You do not betray a Fellowship and live to see your hair turn white. For a Fellowship is an honor- and oath-forged thing, as strong as a bear, as fast as a dragon ship, and as vengeful as the sea. If you betray a Fellowship, you are a dead man, and Ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex had betrayed us.
With the sail up and the spruce oars stowed, the men looked to their gear. They took whetstones to sword edges, patiently working out the notches carved in battle, and the rhythmic scraping was to me a soothing sound above their murmured conversations and the wet whisper of Serpent’s bow through the sea. Men laid mail brynjas across their knees, checking for damaged rings, which they replaced with ones taken from brynjas stripped from the dead. Two of the Norsemen were throwing a heavy-looking sack back and forth, grunting with the effort. The sack was filled with coarse sand, and if you put your mail in it and threw it around, the sand would clean the rust from the mail and make it like new again. Other men were smearing their brynjas with sheep grease, winding new leather and fine copper wire around sword grips, mending shield straps, and stretching new hides across the limewood planks. Dents were hammered out of helmets, spear blades were honed to wicked points slender enough to skewer a snail from its shell, and ax heads were checked to make sure they would not fly off at the first swing. Silver was weighed, furs were examined, and men argued or grumbled or boasted about the booty they had piled in their journey chests. We combed fleas from our beards and hair, relived fights, exaggerating our deeds and prowess, played tafl, checked Serpent’s caulking, and laid leather strips in boots to fix holes. We nursed wounds, exchanged stories about friends now sitting at Ódin’s mead bench in Valhöll, watched gulls soaring high above, and reveled in the creak of the ship and the low thrum of the rigging. And all the while we believed that Njörd, god of the sea, who is kind to those who honor him, filled our sail and that we would soon spy our quarry, Fjord-Elk, as a speck on the sunlit horizon.
For we were blessed with a lusty following wind and were making good progress so that the land of the West Saxons was soon little more than a green ribbon on the horizon to the north. If Njörd’s favor held, Sigurd would sail Serpent through the night to try to shorten the distance between us and Fjord-Elk, and when we came across her and the treacherous men who sailed her, our swords and our axes would run red.
Asgot the godi produced a hare from an oiled sack. It was a mangy thing that must have been kicking and scratching furiously ever since we set off, for its fur was sweat-soaked, its mouth was bloodied, and its eyes were wild with fear. The godi took its head in one old fist, drew his wicked knife, and jabbed it into the animal’s chest. Its long feet ran hopelessly in the air. Then Asgot dragged the blade along the hare’s belly. Some of its guts fell across Serpent’s sheer strake, and still it kicked as though it hoped to dash across a summer meadow. Then he wiped the bloody knife on the hare’s fur, sheathed it, and ripped out the rest of the guts—the throbbing heart and the dark twine of the creature’s intestines—and threw them into the sea, followed by the carcass itself. We watched for a while as the waves bore the tiny offering away, and then Serpent carried us on and the hare was lost among Rán’s daughters. All the while Asgot spoke to the gods, asking them to bless us with fair seas and good weather. Father Egfrith made the sign of the cross to ward off Asgot’s old magic, and I believed he was muttering counterspells, though I stayed away, not wanting those Christ words to maggot into my ears.
It would be a blood-drenched fight, this one. A real gut ripper. For Ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex and his champion, Mauger, were feckless, snot-swilling whoresons who had betrayed us all. Ealdred had the holy Gospel book of Saint Jerome, which we had stolen from the king of Mercia, and the toad’s arsehole was racing now to sell that Christian treasure to the emperor of the Franks, Charlemagne, or King Karolus as some called him then. The worm would become as rich as a king, having betrayed us and left us for dead. But Ealdred’s god and that god’s peace-loving son were not strong enough to make all this happen. They could not save him from us who held to the true gods, the old gods who still shake the sky with thunder and curse the ocean with waves as high as cliffs. And I believed that we would catch the half-cocked maggot the next day or the day after that, because the English did not know Fjord-Elk, did not know her ways. For ships are like women—you cannot touch one in the same places as another and hope to get the same ride. But Sigurd knew every inch of Serpent, and his steersman, Knut, knew every grain of salt in every rolling wave. We would catch the En- glish, and then we would kill them.
“These Christians know how to puke, Raven!” Bjorn called, the sunlight gleaming across his teeth. “The fish will eat well today, I think.”
“And we shall eat the fish and therefore be eating Christian puke,” I said in Norse so that Cynethryth would not understand.
