Prologue: The Swan-Road
FROM UNDER THE GAILY STRIPED CANVAS TENT AMIDSHIPS, the boy on the dragonship looked out at a rising sea and a rocky shoreline little more than a mile away. Before and behind him, the men sat on their carven-oak sea chests, busy with small chores, talking quietly, even napping; under sail, there was little for anyone to do save the steersman and a few sail-handlers.
The ship slicing silently through the North Sea waters was called the Arndis, which meant Eagle Goddess: after a long voyage from a quiet distant vik, a bay on the western seaboard of the Dannemark, to the isles of Orkney, where they had rested for a few days with countrymen who had settled there, then a straight run before a northeasterly gale down the coast of Scotland, it was now in sight of the English shore, and all the mighty fleet with it.
The boy was young, not quite fifteen, so that not overmuch was asked of him; his father and elder brothers and cousins who accompanied him saw to that, but they also saw that he rowed and hauled sail enough to build muscle for the spear and keep a callused palm for the swordhilt.
His name was Guthorm, and this was his first time on the Swan-road, the Whale-path—the gray sea that was the raiding trail to warriors of his folk, and had been for more than half a hundred years.
A raiding longship was not a comfortable place. Open to wave and weather, only the canvas tent—called a tilt—to shelter under at night or in rain, everywhere the creaking of the ash boards, the gunwales rising only a few feet above the waterline: that was the price paid for extreme speed and maneuverability. The dragonships of the Northmen, terror of all Europe to the south, were designed with stems at both ends, the more quickly to run up a foreshore and then reverse under oar without needing to be turned round. The oak keel drew a mere three feet of water, so the force could sail far, far upriver to the fat cities of the inlands, sitting smug, thinking themselves safe from sea-reivers; and the light, clinker-built design of the hull meant easy portage on log rollers should the need arise.
The Arndis carried a complement of thirty men, fifteen oars to a side, so she was not as crowded as most vessels of her kind; other ships were bigger, eighty oars even, and could hold more, especially slaves and other cargo. But that was a good size for a swift craft, and the ship had been built especially for his father’s crew and company—men he had known all his life, many of whom were kin. Those who sailed a longship were more like a trading venture than a mercenary crew: they shared in the costs of the building and the sailing, and in return they took shares in the profits and loot, the captain and owner’s share being of course the largest.
Guthorm had been around boats and ships since childhood; most Danish boys had, especially sons of sea lords, such as he was himself. But unlike most, he was not the best or happiest of sailors: he had never stood on a deck without uncomfortably sensing the shifting depths beneath him, all the way down to the clean sand floor far, far below, and all that empty cold salt water between. He had thought often that his misliking was perhaps prophecy, that he would die at sea, as so many of his race did, and this aversion to the ocean was merely foresighted self-preservation and caution.
As he grew it had not ceased to trouble him. Sometimes he even dreamed about it, and his dreams were worse than anything he had seen in life: great towering glass-green waves the size of hills, rearing up with no warning out of quiet bays, to topple and crash upon the houses and the cattle and the folk. He did not speak of it to any of his kin, but the dreams continued; so much so that after waking one night in shuddering outcries that roused half the longhouse, who all thought enemies had invaded and had leaped up naked to seize their axes, he went next morning to consult the spaewife, the sorceress of his clan, the witch who advised the folk of Koppervik, and healed them also.
She lived in a small stone house shaped like a beehive, on the edge of the birch forest bordering the homegarth; she was called Freydis. He had known her since his childhood: one of his earliest memories was of his mother bringing him to the stone house; he could not have been more than three—a sturdy, silent blond child with sea-gray eyes. He had not known what to expect of the woman he had been brought to see, and to be seen by, but he had never forgotten how she had smiled at him, and had given him a small piece of honeycomb, sweet dripping amber from the bees who lived in the hives behind the beehive-shaped house.
