And A Bit More...
It was not the morning weather they would have wished for their last day’s sail: rough clouds jostled the sky and wind whipped up the waves into swells that pushed this way and that. But sail they must: by nightfall, Ragnar had commanded, the bulk of the fleet should be anchored in an estuary down the coast, which had been scouted by advance guards and determined free of Saxons bent on stopping the invasion.
Though the Arndis was small for a warcraft, Guthorm loved everything about her: the gray clinch-built big-bellied hull with its gracefully overlapping strakes, like feathers on a hawk’s wing; the painted and gilded dragon head “prow” at either end, so that the ship could be run up a foreshore and run back out again without need to turn; the striped sail that cracked like thunder in the wind; the “ash-breeze”, the skald’s name for the foaming oar-thresh through which the ship skimmed the waves, raised by the power of the ashwood blades.
Especially did he love the many-colored shields that hung outboard when coming in to quay, though at sea all were stored securely under the thwarts. Guthorm’s was proudly painted with the Battle-Dragon: the great Orm, the horned serpent of the God, sign of his house and origin of his name. His own sisters had woven the device into the war flag that flew now atop the mast, in emulation of the famous Raven Banner woven by the three daughters of Ragnar Lodbrok, streaming before the fleet from the mast of Ragnar’s lead ship, the Sigrún, Rune of Victory, almost two hundred feet long and capable of carrying eighty men and more.
It was whispered among the ships that all in one stormy night had they fashioned that magic flag, the three Ragnarsdottirs. Fierce and fair as their warrior brothers, they had stood to their great loom like the Norns themselves, the story went, and by dawn their work was done. And here was the magic: though it was called the Raven Banner, there was no raven to be seen, just a plain, sheened, heavy white piece of cloth. But it was said that when you looked closely at it, in a certain light or slant, the Raven of Odin would appear in the very warp and weft, and would spread its wings for victory, or huddle them close for defeat.
It had taken the daughters of Olaf three weeks, not one night, to make their own standard, but then there was no magic in it that Guthorm knew of, just his sisters’ good honest weaving. The banner bore the same image that was on his shield—the Horned Serpent of Wisdom, silver on sea-blue—and he smiled as he looked up at it.
He saw it change and flap heavily upon the changing air, and, suddenly alert, he turned to glance back at the line of sail behind him. There was a squall line rushing down upon them, black to the northeast, such a sudden tempest as was common on the Northern Sea; while before them in the south and west was an unearthly brightness, silver-white, blazing so that he had to shade his eyes to look at it. But though the wind was pushing them along the wavetops, skimming rather than sailing, they were unable to catch up to the sun, and it was westering even as he watched. Guthorm wondered if Saxon eyes were looking out from the bare clifftops to the west, high jutting cliffs as rough as any in the Northlands, spilling down into the sea; wondered too with what fury those watching eyes might be filled, what resolve to resist, what war plans might lie behind them.
Three hundred striped sails beating southward along the Saxon coast: what a sight it must make, the masts like a forest upon the sea, and he wondered if the Saxons on shore saw and were afraid, or whether they too noted the oncoming squall and hoped it would do its worst.
He was in his usual place by the rail, out of the way as the men worked, when the Arndis and several other ships were caught by the squall’s edge. From looking ahead to the coast, all at once he was staring down into foaming water, then the ship heeled the other way, the water mounting higher and higher until it stood like a silver sword-blade laid down along the gunwales. He looked at it for what seemed an eternity and thought that it would never break, but then it did, rushing at him like a glacier-burst. His father and brothers tried to fight their way back to him, but the water was too sudden and too strong. Even in that crowded moment, though, he remembered his training, and as the wave took him he forced himself to relax and let it carry him over the side.
For all his dislike of the sea, he was a strong swimmer, and when his head broke water some yards away the ship had already righted herself, and hands were already stretching oars out to him. He grabbed for the nearest, sprawled across it strengthlessly and let the arm-strength of two rowers on the blade’s end lift him from the sea and swing him aboard like a caught crab. As it turned out, four others from the Arndis had gone over with him, but they were safe as well; the only casualties had been some of the food supplies—nothing that could not be replaced, and they were near enough to journey’s end to do without if they had to.
His brothers quickly stripped him of the soaked clothing and wrapped him in dry furs to warm him, pushing him down out of the wind; he had been in the water only a few minutes, but he was chilled to the bone. Thank all gods his few possessions had been securely stowed in his sea chest lashed to the thwarts, and had not gone into the waves to be lost: the precious weapons with which his mother had gifted him before they sailed—the sword, his first real blade; the sharp little triangular dagger; even the short springy bow, not a Dane noble’s usual weapon but he was exceptionally good with it. Even more precious, his small harp, kept safe in a double-flapped bag of waterproof whale leather with his set of carved bone runes—he was good with both, often playing for the men as they sang after the nightmeal, or casting the runes around the fire at night ashore. After a while he warmed up again; he pulled on clean, dry clothes, and the shivering eased.
