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The King of Norway
Conn Corbansson had fought for Sweyn Tjugas when Sweyn was just an outlaw rebelling against his father King Harald Bluetooth, and the prince had promised him a war with England when he became King of Denmark. Now that Sweyn actually wore the crown he had let the English king buy his peace with a ship full of silver. Conn took this very ill.
“England is the greatest prize. You swore this to me.”
Sweyn pulled furiously at his long forked moustaches. His eyes glittered. “I have not forgotten. And the time will come. Meanwhile, there is Hakon the Jarl, up in Norway. I cannot turn my back on him.”
“So you called in the Jomsvikings instead of fighting him yourself,” Conn said. “I see being King has made you womanish as well as pursefond.”
He turned on his heel, before Sweyn could speak, and walked off down the boardwalk toward the King’s great hall. His cousin Raef, who went everywhere with him, followed at his side. Sweyn bellowed after them but neither of them paid heed.
Conn said, “How can I believe anything he says ever again?”
Raef said, “Who would you rather fight for?”
“I don’t know,” Conn said. “But I will find out.”
That night in his great hall at Helsingor Sweyn had a feasting, and there came many of his own hirdmen, including Conn and Raef, but also the chiefs of the Jomsvikings, Sigvaldi Haraldsson and Bui the Stout. Raef sat down at the low table, since with Conn he was now on the King’s sour side.
Conn sat beside him, his black curly hair and beard a wild mane around his head. His gaze went continually to the Jomsvikings at the table across the way. Raef knew his curiosity; they had heard much of the great company of the Jomsvikings, of their fortress in the east, and their skill at war which they gave to whoever would pay them enough. They weren’t actually supposed to have chiefs, but to hold all in common, as free men, and Raef wondered if Sigvaldi here and the barrel-shaped Bui were messengers more than chiefs. They wore no fancy clothes, such as Sweyn’s red coats of silk and fur, and their beards and hair hung shaggy and long. Sigvaldi was a big man, square shouldered, with curling yellow hair that flowed into his beard.
Beside him, Conn said, “I like their looks. They are hard men, and proud.”
Raef said nothing, being slower to judgment. Across the way, Sigvaldi had seen Conn watching, indeed, and lifted a cup to him, and Conn drank with him. It was the strong beer, thick as bear piss, and the slaves were carrying around ewers of it to refill any cup that went even half empty. Raef reached out and turned his empty cup upside down.
When they were finished with the meat, and settling in to drink, Sweyn stood up, and lifted his cup, and called on Thor and Odin and gave honor to them. The men all shouted, and drank, but Sweyn was not finished.
“In their honor also it’s our Danish custom to offer vows, which are most sacred now—” He held out his cup to be filled again—”And here in the names of those most high I swear one day to make myself King of England!”
The men all through the hall gave up a roar of excitement; across the field of waving arms and cheering faces Raef saw Sweyn turn and glare at Conn. “Who else offers such a vow as this?”
The uproar faded a moment, and Sigvaldi lurched to his feet. “When the war for England comes, let it be, but we are here for the sake of Hakon the Jarl, in Norway, who is an oathbreaker and a turncoat.”
Voices rose, calling Hakon the Jarl every sort of evil thing, traitor and thief and liar. And the slaves went around, and filled the cups. Steeped in drink, red-faced Sigvaldi held his cup high, so that all would look. When the hall was hushed, he shouted, “Therefore I vow here before the high gods to lead the Jomsvikings against Hakon, wherever he hides! And I will not give up until he is beaten.”
There was a great yell from all there and they drank. The hall was crowded with men now, those sitting at the tables, many of them Jomsvikings, and many others standing behind them who were Sweyn’s housecarls and crews.
“A mighty vow,” Sweyn called. “An honor to the gods Hakon has betrayed. The rest of you—will you follow your chief in this?” His eyes shot an oblique glance at Conn, down at the lower table. “Which of you will join the Jomsvikings?”
At this Dane and Jomsviking alike began shouting out oaths and vows against Hakon, while the slaves with the jugs plied their work.
Then Conn rose.
Raef held his breath, alarmed at this, and around the hall the other men hushed. Conn held out his cup.
“I swear I will sail with you, Sigvaldi, and call out Hakon face to face, and not come back until I am the King of Norway.” He raised his cup toward Sweyn, and tilted it to his mouth.
There was a brief hush at this, as everybody saw it was an insult, or a challenge, but then they erupted again in another great roaring and stamping all through the hall, and more outpourings of vows. Raef, who had touched nothing since the first cup, marked that up there at the high seat Sweyn’s glinting eyes were fixed on Conn and his mouth wound tight with rage. Raef thought they had all probably gotten more than they wished for in this oath-taking at Helsingor.
The next morning Conn woke, sprawled on his bench in the hall, and went out into the yard to piss. His head pounded and his mouth tasted evil. He could not remember much of the night before. When he turned away from the fence, Sigvaldi the Jomsviking chief was walking up to him, beaming all across his face.
“Well,” he boomed out, “maybe we promised some mighty doings, last night, with those vows, hah? But I’m glad you’re with us, boy, we’ll see if you’ll make a Jomsviking.” He put out his hand to Conn, who shook it, having nothing else to do. Sigvaldi went on, “Meet us at the Limsfjord at the full moon, and we’ll go raiding in Norway, and draw Hakon to us. Then we’ll find out how well you fight.”
He tramped away across the yard, where more of the Jomsvikings were coming out into the sun. Raef stood by the door into the hall. Conn went over by him.
“What did I swear to?”
His cousin’s long homely face was expressionless. “You said you would sail with them, and challenge Hakon the Jarl face to face, and not return to Denmark until you were King of Norway.”
Conn gave a yelp, amazed, and said, “What a fool I am in beer! That’s something great to do, though, isn’t it.”
Raef said, “I’d say that.”
“Well, then,” Conn said, “let’s get started.”
So they sailed north to raid in Norway, around the Vik, where the riches were. Sometimes the whole fleet raided a village together, and sometimes they went out in parties and attacked farmsteads along the fjord, driving the people out, and then ransacking their holdings. Whatever anybody found of gold went into a great chest, which Bui the Stout guarded like a dragon. All else they ate or drank, or packed off to the Jomsberg. Several ships went heavy-laden to the Jomsberg but there was no sign of Hakon the Jarl.
They turned north, following the passageways between the islands and the coast, raiding as they went. Every day the sun stayed longer in the sky, and the nights barely darkened enough to let a man sleep an hour. Around them, above thin green seaside meadows, the land rose in curtains of rock, snow-cloaked. They stood far out to sea to weather the cloud-shrouded wind-blasted cape at Stad, and then rowed on, still north but now easterly, attacking whatever they found in the fjords. They were within a few good days’ rowing now of the long waterway that led to the Trondelag, and still Hakon offered them no opposition.
Conn’s muscles hurt; all day he had been rowing against the fierce north wind, and he stood on the beach and stretched the ache out of his arms. The sun was a great fat orange blob floating just above the western horizon. The sky burned with its fiery glow, the few low streaks of cloud gilt-edged. The dark sea rolled up against the pebble shore, broke, and withdrew in a long seething growl. Out past the ships, sixty of them, drawn up onto the beach like resting monsters, he caught a glimpse of a shark.
