Chattels die; kinsmen pass away;
One dies oneself;
But good report never dies
From the man that gained it.
— The Guest’s Wisdom
A fortnight ago, when all the world seemed golden still, and birds sang their delight to the rising sun, and flowers bloomed amid the pastureland, and all was right with the world, my father, Olaf, the proud Viking chieftain, came home, to Kaupangen.
What was left of him came home, anyway.
But for the teeth marks; the puncture wounds of fangs; the gouged and bloody furrows in his face, chest, and arms; the missing or broken teeth; the split lips; the bruised flesh; the broken bones; and the crushed skull, he was all there—physically, at least—but his mind was gone, and he did not last longer than three days.
But that was long enough to tell his tale. After he awakened from the deep sleep in which agony and injury had wrapped him, senseless to the world, he told us, his wife, Mjoll, my younger brother, Bjorn, and me, what had befallen him and his men. All the while that he spoke, in whispered tones of awe, he looked round, with wide and searching eyes, as if he feared he might be taken by surprise.
Far from Norway, in the bowels of the earth, he and his warriors, as truly men of valor as their bold chief, valiant Olaf himself, had waged war against a countless horde. As the savages rushed forth, on every hand, the adventurers hacked the creatures to death, treading them underfoot, as they themselves likewise dashed forward, to meet the monsters’ charge. Axe and sword cut through sinew and bone, while, with shield and spear, the men fought to fend off the nightmarish things’ fangs and claws.
Red-eyed, they were, and shaggy, with huge mouths filled with dagger-like teeth, in height between the stature of a boy like Bjorn and the measure of a man like me, but possessed of uncommon strength, agile and fearless, and savage, more like wild beasts than men—if, indeed, they were men.
“Trolls?” I asked, but my father was too weak to reply. His head lolled upon his pillow, his shredded face haggard, his beard matted with blood, and his hair unkempt. His eyes glazed, and he returned to the darkness from which, for a moment, he had awakened. Mercifully, he slept, albeit fitfully, crying out in fear and horror, until sunrise.
He left my question unanswered, but this much I knew, without being told and without having to be told: whatever monsters my father and his warriors had faced in the depths of the earth, they were nothing that mere mortals had ever seen before, for Olaf was a Viking chieftain; as a warrior, he had fought not only armies of men, but giants, wolves, and dragons as well, each of fierce appearance, indomitable will, and deadly prowess. Neither he nor any of his men were such as would be frightened by less than Hel, the goddess of the dead, herself—and, yet, they had been afraid, sorely afraid.
While the main part of the crew remained in the camp that the men had pitched earlier that day on the beach, Olaf and his mighty retainer of elite warriors entered the mountain, to fetch a treasure, and the horde within the deep cavern set upon them at once. A mighty battle ensued, and the warriors fought, alongside their chieftain, until none but four remained, besides Olaf, and these four dragged his bloody body from the carnage, across the camp, and into the ship. The beach was strewn with the corpses of those who had waited Olaf’s return, for the cave-dwelling monsters, whatever they were, had murdered them, every one. Two weeks later, the four, rowing as if they were sixty, brought the ship home, the chieftain sleeping a sleep akin to death. They had had no hope that he would survive, they later confessed, but they had wanted him, such a great chieftain among their people, to die at home, among his tribe and family, and not in some far-off land teeming with monsters.
The next morning, with my mother and my brother still attending our vigil, Olaf again awakened, for a moment, and, looking at me, he said, “Swear, Eric, my son, that you will forego the quest that I began, that you will make no effort, thereby, to restore the honor that I have lost in returning empty-handed, with but a handful of my crew still alive, for it is better that you not taste the death that I must taste: your mother will have more need of you than ever, when I am gone, for young Bjorn, although a full year away from manhood, is nevertheless willful,
stubborn, and strong.”
“But, Father,” I said, staring into the blank gaze of this husk of the man that was all that remained of he who had sired me, a chieftain of our people, as fierce and bold as any warrior who had ever lived, “I would be seen as a coward by all, as a weakling, as ineffectual, and as dishonorable. Worse, the people would count your death an unredeemed disgrace.”
“Promise me, my son,” he insisted, “that I might die in peace, knowing my beloved Mjoll will have a mighty protector and provider to help her raise my younger, headstrong son.”
“What you ask—it is impossible!”
“Promise him!” my mother pleaded. “He is right; our ways are harsh. Honor is a fatal word; look what it has done to your father, my husband, my life and my love.”
“I would, Father, if I could, but—”
“Then I die a man unloved.”
My mother turned her tear-stained face to me; her love for her dying husband and for her sons, who yet lived, was fierce, and it made her eyes like those of an eagle. “Promise him!” she cried, beating my breast with her fists. “Promise me!” She sobbed. “I cannot bear to lose you and Bjorn, too.”
May the gods forgive me, but I promised him. “I will forego the completion of your quest,” I said, and the bitterest bile filled my throat and mouth, as I exiled myself, at that moment, from the thing that matters most to a Viking and the one thing that makes his life worth living and gives him hope of being admitted into the gates of eternal Valhalla after this mortal life has ended—honor itself!
“Then I die happy,” my father whispered.
And I live accursed, I thought.
* * *
While that which had been my father lay upon boards in a room of the house that he himself had built, long ago, with his own bare hands, watched over by his widow and his younger son, awaiting burial, the village’s men, at my direction, fastened sturdy ropes to my father’s ship, and, with the aid of horses, dragged the vessel from the fjord down which the remnant of his crew, with the sea god Aegir’s aid, had rowed his body home.
Oh, by the gods, but it was a wretched sight, the ruins of that once-magnificent ship! How many times had I seen it ply the waves, as, sailing the seas, destined for unknown dangers and unseen treasures, such as the last my father had sought, it vanished, among the waves, upon the far horizon!
The prow rode, now, roughly, upon hard-packed and rocky soil, cutting the earth instead of the sea, no longer, ever, to bound upon the main, its grim figurehead, a serpent of the deep, with emeralds for eyes, glaring, as it seemed, both hither and yon, as if seeking whom it should devour.
How the timbers creaked, as if the ship herself were groaning with bottomless sorrow at being beached the way that its captain, my father, the Chieftain Olaf, had been beached, upon Hel’s own dark and distant shore. Even a Viking’s ship, I thought, in the delirious madness of my grief, cannot endure the shame of having taken part in a failed quest. Olaf’s vessel, it seemed to me, craved redemption, even if its departed master did not.
