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"Is my Lord Erling a king's son?" I asked Thorkel one afternoon when we'd rounded the Skaw and the oily North Sea was less vile than usual and I'd just been to the rail and so felt a little better. "I know there are many kings in Norway, as in Ireland."
"Best not to speak to Erling of kings," said Thorkel. "We've had a few high kings in NorwayHarald Finehair and Haakon the Good and Erik Bloodaxe, but they run to short lives. We've plenty of small kings, who rule whatever land they can stretch their swords over, and jarls, who are much the same as the small kings, except that a jarl's son can never be a king.
"Erling is a great-grandson of Horda-Kari, who laid all Hordaland under himself, but kept the title of hersir, not even bending to call himself jarl, although it's a higher title, for he and his race are proud that way.
"Horda-Kari had four sonsThorleif the Wise was the first. Second was Ogmund, father of Thorolf Skjalg, Erling's father. Third was Thord, whose son Klypp the Hersir slew King Sigurd Sleva, son of Erik Bloodaxe, for raping his wife, and the fourth is Olmod the Old, who still lives.
"Skjalg's estate is Sola, in Jaeder, the northmost stretch of Rogaland. Ogmund Karisson took it, and a piece of Jaeder, after its old lord picked the wrong side at the Battle of Hafrsfjord, where Harald Finehair became high king. Harald gave Sola to Ogmund and offered to make him a jarl, but he too turned the title down, for he saw how men kissed Harald's backside for it, and he said it made him want to puke. All this brought him great honor, for the Horders' power was now pushed into Rogaland, and Jaeder is some of the richest farmland in Norway. And our Jaederers are mostly pleased too, for Skjalg and Erling are the best of lords. Only this business of Christianity makes bother, and nowadays the old man hasn't a good word to say to Erling, though you can see he's pleased when men tell his son's deeds.
"We're following the coast of Agder now. Aft, to the east, is the Vik, where they pay tribute to the king of Denmark. Soon we'll pass Lindesness and the southmost point of the land. Then we swing north along Rogaland, and Jaeder. Sigurd, son of Erik Bjodaskalle, is hersir at Opprostad, south on the coast from us, and a worthy man, but his brothers Jostein, Thorkel and Aki are bitter towards Thorolf and Erling, thinking their inheritance whittled. They're descended from Viking-Kari, another Horder who got lands from Harald Finehair. Ogmund bested Kari in a boundary dispute, and they have long memories.
"Further north is Hordaland, then the Fjords and Sogn and More. Then comes the Trondelag, where Jarl Haakon lives, who is overlord of Norway. He's a strong heathen, and a great friend of Skjalg. Beyond that, the far north where only reindeer and bear and heathen Lapps dwell, but great profit can be made by hardy men."
"It must be hard to ward so long a coast."
"We have a means worked out by Haakon the Good years back. Haakon was the best king Norway ever had, and descended from Horda-Kari on his mother's side. There are balefires set up on hills along the entire coast, from Lindesness to Halogaland. If an enemy fleet is spotted, they light a balefire, and the wardens at the next fire see it and light their own, and on up the coast. At the same time the wardens send word to their lords, who send out war arrows to cry up a levy of men and ships."
"Suppose the wardens saw a simple pirate fleet and took it for an invasion?"
"That's a problem. Haakon set grave penalties for any who gave a false alarm. Which was his bane, as it turned out. He was caught unwarned with a small force, took an arrow wound and died."
"And what do you do about such pirates?"
"We have small fires of our own, easily told from the great fires such as we keep at Tjora and Tunge. We have to buy the wood, as there's no forest on Jaeder, but it's worth it. And of course a simple horn signal will raise a local defense."
"There's comfort in knowing that your folk live in fear of Vikings the same as we."
Thorkel spat and said, "Yes, we're becoming good Christian sheep, more every day."
"Are you all Christians?" I asked. "I see some of you wear ornaments like crosses, but they're oddly made."
"Those are Thor's hammers. Erling compels no one to take his faith, though he favors Christians."
"Are you a Christian?"
"Oh aye. I was baptized in Dublin. It matters little to me one way or the other, but nowadays it's prudent to be a Christian in the wide world."
Then he wanted to drill me on my Norse, and soon I was sick again.
It was raining the day we passed the wide, surf-pounded Sola Bay, rounded the point at Jaasund, acclaimed by seagulls, and sailed down the broad Hafrsfjord (where Harald Finehair made himself high king). But it's usually raining in Jaeder. In the course of these recollections I may from time to time neglect to tell you what the weather was like. When that happens, you may assume it was raining.
