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796—on Norway's border with Sweden
T hor's Hammer, Uncle Ivar, you were right! They are waiting for us. Sitting there. Bold as you like!'
Ivar Gunnarson, jaarl of Viken, glanced towards where his nephew pointed. In the shadow of a rocky island Ranriken dragon boats lurked. Ivar tightened his grip on the steering oar, moving the oar fractionally to the right, and the Sea Witch responded instantly to his command.
'The Ranrike honour us. Five boats against a single boat. It will make for an interesting race.'
All movement had stopped on the boat and the men had turned towards Ivar, their expressions a mixture of fear mingled with anticipation as their calloused hands lightly rested on the oars. Ivar knew he would prove worthy of their trust. He would see them safely home. Ivar put his trust in things—the strength of his sword arm, the tautness of his sail, the trueness of his aim—rather than the mumblings of priests or the wearing of amulets. Deeds, not words.
'But, Uncle Ivar,'Asger said, 'why are they waiting for us now? Why didn't they attack us when we were going out to Birka?'
'They were no danger to us on the way out to Birka, young Asger. Listen to your uncle,' Erik the Black shouted from where he sat. 'The Ranriken king wanted us to do the hard work. He desires the spices and silks we are bringing home to Viken, but fears the open sea. Your uncle predicted this for months before the voyage began. Despite all those who proclaimed a supernatural cause for our boats not returning, your uncle said there was another cause. Trust him. He knows the sea and its ways.'
Other oarsmen echoed Erik's words and Asger's worried frowndisappeared.
'And now the race with the Ranrike begins.' Ivar adjusted his grip on the handle of the steering oar as he considered the silks, amber and other precious cargo that filled his hold. More than a king's ransom if he could make it to the markets of Kaupang. 'Here is where you learn what it is to be a true Viken warrior and a member of thefelag, Asger.'
'How can we hope to succeed against the boats and the storm?' Asger wiped his hand across his mouth, his face becoming pinched as he glanced towards the clouds skittering across the sky.
'We go forward, outrun them. The Sea Witch is the fastest of the Viken ships under sail. She will do anything I ask her.'
Anything? Even with those storm crows hanging in the air?' Asger asked, pointing to the gigantic flock of black-winged birds beginning to circle the boat. 'You know what they say about them and this passage. The crows are Ran's messengers, telling her where to cast her net for men's souls, Uncle Ivar.'
'Crows are birds. They enjoy the wind. It gives them a chance to spread their wings,' Ivar said.
'Oh, I had not thought about them enjoying the wind.'
Ivar concentrated on the waves hitting the boat. Some day when the time for voyages had ended and he could again think about getting a wife, he would like to have a child like Asger. In time, the lad would make an able warrior.
The wind stirred the sea into a froth of white-capped waves and the sound of the crows screamed in his ears. Ivar kept his hand steady on the steering oar. The Sea Witch could hold her own in any contest with the weather. The keel and the rigging had been made to his design; if they held throughout the voyage to Northumbria two years ago, they would hold now.
'Erik the Black, did you put new rope on the right rigging?'
The seafarer looked up from where he sat at his oar and scratched the side of his nose. 'I did. Exactly how you instructed, Ivar.'
'The Ranrike expect us to make for the nearest inlet. Once there, all they have to do is wait and lurk, putting the stopper in the jug and stealing all our hard-won cargo.' Ivar paused, allowing the men to absorb his words. Then he raised his fist. 'I refuse to have that happen. We will outrun this storm and their boats. We will make it back to Kaupang.'
'Put the sails to the test!' the crew cried.
'You read my mind.' Ivar leant forwards as the wind whipped his dark blonde hair. With impatient fingers, he pushed it back from his face. 'Erik the Black has said he followed my instructions. The rigging will hold. We raise the sail on my command.'
The Ranrike began their move, gliding forwards. The shouts of the oarsmen echoed across the strait. Within a few breaths, the only avenue of escape would close, but the timing had to be precise. The Ranrike could not be allowed a chance to regroup.
'The mast creaks in the wind, Ivar!' Erik the Black shouted. 'We need to lower the sail soon or risk breaking it.'