To be certain, I yearned for it; I needed to avenge my father’s death and claim for him the treasure he had unsuccessfully sought, that I might reclaim his honor and pay the widows of his warriors for the losses of their husbands and the fathers of their sons and daughters—and, yet, I could not, for I had promised my father that I would not, honoring his dying request that I remain home, foregoing the completion of his quest and the redemption of his honor, that I might help my mother raise her other son!
Now, the vessel of the Viking lord was to become another sacrifice, its own splendid glory counting for naught, now that its life, too, was at its end. The ship was propped upright, upon supports, a ramp set in place, on either side. Firewood, too, was stacked about the ship.
At a length of ninety feet, the vessel, twenty feet in width, boasted oars enough for twenty men on either side of its hull—although but four had rowed it home!—and had a foot-thick mast, nearly as tall as the ship itself was long, from which, during the vessel’s life, when the gods favored its crew with a driving wind, its square sail bulged, banners beating on high, as the stays, braces, and shrouds fluttered and the yardarm twitched, mighty ocean waves washing over the rowing crew and swamping the deck.
In the cloud-grayed heavens, gulls had shrieked; in the sea, fish had leaped; and, everywhere, the pungent scent of brine had hung, heavy, in the air. A graceful ship, it had been a thing of surpassing beauty, its clean, fine lines and slender shape showing the reverence and the love that its builders have, as all Vikings do, for the sea, for which it was made.
And now, here it sat, propped up, upon the land, its yardarm detached, its mast sawn off, its sail removed, and up the ramps at its sides came cattle and horses, carts and sleds, and provisions of food—salted fish and smoked meats, fruits and nuts, breads and vegetables, roots and herbs—in casks and baskets and chests. There was ale, too, and mead, in plentiful supply, for the long voyage that lay ahead.
Provisions for domestic needs had been laid inside the burial ship: pots and kettles, tubs and pails, needles and thread, looms for spinning and weaving, silverware and goblets, plates and bowls, a hand-mill with which to grind grain, and linens and clothing for wear.
When the cattle and horses were aboard, they were killed and cut up, with dogs and chickens, for the master’s use, once he had reached his final journey’s end.
That he might conduct transactions in the afterworld, he was provided, also, with chests of silver and gold.
Weapons were placed, ready to hand, as well, to serve the fallen warrior chief. He was equipped with battle-axes, swords, daggers, spears, a bow and a quiver of arrows, and a shield, for the world to come is no less a battleground than this one is, our poets, priests, and wizards assure us, reciting lays of the battling Einherjar, Odin’s very elect, who fight one another each day in paradise, training for the day that Ragnarok shall come and their skills will be needed one last time. Shamed, my father might have no place in Valhalla and no part in Gotterdammerung, but he might well need to take arms against foul, nameless things in Niflheim.
Carved images of the gods stood round the ship. That none of the major deities should be offended by omission, priests had insisted that Odin, Thor, Tyr, Balder, Freya, Frigga, and all other Aesir of high rank be included, and, for good measure, even an image of Loki was erected among the rest, although both priest and wizard, fearing to offend the other divinities, demurred concerning the inclusion of the goddess Hel among such an august company.
When all was in readiness—as if readiness could ever be made for such a grievous occasion!—I returned to the chamber wherein my father’s remains lay.
Heartsick at the grief of my mother and my brother, I joined them in whispering my farewell to my father, wishing him a safe and pleasant journey to his final destination. I doubt, even now, that he heard any of our tender sentiments, for we whispered them into a dead man’s ears, amid great wailing, sobbing, and groans, as if we ourselves were dying.
Our tribe’s poet sang the lay that he had composed for this occasion, a song full of sadness and praise; my father’s life was commemorated, the bard suggested, by his great deeds—although, in reality, of course, his memory had been besmirched by the failure of his last quest; the dead men he had left behind, by the score, upon a foreign beach; and the horde of treasure that remained within the cavern wherein his best warriors had been slaughtered, whose deaths had not been avenged.
Since his death had been one of violence, and not of peace, I ordered that a hole be smashed through the wall, back of the dead man’s head, that my father’s spirit, confused, would be unable to find its way back home, to haunt its former domicile. Through this exit, our servants bore the corpse outside, carrying the body thrice around the great longhouse, as custom requires.
The body of my father was laid aboard his ship, in a great bed, washed and clean, in fresh raiment, but with wasted, rotten flesh, and a vanished face, within a tent fashioned of logs and woolen curtains. About the ship, villagers teemed, my mother and my brother among them, wailing their lamentations to the gods. My own eyes ran with grief as well, although I managed to force back the sobs and groans that sought to escape my crushed heart and reeling brain.
At the appointed time, a bonfire was set and, taking a brand from the flames, I walked backward, according to the custom of our people, and lit the wood stacked among the support beams. Others of my father’s thanes likewise plucked brands from the burning, setting their torches to the wood, and a great fire arose, smoking, from the pyre. I could feel the heat of the blaze upon my face, despite my sweat and tears.
I watched, with my mother and my brother, the mortal remains of my father and those of his worldly possessions, with which we had supplied and equipped him, go up in smoke, and, in my heart, I bid him a final farewell.
Thereafter, we paid homage to the gods, and, even before I took my leave, men began to shovel dirt into the burned-out hull of the once-mighty ship. Hours from now, it would be buried beneath a mound, and, atop the hill would stand a monument to Olaf the Great, Viking Chieftain, dead at the age of forty five, his death not the result of idleness, but of the final adventure of a once-wondrous, if lately disgraced, warrior, who had been as wild and strong as the sea itself, which he had sailed for many years.
I watched the shovels rise, pitch, and dig, and I thought of how, should the buried man have claimed the treasure he had sought, his ship would have sailed the sea once more, as he was dispatched to Valhalla in a blaze of bright fire, his vessel burning upon the deep, rather than being sent, in this less glorious way, I knew not where, the skeleton of his proud ship lumbering in the ground. Had he died a hero’s death, my father’s name would have lived on, but, now,
dishonored and unredeemed, he would be forgotten; no memorial stone could bring him fame, and his memory would fade, by and by, and it would be as if he had never lived at all.
