The warriors of Lidsmod’s village live for war. When the waters thaw, they set their ships upon the waves, ranging up and down the coasts of Scandinavia in search of loot and throats to cut. In this culture built on violence, songs are sung of bloody battles and fallen warriors are rewarded with a lifetime in Valhalla. Today, Lidsmod will join the fray. In the newly built Raven, he will sail across the seas in search of a palace of gold rumored to sit near the English coast. He yearns for glory, but he will find something far more surprising.
The golden palace is an abbey, home to English monks who strive to keep the torch of knowledge burning during the Dark Ages. There, a 13-year-old boy named Wiglaf learns the art of healing, unaware that death is approaching aboard a Viking ship.
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About the Author
Michael Cadnum lives in Albany, California, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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Raven of the Waves
By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
The fjord was calm, the high cliffs and the ships' prows mirrored in the blue.
Lidsmod turned back to Gunnar, trying to hide his disappointment.
Gunnar smiled sympathetically and put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "You know how much we would like you to sail with us," he said.
At seventeen Lidsmod was old enough to take an oar in a warship. But the voyage was fully manned, and Gunnar had refused permission to older and more experienced shipmates than Lidsmod.
"Come on, you two," Opir cried from the distance. "You'll be late!"
Gunnar waved but stayed where he was.
Lidsmod straightened his back and looked the tall, tanned Gunnar in the eye. "I understand, Gunnar," he managed to say. He added the old blessing, "May the gods blind every foe."
Gunnar smiled. "I would be grateful to have the son of Fastivi in my ship, especially on a fighting voyage like this."
"We'll be late for the horse fight," said Lidsmod.
"It was a bad idea to have a horse fight the day before our three ships sail," sighed Gunnar. "But no one can tell these men what to do."
Like all the other villagers of Spjothof, Lidsmod was very curious whether Gorm's stallion would be able to finish this fight as quickly as he had the other two that spring. Gorm's horse was right out of Odin's heart if there ever were such a beast. The other men had been gleeful with excitement. There had not been such a day in years — three ships taking to sea to find gold, and a horse fight and an ale feast to wish them well.
But Lidsmod stayed a few moments longer beside the new ship Raven, her keel scar on sand down to where she rode the still water, the chests packed, the mast seated on its supports. The pine oars gave off a subtle perfume so fine that Lidsmod wanted to lie down in the ship and stare up at the sky.
He loved this ship, as the other men loved theirs, bold Crane — its handsome bird's head just repainted, and the famous sea-blackened Landwaster farther along — the ship that once had taken the heads of five hundred Danes. To have such a famous ship on a journey was enough to make the sword bright, but Lidsmod admired Raven, this newest, keenest ship he had watched Njord hew from tall, white-fleshed trees.
Njord the shipwright strode across the beach, years of wood tar on his stiff leather apron. "You two don't want to see the fight?"
"I wouldn't miss it," said Gunnar sardonically.
"I prefer ships to horses too," said Njord, and the two men laughed.
Njord nodded at Lidsmod, offering a sympathetic smile.
I must learn to hide my thoughts, thought Lidsmod. Fighting men show no feelings.
"I know you don't want trouble," Njord said. His hair was white, like the wing of a tern, his face wrinkled. "Men bet silver, lose, and carry the hard feelings for a long time, even on a voyage to great fortune."
From far off came the excited, lustful whistle of the mare, and the answering nicker of one of the stallions.
The entire village of Spjothof was gathered. The little farming village at the end of the fjord had stopped everything to celebrate the most exciting day since Landwaster had returned with Danish gold five summers before.
Lidsmod took his place among the crowd, and he was not sorry he was here. These were his friends, men and women he had known all his life. Lidsmod's mother, Fastivi, had a place of honor at the front of the crowd, her golden hair touched with gray. Lidsmod joined her, the crowd settling around them, clapping and calling excitedly.