'Keep those ropes taut!' Ivar eyed the storm clouds in the sky as the Sea Witch strained against his steering oar, ready to fly over the waves to safety. 'And I want double-quick time when the sail comes down.'
'At your command.'
The entire crew's eyes were on him, hands poised on oars, trusting him and his judgement. He held up his hand, waiting as the water slapped against the side of the boat, enjoying the heady feeling of pitting his wits against the world. The storm crows wheeled around the ship one more time. 'Now!'
The chequered red-and-white sail unfurled, hung for a heartbeat flapping in the wind as the men struggled with the ropes. The shouts from the other boats drowned out the cawing of the crows. Ivar saw the swords glinting, held aloft, poised to strike. One Ranriken boat began to lower its boarding plank, anticipating the moment. Ivar reached forwards, grabbed the end of the rope and tightened it with a few expert twists.
The sail filled and strained against the ropes. The Sea Witch picked up speed, sliding between the two lead Ranrike boats close enough for Ivar to see the astonished expression on the men's faces as their prey escaped. Ivar saluted the chief Ranrike jaarl, Sigmund Sigmundson, a man who bowed and scraped when they had appeared before King Mysing, the Ranriken king on their way to Birka. Men, not curses, guarded these straits. And men could be defeated.
Ivar turned his face into the wind. All he had to do was steer the boat towards Kaupang and Viken. The coming storm would test him and the men, but they would succeed because of the strength of the keel, the sturdiness of the sail and, above all, the skill with which he navigated.
'Ivar,' Erik the Black shouted, 'one of the Ranrike boats. It is giving chase.'
A wave washed over the prow of the boat, soaking him and his men to the skin. 'The fun truly begins!' Ivar called. 'May the best boat win!'
Thyre, Sainsfrida's daughter, picked her way amongst the sticks and boards that littered the shore of the hidden Ranriken bay, which was exactly halfway between the Ranriken capital city of Ranhiem and the Viken city of Kaupang.
She lifted the skirt of her apron dress so that it remained free of the seaweed and watery pools. The devastation from last night's storm was far greater than she had first thought.
'At least one ship perished in the storm, Dagmar, maybe more. This wood came from somewhere.'
'Do you think so? I thought the gods just made it appear,' her half-sister said, her pretty face frowning. She stood just beyond the high-tide mark, keeping her elaborately pleated apron dress pristine. 'I wish my Sven was here. He would use the wood to build us a proper house. And he would know exactly which ship they had come from as well. He is like that, Sven. Useful. Knowledgeable. My father should have valued his opinion more and then Sven might have stayed, instead of going off to the high pastures to see about felling the king's trees.'
Thyre carefully composed her features. Dagmar had been infatuated with Sven ever since she had first laid eyes on him earlier this summer. The bold forester had captured her half-sister's heart with his ready wit, dancing eyes and dazzling smile, despite his lack of money and status. For once, Dagmar had ignored Thyre's hints and warnings about how a jaarl's daughter would never be allowed to marry a forester and had kept on finding excuses to meet him. But Thyre knew her stepfather, Ragnfast the Steadfast, had plans for his only child, plans that did not include marrying her off to a man who had few prospects beyond caring for the king's trees.
'Your father might think differently. After all, the ships have washed up on his land.'
'Far will give my Sven the lumber, once Sven asks for my hand in marriage.' Dagmar shook her ash-blonde locks, which were a complete contrast to Thyre's own black-as-night hair. Her daytime and night-time daughters, their mother used to say. 'He will have to. A married woman needs her own hall. And it makes perfect sense to use this wood.'
Thyre raised an eyebrow. She could think of a dozen better uses for the wood than saving it for some dream hall. 'Sven might wish to choose his own wood. There is a certain something about felling trees of your choosing to make a hall.'
'Hmm, perhaps you are right…' Dagmar tapped her finger against her overly generous mouth. 'Far will keep it for his own use. He never listens to Sven's ideas about how the farm could be improved.'