I felt ashamed, for I had given my father my word that I would do nothing to redeem his dishonored name, and it was I, then, finally, whose inaction would seal my father’s fate.
* * *
For weeks after we had committed my father’s remains to the earth, my family grieved, our kinsmen, close and distant, coming, with their families and their friends, to join us for the traditional three days’ drinking of the funeral ale and the memorial banquet that followed this preliminary rite.
There was, without the hall, as I sat at the table’s head, the sounding of a horn such as those that herald the coming of a royal king or noble jarl, and all eyes turned to the great oak door, which opened, a vast entourage entering.
Like the rest of the assemblage, I wondered who the horn’s blast had announced.
A file of men, well armed, divided. Alternately, one bore left, the other right, to stand erect, at either side of the one whom they escorted, who had entered the mead hall, following the last of her guard.
The men seated at my table bowed, as did I, for we recognized our visitor.
One of her company, blowing again the horn, announced, in a loud, clear voice, “Behold Her Royal Highness, The Light of the North, Princess Astrid of Norway!”
I could not believe my ears—or my eyes—the daughter of Thorgrim Easterling himself, our king, stood among us, resplendent in her raiment and beautiful of both face and form. Her loveliness was known far and wide, across not only Norway, but as far as any Viking ship had sailed, whether to Vinland, to Pisa, to Constantinople, or to Baku.
She approached, heads bowing lower as she passed by this thane or that. At the head of the table, she stopped, and bid me look upon her.
I had no doubt, had this been a different occasion, during which my kinsmen and I had gathered for a joyous, rather than a somber and sorrowful a purpose, her surpassing beauty would have captured me wholly, heart and soul, but, as it was, my mind was set upon the tasks at hand, and I smiled to show my respect, and not in an attempt to win her regard.
Her wide blue eyes were pools of kindness and sympathy, as she said, her muted voice as soft and sweet as the strings of the lute or harp, “My father, the king, regrets that urgent affairs of state preclude his appearance at your father’s memorial feast; he ordered me to delay my own journey to the Danes in Hedeby an hour, that I might extend to you his heartfelt respect and love for your father, Olaf the Great, a chieftain after his own heart.”
“Your words are as welcome as a balm, Your Highness. Thank you, and, please, thank your father, my king, as well. His sympathy does much to ease the grief the passing of my father has caused me and my family.”
“Would that we could do more.”
“I shall order that places be set for you, at once, Your Highness, and for your men, at a table of honor.”
“I wish I could stay, but my presence is expected, and the Danes are impatient, even when they are our allies. I dare not risk offending them.”
“Then, what may I do on your behalf, Your Highness? Do you need food, or warriors, supplies or equipment of any kind?
“Only another hour in the day.”
“Thank you for coming, and, please, thank your father, my king, for thinking of my kinsmen and me in our hour of grief. Your kind words have made a difference greater than you may know.”
She smiled. “Perhaps we shall meet again.”
I kissed her hand.
“If you are ever in Haugesund, you must visit my father and me.”
“I cannot imagine a greater honor, Your Highness.”
Then, as quickly as she had appeared, and with less fanfare, she was gone.
I watched her depart, sorry to see her leave, for her soul, I thought, was as lovely as her fair face and form.
Would that times were different, but they were not, and I must return my attention to the duties and responsibilities at hand.
The great mead hall was decked with funerary wreaths and garlands, and my father’s favorite sword and shield, spared burial with his remains, were displayed upon the wall behind the high seat, now vacant, wherein, during life, he had sat, at the head of the great table. After the skalds sang their praises to my father’s memory, recalling his many valiant deeds, and we toasted his name, I drained the contents of the memorial horn handed me for the occasion, and, thus having made known, to all assembled, my love and respect for my father, I rose.
Every eye observed me as, clad in my best raiment, and wearing my bright, polished sword, Skull Splitter, I strode, past my seated kinsmen, and sat where no man had sat since the master of the house, Chieftain Olaf the Great himself, had occupied the seat, declaring, by this act, for all to see, my assumption of my late father’s place. As heir, his estate was mine, and I claimed it now, as the head of the household. One third of all my father had acquired would be used to pay for his funeral, one third for the funeral ale and the memorial banquet, and one third would be mine, the property to keep and the fortune, otherwise, to split between my mother, my brother, and myself.
On either side of me, down the hundred feet of table, arms raised goblets high, and a thunderous chorus of voices shouted, “Hail, Eric, son of Olaf, the master of this house, the heir become our chieftain!”
At the foot of the table, my mother, despite her grief, beamed, proud of her son, the new chieftain of our tribe. Her brave smile, which showed her strength and love, coming, as it did, despite her heartache at her loss of her husband, brought a tear to my eye.
Nevertheless, mindful of my duty, I lifted the chalice before me, returning my kinsmen’s salute, and we drank together, one and all.
I should have found some satisfaction, if not joy, amid my grief, as a result of my ascension to the chieftainship of my tribe, for I had been honored by my kinsmen and touched by my mother’s show of pride and love. Instead, I felt but hollow inside.
My father had been disgraced, and I, who had taken his place at the head of his house and his position as the chieftain of our tribe, had agreed to do nothing to remedy the dishonor that had befallen him.
Despite the words of praise I’d heard for him these past few days, I knew that, in their hearts, none would forget Olaf’s failure to claim the treasure he had sought on his last adventure, nor would any overlook the dead men, his loyal thanes, whose bodies lay unburied on a distant shore, their deaths unanswered and their widows unrecompensed.
I sat, my heart heavy as a stone.
The din of conversations recommenced, amid clinking tankards and clattering cutlery, as my guests resumed their feasts, but all seemed distant and muted, almost as if I were in another world. Faces, familiar and unknown, seemed to change, stretching and crumpling as they spoke, and the hall appeared to spin.
To my left, the wizard Skuldi was watching me closely. I did not like his gaze, for, although white-haired and wrinkled with the years, this lean magician, I knew, was wise in occult lore, knowing things well beyond a warrior’s ken. My father had not trusted him entirely, for none trust such men—if men they be—more than a moment at a time. Wizards wield power far greater than sword or spear, but their weapons are potions, spells, incantations, and enchantments, against which there are no defenses except other, greater magic, such as blacksmiths cannot forge.
“Why do you look so at me?” I demanded, my words slow and thick.