The coppery light of the long sundown made the campfires that covered the beach almost invisible. Over every pit a haunch turned, strips of meat and fish hung dripping on tripods and spits, their fats exploding in the coals below, and a man stood by in the hot glow with a cup, putting out burns with a douse of beer. Conn saw Sigvaldi Haraldsson up on the beach and went to him.
The chief of the Jomsvikings sat on a big log, his feet out in front of him, watching some lesser men turn his spit. Bui the Stout sat next to him, the Jomsvikings’ treasure chest at his feet. As Conn came up they raised their faces toward him. They were passing a cup between them and Sigvaldi with a bellowed greeting held it out to him.
Conn drank. The beer tasted muddy. “Hakon has to come after us soon.”
Sigvaldi gave a harsh crackle of a laugh, clapping his hands on his knees. “I told you, lad, he won’t willingly fight us. We will have to go all the way up to the Trondelag to drag him out of his hole.”
Bui laughed. “By then we will have beggared him anyway.” He kicked the chest at his feet.
“Yes,” Sigvaldi said, and reached out and slapped Conn’s arm companionably. “We’ve taken great boot, and we’ll feast again tonight as we do every night. This is the life of a Jomsviking, boy.”
Conn blurted, “I came to throw down Hakon the Jarl, not to stick a few burghers for their gold chains.”
Bui threw his head back at that. “There’s a bit of Hakon in every link.”
Sigvaldi gave another laugh at that. “Conn, heed me. You need to match this green eagerness with a cold wit. Before we can get to any real fighting we have to run Hakon to ground like the rabbit he is. Meanwhile, we can feast on these villages.”
Bui was still staring at Conn, unfriendly. “You know, your ship isn’t bringing me much gold.” He pushed at the treasure chest. “Maybe you ought to think about that more.”
Conn said, “I’m not a Jomsviking,” and turned and walked away. He did not say, I am not Sweyn Tujgas’ hirdman anymore either.
He went back down the shore, past the ships, going toward his own fire. His crew had camped at the end of the beach, where the sandy bank cut the wind. The sundown cast a pink veil over the sea, that the waves broke in lines of light and dark. The wind sang among the ships, as if the dragons spoke to one another in their secret voices. Beyond, to the east, against the red and purple sky, the gaunt mountains of the coast seemed like sheer walls of rock, capped with the rosy glisten of a glacier.
He went in among his crew, clustered around the fire cooking cow parts and drinking beer; they greeted him in a chorus. His cousin Raef was off by the foot of the sandy slope, sitting beside the wounded man, who lay stretched out flat on the ground.
Conn squatted down on his heels by the fire. He took the beer horn out of the hand of the man next to him, who was Finn, the youngest of them. “Go ask Aslak to come drink with me.”
Finn got up and trotted off, a short, thin boy who had been pushing a plow two summers before. Conn drank what was left in the horn, which was better beer than Sigvaldi’s. Since he had found out that after every raid any gold or silver they took went into Bui’s chest, he had shifted his interest to looting the best food and drink. Opposite him, pop-eyed Gorm grinned at him over a half-burnt chunk of meat.
Conn said, “Nothing.” He looked around again at Raef, off in the gloom with the dying man, but then Aslak came up.
Conn got to his feet; Aslak was a captain, like him, and although he was a Jomsviking he and Conn got on well. Also he was from the Trondelag. They shook hands and sat and Conn waited until Aslak had taken a long pull of the drinking horn.
Aslak smacked his lips. “That’s the best of the sacred stuff I’ve tasted since the oath-taking at Helsingor.”
Conn growled. He did not like being reminded of that. He said, “You’re from here, aren’t you? What’s this coast?”
“Same as we’ve been sailing,” Aslak said. “All inlets and bays and islands. Lots of wind. Lots of rock. And poor, these people, poor as an old field, Bui won’t be happy here.”
Conn laughed. “Bui isn’t happy with me anyway.”
Aslak saluted him with the horn. “You steal the wrong kind of gold, Conn.”
Conn gave him back the salute, and drank. “Sigvaldi thinks Hakon is too afraid to come after us, no matter how we harry his people.”
Aslak grunted. The other men by the fire were watching them both intently. “That’s wrong. Sigvaldi’s making a bad mistake if he really believes that. Hakon’s a devil of a fighter.” Aslak wiped foam off his beard with one hand. “Hakon’s kindred goes back to the Frost Giants, to gods older than Odin. That’s why he didn’t come south when we sacked Tonsberg, or come out to meet us below Stad. His power is in the North. And so now we are coming North, and I doubt we’ll be too much longer waiting.”
“Let it happen,” Conn said, and spat between his fingers. He nodded toward the fire. “Drink another horn, Aslak. Gorm, save me some of that meat.” He got up, and went in toward the bank, to where Raef sat beside the dying man.
This was Ketil, one of their rowers, no older than Conn himself. Their whole crew were boys who had joined off their farms when they first took their ship Seabird. After two years’ sailing with Conn and Raef none of them was green any more, whatever Sigvaldi thought.
That day they had stormed a village on an inlet; some of the people had fought back, for a few moments, and one had bashed in the side of Ketil’s head with a stick. He was still alive and they had brought him here to keep him safe while he died. Raef was sitting there beside him, his back to the sandbank and his long legs drawn up to his chest. Conn sank down on his heels.
“Is he . . . ”
Raef shook his head. His pale hair hung lank to his shoulders. “Less and less.”
Conn sat there thinking about the fight in the village, and he said, “These are Hakon’s people. Why does he not defend them?” He put out one hand toward Ketil, but he did not touch him.
Raef shrugged. “Because we want him to.”
“Then what will he do?”
“What we don’t want,” Raef said. “Here comes Bui.”
The keg-shaped Jomsviking had sauntered up the beach toward the Seabird’s fire, and now seeing them apart from it, veered toward them.
“Hail, King of Norway!” he called, and snickered.
Conn stood up. “Let the fates hear you. What is it?”
“Sigvaldi commands you. Just you. Right now. For a council.”
Conn turned and glanced at Raef. “Are you coming?”
“Sigvaldi says you only,” Bui said, with a sniff.
“I’m staying here with Ketil,” Raef said, and Conn went off without him.
When he first sailed with the Jomsvikings Conn had expected their council to be a great shouting and arguing and talking of everybody, but now he knew better; there was plenty of food and beer, but in the end Sigvaldi stood in front of them and said what would happen, and they nodded. They were supposed to be free men but they did as they were told. There was much about the Jomsvikings he liked better in the idea than the actual practice.
Sigvaldi said, “We have word now that Hakon is just inside the bay, over there. Where that big island is.”
A roar went up from the gathered captains. Bui stood.
“How many ships?”
“Not many,” Sigvaldi said. “Six. Eight. He’s waiting for his fleet to gather, that’s clear. But we’re going to catch him before they come.” He swept his gaze around them all. “We’ll leave before dawn. I’ll take the left, with Bui. Aslak, you take the right, with Sigurd Cape, and Havard.” His teeth shone. Conn felt a sudden shiver of excitement. Sigvaldi turned and fixed his gaze on him.
“And since you’re so wild to get him, Conn Corbansson, you go first, in the middle.”
