gudfred positioned themselves beside the mast and loosened the halyard—the long, heavy rope from which the wooden boom across the top of the sail hung—from its cleat. Keeping the line belayed tight under the cleat, they slowly played it out between their hands, lowering the sail until the first row of reefing lines—short lengths of rope run through small holes in the sail, hanging fore and aft and sown in place, spaced an arm’s length apart all the way across it—came into reach of the waiting crew.
I grabbed the bottom edge of the sail in front of me, bunched it together in my hands, and heaved it up shoulder high while Einar grabbed the two ends of the reefing line flapping back and forth in front of us. He stretched the two lengths of the reefing line around the bundled sailcloth and tied it tight. “Done,” we shouted in unison, and stepped back from the sail. On either side of us, the rest of the crew did the same.
The first drops of rain began to fall. For brief time, they hit in sporadic gusts. Then a solid sheet of rain came racing toward us, like a wall of water blowing across the surface of the sea, and smashed across the Gull, drenching us within moments.
Bjorgolf and Gudfred eased the sail lower again, until the next row of reefing lines came within reach. The two of them were straining now to hold the halyard steady, as the wind blew harder against the sail. Again, we bunched the sail, this time holding it tight against the already reefed roll, tied it tight, and shouted, “Done.”
Hallbjorn joined Bjorgolf and Gudfred on the halyard. Once more, they eased the sail lower, until the third row of reefing lines—those running across the middle of the sail—came into our reach. The bottom edge of the sail was heavy and hard to lift now, with two reefed bundles of sodden sailcloth hanging along its lower edge. I squatted, put my shoulder under the tied rolls, and stood up straight, bunching the loose sailcloth above in place against them, so Einar could loop the two ends of reefing line around the three bundles of sail and tie it tight. On either side of us, the rest of the crew did the same.
“Done,” we shouted, and stepped back from the sail.
Bjorgolf, Gudfred, and Hallbjorn heaved on the halyard, slowly raising the sail back up along the mast. When its bottom edge had been lifted high enough to be well clear of the center oar rack, they wrapped the halyard back and forth around the big cleat on the side of the mast, tying the line off. With the sail in position, the sheets, the lines looped through wooden blocks tied to the two bottom corners of the sail, were pulled tight and secured on their cleats on either side of the ship, back toward the stern.
The Gull was still headed on a course due east, with the sail angled to catch the wind, howling out of the south. Even with the sail shortened by half, the ship was still heeling over hard to her left from the force of the wind pushing sideways against her, the rail along the left side of the hull coming perilously close at times to the surface of the churning sea.
I could see Hastein, standing at the steer-board on the afterdeck, shaking his head. He shouted something, but the wind was howling so loudly now that we who were standing near the mast could not hear him. He raised one arm and gestured for Bjorgolf, who staggered back along the heaving deck until he was close enough to the stern to hear Hastein’s orders. I could see him nodding, then he turned and made his way back to the mast.
“It is too dangerous,” Bjorgolf shouted. “We cannot keep to this course. We cannot sail against this wind. Hastein says we must turn, and run before it. Hallbjorn, come with me. Take the steer-board side.”
Hallbjorn and Bjorgolf staggered back along the deck toward the stern, leaning against the force of the wind and rain. Hallbjorn joined the two men already positioned beside the cleat on the steer-board side where the sheet was secured, while Bjorgolf took up position across the deck with those on the left side. They loosened the ropes from their cleats, three men on each line hauling it tight to keep the sail from pulling loose and flapping, then Bjorgolf waved to Hastein that they were ready.
On the afterdeck, Hastein pushed hard against the handle of the steer-board. Her timbers flexing and groaning against the pounding of the waves, the Gull began to ease toward the north. As she did, Bjorgolf and his men eased out the sheet running through the block on the left corner of the sail, while on the steer-board side, Hallbjorn and the two men with him shortened their line, the two groups working in tandem to turn the sail as the Gull turned, until she was headed on her new course due north, the sail set square across her beam, running in front of the wind that was blowing now from the rear of the racing ship.
The waves, moving in long swells, were also being pushed to the north by the force of the wind. The Gull rose and fell as she surged across the crest of each wave, and dipped into the trough beyond. But she was sailing steady and level, crossing the waves instead of battling them. For now, the danger was past.
