Saxon: The Emperor's Elephant (7 page)

BOOK: Saxon: The Emperor's Elephant
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‘There’s a tidy profit from acting as a money changer.’

It was my turn to change the subject. ‘You said in Dorestad that you should have known that I can speak Saxon.’

Redwald chuckled. ‘The name Sigwulf is rare among the Franks. Much more popular among Northmen and Saxons. So what brought you to the court of King Carolus?’

He put the question lightly but I detected again that he was showing more than casual curiosity.

‘It was not my choice. Offa of Mercia despatched me there, to get me out of the way.’ It was an honest answer and designed to evoke a response. It succeeded.

Redwald sucked in his breath. ‘Offa’s a right mean bastard. I trade regularly in his ports and I wouldn’t want it widely known that I’ve taken a passenger he
doesn’t like. Could damage my business.’

‘Then make sure I don’t come to the attention of anyone in Kaupang who might report to Offa that I arrived there with you,’ I said quickly. It was a flimsy safeguard for my
future, but better than nothing.

‘That I will do,’ Redwald assured me bluntly.

There was little more to be said so I turned and groped my way across the deck, stepping carefully to avoid loose ropes and other dimly seen obstacles. As I reached the ladder down into the hold
where Osric and Walo had prepared sleeping places for us among the bales and boxes of the cargo, Redwald’s voice came out of the darkness behind me.

‘Get a good night’s rest, Sigwulf, however hard your pillow.’

I paused with my foot on the top rung. My pillow was to be a saddlebag containing the king’s silver.

*

We emerged from the Rhine mouth the following afternoon, though it was impossible to say at what point we had left the river and reached the sea itself. The colour of the water
remained the same murky greenish-brown, and the flat, dull Frisian shoreline lacked any headlands to mark our departure. As soon as the vessel began to rise and fall on the gentle swell, poor Walo
turned pale and began to moan softly. He gripped the ship’s rail with such desperation that his knuckles showed white. Redwald gruffly advised him to take deep breaths of fresh air and look
at the horizon to steady himself. Walo closed his eyes even more tightly, whimpering with distress. Before long he was seated on deck, head down between his knees and retching miserably. Osric
remained below, guarding our saddlebags, and I took the precaution of eavesdropping on the cog’s six-man crew in case they were planning any mischief. They talked among themselves in Frisian
and their only topic of conversation was the weather. I gathered that they were expecting an easy passage to Kaupang as the wind at this season was usually from the south-west and favourable.
Reassured, I ducked beneath the edge of the large rectangular sail that smelled of fish oil and tar and made my way forward to the bow where I could be alone.

A thin veil of light cloud covered the sky, and the sensation of facing out across an empty sea towards a hazy and indistinct horizon played tricks on my mind. It seemed that I was adrift in a
great, limitless void. There was only the undulating sea swell ahead, the steady rhythm of the vessel’s movement beneath me, and an infinite, trackless space across which I was scarcely
moving. I felt isolated and detached, free of my day-to-day existence and from whatever lay ahead on my new endeavour. Next winter I would be twenty-nine years old. No longer was I the naïve
and inexperienced youth who had arrived at Carolus’s court. I had matured and grown more worldly wise from all that had happened to me, and it would be normal to have put down roots. Yet I
continued to feel like a stranger among the Franks in spite of Carolus’s generosity and favour. I was still unsettled and restless, and always hovering in the background were my strange
dreams and visions. They came without warning and though I had learned to be very wary how I interpreted them as omens of the future, they still disturbed me.

I looked back to where Redwald stood stolidly at the helm. Every so often he glanced up at the sail or looked out across the waves, his gaze watchful and calculating. He knew his ship
intimately, how she handled in a seaway, how she responded to every shift of the wind, how best she carried her cargo. To that knowledge he added his vast experience of the sea to hold the cog
steady on her course. Here, I thought to myself, was an example that I should follow. I knew myself far better now than ever before, and the time had come for me to have more confidence in who I
was. I should be more purposeful, more open.