His face, too, seemed to change, stretching and twisting as if his flesh were clay. “Retire, my chieftain, and sleep.”
I saw his hand, upon the table, the long sleeve of his woolen robe covering all above the wrist. Cupped in his palm was a small bottle filled with a liquid as amber as the ornaments that sometimes adorn my mother’s hair. The small cork lay beneath the edge of his plate.
“You’ve poisoned me!” I charged, but the words I’d meant to say sounded like mere gibberish in my ears.
“Someone!” Skuldi cried. “Our chieftain needs to rest.”
“The day has been long,” someone said.
“He has grieved hard,” another observed, “and unceasingly, since his father’s death.”
“The responsibility of his chieftainship weighs upon him,” a third suggested.
“Get him to his bed,” Skuldi directed. “He shall be well after he has slept.”
Strong hands clutched my arms, lifting me.
The chamber swam. The vaulted ceiling, the thick rafters, the chandeliers—wagons’ wheels, suspended upon chains, ablaze with candles—the torches in gleaming bronze sconces, the tapestries of ships and hunts, the shields along the timbered walls—all these features of the hall seemed to spin and lurch. I closed my bleary eyes and opened them, but the chamber continued to yaw and pitch, as if a mad helmsmen steered this ship. Sea serpents reared above the waves, mouths agape, showing fangs, and lightning flashed on high. Ahead, an island rose among the crashing waves, and there was a mountain there, beyond a beach.
No! Such things were not; these sights and sounds were but delusions, not realities. I was being carried from the hall, exhausted, poisoned—yes, poisoned! By a potion in a bottle.
I gazed in wonder, astonished to see the hall transformed into a ship in which mighty, valiant men rode the tossing seas. There was an island ahead, with bleached bones upon its shore, and, inland, a mountain rising into cloudy heights. My dead father, stared at me, through the eyeless sockets of his grinning skull. His teeth clicked, his lipless jaws speaking, somehow, raspy words: “Swear, Eric, my son, that you will forego the quest that I began.”
He was in a ship, in the ground, in a distant land of mists, sword falling from his open hand. “Promise me, my son,” the skeleton insisted, “that I might die in peace.” But he was already dead, I told myself.
I tossed, the sheets and blankets a magician’s spell. “Promise me! Promise me!” the voice, disembodied, demanded.
I turned, and, where, normally, the fireplace stood, there was a chest of treasure, a strongbox full of gold and silver, emeralds and rubies, and strange shapes, full of eyes and mouths, winking and gibbering. My mother’s hair, adorned with amber ornaments. Skuldi with a bottle, uncorked, in his hand. The mead hall, all atilt. Blood. Death. Gods. A rushing together of the Aesir, ascending, as a shadow on a cavern wall.
I was delirious, but I knew that I was so.
I was not in my right mind, but I knew as much.
I was exhausted, and I slept.
I saw myself, as from afar, as if I were a stranger, standing upon a stony mountain ledge, looking down, through dark storm-clouds, over a beach and the choppy seas beyond.
In myself, I beheld a man not much out of his youth, with bronzed skin; straight, shoulder-length blond hair; blue eyes as piercing as those of an eagle’s own; a beard and mustache, thick and full; broad shoulders; a deep chest; a narrow waist; and muscular limbs—a Viking warrior, both in dress and in deportment.
Armed with dagger, spear, sword, and shield, I wore, beneath my green wool cloak, a leather jacket, over a lavishly decorated green linen tunic. I was clad, also, in leather leggings; red wool stocks; and goatskin boots. As a good luck charm, I wore a miniature hammer of Thor, in silver, about my neck. Sewn inside my clothing were leather padding and plates of bone, to ward off enemies’ blows, and I wore a leather helmet upon my head.
A freezing wind blew back my locks, its icy touch burning my raw, red cheeks; despite the warmth of my garb, I shivered. My footing, upon this narrow ledge, high above the world, was precarious, for, even standing still, I slid upon the wet ice underfoot. A gust seemed to speak, as it blew past, carrying snow from the mountainside, Get inside, or perish!
I scanned the rocky cliff before me, which rose through drifting clouds, losing itself in high fog, among drifting snow. The rock showed no fissure, no mouth, no entryway of any sort. Another gust of wind blew me back, upon my heels, and I slid another foot, toward the edge of the outcropping and certain doom.
The air trembled, and I saw a face in it, outlined in snow: the wizard Skuldi. Inside, or perish!
“I cannot; there is no way.”
Make a way!
I stepped forward, against the wind, and, as I pressed, face-first, against the massive stone, it yielded, and I passed through, as if the solid rock were but the illusion of a frozen brain.
A subterranean cavern loomed about me, the ledge’s height traded, now, for an underworld that would have been shrouded in darkness, but for an open chest, laden with gold, silver, and gemstones bright, shining, and beautiful as stars that gleam, glittering, in the heavens: diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires—and strange shapes, in silver and gold, with faces, some terrible and grotesque, others beautiful and alluring, but, each and all, of a numinous quality that both fascinated and frightened me. The ground upon which I stood was hallowed, and the talismans within the chest were not mere trinkets, but powerful, enchanted charms.
“They are worth more than all the rest in the treasure chest,” a voice at once familiar and strange proclaimed.
But a moment before, I had been alone among the stony pillars and the cavern’s rough walls, but, now, the wizard Skuldi stood beside me; around his neck, upon a fine silver chain, hung the tiny bottle of amber fluid, corked again, from which he’d poisoned me.
“I am dead,” I declared.
“Were you dead, you would be in Valhalla or in Hel, according to your fate,” the wizard reminded me.
I brandished my sword. “You poisoned me!”
He gestured; my sword was sheathed again, as if never drawn. “You live,” he said, “and dream.”
“The liquid you poured into my ale—”
“It was but a drop of a potion to bring you sleep and dreams,” he answered—and, then, in an instant, he was gone, as if he had never been, and another figure was present: my father knelt at the side of the open chest, scooping up gemstones in his hands.
A corpse lay upon the cavern floor, at his left, staring sightlessly at the stalactites that hung, like spears, from the ceiling of his tomb. A scurrying to my left caught my eye, and I glimpsed a rat, darting among other corpses. Other bodies met my gaze, wherever I turned to look. The chamber was full of the cadavers of warriors, bloody with death, their fallen swords and shields beside them, the former stained with enemies’ blood, the latter bearing deep furrows, as if marked by talons’ claws.