She and Penda leaned side by side over the sheer strake, emptying their guts into a sea so calm that Bjorn’s brother, Bjarni, was bailing Serpent’s bilge with all the urgency of a cow on its way to the slaughter. I had seen Serpent flex and writhe like a supple sea creature, so that water continuously seeped in through the seams of her clinkered hull. But not that day. On that day the sea was as calm as a breeze-stirred lake, yet it was enough to curdle the Saxons’ stomachs. The Norsemen were grinning and laughing at the two new crewmen, and though I pitied Cynethryth, I was happy it was not me they were laughing at this time, because I had done my share of puking in the early days.
As for Penda, the Wessexman was as vicious a man as I have ever known, and I had seen him slaughter the Welsh outside Caer Dyffryn so that the green pasture turned blood-slick. But Penda did not look vicious now with his spew splashing onto the glasslike surface of the sea.
“It’s not fucking natural to float across the sea on a piece of kindling,” Penda said, turning from the ship’s side and dragging the back of his hand across his mouth. “It’s not civilized,” he growled, and I smiled because Penda was as civilized as a pail full of thunder.
Sigurd grinned knowingly at me because he knew I had stood in Penda’s shoes not so long ago, but though that was true, I would never have referred to Serpent as “kindling.” I had always appreciated her workmanship, because I had been apprenticed to old Ealhstan the carpenter, and so I knew woodcraft when I saw it. Serpent was a beauty. Seventy-six feet in length, seventeen feet in the beam, and made from more than two hundred oak trees, she originally could accommodate sixteen oarsmen on either side, but Sigurd had built raised fighting platforms at bow and stern, meaning that now there was space for only thirteen rowers on each side. With our crew of thirty-two men and one woman, it was to my mind a little cramped but not uncomfortable. Olaf told me that on one of Sigurd’s expeditions, when Serpent was newly built and before he had Fjord-Elk, she had carried a double crew of seventy warriors, one crew resting while the other rowed. That surely must have been a useful thing when it came to a fight, but I could not imagine sharing sleeping space with so many fart-stinking men. The ship had a small open hold for trade goods and supplies and a sturdy mast step and keel. She was fourteen strakes high and had a great square sail of wool that had been dyed red, and at her bow stood the head of Jörmungand, the Midgard-Serpent that encircles the earth. That beast’s faded red eyes stared out across the gray sea into our futures. Every Norseman aboard, every warrior sitting on the sea chest containing his possessions, respected Serpent as he respected his mother, loved her as he loved his wife, and relished her as he relished his whores.
Cynethryth turned around, palming sweat from her forehead, and I swear her face was as green as a new fern. She caught my eye and seemed embarrassed, and so I looked away, pointing out to Black Floki a length of tarred rope caulking that was working itself free of two of the strakes beside him. The Norseman grunted and with a gnarled thumb began to press the thin rope back in. Once I had thought Floki hated me, but we had since grown close, as sword-brothers do. Today, though, it seemed he was back to his miserable, brooding self.
Father Egfrith, as far as I could tell, suffered no ill effects from Serpent’s motion, and maybe that had something to do with Glum’s having cracked open his head with a sword blow. Somehow the little monk had survived. Worse than that, he had chosen to come aboard—an odd path for a monk, to board a ship full of heathens—and maybe that had something to do with the sword blow, too. He was a sniffling little mörd, a weasel, but in a strange way I admired him because he must have known that any of us could squash him like a louse if he gave us reason or merely for want of something else to do. Truly, the Christ slave believed he would turn Serpent into a ship full of Christians, just as he boasted that his god had turned water into wine. Though if you ask me, turning Norsemen into Christians would be more like changing wine into piss. Perhaps he even hoped to change Serpent’s name to Holy Spirit or The Jerusalem or Christ’s Hairy Left Ball or who knows what? Egfrith was a fool.
By the time the day’s heat had been chased away by a cold breeze whipping off the sea and the gold disk of the sun had rolled into the west, we had yet to set eyes on Fjord-Elk. At Serpent’s prow Jörmungand nodded gently, its faded red eyes staring seaward, tirelessly searching for its sister ship. I almost believed the snarling figurehead would give a roar of triumph if Fjord-Elk came into sight.
“I am thinking that the crawling piece of pig’s dung might have set a more easterly course than our own,” Olaf said, dipping a cup into the rain barrel and slurping. He stood by Knut, who gripped the tiller with the familiarity of a man holding his wife’s hand. Sigurd was behind and above them, standing on the fighting platform, looking out as the sun, which was plunging toward the world’s rim, washed his long fair hair with golden light.