The warden at the landing at Somme trotted down the jetty to greet us, spear and shield in hand. I followed Erling down the slippery gangplank and felt rocky on solid earth again. But I knelt and kissed the jetty's stones and swore I'd never get on a boat again (which God took as a challenge).
"Hail, my Lord Erling," said the warden. "I've sent word to the steading for your mother."
"And where's my father?"
"He rode up to Kolness to knock some fishermen's heads together. Some dispute over berths. Here come your mother and the household."
Fishermen looked up from their nets, and their families stared out the doors of their cottages at us as we trooped up the jetty and past the boathouse to meet the household. Erling's mother, who led a wet procession of housefolk and thralls, wore an overdress of embroidered wool wrapped around her body under the arms, over a long, pleated underdress of linen. The overdress hung by cords fastened with a turtle-shell brooch above each breast. A red shawl was draped over her shoulders, and a white linen cloth covered her hair. She was a tall, handsome woman, and her son favored her. The two fair-haired young women who stood on either side of her favored her too, and I took them for Erling's sisters. They giggled and pointed at me, but I pretended to be too high-minded to notice.
I was more interested in a fourth woman there. She was small, and her uncovered hair was the color of honey, smooth and shining. Her face was oval, her nose fine and her blue eyes bright under arched brows. She had a face you'd want to reach out and stroke, just to know if it was as smooth as it looked, like a pearl.
"Greetings, my son," said the older woman after Erling had drunk the horn of ale she'd brought and she and the lasses had embraced him. "You'll want a meal after your journey. Come to the hall; the thralls are cooking now, and we can drink until they've done."
"He complains of his stomach and his bones; he chases the thrall girls but only out of custom. Nothing has changed. Who is this man in women's clothing?"
"You've seen a priest before, Mother."
"I'd hoped never to see another. But he must be fed, I suppose, like honest men."
The women turned back the way they'd come, and Erling gave orders to an overseer for the unloading. Then we set out for the steading.
The little I could see of the land did not impress. It was flattish, with sandy fields of tough grass facing the fjord. But the land rose somewhat beyond the waste, and our path led upward and to the southwest, past the fields of Somme farm to Sola itself. There was hardly a tree in sight. Moss and heather grew among the stones, which lay everywhere, singly and in heaps, in the meadows above. A large area atop the highest hill was hemmed by a low stone fence, and a walled lane led through it to the steading of Sola. The fields within the fence sloped south and looked well manured, but were nothing you'd remark on in Ireland. A hog watched us, rubbing its chin on a fence stone.
"Who's the girl with the lamplight eyes?" I asked Thorkel.
"She's Halla Asmundsdatter, Erling's leman."
"A strange name for someone so plainly Irish. I think she's the loveliest woman I've ever seen."
"It's said she's the fairest woman in Norway, save only Astrid Trygvesdatter, who is of course a king's child."
The steading was a loose rectangle of mostly turf or stone, turf-roofed buildings (some of them looking for all the world like little hillocks) around a central yard at the top of the hill. Largest of the buildings was the hall, wood-built, long and high, flanking the yard on the north. We entered through a side door near one end, then turned right through another door into the main hall. Two lines of wooden pillars marched down its length on either side of a long hearth. Low platforms ran along each wall outside the pillars, and on them benches and trestle tables had been set up. Helmets and shields and swords hung on the walls, and all the woodwork was carved with those squirmy beasts that writhe in pagans' brains, childish copies of the lovely Celtic knot with no art or balance to them. A peat fire burned in the hearth and the blue smoke hung about the rafters so that they could not be seen. Midway down either side a large chair with arms, big enough for two, was set on a dais between two pillars of great size, carved in the shapes of round-eyed, teeth-gnashing warriors.
"Sit in your places and the thralls will serve you," said Erling's mother. Erling went to a seat on the bench to the right of the north high seat and beckoned me to come up beside him.
Erling's mother stared at me a moment, then went out with her women, leaving us to take our places while thralls spread the tables. While we drank Erling gave me an eating knife and a spoon of silver, for all Norsemen carry their own. We ate the vile food when it came, flat as the landscape of Jaederboiled pork and barley bread and fish; but the ale was good. An older warrior named Hrorek stood up and recited a verse he claimed he'd composed on the spot in honor of the journeyabsolute babble of course, even if you understood the Norse tongue better than I did. But Erling seemed pleased, and he took a silver ring from his arm and had it carried over the fire to him. All the men shouted and stamped their feet, so I suppose it meant something to them.