Gudfred, no longer needed at the halyard, staggered over to me, tugged at my sleeve, and leaned close to shout in my ear.
“Your woman.” he said. “She does not look well.”
I stared at him blankly.
“What?” I asked.
“Rauna. She is in a bad way.”
In truth, I had completely forgotten about her.
He turned and nodded toward her bundle of packs, under the oar rack aft of the mast. Squinting against the pelting rain, I stepped carefully across the deck. Einar and Gudfred followed me.
Rauna was lying on her side, between her packs, curled in a tight ball. She was soaking wet from the pounding rain. We all were. There is no shelter from the weather on the deck of a longship.
I knelt beside her. Her face was as white as the flesh of a corpse. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was shallow. I grabbed her by the shoulder and shook her gently, but she did not respond. “Rauna!” I shouted above the sounds of the wind and rain, and shook her harder, holding both of her shoulders in my hands this time. Her head flopped back and forth as I did, but her eyes did not open.
I turned and spoke over my shoulder to Einar and Gudfred. “It is the cold. She is too cold.”
Gudfred put a hand on my shoulder. “There is nothing you can do,” he said.
You will not die this night, I thought. I do not know what fate the Norns plan for you, but you will not die this night, if I can help it.
There were four leather bundles around her, under the oar rack. Three were the large packs containing her possessions. The fourth was the tent, made of cured deer-skins, that she and her father had lived in on the pirates’ island.
Putting my hands under Rauna’s arms, I dragged her clear of the bundles, and leaned her against the mast-fish, at the base of the mast.
“Help me,” I shouted to Einar and Gudfred.
Kneeling by the rolled-up tent, I loosened the straps that bound it in a tight bundle. Unrolling it across the deck under the rack, I placed two of Rauna’s packs along one edge, at either corner, to hold it down.
“Einar,” I said. “Fetch my sea-chest.”
He nodded, and staggered off through the pounding rain towards the stern.
Gudfred helped me spread out the flattened tent on the deck.
“We will put the other pack here,” I told him, and dragged it onto the flattened tent, about two ells across from the pack holding down the corner nearest the mast. “And my sea-chest there,” I added, pointing to the corresponding location opposite the second pack. “We’ll pull the rest of the tent back over the tops of the packs and chest. It will provide some shelter underneath from the rain.”
He nodded. Einar returned, carrying my chest in his arms. Gudfred took it from him, and placed it where I had indicated. The three of us pulled the remainder of the flattened tent over the chest and packs, which formed the four corner posts of the crude shelter I was constructing, draped it down over them on all sides, and tucked the edge under the first two packs, to keep it from blowing loose. It was not much, but it was the best I could come up with.
I knelt down beside Rauna and tried to gather her in my arms, but lost my balance and felt onto my side. Einar knelt beside me, and together, we managed to drag her to the edge of the simple shelter, lift the flap of tent hanging down, and push her inside.
“You must warm her,” Einar told me. “If you do not, she will die.”
What he said was true. Merely sheltering Rauna from the rain was not enough, when she was already unconscious from the cold. I crawled into the low shelter beside her, and pulled down the flap of tent behind me. It was pitch black inside. I could see nothing. Crawling over to my sea-chest, I lifted its lid, using my head and shoulders to help raise the folds of heavy leather tent lying across it, and felt through the contents inside until I found my two heavy cloaks—one a cloak of fine but thick gray wool that Sigrid had made for me, and the other the thick, coarse wool cloak I had taken from Tord—one of Toke’s men who had hunted me—after I’d killed him.
Rolling Rauna against the two packs that formed one wall of our simple shelter, I spread out the cloaks across the flattened folds of tent that covered the deck, placing Tord’s coarse cloak over the wet leather, then Sigrid’s cloak on top of it. Once they were in place, I dragged Rauna’s unconscious body onto them.
Rauna’s tunic and trousers, both made of soft, tanned deer-skin, were soaked through. The cold, clammy skins against her body had to come off. Working by feel, I loosened them and, with difficulty, pulled the tunic up over her head and arms, and the trousers down and off of her, thankful that she did not awaken as I did.