“You think he’s that shrewd?” Knut asked, hawking and spitting a gob of phlegm over Serpent’s side. Olaf shrugged.
“I think he’s got the sense,” Sigurd said, “to take the shortest crossing and then head south within spitting distance of the coast rather than crossing the open sea as we have done. Then he will enter the mouth of the Sicauna, that great river that eats into the heart of Frankia.” Olaf raised one bushy eyebrow skeptically, but I thought Sigurd was probably right. As a Christian lord, Ealdorman Ealdred would have less to fear from Frankish ships patrolling the coast than we as pagans would. He also would have more to fear from open water than we did, for even though the sailing conditions were perfect now, a sudden change in the weather or an irreparable leak could make a man wish he had stayed in sight of land. And Ealdred did not know Fjord-Elk.
A quizzical look nestled itself in Olaf’s bushy beard like a dog settling in a pile of straw. “So that English arse leaf is sucking the coast like it’s his mother’s tit,” he said, “and that’s why we’ve not had so much as a sniff of him.”
Sigurd pursed his lips, scratched his golden beard, but did not reply. He looked up at the square sail, studying the way the wind moved across it, rippling the cloth. He watched the dance of the thick sheet ropes and the direction of the waves, and then he looked toward the sun. It was low, and so it gave him a reliable east–west bearing. His thick lips curled like a wolf’s just before the teeth are bared, because if he was right and Ealdred had crossed the shortest stretch of sea, putting him farther north along the Frankish coastline, then all we had to do when we came to the coast was choose a mooring with a good view of the open channel. And wait.
With dusk came land. Frankia. I knew nothing of Frankia then, but even so the word was a heavy one. It was a word that meant power, a word that carried with it, at least to pagan ears, the threat of sharpened steel and hateful warriors and the new, ravenously hungry magic—the magic of the White Christ. For the king of the Franks was Karolus, lord of Christendom. Emperor they called him, as the Romans had named their kings who ruled lands as far and wide as the skies above. And despite his fealty to the nailed god, men said this Emperor Karolus was the greatest warrior in the entire world.
“Can you smell that?” Father Egfrith called. He was standing at Serpent’s prow, being careful not to touch the carved beast head of Jörmungand. Perhaps he feared it had a taste for Christians. “You can smell the piety!” he called, sniffing eagerly, crinkling his weasel-like face in pleasure. The coast loomed ahead, a low green line broken by gray rock. “The Franks are a God-fearing people, and their king is a light in the darkness. He is the cleansing fire that guides men from iniquity, like a beacon, a great wind-whipped flame which saves ships from splintering against the rocks,” he said, taking altogether too much pleasure in the comparison. “If we are lucky, Raven, we will meet the great king, and because God loves him and because Karolus is said to be a generous and gracious king, maybe you will be given the chance to wash your black soul. Scrape the sin from it like fat from a calf’s skin. Christ the Almighty will drag Satan out of your blood-filled eye by his gnarly ankle.” The mörd was grinning, and I wondered what it would feel like to put that grin through the back of his head. But then I smiled, because although Egfrith thought I was the spawn of Satan, worthless as snail slime, there was something about him that I had come to like. No, not like. Rather, the little man amused me.
“Your god had better have strong arms, monk,” I said, encompassing Serpent’s Norse crew with a sweep of my arm, “if he is to yank the Devil from us all. Perhaps he will find Satan hiding in Bram’s armpit or skulking up Svein’s arse.”
“Sin has no refuge, young man,” Egfrith chided as Serpent reared a rogue wave, causing him to unbalance and stumble, though he somehow kept his feet without reaching for Jörmungand. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our lord!”
“What’s the little man creaking on about, Raven?” Svein the Red asked, turning to me, his massive head cocked to one side. He was tugging a new ivory comb though his thick red hair, and I guessed he already had forgotten about his old one with the missing teeth. Svein was the biggest man I had ever seen, a fearsome warrior of few words, and he was watching Father Egfrith the way a battle-scarred hound watches a playful pup.
“He says his god wants to look for Satan up your arse,” I said in Norse. “I told him you might enjoy that.” The others laughed, but Svein frowned, his hairy red brows meeting above his bulbous nose.
“Tell him that he and his god are welcome to anything that comes out of my arse,” he said, rousing more “hey”s. Then he lifted his right buttock and farted, and Rán must have heard it at the bottom of the sea. “There you go, Christ slave,” he said. “Come and get it while it’s warm.”
Excerpted from Sons of Thunder by Giles Kristian. Copyright © 2012 by Giles Kristian. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.