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I asked my Lord Erling, when they brought me before him in the clean priest's robe he'd gotten somewhere, if he would buy my sister as well. He didn't have to try, but he did. Maeve was gone. The merchant said he'd sold the girl, he forgot to whom.
We sailed out early the next morning. Erling walked beside me down to the harbor and pointed out his ship where she lay by the jetty.
"I know little of ships," I said, "but that looks to me a flying thing." Loath as I was to grant beauty to anything in these heathen lands, the vessel seemed to me graceful as a bird, slim and deadly.
"A flying thing indeed, Father Aillil," said Erling. "Her name is Fishhawk. She has twenty-eight rooms. That means it takes fifty-six men to row her. Fishhawk's the fastest ship in Norway."
"Fifty-six oarsmen," said I. "You've a lot more than fifty-six men here." A great crowd of stout towheads were climbing the gangways, loading my lord's final purchases.
Erling laughed. "Over two hundred. They have to take it in shifts after all."
"But surely you could do with fewer than two hundred."
"The rest are for the sport."
"Wait. You'll see soon enough."
I shed tears as we left Visby behind, casting off my last ties to Maeve.
Erling assigned one of the men, a freckled lad named Thorkel, not yet twenty, born in Dublin, to start me learning Norse. I found it easier than I might have thought, as it's similar to the damnable English tongue, of which I'd picked up a few scraps. My trouble was my stomach. Then and since I've been a bad sailor, and I spent the bulk of my time (and the bulk of my meals) at the rail. I lived for our nightly anchorages and encampments ashore. I had just jettisoned my breakfast one morning when Thorkel clapped me on the shoulder and bade me look across the water, where a ship was lowering its sail and unshipping its oars.
"Now for the sport!" he cried.
"What's this sport?"
"This stretch around the point of Jutland is the thickest hunting ground in the world for pirates. They see us; they take us for a merchant ship and close in to fight, as these Vikings are doing now."
"Is that why you don't carry a dragon head?"
"The very reason."
"What if they come with more than one ship?"
"Two ships we'll fight. More than twothere's no shame in running. But waitcan you see? Up by the Viking's prow?"
"There's a man up therehe's shouting something down to his captain."
"They've spotted our armed men. They see we're more than they can handle. They'll hoist sail in a moment and fly."
"But you can catch them, can't you?"
"We can catch anything."
Every man but I seemed to know his job. Some handled the rigging, following the mate's orders, letting out the lines and setting the stretcher boom to get the most of the wind. Others carried weapons up from stores, mostly bows and arrows and casting spears, for swords and axes and shields and thrusting spears the men had of their own. Others spread sand on the deck to soak up blood, and all looked to their own gear, whether helmet and chain-mail brynje or leather cap and padded jerkin.
Erling came back to me, wearing a bright brynje and a gilded helmet with a nosepiece. He carried a plain axe and a yellow shieldround and light, about a yard wide in the Viking fashionand a leather cap with an iron frame.
"You'd best have these, in case of mischance," he said.
A big warrior named Steinulf objected. "I like not this arming of thralls," he said.
"Father Aillil is my freedman," said Erling. "More than that he is God's priest, and a mighty warrior in the household of the Lord. He'll pray a prayer to take the wind out of that Viking's sail and turn the hearts of his men to piss. You can do that, can you not, Father Aillil? A proper Irish prayer full of proper Irish curses?"
I laughed as I took up the arms. "I'll curse those devils for you, my lord, and with a good will. I'll make their heavens bronze and their sea blood. I'll call the souls of their victims up to tear out their livers."
What followed was sweet to my heart. I forgot my seasickness; I forgot that I no longer believed in God. I stood up in the stern before the steersman and watched as the Viking, with its diamond-patterned sail puffing, fell steadily nearer in spite of its crew's efforts. Soon we could make out the worried faces of the warriors above the thwarts.
"O God of hosts," I cried. "O God who gave might to Samson and victory to David, who smote the power of the Amorites with Thy strong hand and laid them in the dust, both them and their women and their little ones, do Thou stand with us Thy warriors in this holy battle. May the heathen see the power of Thy strong right arm and be unmanned. May their hair stand on end, and turn white, and fly out; may their ears buzz, and flap, and gush with blood; may their eyes see visions of the devils who will soon be their tormenters, and go blind, and fall out upon their cheeks, and be pecked at by seagulls; may their tongues break out in sores, and swell, and stuff their mouths and choke them. May their hearts hiccup in their chests, and batter their ribs, and lodge in their throats; may their stomachs be filled with squirming piglets, and swell, and burst, so that they trip on their guts. May their kidneys and rumps let loose together, and the waste fill the ship, so they drown in it; may their hands blister and blacken and shrink into claws like an eagle's and turn against their own faces and throats. May their knees hammer one on the other so they hear it in Jerusalem, and so break their legs and crush their stones; and may their feet tread on nails, and thorns, and venomous serpents, and swell to such size and weight as to bear them down to the bottom of the sea. May their fathers curse their names, and their mothers slice off the breasts that suckled them for shame, and may their uncles and cousins cry, `Oh, that the day had never dawned when such a coward and woman and slinking dog was born to our blood!' "
With these and many other sweet coaxings I called wrath down on our enemies, and as we drew ever closer our men began to whistle and shout, and the bowmen on either side loosed their arrows, but we warded ourselves with our shields and they did us no harm. And at last the Vikings gave it up and lowered sail again, clearing their decks for defense and massing their shields on the near rail.
And Erling shouted for the men to lower our own sail, and even as it was done the oarsmen slipped their oars out through the holes, and the boatswain started them a song, and they sang as they rowed, keeping time, and I sang too, although I did not know the words, and then we closed with her on our starboard side, and the starboard rowers shipped their oars, and their comrades were already shielding them at the rail, and the ships bumped and scraped, and our men threw grappling irons, and then the dance began.
Oh, it was fair to hear the clang of steel, and the shouts of the warriors. I trotted about and found spears and stones that had been cast into our ship, and I took them up and cast them back where they came from, singing all I could remember of an imprecatory psalm. It wasn't long before our men had broken the shield wall, and then we were over the rails and on themErling Skjalgsson, his helmet shining, the first, and I, my robe kilted up in my belt, not last.
And oh, I was ready to believe in God again, for here at length was the thing I had dreamed of, to face the Northerners man to man with arms in my hands, and give them back twice and threefold for all they had done to my father, and my mother, and my brother and poor little Maeve. If these weren't the very Vikings who'd done those things, they were close enough and just as wicked. I knew no fear. I knew no weariness. I hewed and I shouted and I fended with my shield, and something like a red mist rose before my eyes, and when it was gone my own comrades were holding my arms, keeping me back from a few wounded wretches who had yielded themselves. And all the rest of that pirate crew lay dead or dying, and Erling's men were dumping them overboard. And I fell on Thorkel's neck, weary of a sudden, and I wept, or laughed.
They found a chest of silver in the Viking's hold, along with bales of woolen cloth, and the spoil was divided that afternoon, and I got my share.
And Erling ordered a cask of ale broached, and he said to his men, "What think you of my priest now?"
And the crew (and Steinulf was loud among them) cheered me three times over, and said that their lord had found a very proper man of God indeed.
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|Title:||The Year of the Warrior|
|Copyright:||© 2000 by Lars Walker|