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We were seventy-one warriors and as odd a crew as ever plowed the whale’s road. Norse, Dane, and English—men who would normally face each other from behind the shieldwall—sat beside each other on sea chests, shared deck space beneath the stars, and pulled the spruce oars together so that they beat like eagles’ wings, our bows slicing the sea. We even had a monk and a woman thrown in for good measure, though a monk aboard a longship is about as useful as a hole in a shield. Even so, Father Egfrith was a good man for all his fool’s hope of sluicing the old gods from our black souls. As for the woman, she was Cynethryth, beautiful Cynethryth, and that was enough.
For seven weeks Jörmungand, Serpent’s dragon prow, had forged into the unknown, following the Frankish coast. Then, after a long passage south, we had sailed the Dark Sea west, along the margin of a barren, rockbound land from which jagged, treeless, boulder-strewn mountains surged into the sky. That desolate shoreline was cut with rocky beaches, most of which were trapped by steep cliffs that plunged into the white-tossed breakers, and we had rarely made landfall for fear of tearing open our hulls.
Now we were plowing south again. On our steerboard side the black water stretched away to the west as far as the eye could see, and who knew what lay that way? But we were staying as close to land as we dared, for we had escaped the wrath of an empire and were lucky to still have the skins on our backs and the blood in our veins. Three other dragons followed in our wake: Sigurd’s second ship, Fjord-Elk, and the two remaining Dane ships, sleek fast snekkjas named Wave-Steed and Sea-Arrow. We had escaped the Franks, and so we had escaped death, but in doing so we had lost our silver hoard, which had glittered and shone so brightly that perhaps the gods in Asgard had grown envious and decided to piss on our glory. I have learned that that is the gods’ way. They are capricious and cruel, inspiriting you to deeds worthy of a skald song and then knocking you onto your arse for all to see. Perhaps they have no love for us at all but merely watch the weave and weft of our small lives—cutting or braiding a thread once in a while—to help pass the great eternity of their own. The gods may not love us, but they do love chaos. And where there is chaos, there are warriors and swords, spears and shields. There is blood and pain and death.
And now we were sailing south to Miklagard, the Great City, because although we had lost our Fáfnir’s hoard, we were warriors still and they said that in Miklagard the buildings were made of gold. Besides which, we lusted for an even greater prize. I could see that hunger in men’s eyes, reflected in the luster of their well-polished war gear: helms, shield bosses, and ax heads. That prize is fame. It is the meat of the skald’s song, which men and women feast on around the hearth while the wind batters the hall door. It is the one prize that can never be lost or stolen or burned.
And we would find fame in Miklagard.
“It’s no way to go,” Penda said with a slight shake of his head. The sail was up and bellying, taking advantage of a decent following wind, and most of us had thrown furs around our shoulders because that wind had fingers of ice in it and we were not rowing. “It must hurt like the Devil’s own fire,” the Wessexman muttered through a grimace.
“There’s no hope, then?” I asked, knowing the answer but asking anyway.
“There might have been,” Penda said, “if they’d opened it up again and washed the muck away in time. Now . . . ?” He shook his head again. “Poor bastard’s got a few days, perhaps. Hard days, too.”
Halldor was standing at Serpent’s prow, looking out rather than in, which I suspected was because he felt ashamed. A Frankish spear had sliced off half of his face, and although our godi, Asgot, had stitched it together, the wound rot had come, and now the Norseman’s face was puffed up like a skin full of bad milk so that you couldn’t even see his right eye. Reeking yellow pus oozed through the stitches, which seemed about to rip apart at any moment, and I could not imagine the pain of it. The previous day I had noticed a green tinge to the angry stretched skin. We all knew Halldor was a dead man.
“I wouldn’t wait much longer if it was me,” Penda said, drawing his knife from its sheath and testing the edge against his thumbnail. “There’s always a length of rope and a rock,” he suggested matter-of-factly, pointing his knife at Serpent’s ballast.