Everyone in the village knew how Fastivi had discovered a bear over the torn body of her husband, when Lidsmod was a few months old. Wearing her infant son lashed to her back, safely swaddled, she had seized her husband's spear and killed the beast with one thrust, through hide and heart. Some villagers believed that it had not been a bear at all, but an apparition — Odin in disguise to test the courage of this beautiful woman.
The mare was tethered, jerking the walrus-hide rope. Her eyes were wild, and she danced, fighting to break what held her because she could smell the stallions.
The villagers' cheeks were berry bright and the sunlight was warm for the first time in many months. Everyone stood next to a friend or behind a companion he could clap on a shoulder. Opir hooted and laughed, the sound enough to make any man or woman laugh in turn.
Only Torsten stood alone, arms folded. He watched the fighting pit with hard gray eyes. He watched the crowd. He eyed the women. There was always a space around Torsten — he wore a sword even now. No man spoke to Torsten, and Torsten rarely spoke.
Gorm pulled Ice Lightning into the fighting pit and loosed both the hood and the rope. The horse ran as if in the far pasture, and then it scented the mare, safe behind the fence of pine spears. Gorm lifted his staff, his neighbors cheering. Ice Lightning tossed, fought the air, kicked at the sun. The frisky stallion was still shaggy with winter, and when he kicked, drifts of gray hair came free and glittered in the sunlight. He was all one color, like dirty snow.
And then came the challenger, Floki's horse, Biter, brown as seasoned oak and strong. Biter had gained the villagers' admiration but no bettors. Both horses were compact, stout, hairy, and quick. They did not stand on earth but on air, dancing.
Both stallions saw each other now and scented the mare. She thundered her hind hooves against the pine fence.
"She wants both of them at once," called Opir, and people laughed.
Then the crowd was silent. Lidsmod wondered if human battle was like this, the air before the fight so still, the sun so bright.
Biter charged the ice gray stallion, and the horse sprawled.
Gorm stabbed at his horse with his staff, but missed because Ice Lightning was up so quickly. Floki cheered his horse, but the crowd roared with him so loudly, no one could hear the voice of one man. A bright red crescent appeared in Biter's neck, and just as suddenly Ice Lightning's coat was pink on his forelegs, and blood and spit flew into the air. The two stallions shrieked — a furious, terrible sound — and then, at once, they were both down.
Mud flew, and hooves thudded turf, slashed it, ripped dirt, and the horses rose again, two necks knotted together, strips of hide dangling. The two horse handlers stood poised, spectators now, their staves unneeded.
Then the middle period of the fight began, as it will when men are wrestling, bets placed on market day. The first excitement gone, the long, grinding work was under way. Horse hair was spiky with sweat. The two horses grunted.
Opir shook his fist and jumped up and down so the men around him laughed, and even tall, long-haired Gunnar folded his arms and called out. This was a fight indeed. No one had guessed that Gorm's pale, powerful horse would have so much trouble. Njord shook both fists in the air. Some men began to bet on the brown stallion, the stocky, hard-fighting Biter. Men began to call Biter's name. Even if Biter lost, he would die with his name in song, truly nameworthy. Biter, ale drinkers would sing, the brave horse who flew at Ice Lightning.
Men put their heads together. Women cheered and talked among themselves and to the men near them. Biter was the younger horse, some said. Ice Lightning had been in too many fights. He had not rested enough. He had not trained.
Lidsmod cheered too, proud to see such fighting courage.
Gorm's hands found new places on his staff, and his jaw muscles bunched. He whacked Ice Lightning three times, but the horse could not fight harder. The cords in the horse's neck stood out, and the veins too, his eyes wide, his teeth buried in Biter's mane.
Biter wheeled, struggling to shake loose the snow gray horse and reach him with his hind hooves. He escaped at last, at the cost of leaving a half-moon chunk of his flesh in Ice Lightning's teeth.