“There is treasure here for all,” my father cried.
He turned, grinning, triumph in his shining eyes, and stared, gaping, at the carnage on every hand, his loyal thanes now mere corpses whose blood drew ravenous rats from the dark niches of the cavernous mausoleum.
Four men yet stood. “We must leave, my lord!” their captain said. “There are too many of the adversary; they come, like the waves of the sea, relentlessly, and fight like the spawn of Hel herself.”
My father’s own countenance, I saw, was full of wounds, his injured body pouring blood. Pitching sideways, he fell headlong, upon the corpse of a fallen thane, and the coins and gemstones he clutched fell from his hands, skittering across the cavern’s floor.
Behind him, in a flare of light, I saw the Aesir, shadows rushing, all together, in a rising column of divine forms, Odin at their head. As if they had become a fountain, they shot up, over the craggy walls, looming over all, and their shadows shifted, as if gripped in a tremendous transformation, and I heard a voice like thunder, shaking the very mountains as it spoke:
Build and equip a ship; gather an army; restore your father’s honor among men.
“But my promise to my father—”
A greater one than he commands you: Build and equip a ship; gather an army; restore your father’s honor among men.
I fell to my knees, head bowed. All-father Odin had spoken!
I had no choice but to obey, for, whether the gods speak to us in during our slumbers or our waking hours, there is but one course of action that one may take. Kneeling, with head bowed, I vowed, before my father’s spirit, before the four living thanes who’d brought his body home, before the corpses of his valiant dead, and before great Odin himself, “I will obey your will, All-father: I will build and equip a ship; gather an army; and restore my father’s honor among men.”
I was elated, as I woke, in bed, my mother and my brother kneeling beside me, their faces red from weeping.
“I feared I might have lost you, too,” my mother confessed, holding my hand tightly in her own.
“Thank the gods you were not taken from us,” Bjorn cried.
I smiled at him and at my mother. “The gods have seen fit to spare me,” I suggested.
I remembered nothing after ascending to my father’s place of honor at the banquet table, other than the strange dream I had had. Images loomed in the darkness of the room, before my eyes, it seemed to me, rather than merely in my brain: the mountain ledge; Skuldi’s face, outlined in snow; my passing through the face of the cliff and appearing inside a cavern, wherein I saw my father, surrounded by his dead thanes; the treasure and the talismans; the ascension of the gods; the voice like thunder and the divine command: Build and equip a ship; gather an army; restore your father’s honor among men.
Elated, I had been, awakening from the prophetic dream, but, now, seeing my dear mother’s face, etched, still, with grief at her husband’s passing and with concern for the welfare of her sons, my joy turned to sorrow, and I closed my eyes, wishing I would not have to say the words that I must speak, words that would kindle additional heartache for my mother, and set her wrath ablaze.
As I tightened my grip upon my mother’s hand, a look of horror passed over her sweet countenance.
“I had a vision,” I told her, “in my sleep.”
“Do not tell me!” She snatched her hand from mine, guessing my announcement was one that would increase her sorrows. “I do not want to hear!”
“The All-father spoke to me,” I said. A crushing weight seemed to have descended upon my chest, and I could hardly breathe. A wetness formed at the corner of my eye.
“Please,” she beseeched me, “do not say another word!” Tears coursed down her haggard face, and my heart broke at the sight of her new grief, a sorrow that I, her elder son, had caused.
“He told me that I must build and equip a ship.”
Fear mingled with rage upon my mother’s tormented face, as she stood, backing away from me, as if from a monstrosity too hideous to behold.
“No, no, no,” she murmured, lost to grief.
“I must gather an army; he commanded me.”
“You promised!” she cried. “You promised your father, on his deathbed, and you promised me!”
We were both weeping now, but there was a curious delight, of sorts, in my younger brother’s eyes.
“I must restore my father’s honor among men.”
“Do your promises mean nothing, then? Has the love your parents lavished upon you been all in vain?”
“Mother, it was Odin himself who—”
“Odin, or a fantasy, brought on by your own passion to restore your father’s name?”
“It was the All-father.”
Trembling, as much with anger as with fear, she cried, “And what about your father—and your mother and your brother?”
“If it were not for Odin’s command, nothing—not my own conscience’s ceaseless accusations, nor the faces of my kinsmen, silently demanding that I act, nor even my love for you, Bjorn, and my father’s memory—could make me violate those vows,” I declared, but my mother had already begun to hasten from the room.
I watched her stride briskly through the doorway, and I thought, I have lost her, too.
The gods can be harsh; sometimes, they do not stop persecuting a man until they have taken all he has or needs and everything his heart desires.
Bjorn had remained, although he no longer knelt beside my bed. He stood, looking down at me, his boyish, gangling limbs seeming sturdier and his physique more robust than I remembered them. His eyes were wild, and he grinned, looking more wolf than boy, it seemed to me. With his fearless, headstrong ways, he might make a fierce berserker one day, I thought, but, if that were to be, it would not happen with help from me.
“How long will it take to build and equip a ship and gather an army?” he asked. “How long before we can be on our way?”
“You and I, brother, thane and chieftain, now and forevermore.”
I smiled, despite myself. His zeal was amazing, given all he’d been through himself, of late. There was no doubt but that he was a Viking, born and bred. However, there was no doubt, either, that, at age eleven, he was, as our father had said, a full year away from manhood.
“You will stay here, at home, with our mother, caring for her needs.”
“Eric, I am a man! I need to be treated as such. I have trained as a warrior since I could walk, and I am ready to prove my mettle; my prowess is at your command, my chieftain.”
“Your place is here,” I repeated.
He glared at me. “How can I ever become a man when I am treated, always, as a boy?”
“A year’s passing will take care of that matter, brother, for, according to our customs, a boy becomes a man at twelve, and not before, as you know full well.”
“Brother, I would go!”
“I am your brother, Bjorn,” I told him, “but I am your chieftain as well, and, as your chieftain, I forbid it, and that is the end of the matter.”
Without another word, he turned and fled, and I was left alone, bereft, it seemed, of both of those whom I loved most, now that my father was gone.