In the short, bright night, they buried Ketil. The rest of Seabird’s crew laid him on his back at the foot of the sand bank, with his sword beside him, and a little meat and beer for the last journey. Then each brought a stone from the beach.
Finn said, “Better to die like this than behind a plow, like an ox.” He put his stone by Ketil’s feet.
“Better still, in the battle tomorrow,” Gorm said, at Ketil’s head. He turned his wide eyes on Conn; he always looked a little pop-eyed. “How many ships does Hakon have?”
Conn said, “Sigvaldi says only a few. But I don’t trust Sigvaldi anymore.”
“Tomorrow,” said Grim, “when we catch Hakon—”
Somebody else laughed; Rugr said, “If we catch him—”
“That will be a deed that will ring around the world.”
Conn stooped, and laid his stone down by Ketil’s shoulder, moving other stones to fit. “Whatever we do tomorrow, we do it together.”
“We take Ketil with us.” Raef bent and put his stone by Ketil’s hip.
“If we beat Hakon—” Odd laid his stone by Ketil’s knee. Now the shape of stones was closed around the dead man, a ship to carry him on. “They will tell the story until the end of the world.”
“The end of the world.”
They stood then a moment silent, their eyes on Ketil, and then they brought the sand bank down to cover him. They all turned, and looked at one another. They clasped each other’s hands, and laughed, sharp and uneasy and wild, their eyes shining. “Together,” they said. “All together.”
Then they went off to get ready, to see to their weapons, to sleep, if they could, so they could sail before dawn. Conn and Raef fetched extra water and food and stowed it on the ship, where she lay on the beach.
The others were lying down by the fire. Conn sat down beside his cousin on the sand beside the round breast of their ship. He thought he would never sleep. In his mind he thought about every fight and battle he had ever been in, but everything seemed like a blur suddenly.
It would all be different, anyway, it always was.
After a while, he said to Raef, “Are you ready?”
“I guess so,” Raef said. His voice was tight as a plucked wire. “No. This feels bad to me. He put us first, out in front of everybody?”
“Yes,” Conn said. “We have the chance to take Hakon ourselves, alone.”
“Or be taken ourselves. He’s trying to kill us,” Raef said.
Conn nudged him with his elbow. “You think too much. When it starts, you won’t have time to think.” He yawned, leaning against the ship’s side, suddenly exhausted. “Just follow me,” he said, and shut his eyes, and slept.
He was in a great battle, around him the clash of axes and shields, the horns blaring, a boat rocking under him, arms and hair and twisted faces packed around him. He could not tell his enemies from his friends. The heaving and screaming and struggle around him was like something trying to devour him and in a frenzy he hacked around him with his sword to make himself room to stand. The blood sprayed over him, so he tasted it on his lips.
Then the clash of blades on shields became thunder rolling, and lightning flashed so bright he was blinded. When he could see again he was alone, fighting alone, a tiny man against a towering storm, not even on a ship any more. The clouds rose hundreds of feet above him, billowing black and grey, and the lightning shot forth its arrows at him, the rain itself felt like showers of stones, and the fists of the thunder battered him.
The wind streamed out the cloud’s long hair; in the billows he saw eyes, a mouth with teeth like boulders, a monstrous woman’s shape of fog and mist. High above him, she stretched out her arm toward him and from each fingertip the lightning blazed. He could not move, bound where he was, and the lightning bolts came straight at him, and blasted him into pieces, so that where he had been there was nothing.
He woke up on the ground beside the ship. The dream gripped him; he was surprised to find himself whole. He got to his feet and walked down the shore, toward the sunrise.
On the far edge of the purple sky a hot red glow was spreading, and the air glimmered. He stood on the pebble beach and the dream went on in his head, stronger than the day around him.
In a moment Raef came up beside him. Conn told him the dream, and even in the dim light saw his cousin turn pale.
“Is it true, do you think?” Conn asked.
“All dreams are true, somehow.”
The crew was gathering by Seabird, and the sun was about to rise. “Fate takes us,” Conn said, “and all there is for us to do is meet it well. Simple enough. Come on, let’s get going.”
They rowed out into the swelling sunlight, rounding the top end of the island, and turning southeast toward the opening of the bay. The sea was high and rolling. Seabird flew over the water like a hunting hawk; without Ketil, Conn was rowing his oar, the first bench on the steerboard side. As he leaned into each stroke he saw the rest of the fleet swinging out to row after them, ship after ship, stalking along on their oars, their bare masts and tall curled prows dark against the pale sky, the sea breaking white along their bows.
Something swelled in him, some irresistible joy. He glanced forward over his shoulder. They were passing the tip of the island, set to weather the low cape on the mainland, with the bay opening before them between the gaunt gouged hillsides. Behind hung the white curtain of the mountains. The sun was rising, spilling a sheet of light out over the water. The sky was white. He was glad they were turning south now, so he would fight with the glare of the sun on his side instead of in his eyes. He felt the sea smooth out as they came into the shelter of the hills; he called an order, and the crew gave a single shout in answer, flattened their oars so the blades bit the top of the sea and the ship seemed to lift into the air, skimming over the low chop. He felt a giddy pride in this, his crew, the best rowers in the fleet.
The bay opened its arms. In the middle of the channel, a ragged island humped up dark under a cloak of trees. Raef, at the helm, set them to pass to the west of it. The ship flew by a cluster of low rocks that barely broke up through the trough of the waves. Looking past the seven rowers in front of him, Conn saw Raef with his white hair streaming, staring up ahead and all around the bay, Raef with his long sight.
A pale spit ran like a tongue down into the water from the southern tip of the island. Beyond, the bay widened out, glistening with fresh light. Near the shore on either side the waves broke white on barren skerries. Then Raef shouted, “Ship! Ship!” and pointed straight ahead of them.
Conn crossed his oar and leapt up, climbing onto the gunwale, one hand on the stempost. At first all he saw was the broad glittering expanse of the water, another tree-covered island, farther south. Then, halfway to that island, the fresh new sun glinted on something gold.
Conn remembered that golden-headed dragon, which he had seen once before in Denmark. He gave a yell. “That’s him! That’s Hakon’s ship!”
Behind him Raef shouted an answer. On one of the ships coming after them, a warhorn sounded its deep hollow note. Seabird shot out past the island onto the open bay, the rowers pulling strong and long. Conn twisted to look quickly back.
Behind them, the narrow waters between the island and the west shore were packed with the ships of the Jomsvikings, the masts like a moving forest. More horns sounded, and a roar of voices went up. They had seen the golden ship too.
He wheeled around. Up there, half a mile into the bay, the golden gleam turned and ran off into the south. His crew bellowed, and Seabird surged forward. The long warhorns were braying behind him. Conn slid down quickly to his oar again. On his left Sigvaldi in his big dragon was striding after him, and on the right Aslak’s ship with its fanged and horned head was only a few lengths behind.
Conn screamed, “Go! Go!” and leaned into his stroke, and the rest of the crew smoothly picked up the rhythm with him. The fleet behind him was spreading out, as they rowed into the open water past the first island, and all were racing to be first. A screech of urgent voices rose. Conn saw Sigvaldi in the bow of his big dragon, bellowing orders. On the other side, Aslak was waving his men on with milling arms.