Perhaps Ice Lightning believed all along he would defeat this new horse, this tough young stallion. Or perhaps the taste of Biter's blood in his mouth gave him confidence, bad confidence, the kind that leads to error.
People would murmur about it afterward. What happened to Gorm's horse? Why did it make its mistake? But no one would be able to say for certain because, after all, probably even horses were subject to the powers of the Norns, the weavers of destiny.
The stallions grappled. Biter spun, free of Ice Lightning. Ice Lightning did not press and find a new tooth hold, nor did he rear and prance away. He did nothing for the space of a long breath. Then Biter turned and shot a rear hoof to Ice Lightning's head.
There was a crack, a sickening snap.
Ice Lightning was down.
He was lying on the scarred grass, eyes open, ribs bellowing in and out, his hooves still.
The villagers cheered. Opir leaped up and down, his voice louder than any other. Lidsmod cheered too, but he was sorry to see the veteran stallion so badly hurt.
Gorm threw down his staff. His eyes had no expression, and his hands were at his belt.
Lidsmod saw it clearly, because even when he was feasting or drunk on the deepest ale, it seemed to Lidsmod that some part of him was wide awake. He saw Gorm with the knife in his hand. Gorm stepped to the side of Biter, and Lidsmod understood at once what Gorm was about to do.
Lidsmod lunged through the crowd and reached for Gorm's knife.CHAPTER 2
Gorm's herring-quick blade slipped into the brown horse and opened a long, red gash.
A groan rose from every mouth, then there was silence. Lidsmod did not dare strike Gorm, a sun-bronzed fighting man with long, tallow yellow hair. Gorm held the bloody blade before Lidsmod's eyes, and Lidsmod was certain its point would prick out his sight. And yet Lidsmod stayed where he was, shielding the struggling horse as the animal sagged, slumped, and fell into its own widening sea of blood.
Gunnar gripped Gorm by the hair of his head. "Help me," the sea chief said to Lidsmod, and the young man helped heave the struggling Gorm through the parting crowd of villagers. Behind them men struggled to keep the anguished Floki from reaching Gorm.
Biter panted and shivered, struggling to his feet; his intestines slipped from the cut. Njord lifted his peg mallet, the one he had used for the godpins in Raven's prow, and brought it down on the horse's skull. Then he patted the neck of the fallen victor.
Eirik began to sing a poem. It was an old verse, about a horse that belonged to Odin — beyond even the last battle, running forever under the blue sky. Eirik was a mighty skald, a poet. He began to chant a new song, one that celebrated a familiar truth: men and beasts both fall. The triumph is in the battle, not the victory.
The feast began very quietly. The villagers filed into the long hall without joy. Wooden plates clattered. Women whispered, men looked straight ahead and did not speak.
Lidsmod could not eat, but not only because of the blood he had seen. Blood was salt water, Lidsmod tried to tell himself, nothing more. It was the injustice of it that gnawed at him. Lidsmod stared at his mutton. Gorm owed a great price for the loss of such a horse, Lidsmod knew. This was how things were for men and horses. The loom squeaked, and the Dark Weavers tricked a man into a new pattern, and he was helpless.
"Not hungry, Lidsmod?" said Opir. "I can always eat. I eat. I laugh. Floki will have Gorm's skin," said Opir, sucking fat off his fingers. "Or every ewe he owns. Don't worry."
"Gorm shouldn't come with us," said Ulf, a massive, bald warrior staring at the wooden table before him.
"He's a good fighter," said Opir. "There is no one quite like him. Except for me, of course." Opir's name meant "Boaster." He made high claims for himself, but it was hard to tell how seriously.
"Gorm will have to pay a great price," said Ulf. That was the only way men could begin to balance the great unfairness of the world. By giving a price to things, man or beast, misfortune could be offset.