I had lost a father, and now, it seemed, I had lost a mother and a brother, too, but there was nothing else that I could do but obey the command of the All-father. Before Odin had appeared to me, I had had to choose between being a true Viking, who loved honor above all things, and honored it at any price, including life itself, or a man who kept the promises he had made to a dying man—and to his father, at that—and to his mother—promises that should never have been asked or made—and remain forever a man scorned and mistrusted, his chiefdom notwithstanding. Now, at Odin’s behest, I was no longer bound by my word to my late father, for Olaf would admit, even if his widow would not, that a man’s first duty is always to the gods, however much he loves his parents or his kinsmen. In this sense, Odin’s command had set me free—but at what a cost! I had lost both my parents now, one through death, the other through promises betrayed.
* * *
More than a month had passed since my father’s memorial feast. Each day had seemed to take a year, as I waited, impatiently, for my new ship to be built. During this time, whenever I saw my mother, I saw, in her averted gaze, in her refusal to greet me with even so much as a nod, and in her pointed silences, a stinging reproach. Indeed, her rebuke stung all the more by being wordless, for she could express, with naught but a glare, a heedless toss of her head, or a frosty demeanor, more than many women convey with a tidal wave of recriminations and blame.
Although she did not refrain, entirely, from performing some favors on my behalf, such as preparing my meals, she gave no indication that she found the slightest pleasure in the acts, although, before I had reneged on my promise to her and my father, she had shown her relish in tending to such matters; they were clearly, then, expressions of her mother’s love.
For Bjorn, she continued to take—and to show—delight in doing all manner of chores by which her maternal devotion was made evident. At the age of eleven, he often required her aid, whereas, at the age of twenty two, I seldom did. However, in past days, such considerations would have had naught to do with whether she helped one or the other of her sons. She would have assisted either or both of us, regardless of our age or circumstances, for no other reason than that she had wanted to do so. She had always found, in the domestic work that she performed on behalf of her family, a treasured source of pleasure. In truth, I believed, at heart, she would still have enjoyed doting upon and indulging me, had it not been for my betrayal of her and her late husband, my father, for whom her love had known, and knew, no bounds.
Perhaps I had truly lost her. She might never respect, admire, or love me again, as she had before Odin had made his claim upon me, asserting the prerogative of divine, over familial, authority. However bitter it might prove, I knew, and had accepted, the truth: even without Odin’s intervention, I would have had to renege on my promise to my dying father.
Olaf was great, both as a man and as a chieftain, but no man is perfect, and he was wrong to wrest such a promise from me, as he lay dying, although I would never have the heart to say as much to my poor mother. To make a son choose between the love of his family and his love of honor is an act unworthy of a Viking, especially a leader among them, as my father was, for, to a Viking, honor is more than life itself, and, if honor is not sacred, nothing is.
How could I be accounted an honorable man if I were to ignore the demands of honor and leave my father’s memory disgraced and his warriors’ widows unrecompensed? If I could not hold my head high, as a man of honor, I could not claim to be an honorable chieftain. My fate is interwoven with the destiny of my people, and they, proud and valiant folk, deserve a chieftain of unquestioned integrity, both in times of war and times of peace. By reneging upon my vow to my father, I had freed myself to redeem his honor and, in the bargain, keep my own and that of my tribe, whom fate has chosen me to lead. Were I to have done anything less, how should I call myself a man or a Viking, and how should I be called a chieftain?
In time, I hoped, most fervently, my mother would understand that it is love for honor, and not lack of love for my parents, that required me to do as I have done. Meantime, I must bear her derision with stoicism and remember the depth of her sorrow and the extent of her loss.
I also had to bear the persistence of my too-eager brother Bjorn, who remained intent upon embarking upon the quest which fate had decreed for me the moment my father was mortally wounded. I had told him, time and time again, both as his kinsmen and as his chieftain, that he must remain at home, to tend to our mother’s needs, but he would not hear of such a thing. The thought of his staying at home, while his older brother journeyed over the seas, to distant lands wherein lay treasures, battles, monsters, and other mysteries untold, was as unknown, and as unknowable, to his mind as what walked upon the surface of the moon or crawled upon the bottom of the deep.
Daily, he begged, cajoled, threatened, argued, whined, bargained, demanded, and otherwise sought to press his petition, until, finally, I refused to answer him at all, no matter which tactic he used or how often he employed it. Silence, on my part, I had hoped, would win silence on his part as well, but it was not to be. His petitions continued, always falling upon deaf ears.
As my ship took shape, it was soon obvious that she would be a beauty such as few had ever seen before, even among the vessels of a king. Two-hundred feet long, from figurehead to stern, she was forty-five feet wide, and boasted a two-foot-thick mast that soared to a height of one-hundred and twenty-five feet and would bear a sail the size of a small pasture. There were oar-holes for forty-five men on both the port and starboard sides of the pinewood hull, which was carved as if it were armored in serpent‘s scales.
I could not help but to imagine it at sea. At full sail, banners streaming in the wind, bright-painted shields hung along her sides, the dragon figurehead, with its emerald eyes, leaping forth, over the swelling seas, she would attract hundreds, maybe thousands, of worthy mariners and fighting men, from miles around, from whom I could choose the best, heroes all, to sail upon our quest for fame, fortune, and honor.
One day, as I watched my ship being built, I was surprised to observe, among the crowd of onlookers, the wealthy merchant Gunnar. A tall, slender man in his late forties, his once-dark hair graying at the temples, he wore a hooded green cloak, a purple tunic, a wide leather belt, leather leggings, and calfskin boots. His belt was hung with several small leather bags and a fringed drawstring purse. His clothing was fastened with several pins and brooches, all in silver or gold, a display of his wealth. I knew him only casually, from the days, during my youth, when he had conducted business with my father, selling the chieftain supplies for one or another of his many voyages.
“Good afternoon, chieftain,” he said.
“Your ship—it is, indeed, beautiful. It will sail soon?”
“Within a week, perhaps.”
He looked surprised. “You have selected a crew already?”
“It was not difficult; after seeing Flame of the Sea, the crew nearly picked me!”
“Have you found someone to supply the vessel?”
Ah! I thought. Now, we would get down to business. “Several merchants have approached me.”
“As I do, now.”
“I need food, supplies and equipment of all kinds, weapons—”
“I know. I used to supply your father’s ships.”
“I will need provisions enough to last three months.”