Smallest of them, still Seabird flew ahead of them all. Behind her was the great pack of the Jomsvikings, but ahead of her was only the dragon with the golden head, running away.
Then Raef shouted, “Ships! Ships—”
Conn crossed his oar again and leapt up onto the gunwale by the bow. His eyes swept the end of the bay, through the confusion of the ragged shore and the islands and the low skerries. Down there, the golden dragon was turning, was facing them, not running any more. He climbed higher on the prow, teetering on the gunwale, and now he saw, first, the low hulls sliding through the water after Hakon, and then, on either side, other ships stroking hard into the bay from inlets, from behind capes.
“How many?” Raef bellowed.
“I don’t know! Half row!” Conn sprang down from the bow, and as the ship slowed a little he went back through his ship, from man to man. “Get ready,” he said. “Get your swords, get your helmets on.” Their eyes were already wild and Finn’s face was white as an egg, Gorm was swearing under his breath, Skeggi was swallowing over and over as if he were about to be sick. Conn reached the stern, where Raef had climbed up on the gunwale to see.
“A lot of ships,” Raef said. “More than us. Hakon laid a trap for us and we walked right into it.”
“Sigvaldi did,” Conn said. He reached into the stern counter and got his helmet out and pulled it on over his hair. “Just get us to Hakon.” He shouted, “Full row! One! Two!” and ran back up to his oar in the forecastle.
Seabird surged forward. While they had slowed, the rest of the fleet had all but caught up to them, on every ship shouting and horns. Conn could see Aslak on his right, the big bald Jomsviking standing by his third oarsmen. He wore no helmet; he was bawling to the crew. Conn swung forward again, his heart hammering, and rowed. His ship hurtled across the flat water. Ahead, now, faint, he heard other horns, and more shouting.
Raef shouted, “They’re throwing something! Duck!”
Conn doubled over, hunching his shoulders; the bow would shield him well enough. A rattle of spears clattered down around Seabird, mostly just sharpened sticks, which hit nothing. Raef shouted, “Get ready!”
Conn crossed his oar again. “Gorm! Arn—Sigurd—” He leapt up; he had almost called Ketil’s name. He drew his sword, and with his free hand grabbed up a sharpened stick that had fallen into the ship. When he whirled around, the round head of a dragon was looming toward him, closing rapidly.
Not golden. A big black beast, a round weather beaten curve of a prow. Behind him, Raef shouted: “Up oars!”
With the hand holding the sharp stick, Conn grabbed the gunwale, and Seabird plowed in past the black dragon, snapping off a few of her oars before the other crew managed to get them out of the way. Conn stepped up onto the gunwale and jumped across the narrowing water between the two ships.
Three men met him with their axes swinging. For a moment, balancing on the gunwale with his back to the sea, all he could do was weave and parry, jabbing with the stick with his left hand and his sword in his right. Then somebody else from Seabird landed next to him and one of the axemen staggered and Conn stuck him through and then lunging sideways and all the way onto the ship hacked down another Tronder axeman.
It was pop-eyed Gorm beside him. His whole forecastle crew was piling onto the enemy ship after him. The ship was pitching hard, as if it tried to throw them off. He ducked down under an axe blade swinging by him and thrust toward the body behind it. He fought for space on the tilting floor, his feet planted wide, stabbing and jabbing with his sword at the man before him. The Tronder reeled, cut across the chest. Lunging to hack him down, Conn smacked his knee on a bench and almost collapsed.
Suddenly the Tronders were turning, were leaping off the ship, and beyond them, he saw Aslak’s bald head climbing over the black ship’s stern.
He wheeled toward Seabird; the little dragon was drifting away. From the far side, more Tronders swarmed over her, battling the rest of his crew. Raef. He bellowed, and charged back to his ship.
When they first closed with the black ship half the crew had jumped off, and now the rest were leaning out to watch, their oars idle. Seabird was tipped hard to that direction. Raef held the steerboard out, to keep the ship close on the black dragon. Then another Tronder ship was veering straight at him.
He bellowed to the sterncastle crew, who were all backwards to this, and swung the steerboard up out of the way.
The crew wheeled around to meet the Tronders’ charge. The bigger ship ground into Seabird’s bow and spilled men in a tide, roaring and waving their one-bladed axes. Tronders charged down the middle of the ship; Raef reached down at his feet for his sword, and before he stood up a shaggy-bearded man was leaping toward him, his red mouth round and howling.
His axe swung, and still sitting Raef shrank away. The brow of the axe missed him by a finger’s breadth and struck the gunwale just beyond him. A chunk of wood flew into the air. Awkward, stooping, Raef flailed his sword at the shaggy man, and the flat of the blade hit the Tronder’s wrist with a crack like a stone splitting. The Tronder staggered. Raef lunged up and caught him in the gut with his shoulder and heaved him over the side of the ship.
The Tronder ship had backed off, was fighting somebody else. All around him Raef saw ships jammed against ships, and men fighting up and down them; ahead of him a big dragon wallowed awash to the tops of its benches, and men swam and bodies floated in the choppy water.
On Seabird the remaining Tronders had taken over the forecastle but the stern half of the crew had pushed them back and was holding them at the mast. Raef charged up to help them. As he got there Finn went down hard right in front of him. A big man in a leather tunic reared over him, his single-bladed axe high; he never saw Raef coming and Raef never stopped. Still running he drove his sword straight through the leather chest.
The Tronder fell backward. Finn was trying to crawl out of the way, blocked by a sea chest and a misshipped oar, and Raef stepped over him to the mast. There Skeggi and Odd were clubbing away at two axemen in front of them; more beyond in the narrow waist of the ship were struggling to close enough to strike. Then suddenly the ship yawed. Up by the bow Conn was climbing out of the bay, pulling himself over the gunwale behind the Tronders, his hair streaming in his face, and they wheeled, saw him and the men climbing in after him, and leapt off.
Raef turned around to Finn, who was clinging to the gunwale and trying to stand. His leg looked broken, maybe both legs. Raef hauled him back into the stern and sat him on the bench by the tiller. “Can you steer?”
“I—” The boy threw back his long brown hair. “Yes, I can.” He reached out one hand to hold the side of the ship but the other reached for the tiller. Raef swung the steerboard down and gave him the tiller bar.
“Stay off the rocks. And get us to that golden dragon.” He ran back toward Conn, in the forecastle.
The sun was only halfway up the sky and the day already crackled with heat. Raef peeled off his shirt; his hair dripped. Hakon’s golden ship seemed always just out of reach. They went side to side with a big snake-headed dragon, fighting across the gunwales. Twice Conn led the whole crew to charge the other ship and twice the Tronders held them off. Then abruptly the Tronder was veering away, all her oars coming out, fleeing.
For a moment Seabird was in a lull, ships all around them, but nobody fighting them. Raef leaned against the mast, breathing hard, looking around. There were fewer of them than before. Gorm lay flat on his back on the floor, his pop eyes open. But his arm was gone, and he was dead. Beyond him Egil leaned on the gunwale and then slowly slumped down on his knees between two benches. Skeggi and Grim had simply disappeared. The others looked battered, but whole. They were sitting down, reaching for water or food, talking. He even heard Arn’s girly laugh. Raef lifted his gaze toward the fighting.