I reached up behind my head and unfastened the lace that held my eye patch in place. With a flick of my wrist I tossed it overboard.

*

Absorbed in my thoughts, I stayed on the foredeck until a noticeable chill in the evening air eventually obliged me to seek a less exposed spot towards the stern. I rejoined
Redwald to find that the shipmaster had covered his thinning hair with a shapeless woollen hat almost as grubby as his worker’s smock. He immediately noticed my missing eye patch.

‘The crew will have to think up a different nickname for you,’ he said with an amused smile.

‘Why’s that?’ I asked. I had expected him to react with dismay when he saw that my eyes were different colours. Mariners were supposed to be superstitious.

‘They’ve dubbed you “Odinn”.’

My own father had been a follower of the Old Ways so I was familiar with the story. The god Odinn sacrificed one eye for a drink at the well of knowledge and wore an eye patch afterwards.

‘What are they calling Osric and Walo?’ I enquired.

‘ “Weyland” and “the troll”,’ he replied.

It was a cruel jibe: Weyland was the crippled smith to the old gods.

‘I hadn’t realized that Frisians follow those quaint beliefs,’ I retorted sourly. Neither my father’s paganism nor the devout Christianity of men like Alcuin appealed to
me. As far as I was concerned, trying to make sense of my own strange dreams and visions was enough.

‘Just sailors’ humour. But you’ll want to be careful in Kaupang about mocking the old gods.’

I sensed there was something more to his warning. ‘You seem to be worried about what will happen when we get there.’

Before answering he reached up under his hat to scratch his scalp. ‘Kaupang is the outer fringe of the civilized world. There’s no law there, and none wanted. People resent outside
interference, particularly when it comes to religion.’

‘So they suspect that anyone sent by Carolus is either a spy or a missionary.’

‘Let’s just say that Carolus is not popular.’

‘Then how do you manage buying gyrfalcons there for the king?’

‘I work through a middleman. It was several years before I had his confidence.’

I spotted the trap Redwald was setting. He was determined to have his usual commission on purchasing gyrfalcons for Carolus’s mews master. I decided it was easier to fall in with his
plan.

‘Then I’ll depend on you to buy the birds after I’ve selected them. You can do the bargaining and I’ll provide you with the money.’

He gave a satisfied grunt and tilted back his head, checking the sky. Streaks of high cloud were beginning to form, their pink undersides catching the last rays of the sun, now below the
horizon.

‘We could be in for a bit more wind later tomorrow,’ he observed.

‘Does that mean we’ll have to seek shelter?’

He shook his head. ‘Safer to stay away from a lee shore. Besides, the wind will push us along nicely and keep us clear of any pirates who might be watching from the coast.’

I looked back in the direction we had already come. There was nothing to be seen except a darkening expanse of the grey sea flecked here and there with a breaking wave. Suddenly the cog felt
small and very isolated and vulnerable, and that made me ask, ‘Redwald, what gods do you pray to in a storm?’

He chuckled. ‘Every god that I can think of. But that doesn’t stop me from doing everything possible to keep my ship afloat.’

Chapter Four

T
HE WIND, THOUGH BLUSTERY,
stayed fair for the next three days while Redwald steered his chosen course without any sight of land. In response to my
questions he told me that he took the direction of the waves as his guide, together with the angle of the sun and stars whenever the clouds allowed. But it was a mystery to me how he managed to
calculate so accurately the distance we had covered. Late one morning, he gestured over the bow and announced casually that we would be at Kaupang next daybreak. I looked in that direction but saw
nothing. Another couple of hours passed before I made out a narrow dark smudge just discernible against the hazy line where a grey overcast sky met a sullen-looking sea. It was our landfall.
Judging by the crew’s lack of any reaction, they thought this feat of navigation was unremarkable. They made minor adjustments to the set of the sail, and then went back to the everyday
routine of repairing worn tackle and hauling up buckets of water from the bilge and tipping the contents overboard.