Word began to escape the jarl's hall. Negotiations were well begun. Floki had agreed that twenty of Gorm's finest ewes would be a good payment for the horse. It was a formal situation, and despite the emotion between the two men, if it were resolved now and payment established, the matter would be finished and all could go on with their lives.
"The heart loss cannot be paid for," said the broad-shouldered Ulf sadly, drinking hard at his ale.
Then word stirred the hall that Gorm would have to pay ten rams and more for the sorrow he had caused.
"Agree," said the jarl. "Or stay here all summer, tending pigs. Many good men will do the same."
In the jarl's hall, Gorm couldn't speak. He hated this village, this empty, hungry place. If it weren't so poor, so overcrowded, there would be no need for journeys. Gorm was the youngest son of four brothers. What did life hold for him? Life had cheated him from the start. The three ships would need Gorm's quick sword when they touched keel to sand. Then they would say, "Where's Gorm, to help us with his steady hand?"
But to be stalwart and trustworthy — that was more important to the men of Spjothof than skill with a sword. A man's temperament, what he was like during long, salt-gritty nights, that was what mattered.
So Gorm had to pretend. "It was wrong to cut the horse," he said to the jarl. "I should not have done it. Twenty ewes and ten rams. I agree."
Word spread into the feasting hall, and when Gorm and the ranking men of the village entered there was a special kind of cheer, like a sigh.
It was a great feast, with much drinking. Fastivi sat beside Gunnar, her long gold and silver hair tied back. Gunnar had told Lidsmod that of all the men he had known, Leif, Lidsmod's father, had sung with the finest voice. It was a gift, such a voice, and even now the village remembered it with reverence.
Only Torsten was not drinking. Men and women recalled the old song sagas: the Theft of the Horses from the Danish Cave, or the Horses of Ragnarok, the Doom Battle of the gods. But Torsten sat alone, a stout, still figure with a long, uncombed beard.
The bench beside Lidsmod shook, and Opir belched as he settled himself. "My good Lidsmod, look happy. You'll stay here with all these beautiful women, and no one else as handsome as you to distract them. You'll be sore in all the right places, Lidsmod. Don't let them wear you out."
Lidsmod blushed. Talk of the trip made his heart sink, but at the same time he knew Hallgerd, the jarl's daughter, was watching. What if she could hear what Opir was saying!
"Who'll row with Torsten?" asked Lidsmod to change the subject.
Opir gazed into his ale cup. "Torsten has surprised everyone. He's decided to row in Raven. When I stride past Torsten, Torsten shivers! When I speak to Torsten, Torsten looks down like a maiden." All of this was said in a low voice, with Opir glancing up to make sure that Torsten could not hear.
Lidsmod asked, in a keen whisper, "Did you see Torsten against the Danes?" Opir smiled and slapped the table. "Come along, Lidsmod, eat your supper." He used the word for a night meal, nattverdr, making his voice that of a mother coaxing a child.
Lidsmod persisted. "What is Torsten like — in battle?"
Opir did not answer at once. Soon Eirik would sing, and the jarl would offer words to Odin, and Opir would lead the merry ale faces in a cheerful song. Then they would all listen to a feasting saga from Eirik, perhaps of a bear the size of an iceberg, or of a fiery serpent from beneath the sea. Ale tales, nothing to turn a tear or remind a man scarred to the bone what the sea trail was really like.
"Torsten is a berserker," said Opir at last.
"I'll never be able to see Torsten fight, myself," Lidsmod said, trying to sound as though this did not matter to him.
"And you think that a great shame, don't you, Lidsmod! Better you should see the world as it is — fjord and sky. And men as they are — some good, some not so good. If you have any luck, you will never see what a berserker can do."
Just then Hego ran into the feasting hall to say the sky was showering like burning straw, and the crowd streamed forth into the cold night to see. In the rush, Hego — a slow-witted man, who loved mead as he loved life — tripped over the threshold and fell hard on his face.
Excerpted from Raven of the Waves by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 2001 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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