Mother of Kingsby Poul Anderson
In the tenth century, during the violent end of the Age of the Vikings, Gunhild, the daughter of a Norse Chieftan, is sent/i>
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Blending historical and mythological characters, Science Fiction and Fantasy Grandmaster Poul Anderson has crafted a novel of magic, mystery and the might of ancient nations that rivals Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.
In the tenth century, during the violent end of the Age of the Vikings, Gunhild, the daughter of a Norse Chieftan, is sent away to learn the magic of a pair of shamans. She learns her lessons well, and uses her power to summon her heart's desire: Eirik Blood-Ax. Gunhild's magic is a powerful compliment to Eirik's strength, but is not enough to save him from death at the hands of his vicious rivals. Still, the sons they conceived will each become kings, and Gunhild's own struggles are far from over.
"An unquestionably great work."Kirkus Reviews
"This densely written, fast-paced tale . . . reads more like a grandly told history."Publishers Weekly
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.42(d)
Read an Excerpt
Mother of Kings
By Poul Anderson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Trigonier Trust
All rights reserved.
Wind snarled and skirled. Smoke from the longfire eddied bitter on its way upward, hazing lamps throughout the hall. Shadows flickered. They seemed to bring the carvings on pillars and wainscots to uneasy life. Nightfall came fast at the end of these shortening days. Soon there would be nothing but night.
"Go find the knife before high tide bears it off," Father told Seija. "It's a good blade. I'd hate to lose it."
"I — maybe no can," she said in her broken Norse.
Father grinned. "You can try. Don't you Finns have witch-sight?"
Already his mood was better. He had cuffed the thrall who forgetfully left the tool behind at sunset after having cleaned some fish down by the water. With kicks he had sent the wretch stumbling toward the byre, where bondsmen slept among cows. That cooled his wrath.
"I try," Seija muttered. She could ill say no, a mere woods-runner lately brought to Ulfgard for Father to bed.
Nonetheless, new and strange, she had caught Gunnhild's eager heed. "I'll go too!" the girl cried.
Mother half rose from the high seat she shared with Father. "You will not," she answered. "A child of seven winters? A granddaughter of Rögnvald Jarl, trotting after a Finn? Hush your witlessness."
"I would know better," said brother Eyvind loftily. "Unless, of course, a foe was upon us."
Gunnhild stamped her foot on the clay floor. "I will; I will."
Özur grinned anew, wryly now. "It's not worth a fight, as headstrong as you are," he deemed. "Take a warm cloak and keep dry, or I shall be angry. Yngvar, watch her."
The man nodded and went for his own cloak and a spear. Kraka leaned back with a sigh. She was a haughty one, whose husband mostly let her do what she wanted to, but she had learned not to gainsay him.
The three passed through entryroom and door. Gunnhild stopped on the flagstones. Wind yelled. Astounded, she let go of her woolen mantle. It flapped back like wings. "O-o-oh," she breathed.
The sky was a storm of northlights. They shuddered and billowed, huge frost-cold banners and sails, whiteness streaked with ice blue, flame red, cat's-eye green. Their silence scorned every noise of earth. A few stars glimmered low and lonely southward.
Seija stretched forth an arm from her wrap. Her fingers writhed. Through the wind Gunnhild heard her sing, a high wailing in her unknown tongue.
"What's that?" asked the girl. Chill bit. She gathered her garb close.
"I make safe. Ghosts dance. Many strong ghosts."
Gunnhild had seen northlights before, though none like these. "I heard — Father told us — it's the watchfires of the gods."
"Troll-fires, I think," growled Yngvar. He drew the sign of the Hammer.
Seija stilled her spellcraft and led the way down the path from the hall and its outbuildings. While no moon was aloft, one could see almost clearly. They reached the strand. The woman walked to and fro, hunched, head bent so that the cowl made her faceless, casting about. Maybe she whispered. Tide had washed away the fish guts and scales that would have helped. Only a narrow stretch of cobbles was left, sheening wet. Kelp sprawled in swart heaps and ropes. The wind scattered its sharp smell.
Gunnhild stayed beside Yngvar. Awe rolled over her.
Behind, the bank lifted steeply to where the roof of the hall loomed black, with ridges and crests hoar beyond. On her right the wharf jutted alongside the ship-house, two darknesses. Nighted likewise were the heights across the inlet. Even here, waves ran wild, spume blowing off their manes, stones grinding underneath. They broke a ways off. The water then rushed at the land, poured back with a hollow roar, and came again, farther each time. Peering past this as the wind lashed tears from her eyes, she saw the open fjord gone berserk, outward to the sea. Northlight shimmered and flashed over it.