The battleline stretched across the whole end of the bay, in a long crescent moon curve, with Sigvaldi on the left arm of the curve. Raef could see them fighting hard there, every ship engaged. Seabird was near the center; on the other arm, the Jomsvikings shoved Hakon’s men toward the beach, and here in the middle there were several idle ships—Hakon seemed to be falling back—he could not see the golden dragon. Then, at the end of the line where Sigvaldi fought, another stream of ships were rowing up into sight past the big island.
“Hiyahh! What’s that?”
Conn reared up beside him. Raef pointed to the leader of the line of ships now attacking Sigvaldi. The ship was bigger than most, with a broader bow, and her whole stem below the slender curve of her dragon neck was covered in bands of iron set with iron claws.
Conn said, “I don’t know, but if he turns the end of Sigvaldi’s line, we’re surrounded. Come on.”
He shouted, and the men jumped to their oars. Gorm still lay on the floor, and Egil was dead on his own bench, but Finn sat by the steerboard and nodded at Raef when he looked. Raef went up forward and took the oar opposite Conn.
Seabird flew across the choppy water, past clumps of ships fighting. Overhead, ravens and seagulls glided in circles. They passed a dragon sinking, bodies floating around her, loose oars. Raef pointed beyond. “Bui is there.”
Conn lifted his head; to his right he saw Bui the Stout in the bow of his long dragon charging toward the iron ship, and he spun around toward his crew and shouted, “Go—Go—Go—”
Smoothly they quickened their pace, their shoulders sunburnt, slick with sweat. On the backswing he turned again to look ahead of them.
The great iron dragon was at the center of a wedge-line of ships, pushing slightly ahead of the rest. The armor on her sea-swan’s breast was set with massive hooks. Conn guessed the barbs stuck out below the water line too. He thought also she would be slow to steer. He crossed his oar and stood.
Seabird swooped in on the iron ship from one side and Bui from the other. The big ship stayed steady on her course, and Conn yelled, “Half row!” trying to judge the distance so that Seabird and Bui’s ship got to the Tronder at the same time. He drew his sword. A hail of spears and stones met them, but the iron ship did not veer. Then Seabird was sheering in along one bow, and Bui on the other.
The Tronders, caught in the middle, stood up and fought in place. Conn traded blows with the man opposite him, parrying and hitting; Conn flinched back, and when the man lunged after him chopped his sword through the Tronder’s shoulder and then hacked him in the back as he went down. He bounded into the open space this left on the iron ship and stood toe to toe with another man with an axe. Raef was coming behind him. Conn pushed in, so close he felt the Tronder’s hot breath on his face. The axe haft struck him a glancing blow on the elbow and his arm went dead and the sword clattered to the floor. He stooped and with his left hand gripped it and struck upward, and the odd angle caught the Tronder off balance and Conn’s sword bit his side and he slumped.
Bui was climbing on over the iron ship’s other gunwale. He saw Conn, and shouted, “Ho, the King of Norway! Come help me!”
Raef stood at Conn’s left shoulder; they fought their way along one line of benches, and Bui fought his way down the other. The Tronders gave way only by dying. Conn’s right arm started to tingle alive again, and he switched his sword into that hand. Now he got to using his sword well again, and he and Raef reached the mast a step ahead of Bui. The burly Jomsviking was red in the face, his bare chest slick with blood streaming from a cut on his neck.
“Eirik,” he shouted, his voice hoarse. “We’ve got you!”
In the stern stood a man who in spite of the heat wore a dark shirt and a long cloak. His helmet had a gold rim and he was yelling orders. He bellowed, “Somebody has somebody, Bui. Reverse! Reverse!”
Conn wheeled. “They’ll take us in with them!” The iron ship was already sliding backward on her sterncastle oars, rowing back in among the other Tronder ships. By the bow, Seabird, with six men at the oars, was staying near as she could but she dared not go into the midst of the Tronders. Conn shouted, and pushed Raef ahead of him, and Raef shoved the other men on up to the bow of the iron ship.
The first four men leapt easily enough into Seabird, and then Raef clambered up the gunwale and jumped across the widening water, but Conn threw off his helmet, and dove into the bay.
The iron ship was stroking steadily backward, into the thick of Hakon’s ships. A stretch of clear water opened between the Tronder fleet and the Jomsvikings. Conn swam hard through it toward his ship, her oars coming out, hanging in the air, ready to row. A spear sliced through the water just past his head. He reached the ship and Raef leaned down to haul him up. He went facefirst into the space between the front two benches, into several inches of water.
He rolled over and straightened, on his knees, looking back toward the iron ship. Raef pushed up beside him.
“We’re full of water.”
“Bail,” Conn yelled, and got his feet under him, to his ankles in water. Seabird was rowing backwards, sluggish; she was always stiff going stern first but this was more sluggish than usual. All around the ship the crew bent to slinging the water out.
The fighting everywhere had stopped. Between them and the Tronders now was a broad stretch of the bay. Hakon was pulling his whole fleet back toward shore. The water between was scummed with blood, filthy with broken gear, bits of ships and oars, bodies like unsteady islands bobbing in the little waves. Down past his own stempost, he could see an arm floating a few feet below the surface.
The water in his ship did not seem to be going down. He reached into the forecastle and found a bucket and began to throw water over the side. Raef vaulted over the gunwale into the bay, and went hand over hand around the outside of the ship.
“King of Norway!”
Conn straightened, looking around. Aslak’s big dragon was gliding up just off his bow. The big bald Jomsviking stood by the mast.
“You don’t look so good,” Aslak shouted. “Eirik’s claws ripped you.”
Conn pointed toward Hakon’s fleet. “Is he giving up?” He bent to bail; the water was coming in as fast as he and his crew threw it out again.
“No—He’s just gone for help,” Aslak bellowed.
Raef’s head appeared above the gunwale, near Conn’s knee; he boosted himself smoothly up onto the ship. His left side was all bruised, Conn saw, and he was bleeding from a cut on his arm, but he looked hale enough.
Raef said, “The ship is sinking. I think that damned toothed thing tore one of the strakes loose.”
Aslak bawled, “Come over here! Come on—half my crew’s gone anyway.” He turned, and gave orders, and his ship began to scull sideways toward Conn’s.
Conn shouted, “Seabird—everybody—go over!” He waved his arm. They were already scrambling over so fast the ship rocked, even wallowing half-full of water. Conn went back into the stern and got Finn.
The boy was only half-conscious. His leg had swollen fat enough to split his legging, the flesh black underneath. Conn lifted him up and he whined. Raef came and helped him carry Finn onto Aslak’s ship. They set him down in the hollow of the sterncastle, behind the steering bench. Raef went off immediately. Conn found some beer, but Finn choked on it. His eyes opened, wide and dark with pain. Conn left the beer by him and stood up.
Amidships he saw Raef standing also, his arms at his sides, watching Seabird go down. Conn went up beside him. For a while their dragonship seemed to float, still, even awash, but then suddenly it went down out of sight into the dark green deep. The last thing he saw was her little fierce-eyed dragon head. Raef said nothing, only stood there. Conn felt the heart in him crack like a rock in the fire.