“Three months! That is some voyage, indeed.” He made a show of watching the builders. Then, casually, he asked, “What is your destination?”
I ignored his question, focusing on our business. “I am accepting bids. The lowest—”
“I dare say will be mine. I am willing to supply and equip your ship free of charge.”
His offer made me suspicious. “No offense, Gunnar, but I have never known a merchant who would make such an offer. Indeed, he would not be in business long, if he were to provide such terms. There is not much profit in giving things away.”
He smiled. “There is none,” he agreed, “and I do not make such offers, as a rule, but, in view of the grievous loss that you have suffered, and in view of the purpose of your quest—”
“Purpose?” I glared at him. “Who told you my purpose, merchant?”
He paled, stepping back. His lips twitched, as if he had intended to smile but had, at the last moment, decided that it would be better to maintain a neutral expression. “No one has told me anything, chieftain,” he demurred. “I merely assumed.”
Stepping forward, I closed the slight gap between us. “And what, exactly, did you assume?” I challenged him.
“Naturally, I took for granted that you mean to complete the work that your father’s untimely demise caused him to leave unfinished.”
“You measure your words as carefully as an honest merchant measures sales of grain,” I said.
“Just so: always provide a full measure in every transaction; that is my way.”
“There are hundreds of merchants hereabouts, and more in other lands, many of whom will have heard of the building of a ship as fabulous as Flame of the Sea. None of them, but you, have offered to supply and equip my ship free of charge.” I studied the man before me. “Why do you?”
“I knew your father, as I know your mother, and he was more than my chieftain; he was my friend.” Gunnar’s eyes became teary as he spoke. “I know the deep grief his passing must have caused for your mother—for all of you—and, indeed, for our people. The years have been good to me, as have the gods, and my coffers are full—indeed, overflowing. I believe it my duty, before the gods, before Olaf and his widow Mjoll, and before you, my new chieftain, to make the offer I have made.”
Had I been wrong to distrust this man? I asked myself. Not wrong, perhaps, because it is never wrong to be cautious, especially when a merchant offers free supplies, but had I been unduly harsh? Perhaps. He had had dealings with my father, and my father had never had occasion to question the merchant. His sorrow for my mother and, indeed, for me, seemed genuine. Perhaps he did feel a duty to help the late chieftain’s heir reclaim the glory of his father’s name.
My manner softened. “I accept your most generous offer, Gunnar, with deepest gratitude.”
His face brightened, and he smiled. “I am delighted, my chieftain, that I may be of service to you! I will have my son, Hrafn, supervise the loading of the supplies and equipment as soon as you like.”
“I will let you know, Gunnar, and thanks again.”
* * *
When, a week later, Hrafn, accompanied by his father, arrived with a caravan of horse-drawn wagons loaded with supplies and equipment, I stood in the bow of my ship, behind the figurehead that stretched its dragon’s neck, out over the sea, its emerald eyes flashing in the sun, as if it sought to spy the island to which we would sail, and watched the merchant and his son, directing their servants.
Their horses struggled to pull the heavily laden wagons up the wide loading planks. My crew assisted the merchant’s men, directing the workers to the deck amidships, from which the planks had temporarily been removed so that the provisions could be stored below.
The procession of wagons seemed endless, and I reckoned that the merchant must have given away a fortune in merchandise to equip and supply my ship for her maiden voyage. His friendship with, and his admiration for, my father must have been huge. Indeed, until his failure, on his last expedition, my father had been a well-loved and admired chieftain. Among many, his memory commanded respect, even now. I owed Gunnar a debt of gratitude, for he had made me realize, with his monumental gift, just how treasured my father had been, and was, to many in his tribe.
The merchant’s son was as Gunnar must have been, when his father had been but twenty years old. He matched Gunnar in height and weight, but Hrafn’s hair was yet dark, thick, and wavy, not graying, and his dress was lighter, simpler, and more colorful than Gunnar’s garb. He wore no cloak, no leggings, and no leather belt. Instead, he was dressed in a yellow woolen tunic, cinched with a twisted red rope, cut to fit the circumference of his waist. His eyes were piercing and intent. As he pointed this way and that, directing his father’s servants as to where to deposit one load or where to take another, he paused, occasionally, to talk among those of my crew who had not yet boarded my ship. However, they had little time to spare for idle conversation, and soon after Hrafn began to chat with them, the mariners moved on, going about their own tasks.
Chests, sleeping bags, blankets, ropes, barrels of salted meat and fish, fresh water, mead, nuts, dried fruit, bread, cheese, butter, sea clothes, animal skins and furs, snowshoes, woolen tents, tent frames, pots, pans, kettles, shields, swords, spears, battle-axes, all manner of tools, wheeled carts, sleds, and such animals as chickens, dogs, cows, and horses were loaded aboard the ship, provisions enough for a crew of a hundred and fifty men for three months.
Were we to need more, we would loot men and women on foreign shores, as need demanded and opportunity allowed, but I wanted the expedition to start well, that it might end well, and, in my estimation, too many a voyage came to a bad end because there was not food enough, drink enough, or weapons enough to meet contingencies. Indeed, too few supplies aboard my father’s ship, I suspected, might have contributed to his voyage’s disaster. An adventurer never knows what catastrophe might overtake him or what crisis he might face, but, by being prepared, as best he can, he can, at least, not disadvantage himself from the beginning. Often, having the needed supplies and equipment on hand has saved a day—or a battle—that, otherwise, might have been lost. I intended, on my voyage, to succeed, come what may.
“Chieftain, as he oversees his servants, the merchant’s son questions your crew,” one of my oarsmen apprised me, as I watched the progress of the men ashore.
“What sort of questions?”
“Chiefly, where we go, and to what end.”
I frowned. These queries, unnecessary to Hrafn’s delivery of his goods, could portend an intent to harm. But harm whom? I wondered, and, more to the point, harm how? My crew and I, a hundred and fifty strong, were Viking warriors who had been tested in battle and were of proven mettle, every one. How could a merchant’s son hope to harm us or our cause? The idea was, in itself, ludicrous!
“Most likely, he seeks but to satisfy his idle curiosity,” I told the oarsman. “He is a stranger to the warrior’s ways and knows not, perhaps, that the voyages that such men as we undertake merit a cautious eye, a ready ear, and a bridled tongue. I think he means no harm, but, just the same, tell his father, Gunnar, that I would have a word with him.”