She was not even shivering. It was a bad sign. I had to warm her. Stripping my own clothes off, I lay behind her, my body tight against her back, pulled both cloaks over us, and wrapped her in my arms.
The night passed slowly. Under the crude shelter, I could hear no sound except for the drumming of the rain on the folds of leather tent stretched above us. Thankfully, the skins the tent was made of had been rubbed with fat and smoked to make them resistant to rain. So far, they were not leaking.
I drifted in and out of a shallow, fitful sleep. At one point I started awake, and realized that her body was shaking, in waves of shivering, against mine. I thought it a good sign—better than the deathlike stillness before. I pulled her more tightly against me, my arms crossed over her chest, until eventually sleep crept over me again.
Her body jerked in my arms, startling me awake. She was breathing rapidly, a frightened sounding panting, and was obviously conscious. Her body was rigid. I realized she did not know where she was, or who I was.
“Rauna,” I said in a quiet voice, my mouth against her ear so she could hear me over the drumming of the rain. “It is me. Halfdan. You are alright. Do not be afraid.”
“Where are we?” she asked, in a quavering voice.
“I made a shelter on the deck with your tent and your packs. We are underneath it. I had to get you out of the rain.”
“Where are my clothes?”
“They were soaked through. I had to get them off of you.”
“Why are you not wearing clothes?”
“You were unconscious. I could not wake you. I feared you might die from the cold if I could not warm you. I used the warmth of my body against yours, and wrapped us together in my cloaks.” After a few moments, I added. “That is all I did. That is all that happened.”
Her breathing gradually slowed, and I could feel her body relax.
She was silent for a long time, then finally said, in a quiet voice I could barely hear, “Thank you. For warming me.”
Now that she was no longer in immediate danger, now that my thoughts were not focused solely on keeping her alive, the fact of our situation began to feel very awkward. We were both naked, and I had my arms around her.
“Can you raise up a little?” I asked her. “So I can pull my arm free?”
She did, and I did. “I am going to turn over,” I told her, and rolled over—not an easy thing while we were both wrapped tightly together in the two cloaks—until my back was against hers. With the storm still raging, there was nowhere else to go. And though Rauna was no longer dangerously chilled, it was probably better if she still had my warmth against her. “The storm…” I said. “I am going to stay here for now.”
For a long time, sleep would not come to me, but I was finally beginning to drift away when Rauna spoke. “Are you a bad man?”
“What?” I asked, reluctantly struggling back awake. I was certain I must have misheard her.
“Are you a bad man?”
The question made me angry. I had just saved her life. And it was not the first time I had done so.
I turned slightly so I could speak to her over my shoulder. “Why do you ask that?” I snapped.
“I listened to the stories that your captain and your friends told about you. They were all about how skilled you are at killing, and how many men you have killed.”
Thinking back about what Hastein and Einar had told Herigar, I realized that what she said was true.
After a moment, when I said nothing, she continued. “Your people think that is a good thing. My people do not kill each other. How can you kill, and kill, and kill, and not be a bad man?”
I thought her question was unfair, but it made me uncomfortable.
“Your father killed,” I replied. “He killed some of my comrades. Was he a bad man?”
At that, she was quiet for a while. “No,” she finally answered. “My father was a good man.”
“But he did kill,” I insisted. “He killed men he did not know. He killed them to help Sigvald rob them, and their comrades. Though he did that, you say he was not a bad man. Then why do you think I must be?”
Again, she was quiet for a time, while she thought about what I had said.
“My father,” she said, then paused, and sighed. “Before my family traveled to Birka, trying to find help for our people, my father had never killed another. Our people do not do that. The first men he ever killed were the ones who had killed my mother and my brother. They were bad men. My father wanted them to pay with their lives for the evil that they had done. Sigvald helped him find them, and told him to kill them.”
“Do you think it was wrong that he killed those men?”
“No,” she said, and sighed. “No. But it did something to him. He was never the same. And the bargain that he made with Sigvald—that he would serve him for a year, if Sigvald helped him find and kill the bad men—that was a bad thing. Although he never told me about it, I could always tell, whenever he went with Sigvald and his men out upon the sea, and they returned with stolen goods, whether he had had to kill again. He would be ashamed to look me in the eyes. He used to be a man who laughed and smiled often. But he never did again, after we joined Sigvald and his men. Something in his spirit died.