When our hunger was blunted and the ale was beginning to have its effect, Erling introduced me. There was no friendliness in his mother's eyes (I learned her name was Ragna) as she stared at me from her own high seat on the women's bench at the east end of the hall. I rose and gave them a benediction. There was a lot of grumbling, and I sat down. But Halla smiled at me, and that was worth seeing.
After the meal Erling and the lads sat drinking and comparing tattoos and telling lies and picking fights with each other. I had trouble following after awhile, so I excused myself, going out into the strange, light Norwegian summer night. A serving woman led me to the priest's house. It was built much like the hall, but small, and of turf. It needed no pillars. Benches had been made by the simple shift of digging a trench down the middle for the hearth fire, with flat stones set up to retain the sides. In one corner there was a box-bed, too short to stretch out in, in which I had no intention of lying in summertime.
I was ready to put out the soapstone lamp when I heard the door creak. Halla stood there, and the room brightened with her eyes.
"I want to be baptized by you," she said.
"Right now?" I asked.
"Nowhenever it's proper. I've been instructed already, by Father Ethelbald, the old priest. But before he could pour the water on me, he washe died."
"And you are keen to be joined to Mother Church?"
"I'm eager to do whatever Erling wishes." She sat on a bench and spoke easily, as if we were old friends. "I come of a good family, Father. My father is an honorable bonder, but we aren't rich or of the highest blood."
"A free farmer. Erling's mother wants him to make a high marriage, but I believe he cares for me, and if I'm a Christian he might marry me. I want him all for myself, Father."
So she would serve the Lord for a husband, as I served Him for my freedom. We were alike in our ill motives, except that she was not a hypocrite.
Still I asked, "Do you believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Do you believe that Christ died for your sins, and rose again from the dead?"
She frowned. "I don't understand all that Father Ethelbald told me, but I think Jesus is a better god than Thor."
"Then you have more faith than some Christians I know," said I. "We'll see to the baptism when I'm settled in."
As she went out she turned back at the door and said, "May I ask about one of the things I don't understand?"
I said, "Of course."
"Father Ethelbald used a word`evil.' It's not a word we have in our tongue. He tried to explain what it meant."
"Ah well, evil means there are . . . things about in the world, and in men too, and all they want is to do harm, just for hate's own sake."
She thought a moment.
"What a frightening world you Christians live in," she said.
I said, "And the one around us isn't?"
I thought about Halla that night, wrapped in my cloak on the bench, listening to the sea's muffled threatspoor lass, she had little hope of her heart's desireand then I was thinking of Maeve, and home, and my parents and Diarmaid and time and miles and the wickedness of men, and I wept like a child wood-lost at night, until I slept, shivering.
I woke the next morning to the sound of shouting and dogs barking.
When I came out into the sunlight, I felt eyes on me from every side. They were all around the steading, their black and red and yellow hair cropped short, walking slumped in their shapeless, pale garments, barefoot or wearing wooden clogs. Thralls. Mostly Irish.
I stood and looked at them, and one by one they set down the bowls or spades or forks they carried and shuffled towards me, looking at the ground mostly, raising their eyes to meet mine for a second at a time, then letting them slide away. At last a cluster of them hemmed me in. And suddenly I was afraid of them; because I was free and they were slavesfor that they might kill me, Irish or not.
Then a woman sobbed and fell to her knees, clasping my legs, crying, "Father!" And then they were all kneeling
"Father! Bless us!"
"Father! Pray for me!"
"Father, it's been eight years since my last confession"
"Father, how are things in Ireland?"
"Father, do you know my family? They live in Connemara"
And for a moment I forgot I was not a priest. I reached my hands to them and blessed them. I blessed them and promised them a mass soon. They wept as if truly comforted. Then they went off, smiling, to take up their labors again. I stood for a moment leaning against the wall with my eyes closed, winded as if with digging.
When I opened my eyes, there stood the biggest man I'd ever seen, not so tall as Erling, but broader, watching me. He grinned. There were interruptions in his teeth. He had wide shoulders, and arms like a strong man's legs. He was clean bald over the scalp, with a nasty scar that looked like a burn covering the left side of his forehead and stretching down to the ear, just missing one tufted eyebrow. His beard was short and brown. His eyes were small, and pale, and unfriendly as badgers.