But this time he had gone to seek her counsel alone, as a man would, a young warrior preparing for his first raiding voyage. As a child he had thought her ancient, weighed down with the aura of power that clung about her like a cloak; now he was surprised every time they met to see how young and tall and straight she was, even now, twelve years or more after their first meeting, to think how young she must have been then herself, not many years older then than he was now. When he came walking up, she had smiled at him as always when he appeared at the door of her little stone house—she still gave him a piece of honeycomb whenever he came to visit, and he still ate it with enjoyment—but this was a professional consultation, client to expert, the first time he had approached her so, and he had brought a suitable fee: a string of rare red amber beads strung with tiny gold drops.
She had accepted the gift gravely and with formal thanks, setting it carefully aside, facing him across the furs and skins upon which they sat, waiting for him to speak. When he haltingly asked her about his dream, his aversion to the sea and his thought that he would one day perish in it, or by it, fearing that she would only think him afraid, Freydis—it was a title rather than a name, he had never heard her truename, no one had—had shaken her head so that the carnelian and silver bead strings falling from her white fur headdress swayed and swung, and looked at him with nothing but affection and compassion in her face.
“Rune matter, Gythi. Let us see what the stones may say.”
As her name implied, she was not only a spaewife but a priestess of Freyja, the Great Goddess, and therefore a person of much awe on the homegarth and for miles around; even the master of Koppervik, Guthorm’s father Olaf, trod respectfully around her, giving room for her shadow on the grass, as he would for a god or a nisse, one of the elves that lived in the wood or under mountain or along the lonely shore. Her mother had preceded her as priestess at Koppervik, and her mother before her; farther back than that, no one now living there remembered. She had the knowledge of the runes—of stave and of stone—she knew the way of seidhr, the magic learning that Oðin Allfather himself had humbly learned from the goddess Freyja.
And she concerned herself totally with the lives of the families she protected, and who in turn supported and protected her: her mother had married Olaf to his wife Arndis, Freydis herself had sained the newborn Guthorm and his elder sibs before the gods; she blessed beast and field and dwelling-place, she healed with herbs and drenches, she avenged with hexes. As she had done with his brothers, she had even arranged Guthorm’s introduction to the art of love last year, with a young woman of suitable birth and breeding apprenticed to a fellow spaewife on a manor on the other side of the Dannemark; and she had helped negotiate, with Arndis and Olaf, the marriages of Guthorm’s three elder sisters, advantageous matches to strong jarls of great holdings.
As no doubt she would help arrange his own marriage, in a few years; indeed, suitable girls were already being considered. Marriage among all Northfolk was an alliance of families and property, far more than merely a union of youth and maiden; and it certainly did not depend on love between the two parties it most closely concerned. Some degree of liking was of course desirable, and some choice allowed on both sides—no parents wished to force their children into a despised match, since it was certain that any marital unhappiness would spread to the two kindreds as well.
But such concerns were still years in his future. Looking at the immenseness of sea and sky that lay before him now, Guthorm remembered how he had sat with Freydis, rapt, in the tiny cold dimness of the beehive hut: the blue smoke from the stone firepit, the bleached white bones and antlers upon the walls, strange half-glimpsed shadows, his head buzzing with the fumes of burning herbs and her high tuneless humming. In his half-trance he had thought that her tiny stone house had somehow grown to be larger and vaster than all this airy reach of water and wind; indeed, it had seemed that the little hut had contained all of Midgard itself within its walls, all the rolling earth within its bounds.
Her witch-voice had thinned and chilled as she went into the seer’s trance, drawing the runes out of a white-and-gray rabbit-fur bag, casting them before her on the hard-packed earthen floor; he heard in memory the click of the dark-green, red-flecked stones as she threw them again and again, the high hawk’s voice calling on the gods—on Odin, on Freyja, on Skadi, on Tyr.
“Hagalaz, Tiwaz, Os. Far from here, yes, will come your death. Only a king can contest against a king. A contest for more than rule. Sigel, Daeg, Raido. A king’s death will be yours, a queen beside you. You will die on the far side of water, but not by water shall you perish. That will not be your fate.”
(c)2008, Patricia Morrison