I watched my rower cross the deck, jog down the bryggja, or gangplank, and make his way through the throng of his fellow crewmen, past stacked merchandise, wagons, and scurrying servants, to the merchant. Words were exchanged, and Gunnar returned along a path similar to the one the oarsman had made as he’d borne my summons to the merchant. In a few minutes, he stood before me.
“What a glorious day to set sail,” he remarked, inhaling the briny air.
“What makes you think my ship sails this day?”
Gunnar looked left and right, at the supplies and equipment, at the bustling crew, and his own scampering servants, bearing goods. “It seems that all is in readiness, or will be, within the hour.”
“There may be more to do aboard than you suspect,” I told him, thinking of all that remained to be done before we mounted the sail and took to the sea. I nodded toward Hrafn, as he paused in his duties to converse with one of my crew.
“Your son seems to have as many questions as he does crates and barrels.”
“He is possessed of a naturally inquisitive mind,” the merchant explained. “He has asked more questions since he acquired the power of speech than I have during all my days.”
“I am told that he asks questions about his chieftain’s destination and purpose.”
Gunnar sighed. “I am sorry, my lord.”
“Some questions are best left unasked—even by someone who has a naturally inquisitive mind.”
“I will speak to him at once, my lord.”
“Has Hrafn never sailed in your own merchant’s ship?”
“He has, chieftain, and would again, had I not lost warriors to defend my wares during our expeditions to foreign lands.”
“You had warriors enough once, did you not?”
“I did, until expeditions such as yours, and raids upon the continent, and the inevitable combat among other Viking tribes made recruitment impossible—at least at the wages I am willing to pay.”
“Why, Gunnar! It is difficult to tell who is wealthier, you or the king!”
The merchant blushed. “I mean to stay wealthy, too, a feat impossible if I am to pay the wages the market in warriors these days demands. It is wiser to finance the outfitting of another’s ship than to operate one’s own.”
“As you have outfitted Flame of the Sea?”
“Just so, my chieftain, although, of course, I equipped your ship for reasons other than trade.”
“True, my vessel is built for battle, not for bargaining.”
“I give you my word that my son will pester your men no more with questions, unseemly or otherwise. Now, if you have no objections, I should like to look about your ship myself.”
“It is a beautiful vessel, as you know, and I would see it from stem to stern, inside, as I have outside. Besides, as the last of the provisions are loaded, it is best if I inventory your supplies and equipment, to make sure nothing has been omitted and all is stored properly for the long voyage that lies before you.”
“Would you like a tour? I can arrange an escort.”
“I would be honored, my lord, although, in truth, I know my way around a ship and would prefer not to take a man from a needed task just to remind me to watch my head and step.”
I chuckled. “I think you know enough to watch both,” I answered him. “I appreciate your inspection and your concern, my friend.”
I returned to my observation post, watching the activities of my men and of Hrafn and his servants, certain that Gunnar would ensure that all was well with the provisions and their storage. I could see why my father had never questioned the merchant; the man knew his business and he was, it seemed, as honest as he was dependable. At the same time, he did not confuse partnership with friendship. I was confident that he and I could be as good friends as he and my father had been. His generous assistance to my cause had shortened the preparation time for my departure considerably.
Tomorrow morning, we would embark upon the glorious adventure that, if all went as I hoped, would win my warriors, my people, my family, and me fame, glory, and wealth, while it restored honor, forever, to my father’s noble name.
Before he returned ashore, the merchant, stopped by, to assure me that all was well.
“You stocked mead, not ale?”
Looking a bit uncomfortable, Gunnar nodded. “As you commanded, my lord.” He’d planned to provide only the cheaper drink, but my men, I insisted, deserved the very best. Mariners find little luxury at sea and warriors find even less in battle, and I would have my crew drink only the best. In their leisure and at meals, they should imbibe the very honey wine the gods themselves customarily drink. “Mead for all!” I had ordered, telling Gunnar that I myself would be glad to bear the cost of this indulgence of my men. He had demurred, insisting that he would provide even this commodity, free of charge. Now, he felt, no doubt, a bit miserly for first having sought to supply only ale, despite his own extravagant generosity otherwise. It was odd, I thought, how wealthy, generous men seek to scrimp on insignificant things, just to persuade themselves that, in their extravagant munificence, they have not gone overboard when, in fact, they have.
“I cannot thank you enough, good Gunnar,” I said.
“I am glad to have been able to assist you, chieftain.”
“Call me Eric; you have earned the right.”
“Thank you, Eric. May the gods be with you.”
I watched him as he left my ship. The wagons had retired, and the merchant stood with his son, talking, as their servants waited, weary from their labors. No doubt, I thought, Hrafn was asking more questions. After a few minutes, the son led the servants home. I smiled as I saw Gunnar enter a nearby inn. After a long day, before returning home himself, he would now enjoy a tankard or two of mead, it seemed—unless, indulging his propensity for odd moments of penurious spending, despite the enormous generosity he had displayed on my behalf, he would order ale.
Raising my arm, I placed my hand upon the dragon’s neck—and stared, in wonder: the figurehead seemed alive, its cold wood, warm flesh; its emerald eyes, expressive of intellect. I fancied I saw smoke gust from its carved nostrils and felt the fire in its belly, as the great serpent lurched and strained, impatient to begin our fateful voyage. I stared, seeing the piercing eyes glare, the nostrils flare, and the glittering scales surge as the great snake-like neck stretched forth, over the water of the fjord, as if it would draw the whole ship after itself as it took to the open sea.
It was but my own mind, of course, playing tricks on me. So desperately did I want to embark upon this journey to claim my own fame and to restore my father’s name that I had imagined that the ship itself, or its spirit, embodied in the figurehead, was also driven by a similar will.
I stroked the dragon’s neck, but it was wood again—or, rather it had always been wood, and the spell that my own eagerness to depart had worked upon it, making it seem, to my mind, to be real, had passed off, so that I recognized, once more, the true character of the carving; it was wood, not flesh; senseless, not conscious; inanimate, not alive.
And, yet, my arm tingled, and my heart raced. I felt as one with my ship as I did with my past and future. My father’s fate and my own were united in the danger, mystery, and adventure of the quest which, tomorrow, would begin.
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