"Will you bless me too, Father?" he asked.
"If you like," I said. "Come closerI'll lay hands on you."
"It's you who mean to break the power of Thor at Sola? With your holiness and faith?" His hailstone eyes pierced the nooks of my skull, and I had to look at my feet.
He laughed. His laugh was stronger than my whole body. He walked away from me, laughing.
Thorkel came towards me from the hall. "That was Soti the smith," he said. "He was struck by lightning and lived." I crossed my fingers against the evil eye, for even smiths who've not had intercourse with heavenly fire know too many things.
"Erling wants you in the hall," said Thorkel. "There's trouble."
"His father's dead. Aslak, his brother, too. Killed by Orkney Vikings at Kolness yesterday. Such raids are commonit was just ill luck that Skjalg and Aslak were there. They could have saved themselves by running away, but Skjalg was too proud."
The hall went silent for a moment as I raced in and took my seat. A thrall brought a bowl of water, in which I was expected to wash my face, and a towel. A woman set porridge and fish before me, and Erling passed me a horn. It was a strange horn, with studs set into it, running in a line from brim to tip.
"You drink to where the next stud is uncovered," said Erling. "That way nobody drinks too much in the daytime, when he needs a clear head." He spoke as usual, but there were red spots on his cheekbones that I'd seen before only in battle.
"I've heard about your father and I weep for your loss, my lord," I said when I'd had my measure. "What do you plan?"
"I'll hunt them down and kill them. If I knew where they were I'd be gone this minute. They have a strong force, so I'll need to take most of my armed men. Fortunately I still have the company I took with me to the Baltic. I've sent men out for news, and I expect I'll know more shortly. But I hate waiting."
"Shall I come with you? I'm always glad to fight Vikings."
"You'd best stay here. I didn't buy you for your strong arm. Which reminds me, I haven't shown you my church yet. I want you to set it in order so we can have a mass for my father's soul, and for victory, when I return. I wish I had time for one this morning, but I hope to be gone soon. Pray for us when I am."
He took time to show me the church, and I left most of my breakfast behind. It was a stone building a little bigger than my house, with benches along the walls, but there was a crude stone altar at the east end, and a carved wooden crucifix hung above it.
"I want to build a better one someday, but this will have to do for now," said Erling. "One day I'll raze the holy place of Thor and build you a church on that spot."
"Has she been properly hallowed?" I asked, waving some cobwebs aside.
"We haven't had the chance to get a bishop here for that," said Erling. "But I have some surprises for you." He called in a thrall who bore a small chest, which he laid on a bench. Erling opened the chest with a key and handed me a bundle of cloth. "Father Ethelbald's vestments," he said. Then he drew out an object swathed in linen. He unwrapped it for me.
"A chalice!" I said. "A lovely chalice, in silver!"
"There's this too," said Erling, and brought out a paten.
"Wherever did you get such things? Nodon't say it. Prizes from your Viking days?"
"Not as bad as that. The king of Agder had them for his high table. I paid a pretty price for them."
"God will reward you," I said.
"One more thing." From the bottom of the chest he brought a book. "I don't know properly what it is, but the pictures inside look holy."
" 'Tis a psalter," said I, "and a lovely one, though some impious hand has pried the gems from the cover ornaments. But no matter. The true treasure's inside. Many a church in Ireland is less well furnished than yours, my lord. I am grateful for this. I can reada little."
"What's thisa housewarming?" said a booming voice. Soti the smith strode over the threshold. "A fitting time for a gift. Priest of the White Christ, I give you a thrall for your service."
I stared at the man.
"No, not one of your Irish stoneheadsI'd not insult you with shoddy goods. My gift is a Norse thrall, one you'll enjoy beating."
"You try my patience, Soti!" said Erling. He turned to me. "The thrall he means is a man called Lemming. We call him that after a mad beast of this land, which goes off its head sometimes and runs into the sea to drown. Lemming has said often he means to die. He says he means to be hanged for the murder of his master. Soti is the only one strong enough to control him; partly with his arm and partly through his spells."
"The priest is a big, strong fellow," said Soti. "And surely he has magic of his own, being a servant of your Christ. Such a man need have no fear of Lemming."
"I'll hear no more of this!" cried Erling. "Get out, Soti."
"Hold, my lord," said I. "I accept the smith's gift."
Erling spoke softly. "You don't know what you say. Lemming is half bull."
I whispered back, "I can't let this man call me coward."