He looked around, and found Aslak up by the bow. He went there, looking toward Hakon’s fleet against the far shore. Where they were, in the center of the bay, the Jomsvikings were drinking and eating and bailing their ships out. Conn could see three other ships sinking in a single glance.
He said, “What kind of help is Hakon looking for?”
Aslak had a little skin of beer and he took a pull on it. He nodded with his head toward the island in the middle of the bay.
“You see that island? It’s called the Blessed Place. There are altars there half as old as the Ash Tree. Hakon may have a problem. He switched sides once too often. I’ve heard his patron goddesses are still angry for when he turned Christian.”
He slung an arm around Conn’s shoulders. “I’m glad to have you on board, boy—you’re a damned good fighter.”
Conn flushed; to hide this pleasure he turned, and glanced around at his crew. That took the glow away. He had not realized how many were gone. He was losing everything— his ship, the crew that made her fly. He had to win now.
He turned back to Aslak. “This Christian thing seems common enough. Even Sweyn’s been primesigned.” He took the skin and drank, and leaned out to pass the skin to Raef.
Aslak was sitting on the front bench, his knees wide, and his arms bent across them. “Hakon didn’t stay a Christer very long—just until he got away from Bluetooth.”
“So he’s betrayed everybody,” Conn said.
“Oh, yes. At least once. And beaten everybody. German, Swede, Dane, and Norse. At least once.” With a grimace Aslak stretched one leg out and rubbed his calf. Blood squished from the top of his shoe.
Conn said, “But we are winning this one.”
Aslak said, “Yes, I think so. So far.”
In the blazing sun past noon Hakon’s ships gathered again, and the golden dragon was in the center. They came forward again across the bay, and the Jomsvikings swung into lines to meet them.
Even as they rowed up a cold wind began to blast. Conn, pulling an oar in the front of Aslak’s ship, felt the harsh slash of the air on his cheek and looked west and saw a cloud boiling up over the horizon, black and swelling like a bruise on the sky. His skin went all to gooseflesh and his dream came back to him. The line of the Jomsviking ships swept toward Hakon and the storm cloud climbed up over half the sky, heavy and dark, the wind ripping streamers away like hair. Under it the air flickered, thick and green.
Conn bent to his oar. Up the center of Aslak’s ship came four men with spears, which they cast, but the wind flung them off like splinters. A roll of thunder boomed across the sky. Inside the towering cloud lightning glowed. The first drops fell, and then all at once sheets of rain hammered down.
Aslak was screaming the oar-chant, because of the mixed crew. Conn threw all his strength into each stroke. The rain battered on his head, his bare shoulders, streamed cold down his chest. Hakon’s ships in their line loomed over them; he shipped the oar and drawing his sword wheeled toward the bow.
As he rose the wind met him so hard he had to stiffen himself against it, and then suddenly as if the sky broke into tiny pieces and fell on him, it began to hail.
He stooped, half-blinded in the white deluge, feeling the ship under him rub another ship, and saw through the haze of flying ice the shape before him of a man with an axe. He struck. Raef was beside him, hip to hip. The axe came at him and he slashed again, blind, into the white whirling storm. Somebody screamed, somewhere. There was hail all in his beard, his hair, his eyebrows. Abruptly the booming fall stopped. The rain pattered away and the sun broke through, glaring.
He staggered back a step. The ship was full of hailstones and water; Raef, beside him, slumped down on the bench, gasping for breath. Blood streamed down his face, his shoulders. Conn wheeled to look past the bow, toward Hakon’s men.
The Tronder fleet had backed off again, but they were not fleeing; they were letting Sigvaldi flee.
Conn let out a howl of rage. Off toward the west, at the end of the Jomsviking line, Sigvaldi’s big dragon suddenly had broken out of line, was stroking fast away up the bay, and behind it, the other Jomsviking ships were peeling out of their formation and following.
Conn leapt up onto the gunwale of Aslak’s ship, his hand on the dragon’s neck, and shouted, “Run! Run, Sigvaldi, you coward! Remember your vow? The Jomsviking way, is it—I’ll not run—not if I’m the last man here and he sends all the gods against me, I’ll not run!”
From behind him came a howl from Aslak’s ship and the ships beyond. Conn pivoted his head to see them—back there all the other men shouted, and shook their fists toward Sigvaldi, and waved their swords at Hakon. Bui in their midst bellowed like a bull, red-faced. There were ten ships, he thought. Ten left, from sixty. Aslak stood before him, and put his hand on Conn’s shoulder and met his eyes.
“If it’s my doom here, I’ll meet it like a man. Let’s show them how true Jomsvikings fight!”
Conn gripped his hand. “To the last man!”
“It will be that,” Raef said, behind him.
Bui shouted, from the next dragon, “Aslak! Aslak! King of Norway! Lash the ships together!”
Aslak’s head pivoted, looking toward Hakon. “He’s coming.”
“Hurry,” Conn said.
They drew all the ships together, gunwale to gunwale, and lashed them with the rigging through the oar holes; so all the men were free to fight, and the ships formed a sort of fighting floor. The Tronder fleet was spreading out to encircle them. Conn went back into the stern of Aslak’s dragon, where Finn lay, his eyes closed, still breathing, and pulled a shield across him. Then he went back up beside Raef.
Horns blew in the Tronder fleet, the sound rolling around the bay, and then the ships all at once closed on the Jomsvikings on their floating ship-island. The air darkened, the cold wind blasted. The rain began to fall, and like icy rocks the hail descended on them again. Conn could barely stand against the wind and the pelting hailstones. Through the driving white he saw a man with an axe heave up over the gunwale, another just behind, and he slashed out, and on the hailstrewn floor he slipped and fell on his back. Raef strode across him. Raef slashed wildly side to side with his sword, battling two men at once, until Conn staggered up again, and cut the first axeman across the knees and dropped him.
The hail stopped. In the rain they battered at a wall of axeblades trying to hack their way over the gunwale. Horns blew. The Tronders were falling back again. Conn stepped back, breathing hard, his hair in his eyes; his knee was swelling and hurt as if somebody was driving a knife into it. The sun came out again, blazing bright.
On the next ship Bui swayed back and forth, covered with blood. Both hands were gone. His face was hacked to the bone. He stooped, and looped his stumped arms through the handles of his chest of gold.
“All Bui’s men overboard,” he shouted, and leapt into the bay, the gold in his arms. He sank at once into the deep.
The sunlight slanted in under a roof of cloud. The long sundown had begun. Beneath the clouds the air was already turning dark. Hakon’s horns blew their long booming notes, pulling his fleet off.
Aslak sank down on a bench. The side of his face was mashed so that one eye was almost invisible. Raef sat next to him, slack with fatigue. Conn went down the ship, whose whole side had taken the Tronder attack. He was afraid if he sat down his knee would stiffen entirely. What he saw clenched his belly to a knot.
Arn lay dead on the floor, his head split to the red mush of his brain. The two men next to him were bleeding, but alive, were Jomsvikings, not his. Beyond them Rugr slumped, and Conn stooped beside him and tried to rouse him but he fell over, lifeless. Two other dead men lay on the floor of the ship and he had to climb across a bench to get around them. He went up to the stern, where Finn lay, still breathing, in the dark.