“And shiver in Hel until Ragnarök?” I shook my head. “No Norseman would choose drowning,” I said, shivering at the thought. For a drowned man there is no Valhöll, just ice and the stiff black corpses of those who have died of old age or sickness. And there is a giant dog called Garm who will gnaw on your frozen bones to get to the marrow. “Black Floki will do it,” I said. “When the time comes.” A whining gust whipped cold spray across the deck and hit the sail’s leeward side, making it snap angrily.
“Sooner rather than later, then,” Penda gnarred, sheathing his blade with a satisfied nod. At sea you have to be careful not to oversharpen your blades for want of something to do.
“I think he’s gathering memories to take with him,” I said, taking a lungful of the cold sea air that was ever sweetened by the pitch-soaked twisted horsehair stuffed between Serpent’s strakes. “Wherever he is going, he’ll want to remember what it felt like to ride the whale’s road,” I said, watching Halldor put a mead skin to the grimace that was his mouth to dull the pain.
“Have you finished your deep thinking yet, lad?” Bram the Bear growled, galumphing over to Serpent’s side, where he pulled down his breeks and began pissing over the sheer strake. “I want to know how you’re going to pay me what you owe, you son of a goat. And I’m not the only one.”
I sighed, knowing this was one matter that would keep coming back to me, like waves returning to the shore. For I had cast our silver adrift to tempt the Franks, and they had chosen to scoop up that treasure rather than pursue us, which was just as well because they had outnumbered us five to one and we were as exhausted as a Norseman in a nunnery.
“It’s you who owes me, Bear,” I said, “for saving that hairy hide of yours. It would be nailed to some Frank’s door if not for me.”
“Pah!” He batted my words away like gnats. “It would take more than a few farting Franks to finish me, boy.” Then he nodded toward Halldor and tugged his beard thoughtfully, his piss scattering downwind. “If he’d have kept his shield up . . . or his head down, he wouldn’t be packing his sea chest for the dark journey.” He shuddered, pulled up his breeks, and turned, pointing a thick finger at me. “No, you owe me, Raven, and I don’t like being silver-light.” I saw that Penda was grinning, meaning that he was beginning to piece together scraps of Norse, which would save me having to translate everything for him.
“What do you need silver for, Bear?” I asked. “You can’t drink silver. And I can’t see many taverns around here to spend it in.” I scratched my chin and frowned. “I am wondering if you will even make it all the way to Miklagard, seeing as you are already older than the stars and the Great City is still far away.” Some of the Norsemen chuckled at that, but Bram glowered at me like a man dragged from his death barrow.
“Wind in that tongue of yours, whelp,” he rumbled, “or Bram’ll trim it down to size for you.” He patted the knife sheathed at his waist. “Older than the stars? You mouthy runt! Hey, Svein, can you hear this?”
“Raven has hit the rivet square, Bram,” Svein said, studying his friend with a frown. “You are looking old these days.”
“Son of a she troll!” Bram rumbled. “I’m going to shit in your beard when you’re asleep tonight, Red,” he threatened, at which Svein grinned. “As for you, runt,” he warned me, “you’ll be lucky to reach next summer if you don’t learn to respect your betters.” His beard bristled in the gathering wind. “Just remember the silver you owe us, Raven,” he called out, stirring a few “aye”s and disgruntled murmurs, his eyes glinting. “No man likes to be silver-light.” Even Svein nodded agreement with that.
And I sighed again.
But before long we were poking fun at Yrsa Pig-Nose for the great red boil that had bloomed on the side of his snout, and after Yrsa it was the Wessexman Baldred’s turn to endure a good tongue-lashing because he had the shits and had grabbed the nearest bucket, which had happened to be one of our freshwater pails.
We were chaffing because we were nervous. Even I had been at sea long enough to smell a storm in the air, and this one was coming our way, its fingers already grasping at us. I had seen it first as swaths of dark rippling water contrasting against a lighter blue where current and wind fought over the direction in which the waves should move. Then the wind had whipped flecks of spume from those waves, and Serpent’s bowline had begun to swing and the reefing ropes began beating the sail. Now we were talking too much, trying to make out that it was nothing more than a sniff of a breeze that would sputter itself out before long, when the truth was we were afraid. I think the only man aboard who was not afraid was Halldor, because he was already a dead man, but then again, not even Halldor wanted a drowning death.