"Lemming will kill you."
"I take a bit of killing, my lord."
"I can't afford to lose another priest. You cost me much in Visby."
"And I can't afford to lose . . . we call it losing face in Ireland. It's Christ's honor at stake."
Erling scowled. "May He protect you then."
Soti said, "A word with you, my lord. I've a thing to tell you, but not in this place." They went outside and I locked the chest and went out to join them. It was a wonder how easily I slipped into the priest's role. I didn't know what trouble I'd bought, but I could smell that, Christ's honor or no, I dared not give place to the smith in anything.
"You bear me no love, Soti," Erling was saying.
"But I loved your father, and I'll not see him lie unavenged. I've looked into my forge at white heat and seen the Orkneymen where they beached one of their ships, damaged on the rocks. They lie in Soknasund, not far at all."
"You swear this is true?"
"When have I ever read falsely? And if I'm wrong, what have you lost? As good one way as another when you track your quarry over water."
I may no longer have believed in God, but I was not such a fool as to doubt that there are devils. No Irishman was ever that much a blockhead, nor ever will be.
"My lord, may I speak?" I asked.
"I'd be grateful," said Erling.
"What I say tastes ill in my mouth, for I lost my own father and brother not long since, and I know as well as any man the cry of blood. But this Soti is as great a devil as you'll find even in this devil's land."
"And you think he lies?"
Soti was glaring at me.
"I fear he tells the truth. I'd not have you in his debt. A Christian, my lord, is not strictly required to take vengeanceeven, God help us, for a father. Not when it sets his soul in peril."
"Thank you for your counsel, Father Aillil," said Erling with a pale smile. "Pray for me, then come back when you've advice I can follow."
Erling went off with Soti and the ship was gone with most of the warriors in what seemed a few minutes. It was a fine morning for Jaeder, cloudy and blue but not actually raining yet, and the fog was dwindling. Thorkel, who had been left behind with a small guard commanded by Hrorek, met me and we watched them sail away. Then he took me to a place where we could see most of the neighborhood. Sola lies to the northeast of Sola Bay on the sea, above its sand dunes, at the north end of a great crescent of farmland and bogs, ringed by hills inland. He pointed out the various farms nearby, some owned by Erling and rented to tenants, others held in freehold by bonders. To the north, west of the Hafrsfjord, we could see Kolness, and on a hill beyond it Tjora farm, where the jarl's balefire was, and he showed me one or two nearer hills where Erling had his own fires. He explained how the peninsula stretched north into the Boknafjord, and how Erling would round its point at Tunge and sail east to Soknasund. The day being clear, we could see mountains over the hills to the southeast, beyond Gandalsfjord. To the south was the commanding view of Jaeder and Rogaland and the sea lane which made Sola so valuable in the land's defense. . . .
Then I heard a great roar, like that of a beast, behind me, and I knew without looking that the thrall Lemming had found me. I whirled to meet him and ducked under a great swinging arm, spinning aside as something the size of a church went flying by to land rolling in the mud and sit for a second staring at me before heaving itself up to attack again.
I had only a heartbeat to take my enemy's measure and (as my father used to say) he was a man you needed an hour or so just to look at. I saw a shaggy, straw-colored beard, and a badly broken nose, and shoulders that it must have been weary work to carry around.
He roared again and came at me, and I leaped out of his way. I'm no little man, and I'm no weakling, and I like a good brawl as well as any Irishman, but I thought all the biggest bruisers in Norway must be smelling my scent and swarming at me at once.
I had more skill than Lemming, thank God. He counted on his strength, and if I'd let him catch me it would have been over. But I danced about outside his grip, teasing him, tripping him up, even landing a punch in his gut (with no effect I could see) as he went by. My only hope was to tire him. After several minutes I was breathing like a wind-broken horse, and he still came on like a gale out of the north.
Thorkel watched all this standing hipshot with a hand on his swordbelt, a smile on his face. He was too wellborn to meddle in a fight with a thrall of course. A crowd of folk gathered to watch us. Some of them even cheered me.
Then Lemming caught me a punch on the side of the head, and I saw stars, as they sayand they say it because that's what you seeand then he had me about the chest in a bear hug, and I couldn't breathe. And the world began to dwindle and travel rapidly away from me, and I heard a horn and a cry, as if from a great distance
"Ships are coming! We're under attack!"
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|Title:||The Year of the Warrior|
|Copyright:||© 2000 by Lars Walker|