Conn laid one hand on him, as if he could hold the life in him. He looked back along the ship, at the living and wounded, and saw no other face that had rowed on Seabird with him save Raef’s. Along the length of Aslak’s ship, he met Raef’s eyes, and knew his cousin was thinking this too.
The ship-fortress was sinking. All over the cluster of lashed hulls, men were dipping and rising, bailing out the water and ice. Several other men came walking across the wooden island, stepping from gunwale to gunwale. They were gathering down by Aslak and Conn went back that way, wading through a soup of hail and rainwater that got deeper toward the bow. He sat down next to Raef, with the other men, slumped wearily around Aslak.
All save him and Raef were Jomsvikings. Havard had a skin of beer and held it out to Conn as he sat. Beside him another captain was looking around them. “How many of us are left?”
Aslak shrugged. “Maybe fifty. Half wounded. Some really bad wounded.” His voice was a little thick from the mess of his face.
Conn took a deep pull on the skin of beer. The drink hit his stomach like a fist. But a moment later the warmth spread through him. He handed the skin on to Raef, just behind him.
The Jomsviking across from Conn said, “Hakon will sit out the night on the shore, in comfort. Then they’ll finish us off tomorrow, unless we all just drown tonight.”
Conn said, “We have to swim for it.” He had a vague idea of reaching shore, and walking around and surprising Hakon from behind.
Havard leaned forward, his bloody hands in front of him. “That’s a good idea. We could probably make that side, there.” He pointed the other way from Hakon.
“That’s far,” Raef said. “Some of these men can’t swim two strokes.”
Aslak said, “We could lash some spars together. Make a raft.”
Havard leaned closer to Conn, his voice sinking. “Look. The ones who can make it, should. Leave the rest behind—they’re dying anyway.”
Conn thought of Finn, and the red rage drove to his feet. He hit Havard in the face as hard as he could. The Jomsviking pitched backwards head over heels into the half foot of water on the floor. Conn wheeled toward the others.
“We take everybody. All, or none.”
Aslak was grinning at him. The other men shifted a little, glaring down at Havard, who sat up.
“Look. I was just—”
“Shut up,” Aslak said. “Let’s get moving. This ship is sinking.”
In the slow-gathering dark they tied spars together into a square, and bound sails over it. The rain held off. On the raft they laid the ten wounded men who could not move by themselves, and the other men swam behind the raft to push it.
The icy water gripped them. They left the sinking ships behind them. At first they moved steadily along but after a while men started to lag behind, to drag on the raft. Havard cried, “Keep up!” Across the way someone tried to climb onto the spars and the men beside him pulled him back.
Next to Conn, Aslak said, “We’ll never make it.” He was gasping; he laid his head down on the spar a moment. Conn knew it was true. He was exhausted, he could barely kick his legs. Aslak lost his grip, and Conn reached out and grabbed hold of him until the Jomsviking could get his hands back to the spar.
Raef said, breathless, “There’s a skerry—”
“Go,” Conn said.
The skerry was only a bare rock rising just above the surface of the bay. They hauled and kicked and dragged the raft into the low waves lapping it. The rock was slippery and it took all Conn’s strength to haul Finn up off the raft. Raef dragged Aslak after them and above the waterline they lay down on the rock, and instantly Conn was asleep.
Hail fell again in the night. Conn woke, and crawled over to Finn, to protect him from the worst of it. After the brief crash abruptly stopped he realized that the body under him was as cold as the rock.
He thought of the other dead—of pop-eyed Gorm, and Odd, whose sister he had loved once, and Skeggi and Bjorn, Sigurd and Rugr—he remembered how only the night before, they were all alive, speaking of the battle to come, how its fame and theirs would ring around the world until the end of time—now who would even remember their names, when all those who knew them were dead with them? The battle might be a long-told story but the men were already forgotten.
He would remember. But he would be dead soon himself. Hakon had beaten him. He put his face against the cold stone and shut his eyes.
In the morning Raef woke up, battered and stiff, starving and thirsty. All around him on the rock the other men lay slumped asleep, or dead. Between him and Conn, Finn was dead. Raef crawled up higher on the skerry and found a hollow where some hail had fallen and mostly melted. He plunged his face into the ice-studded water and drank. When he lifted his head, he saw, on the bay, the dragons coming for them.
He slid back to Conn, yelling, the men stirring awake, all but the dead, but then the dragons reached them, and Hakon’s men swarmed over them.
Raef had never heard exactly how the Jomsvikings had offended Thorkel Leira, but clearly the wergild was going to be very high. The big Tronder had killed three men already and he was lining up the rest of the prisoners for the same. He had started with those who were nearly dead anyway and now another wounded man stumbled exhausted between two slaves, who made him kneel down and twisted a stick in his hair.
Raef had already counted; there were nine men in the line between him and Conn. The Tronders had tied their hands behind their backs and strung them along the beach, here, and bound their feet together, like trussed lambs. Down the shore, on the pebbles between them and the beached dragons, stood several men, passing a drinking horn and watching Thorkel Leira at his work. One was the man in the gold-rimmed helmet, captain of the iron ship, who was Eirik the Jarl; another was his father, Hakon the Jarl himself.
Thorkel Leira took a long pull on a drinking horn and gave it to one of the slaves. As he took hold of his sword again, Hakon said, “You, there, what do you think about dying?”
The Jomsviking, kneeling there, his hands bound, his head stretched out for the killing stroke, said, “I don’t care. My father did it. Tonight I’ll drink Odin’s ale, Thorkel, but you will be despised for this forever. Slash away.”
Thorkel raised the sword and struck off his head. The slave took the head by the hair and carried it off to the heap by the shore.
Conn said, “You know, I don’t like how this is going.”
Raef thought the Jomsvikings were too ready for dying. He was not; he rubbed his bound wrists frantically back and forth, and up and down, trying to get some play in the rope. The sun was hot on his shoulders. Another man went up before Thorkel Leira.
“I don’t mind dying, but I will do it the way I have lived, facing everything. So I ask you to kill me straight ahead, and not bent over, and not from behind.”
“So be it,” said Thorkel, and stepping forward raised his sword over his shoulder and struck the man straight down the face, cleaving through the top of his skull. The Jomsviking never flinched, his eyes open until his body slumped.
Thorkel was getting tired, Raef thought; the big Tronder had trouble getting his sword out of the body. He called for the drinking horn again and drained it. Now another was kneeling down in front of Hakon and Eirik and the others, and Thorkel again asked him if he were afraid to die.
“I’m a Jomsviking,” the kneeling man said. “I don’t care one way or the other. But we have often spoken among us about whether a man remains conscious at all after his head is cut off, and here is a chance to prove it. Cut off my head, and if I am still conscious, I will raise my hand.”
Beside Raef, Conn gave a choked incredulous laugh. Thorkel stepped forward, and slashed off the head; it took him two strokes to get it entirely off. The two jarls and their men crowded around the body and looked. Then they stepped back, and solemnly Eirik the Jarl turned to the Jomsvikings and announced, “His hand did not move.”
Conn said, “That was pretty stupid. In a few minutes, we’ll all know for ourselves.” Along the rope line, the Jomsvikings laughed as if they were at table hearing jokes.