“Were you afraid, Gythi?” asked Audun, wide-eyed and quiet under the hastily half-raised tilt. Born on the same day, the sons of twin sisters, the two boys were more like twins themselves than cousins, the one with hair bright as sunlight, the other's the color of the rose gold so prized by treasure-seekers. They had been reared together at Koppervik when Audun’s mother died long since, and Audun had cried out in terror now to see his cousin flung into the waves.
“I was surely afraid, seeing it,” he added. Beside him, the skald’s son Bjarni nodded agreement.
“Yes,” said Guthorm vigorously, and honestly, huddling again under the furs. “And also no—before I left home, Freydis our spaewife told me that though my death lies across the sea, I shall never die of drowning, will never go to the blue halls of Njord. So I did not fear death in the waters. But, you know, I was afraid all the same.”
Other ships had not been so lucky: the squall’s winds had pushed them deep into the outer shorebreak above a hidden and treacherous shoal, and now they were caught in the tidepull, headed inexorably for a darkly gleaming spine of rock that reared just below the surface, like a sounding whale’s back.
Now Guthorm watched, still shivering, though not now with the cold, as two of the foundering longships were driven onto the sharp shoals, breaking apart in a fury of white water and splintered keel. Many men were lost, for they had remained aboard trying to bring the ships about. The other craft dared not approach closer, lest the teeth of the rocks should bite upon themselves, but stood off and hoped to pick up any survivors. There had been no cries for help; that was not the northern way. The men thrown into that churning, frigid sea would spend their last moments not whining vainly for aid that could not come but preparing themselves for Odin or Freyja to take them. Perhaps they did not die in battle with men, but in battle they died even so: in battle with the sea itself, great Njord’s wave armies, and as for any warrior perished in battle, the valkyr would come for them.
Indeed, Jorund, the young goðar of Frey from Koppervik, who had sailed in the Arndis with them, cried out in a strong voice that he saw the valkyr, those bright maids of battlefame, coming for the souls that were lost. Eyes dazzled with sun-glint and wonder and grief, Guthorm saw them then himself: riding their shining horses down the slopes of the air, pulling the drowned men up behind them to the golden saddles and turning in a spray of light for the rainbow bridge and the great gates of Valhall beyond. And then the ships were gone, pulled under, not even their sails laid upon the waters to mark where they had been.
A sound came across the waves then like the horn of Heimdall who was guardian of that bridge, a sound that was deep, eerie, echoing: the blowing of lurs, the long, wide-mouthed bronze horns used to signal from ship to ship or down the steep-walled fjords. First one, then a few joined, then more and more, so that the melodious sound echoed forward and back, up and down the line of sail. It was a tribute: the survivors of the fleet were honoring their fallen. They did not search for bodies; they said that Njord claimed his own, and Ran wife of Njord would feast them in her blue-ceilinged halls far below the waves.
The horns that troubled my sleep at Skerssik…was it a warning? Or a gift? Or perhaps a curse... Coming out from the tilt, Guthorm threw off the furs and pulled himself up, to show respect. Turning his head, he saw Olaf standing by the mast, tall and straight as a mast himself, his bared sword raised in salute and farewell as the lurs sounded on.
The squall line passed with no further disaster, and just before sunset the Arndis came safely into a river mouth a few miles farther down the coast; Guthorm heard his uncle Helm say with quiet relief that many sails were there before them in this agreed-upon anchorage, and many more were following them in. He craned his head above the gunwale to see a wide-mouthed estuary, its calm waters already sheltering at least a hundred longships both at anchor and run up the shore, and turning he could see a line of even more stretching out behind, back out to sea. Despite Ragnar’s command, they would not all make harbor tonight; many would choose another night’s camping on a safe beach or would ride out the darkness sea-anchored, rather than dare an unknown harbor in the dark.
Even the land seemed somehow ominous in the gray twilight: there were heavy woods running down to the shore, perfect for harboring hostile Saxons, but he could see no sign that any were about: this was their planned destination and place of disembarking, and the advance landing parties would have made sure that no one would have to worry about being attacked out of their ships
This low, flat, sea-fingered region of England, very like to their Danish homeland with its peaty soil and salt-marshes, was sparsely settled in any case; most Saxons lived far to the south and west, in the fat rolling grasslands of Wessex and Mercia. The Butterdowns, he had heard those regions called, for the richness of the grazing. The army would be heading there eventually, it was great Ragnar’s plan; but the first order of business, as he had heard the captains discussing round the campfires, would be to spend almost the whole of this year 864 of the Christian god settling in.
They needed time to recover from the long sea voyage, get their full fighting strength back. After that, the urgency was to provision themselves, replace their losses—though the men lost at sea could not be replaced, at least not without sending home for more—forge and stockpile weapons, acquire horses by theft, force or even purchase, raise some crops for foodstuff and fodder next season, to ensure that neither they nor the beasts they would buy or capture or steal from the Saxons should go hungry in winter.
And all this needed doing before the Great Army, as it was already being called, could move on its first big objective: Eboracum, the Romans had called it, but it was known to the Danes as the strong-walled, stone-built, northern river city of Jorvik.
Or, as the English turned the name, York.
(c)2008, Patricia Morrison