“But you,” she continued. “You have killed many men. If it bothers you, it does not show. I cannot see any sign that it troubles your spirit.”
Now it was I who was quiet for a time, while I pondered her words.
“The first time I killed,” I finally said, “I was with my brother, Harald, and some of his men. We had traveled to see a farm that my father had given to me, before he died. We were attacked there by Toke, the man we hoped to find in Birka, the man who stole my sister Sigrid. Toke and his men intended to kill us all. And they almost succeeded. Only I escaped. I fought then, and killed, trying to stay alive. And after I escaped, Toke sent some of his men to hunt me, to find me and kill me. But they did not succeed. I killed them. Again, I was fighting to stay alive. I felt no shame or regret for any of those killings. They did not trouble me.
“And you—you have killed,” I added. “On Oeland. You killed Serck. Does it trouble you that you did? Do you regret it? Has it killed something in your spirit?”
“No,” she answered, without hesitation. “He would have killed you, and afterwards, me. I had to do it. I did not wish both of us to die. I do not regret killing him at all.”
“It has not troubled you since then that you did?” I pressed.
She thought for a moment, then answered, “No.”
“So are you a bad person because it does not?”
“I do not know,” she said. “Am I?”
“I do not think you are. You are alive because you did what you had to do. And I am alive because I had to kill to save my life.”
“But the stories….You have killed so many men. Were they all trying to kill you? Did you kill them all only to save your own life?”
“No. Not always. On Oeland,” I reminded her, “I killed Osten to save your life. Many times, I have killed to save others.”
But in truth, the answer to her question was not so simple. Because of the Franks. I had killed many Franks. But they only fought us because they were defending their land. We—the Danes—had attacked them. Though the Danes and the Franks had warred in the past, they would not have been my enemies, had we not invaded their land.
“Do you know what war is?” I asked her.
“Sometimes a people will be enemies with another people. When they are, sometimes they will fight each other.”
I sighed. How could someone not know what war was, or not understand why enemies fight?
“My people are the Danes,” I said. “Another people, a very powerful people called the Franks, live to the south of the lands of the Danes. Several times in the past the Franks have made war on the Danes, have attacked us, and have tried to take our lands.”
“Did you fight the Franks when they did?”
“No,” I said. “That happened long ago. But this year, an army—many warriors of the Danes—traveled to the land of the Franks and attacked them. It was war. I was part of that army. I killed Franks in the war.”
“The stories your captain, and your friend Einar, told were about this,” she said.
“You were not killing the Franks to save yourself or others, like you did when you killed the men who hunted you, or Osten.”
“It was war. There were many warriors, Franks and Danes, fighting each other.”
“You went to their lands. That is why the fighting and killing happened, is it not? Did those killings trouble you?”
I did not answer her. In truth, at first, they had. For a long time, my dreams had been haunted by the faces of men I had killed. But after a time, the dreams had stopped. The killing did not trouble me anymore.
We both lay there, in silence in the dark, back-to-back, for a long time. The rain continued to hammer on our crude shelter. The center of the flattened tent that was stretched above us was beginning to sag as water pooled on it. I pushed my hand up against it, and heard the water splash off down the side.
“I am sorry,” I told her.
“For what?” she asked.
“I am sorry that you heard the story of your father’s death. I did not intend that.”
We were both quiet for a long time, lost in our own thoughts. It was Rauna who finally broke the silence.
“My father did not believe you are a bad man. Even though he knew it was you who had killed him. He would not have asked you to find me, if he had. He would have feared for my safety. I do not know how he could know such a thing. But what he saw in you was true. You have protected me, you have saved me, more than once.”
She sighed. “I do not blame you for my father’s death. He was trying to kill you. He did kill some of your comrades. You were only trying to save your own life, and those of your friends.”
I heard her take in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I am going to sleep now,” she said. “I am tired.”
From the sound of her breathing, she was asleep within moments. It took far longer for my thoughts to fade, so sleep could find me.