Thorkel turned and glared at him, and then the next man knelt before him, and when he turned to this one, he missed the first stroke. He hit the back of the man’s head, knocking him down, and then his shoulders, and didn’t cut off his head until the third try.
“I hope you have better aim with your prick, Thorkel,” Conn shouted.
The Jomsvikings let up a yell of derision, and even Eirik the Jarl smiled, his hands on his hips. Someone called, “That’s why his wife’s always so glad to see me coming, I guess!”
Half a dozen men shouted, “You mean Ingebjorg? Is that why, do you think?”
Thorkel’s face twisted. He wheeled around, and pointed at Conn.
“Bring him. Bring him next!”
The guard came and untied Conn’s feet. Raef suddenly saw some chance here; he licked his lips, afraid of croaking, a weakling voice, and called out, “Wait.”
The Jomsvikings were yelling taunts at Thorkel, who stood there with his mouth snarling, his long sword tilted down, but Eirik heard Raef and looked toward him. “What do you want?”
“Kill me first,” Raef said. “I love my brother too much, I don’t want to see him die. If you kill me first, I won’t have to.”
Eirik scowled at him, and Hakon made a snort. “Why should we do what you want?” But Thorkel strode forward, the sword in both hands, shouting.
“Bring him! Bring him! I’ll kill them both at once!”
The slave untied Raef’s feet, and pulled him up. Conn was already standing, and his feet were already untied. Raef gave him a swift look, walking past, and went down before the jarls on the shore.
His ribs hurt where he had taken blows in the battle, he was walking a little crooked, and he was tired and hungry, but he summoned himself together. Thorkel’s slaves came up beside him, and pushed him on the shoulder to make him kneel down; one had the stick to twist in his hair.
He stepped back from the hands on him. “I am a free man. No slave shall put his dirty hands in my hair.”
The Norse all laughed, except Eirik the Jarl, who snapped, “He’s just stalling. He’s afraid to die. Somebody hold his hair for him, and we’ll see how he does it.”
One of his hirdmen stepped forward. “My privilege.” He came up before Raef. “Kneel by yourself, then, if you’re free.”
Raef knelt down, and the Tronder took hold of his long pale hair and stepped back again, and so stretched Raef’s head forward like a chicken on the block. Raef’s heart was hammering in his chest and he was sick to his stomach. His neck felt ten feet long and thin as a whisker; he watched Thorkel approaching in the corner of his eye.
He said, “Try to do this right, will you?” Up on the beach there was a chorus of jeers.
Thorkel snarled. He swung up his sword, the long sun glinting off the blade, and brought it down hard.
With all his strength Raef lunged back and out from under that falling blade, yanking after him the man holding his hair, so that the Tronder’s hands passed under the falling sword and Thorkel slashed them both off at the wrist. The Tronder howled, his arms spurting blood. Still on his knees, Raef staggered his upper body straight. The Tronder’s hands had clenched in his hair, and he had to toss his head to get them out.
Thorkel wheeled around, hauling the sword back for a fresh blow. His hands still tied behind his back, Raef rolled sideways against the big man’s ankles, and brought him crashing down, so that the sword flew out of his hands.
Raef struggled to get to his feet. Thorkel sprawled on the ground. Even the Jarls were laughing at him. But Conn had leapt forward even as the sword fell. He knelt astride it, ran his bound hands down the edge, and leapt up again, freed, the sword in his fists.
Thorkel staggered up. Conn took a long stride toward him, the sword swinging around level, and sliced Thorkel’s head off while the big man was still rising.
A roar went up from the Jomsvikings. Conn wheeled toward Hakon.
“Hakon, I challenge you, face to face!”
Eirik the Jarl had drawn his sword, was shouting, waving his arms, calling his hirdmen to him. Raef lurched to his feet, close to Conn. Conn’s hands were dripping blood; in his fury to get free he had cut himself all over. Quickly he turned and sliced through Raef’s bonds. Eirik and his men were closing in on them.
Then Hakon called out, again, “Hold. Hold your hands. Who are you, there, Jomsviking? I’ve seen you two before.”
The Tronders stood where they were. Conn lowered the sword. “I’m not a Jomsviking. I’m Conn Corbansson.”
“I thought so,” Hakon said. “These are the sons of that Irish wizard, who helped Sweyn Tjugas overcome Bluetooth. I told you Sweyn was behind this.”
Eirik said, “So.” He lowered the long sword in his hand. “Still, we’ve won. Good enough. That just now was cleverly done, and to go on is a waste of men. Thorkel’s dead, he needs no more revenge. Let me have these two.”
Hakon said, “Well, I remember the wizard, who once gave me good advice. I will not say his name. Do what you like with them all.”
Eirik said, “You, Corbanssons, if I let you live, will you come into my service?”
Conn said, “You are a generous man, Jarl Eirik. But you should know I swore at Helsingor never to go back to Denmark until I was King of Norway, which I don’t think will sit well with either Sweyn or you Tronders. But those men—” He swung his arm at the hillside, at the twenty men still roped together on the grass. “Those men will serve you, better than any other. Those are the true Jomsvikings!”
At that there was a yell that went on for a while. Raef saw that Eirik started to smile, his hands on his hips, and Hakon shrugged and walked away toward the ships. Eirik gave a word, and the Jomsvikings were set free.
Then Hakon the Jarl came up to Conn. He was as Raef remembered him, not tall, with a crisp black beard, and the coldest eyes he had ever seen.
He said, “King of Norway, was it? I think anyone you do choose to serve will find you more trouble than help. But tell me what you will do now that you are free again.”
Conn glanced at Raef beside him. “We won’t go back to Sweyn, that’s certain. We promise to go somewhere else and not bother you.”
Aslak came up to them and shook their hands and clapped them both on the back. Even Havard grinned at them, over Hakon’s shoulder.
Hakon said, “Then go. But if I catch you again in Norway you’re done.”
“Agreed,” Conn said, and went on down the beach, Raef beside him. After a while, he said, “I think we hammered that vow.”
“We, it is now,” Raef said. “Don’t get so drunk next time. We should both be dead. Like everybody else.”
“But we’re not,” Conn said. He had lost his sword, his ship, his crew, but he felt light, fresh, as if he had just come newly alive again. “I don’t know what to make of that, but I will make something. I swear it. Let’s go.”
Originally published in Warriors, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Cecelia Holland is one of the world's most highly acclaimed and respected historical novelists, ranked by many alongside other giants in that field such as Mary Renault and Larry McMurtry. Over the span of her thirty year career, she's written almost thirty historical novels, including The Firedrake, Rakessy, Two Ravens, Ghost on the Steppe, Death of Attila, Hammer For Princes, The King's Road, Pillar of the Sky, The Lords of Vaumartin, Pacific Street, Sea Beggars, The Earl, The King in Winter, The Belt of Gold, The Serpent Dreamer, The High City, Kings of the North, and a series of fantasy novels, including The Soul Thief, The Witches Kitchen, The Serpent Dreamer, and Varanger. She also wrote the well-known science fiction novel Floating Worlds, which was nominated for a Locus Award in 1975. Her most recent book is a new fantasy novel, Dragon Heart.