Slowly the cog wallowed towards the coast. It was a raw land, rugged and desolate. Thick, gloomy forest covered dark hills that rose gradually towards a range of mountains whose bald peaks were
purple-grey in the far distance. As we drew closer, it was possible to make out the jumbled boulders of a rock-bound shore without any sign of human activity. The wind had already eased to a soft
breeze and in the late afternoon it died away completely. The cog was left becalmed, the big sail sagging. We were perhaps a long bow shot from the shoreline, and I supposed the vessel had come to
a complete halt. But watching more closely I realized that the cog was caught in some sort of current. She was being carried sideways towards a spit of land where the swell heaved and broke on a
hidden reef, each surge and retreat sucking back the foam in whorls and patterns. Unnerved, I turned to look at Redwald, for it seemed to me that the cog must drift helplessly onto the rocks.

‘Is it far to Kaupang?’ I asked, trying to hide my alarm.

‘Just around that point,’ he answered calmly.

He seemed utterly unconcerned by our situation and I wondered if he had noticed a gathering grey murkiness out to sea. To add to our troubles, a fog bank was beginning to form.

An hour dragged by and there was nothing to do except observe the shoreline slowly edging past. Behind us the fog bank grew thicker, swallowing up the sun as it sank towards the horizon. Now the
mist was oozing towards us. The first wisps arrived, cool and moist, caressing our faces. In a very short time it had wrapped itself around us and we could see no more than a yard or two in any
direction. It was like being immersed in a bowl of thin milk. From where I stood beside the helm I could see no further than the mainmast. The bow was totally invisible. When I licked my lips, I
tasted fresh dew. The fog was settling. I shivered.

‘Have you been in anything like this before?’ I muttered to Osric standing at my shoulder. Walo had gone below deck, taking his turn to guard our saddlebags.

‘Never,’ he replied. Long ago he had been shipwrecked on a voyage from Hispania to Britain aboard a ship trading for tin. It was as an injured castaway that he had been sold into
slavery.

‘Why doesn’t the captain drop anchor?’ I wondered.

I did not know that sound carries well in a fog. ‘Because the water’s too deep,’ came Redwald’s voice somewhere in the mist.

I watched the droplets of water gather on the dark tan of the sail, then trickle down, joining into delicate rivulets before dripping to the deck. Somewhere in the distance was a faint sound, a
low, muted rumble repeated every few seconds. It was the murmur of the swell nuzzling the unseen rocks.

The cog drifted onward.

Perhaps half an hour later Redwald abruptly growled, ‘Sweeps!’

There were indistinct movements in the mist. Blurred figures moved here and there on the deck, followed by several thumps and dragging sounds. The crew were preparing the long oars that had been
lashed to the ship’s rail during the voyage.

There were more noises and some clattering as the sweeps were thrust out over the side, splashes as their blades hit the water.

‘If you want to make yourselves useful, lend a hand,’ came Redwald’s gruff voice again.

I fumbled my way to where I could just make out a crewman standing ready to pull on a sweep. He moved aside enough to let me join him. I gripped the soaking-wet wood of the handle.

‘Pull away!’ Redwald ordered. After a few moments I picked up the rhythm, a slow steady dip and pull. Osric must also have found his place at another oar handle, and not long
afterwards I became aware of a figure ducking past me. I recognized the shambling walk, and knew it was Walo. He must have sensed that something was wrong and clambered up from the hold. I decided
there was no point in worrying that our silver was unguarded. It was more important that every man aboard helped keep the cog off the rocks.

I began to count the strokes and had nearly reached five hundred when, abruptly, Redwald called on us to stop rowing. Gratefully I stood straighter, my arm muscles aching. I turned to my
neighbour and was about to speak when he raised a finger to his lips and gestured at me to stay silent. He cocked his head on one side and I understood that he was listening intently. I tried to
pick out the sounds, and heard the noise of small waves breaking. The sound came from directly ahead. We were off the reef, but very close.

BOOK: Saxon: The Emperor's Elephant
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