A thrilling passed through Gunnhild. The mightiness!
Seija halted. She took off her cloak, weighted it with her shoes, raised her skirt, and waded out. The flow dashed halfway to her knees. Spindrift flew, a salt rain. She bent down to grope. After a little, she straightened. Something gleamed in her hand. She went ashore. Drenched, her gown clung to a short, sturdy frame. Running to meet her, Gunnhild saw that she held a bone-hafted knife, surely the knife. "We go home," she said.
Gunnhild stood wondersmitten. Witch-sight indeed? Yet the woman shivered with cold and the night dwarfed her.
A fire-streak lanced into the sea. Gunnhild gasped. She had never beheld a falling star so lightninglike ablaze.
"There Odin cast his spear." Yngvar's voice was not altogether steady. Did he believe what he said? At the end of the world, all the stars will fall from heaven.
Seija sang a stave. What did she think? She made for the path. At the top waited warm earthly fire. Gunnhild lingered till Yngvar urged her along. She wanted to show the Beings who raved abroad that she was not afraid. She would not let herself be afraid.
Spring had come, sunshine that melted snow till streams brawled down mountainsides, hasty rains, skies full of homebound wanderbirds, suddenly greenness everywhere, blossoms, sweet breezes, the promise of long days, light nights, and midsummer, when for a while there would be no night at all. In clear weather the fjord glittered as if Ran's daughters had strewn silver dust.
Over the rim of sight hove three ships. Folk shouted and milled about. Gunnhild sped to an outlook near the garth, half hidden by two pine trees. It was atop the grass-grown barrow of the Forefather, and forbidden, but she didn't think Ulf the Old would be angered. He got his offerings, he had never walked, and thus far he had kept other bogles away from the steading.
What she saw stabbed her with loveliness. Those were nothing like Father's broad-beamed, tarry knarr. Lean hulls flew through the waves, twenty or more pairs of oars driving each. Stems and sterns swept upward like swans' necks or snakes about to strike. The hues of the paint might have been stolen from the rainbow, but gleamed more bright. Sunbeams flared off helmets and spearheads. She thought giddily that they beckoned to her.
Two masts lay in their brackets, for the wind was low. The one on the leader was standing, though sailless, to bear a white shield. As the craft drew closer Gunnhild spied a dragon head on the little foredeck, dismounted. She had heard that these were tokens of peace.
Even so, Father called on his men to take arms and follow him to the strand. They were the half score who had work around here today. Others who would have rallied were elsewhere, fishing, sealing, or readying their farms for the season. Tough warriors at need, they could not hold off the strangers; but while they died, the women, children, and lesser housefolk could flee into the woods.
The first crew neared the wharf, backed water, and lay still. Hails passed between ship and shore. The Ulfgard men lowered their spears. The sailors hung their shields on the bulwarks, another heartcatching sight.
Gunnhild should have been in the hall. She scampered to the path and down with the fleetness that ten winters had given her.
The ship was pulled alongside the wharf and made fast, taking up nearly all the room. The rest grounded. From the first sprang a man, to clasp hands with Father. Gunnhild gasped. Never had she seen his like.
He was young, tall, broad-shouldered, lithe. His face was sharply cut on a long, narrow head, eyes a bleached and whetted blue, hair and close-cropped beard golden against fair skin that sea-light had washed with bronze. He must have changed clothes aboard, for his tunic was richly embroidered and trimmed with marten, the breeks green worsted, the shoes white kid. A sword hung at his left shoulder. He would have no use of it today, Gunnhild thought, but his weapons would always be near him.
"Greetings, Özur Thorsteinsson." His voice rang. "I've often heard of you, and looked forward to this day."
"And I know of you, Eirik Haraldsson," said Father. "Welcome. I've hoped you'd call on us." To his men crowding around: "Here we have a son of King Harald Fairhair."
They gaped and mumbled. Gunnhild wondered how much of Father's speech was shrewd guesswork. Trading afar, he must have heard many things and learned how to put them together.
One would not think him wily, from his looks. He was big, burly, beginning to grow a potbelly. His face was blunt and red, the full black beard oddly spotted with ruddiness. Under his hastily donned coat of mail and its padding were the soiled garments of work. But he dealt ably in his cargoes of pelts, walrus and narwhal tusk, walrus-hide rope; his coin-hoard swelled further each time he came back from the southern markets. Although at home he went whaling or hunting across the highlands both summer and winter, he also oversaw the farm, gave judgments between men that they agreed were good law, and sometimes cast runes.