Thyre made a show of brushing sand from the piece of wood. She had already heard several of Sven's ideas for improvement and had thought little of them. Thankfully, just as Ragnfast had heeded her mother's counsel until her mother's death eight years ago, Ragnfast always consulted her and followed her advice. And the estate prospered.
'I know what your father is like.' Thyre gave a laugh. 'He will think the timber a gift from the gods. The lower barn has a gaping hole in its roof. It needs to be fixed before the cows come back from pasture. Your father made the appropriate sacrifice for this only last week and will not want to go against the gods' generous response.'
'Do you know where the ships have come from?' Dagmar asked, prodding a piece of timber with a delicate foot. 'Is it one of ours…a Ranrike? You know I can't read runes. The scratching jumps about so and never seems to mean the same thing.'
'If you would pay attention, Dagmar, you could learn. I did. Mother tried to teach you before she died, and I have offered to continue her teaching.'
Dagmar batted her lashes. 'I would rather be spinning or weaving. There is something so satisfying about creating cloth.'
'But the daughter of a princess should know how to read runes.' Thyre pointed to the markings on the board. Some day, she would win the argument and Dagmar would learn to read. 'See, this bit says Ran and the other bit says hammer. You can do it if you try.'
Dagmar shook her head. 'It is all far too boring and the runes jump about so. Besides, I will have my older sister to read the runes for me. You will always be here on the steading. I do not know how Far would manage without you and your advice.'
'Yes, you are right. I have no plans to go anywhere.' Thyre gave a tight smile. Dagmar might have dreams of marrying her Sven, but Thyre also had dreams of her own. Some day she hoped to meet a man worthy of her love— one who would respect her counsel as well as love her, one who would want her for herself rather than anything she could bring to the marriage. 'If you ever change your mind, I will be happy to teach you.'
Sometimes Thyre walked out to the headland and looked out at the strait, wondering what lay beyond. It was not as if she hated her life here, but she did wonder what else there might be. Ragnfast and her mother had promised to take her to the Ranrike capital when she was grown. But her mother had died during the winter of her eighth year and Ragnfast had been loathe to leave the farm unattended.
'Who does the ship belong to, Thyre? You must know from the runes.'
Thyre forced her mind back from the horizon and concentrated.
'It is one of ours, a Ranriken, but it has not been in the water long. The etchings are too fresh. The shipwreck must have happened last night during the storm.' Thyre tapped a finger against her lips as a thousand unanswered questions crowded into her brain. Why had the ship been out on the strait? It was most likely one of Sigmund Sigmundson's. The jaarl had promised to protect the seas from marauding Viken intent on plundering Ranrike. Had they perished, keeping this bay safe? 'We need to inform Ragnfast immediately.'
Dagmar nodded, accepting Thyre's verdict. 'That is unusual. Normally our ships are all safely at harbour when the storm breaks. The Ranrike understand the enormity of Ran's wrath. How very foolish of the captain. If my Svenhad been there, he would have told the captain to stay in his bay.'
'It happens.' Thyre put the board down. 'Ran will have had her net out and will have collected the drowned men.'
'Drowned men? Dead men!' Dagmar screwed her face up and Thyre winced. 'I had not thought of the dead.'
'I had, and somewhere wives and children will be waiting.'
'We should go back and tell Far now. He will want to gather the wood and dispose of the bodies.' Dagmar's nose wrinkled and she lifted the hem of her skirt, carefully stepping around the piles of seaweed and smashed boards. 'It is a pity there is no cargo. I could have done with a new dress.'
'Always the practical one, Dagmar.' Thyre shook her head in dismay. Dagmar never seemed to consider the future beyond its impact on her, whereas Thyre found herself always asking questions and pondering the reasons why a thing happened.
Dagmar clutched Thyre's arm, preventing her from going further along the shore. 'There is a ship on the horizon. Is it one of ours?'
Thyre shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun, impatiently pushing a lock of crow's wing black hair back from her eyes. She should know the answer without even seeing the ship's prow. 'The sail is unusual. Chequered, red and white. Viken, not Ranriken.'
'How many are there? Is it a raid?' Dagmar's voice dropped to a soft whisper as if she feared the unknown boat might hear them. 'Do we light the beacon?'