"No other lord would likely guest in the high North," he went on, "but now that your father's set you over Haalogaland, you'd want to see more of it. Had you sent word ahead, a feast would be waiting."
Eirik grinned. "As was, you busked yourself for an onslaught?"
"Well, one is never quite sure."
"You need not have feared. It's been years since my father quelled the last Norse who raided in Norway, together with those dwelling in the Western Islands."
Özur bristled the least bit. "I was not afraid."
"No, no," Eirik said quickly. "I did not mean that. All know you're a bold man."
"Belike you know as well that I often went in viking myself when I was younger." Each slow word fell like a hammer driving a nail. "These years I mostly sail in trade down to the Thraandlaw, but now and then farther."
Eirik nodded. "Yes, I said I've heard much about you, a great seafarer, landholder, and hersir." Thus he acknowledged Özur as a chieftain born to the rank.
"You understand, then, that your father's grip on these parts is as yet loose. I speak not to dishonor, only frankly. We must look to ourselves. That's why we took a stand, till we were sure of who you were."
Eirik eased. Nothing untoward had been uttered on either side. However, he still talked as warily as a man walks on thin ice. "We're bound past North Cape to the White Sea. There we'll raid the Bjarmalanders or maybe trade with them now and then. But I wanted to meet with you, ask about things, and of course show you friendship, my own and the king's."
Özur laughed. "Good! But I'm a shabby host, to keep you at the dock. Come." He took Eirik's arm. "We'll do what we can for you today. By tomorrow there should be quarters ashore for all your crews, and a feast that goes on for as many days as you wish to stay."
Gunnhild could almost hear his whirring thoughts. His workers would furnish booths, clear outbuildings, and spread clean straw, for the sleeping of those men who overflowed from the hall. Besides slaughtering beasts and breaking out dried and salted food, he'd send to farms around the neighborhood for swine and kine. Enough ale should be on hand. Harvests were skimpy, some barley and oats but mostly hay for the livestock. Folk lived off their herds, the woods, and the sea. However, Özur always kept full casks.
The Ulfgard men mingled with the newcomers, who had now swarmed off their ships. Talk buzzed. They spoke their words more softly in the South,Gunnhild heard while her heart pounded. And so many of them, bursting in on the same old faces as sunlight bursts through a leaden overcast!
Father and Eirik Kingsson started up the path. The rest straggled behind, busily chattering. She went along offside, over rocks and tussocks. It was seemly for a goat, not for a wellborn girl. Father frowned at her, then shrugged. His mouth bent a bit upward. Of his children by Mother, those who had lived, he was sterner with her brothers than with her. It was Mother who kept telling Gunnhild what she must and must not do.
About his by-blows she knew little, nor cared. Most had belike died small, as most small children did. The others had gone into the household or Finn-tribe of whoever wed their mothers: each of them a pair of hands for the work of staying alive.
The path opened onto the garth, which filled its patch of level ground. Earth lay muddy, churned, puddles ruffled by the slight wind, but flagstones made walkways. Near the byre, a dungheap steamed into air that woodsmoke likewise touched. The buildings formed a square, linked by wattle fencing: barn, stalls, sheds, workshop, bathhouse, made of turf with a few timbers. Two wagons waited, one for muck, one for everything else. Winter had dwindled the stacks of firewood and hay. Behind were pens for cattle, sheep, pigs, and reindeer, when they were not out foraging. Ducks, geese, and chickens strayed free.
The hall lay on the south side. Its walls were of upright split logs, rounded outward, painted black under red runes and beasts that warded off night-gangers. A few windows, covered with thin-scraped gut, let in some daylight when their shutters, on the inside, stood open. The hogbacked roof was sod, newly green with moss and sprouting grass, bolstered by slanting baulks. Smoke blew tattered from holes at the ridge.
Women, children, hirelings, thralls bustled about, in upheaval at this guesting. Hounds barked and bayed. A flight of crows took to their swart wings, harshly jeering. Behind rose birchwood, and the hillsides, where scrub and dwarf willow struggled amidst lichenous boulders, and the mountains. Cloud-fluff drifted white through a boundless blue. Down below sheened the fjord.
Gunnhild wriggled through the crowd, close behind Father and Eirik. Mother met them at the front door. Seeing that there was no threat, she had donned good clothes, if not her best — pleated linen gown; panels fore and aft, caught by a silver brooch at either shoulder; amber beads between them; a headcloth over the heavy coils of her hair, which had been the hue of the amber until gray crept in. The keys of the household clinked at her belt. She was a comely woman, tall and well shaped, with a straightforward blue gaze. Lately, though, she was losing weight, and a flush mottled the jutting cheekbones.
"Greeting, Eirik Haraldsson," she said aloofly. Word had sped beforehand on the feet of a boy. "I hight Kraka, wife to Özur, and make you welcome of our house." She beckoned. "These be our sons." Yellow-haired Aalf and red-haired, freckled Eyvind trod gawkily forth, said what they could, and withdrew to stare.
Kraka barely glanced at Gunnhild. Wrath rushed hot and cold through the girl. Yes, she had been unladylike, but was she to be nameless before the king's shining son?
She swallowed it. One way or another, she would make herself known to him.
"I have heard of you, lady," Eirik was saying. "You are a daughter of Rögnvald Eysteinsson, who was the jarl of North Moerr and headman over Raumsdalr, are you not?"
"I am." Her answer sounded stiff. Her mother had been a leman her father had for a while — of good yeoman stock, but when Özur Dapplebeard came and asked for the maiden's hand, the jarl must have reckoned that this was as well as he could do. Not that it was a bad thought, making ties with a hersir in the North.
She coughed. Gunnhild heard how she gulped rather than spat.
Eirik gave her his steely smile. "Ever was your father a staunch friend of mine," he said, "and for this he had honor and gain."
Kraka nodded grudgingly. "Yes, that is true."
Eirik went straight ahead. "It's also true that my father outlawed Rögnvald's son Walking Hrolf for a strand-hewing in Norway. But everybody has heard how well Hrolf did for himself in the West.
"And it's true that two of my half-brothers burned your father. But one is since dead, and my father King Harald sent the other away. He made your brother Thorir jarl of Moerr and gave him his own daughter Aalof to wife."
Then Kraka smiled too. She knew this well, but for Eirik to set it forth before her household was to offer goodwill and respect. It meant still more coming from one with a name for being grim and toplofty. Of course, he'd have it in mind that a jarl ranked second only to a king. "Let me bring you your first horn of mead, before I try to make your first meal among us worthy of you," she said.
Gunnhild did not slip free of helping with that. But throughout the work she looked, listened, and thought. The thinking went on that night and the next day and afterward.
Eirik's crews were a lusty, noisy lot. She heard many boasts from them, not only about themselves but him. He was twelve winters old when his father let him go in viking. He, the king's most beloved son, had ranged over the Baltic, the North, the Irish, and the White Seas, to Wendland, Denmark, Friesland, Saxland, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Finnmörk, Bjarmalandsometimes trading, oftener fighting, looting, burning, bringing home rich booty of goods, with captives for sale. Gunnhild recalled tales her own father had told of his own raidings. They paled beside these. Her heart beat high.
Meanwhile thralls shambled past on their lowly tasks, broken men, unkempt women soon used up. Özur was no more harsh with them than needful, but they got somewhat less kindness from him than his horses did. A few times at the midwinter offerings, when the year had been bad, he had given Odin one that was no longer strong, hanged on a tree at the halidom. Free workers, taken in from poor homes that could not keep them, were a little better off. And Özur did rather well by his foremen, and in a gruff way by those he called his tame Finns, whose skills furthered his hunting, whaling, and sealing. But their lives were so meager, as were the lives of all crofters, smallholders, and fishers — huddled in sod huts, breaking their hands in toil on gaunt fields or on the oars of boats that often never came back. Always they went in dread of hunger, storm, sickness; and Father himself had wondered today if vikings were upon him.
Excerpted from Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson. Copyright © 2001 Trigonier Trust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
The bestselling author of such classic novels as Brain Wave and The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson won just about every award the science fiction and fantasy field has to offer. He has won multiple Hugos and Nebulas, the John W. Campbell Award, The Locus Poll Award, the Skylark Award, and the SFWA Grandmaster Award for Lifetime Achievement. His recent books include Harvest of Stars, The Stars are also On Fire, Operation Chaos, Operation Luna, Genesis, Mother of Kings, and Going for Infinity, a collection and retrospective of his life's work. Poul Anderson lived in Orinda, California where he passed away in 2001.
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