Authors: Griff Hosker
To dad, an English hero from World War Two.
Sword Books Ltd 2013
Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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The Captain of the ship, Marie of Ross, looked at Ridley and me with suspicion. There were not many Saxon lords left now and certainly none here in Scotland at the port of Leith. I could see that he suspected that we had allies and ulterior motives; perhaps we were pirates and would take over his ship once at sea. “Why do two lords such as you wish to visit Denmark? I hear that their king ravaged your land.”
In that he was correct and I had reason to hate Sweyn, King of the Danes, who had broken his word but he was a lesser enemy than King William, the Bastard, who pursued us.
We were the last two English rebels and, unless we could escape from this island, we would be the last two English to die. King Sweyn owed us a debt and I would claim it as much as it would stick in my gullet to do so.
“Let us just say that this purse of silver buys us a voyage and an end to questions and we will keep our motives to ourselves.”
He weighed the purse in his hand and nodded appreciatively. “This is sufficient to pay for your passage but, understand me lord, I trade frequently with the Danes and I cannot afford to transport enemies to them.” He spread his hands as he returned the purse to me. “You understand?”
“I give you my word that the King of the Danes will welcome us and I wish him no harm.” I could feel Ridley, my companion bristling at the man’s suspicion and the captain still looked dubious. “I never knew a Scot yet who did not want to make a little money. I am Aelfraed of Topcliffe and I give you my word that I will not cause you to lose trade.”
He suddenly paled and bowed, “My lord.
I did not know it was you. Your word is known to be good, and we have heard of you even here in the north. Forgive me. I will take you but,” he looked urgently over my shoulder, “we should hurry to catch the tide and to avoid a certain Thegn who, we hear is not well disposed towards you.”
I grinned, no, the Thegn of Fife, the man who had stolen my wife, Gytha, would remember me for he now had a scarred face as a reminder of our last encounter; he would want revenge. I did not fear him nor did I want the inconvenience of having to kill him. The Captain hurriedly grabbed the purse and helped us aboard with our bags. As we stood by the stern we saw the ferry bringing the Thegn of Fife’s men to apprehend us, fortunately it was arriving too late. We saw them wave their fists at the waddling cog on which we stood.
Ridley gave a cheeky wave back and then turned to me. “Do you think we shall ever return?”
I looked in the sky as though seeking inspiration.
“I do not know old, friend, I truly do not know. We are in the hands of
now. Remember Sweyn speaking of the Norns and the webs that they weave?” He nodded. “Well I feel that even more strongly now. Aethelward told me that we should travel east as did Reuben and the fact that this is the only ship we could board in Leith makes me believe that we have been sent to the east, but, for what, I know not.”
The last time we had been aboard ships was when Harold Godwinson, my father, took us to invade Wales.
There we had hugged the coast; now we headed into the stormy, blackened seas and skies of the German Sea. The Captain had told us that the journey could last up to a week or longer if the weather was against, us for our destination was Hedeby on the eastern coast of Denmark. Again, our destiny was being shaped for that was where Sweyn held his court. Some mysterious hand was directing my life and I just accepted that.
We fell into a routine aboard the ship; the first day we oiled and stored our mail and weapons for they would not be needed aboard the ship and the salt air would rust them.
Then we set to repairing the pieces of equipment and clothes which had been damaged. The ship’s sail maker, a wizened little man helped us, for a few coins of course, to repair the larger items. We knew not when we would be able to buy new clothes and we had been forced to leave our home land that we had not had the opportunity to acquire new ones. Both of us had brought coin from home and we had promissory notes for Constantinople. So long as we were careful the money would eke out. The rest of the time we exercised. It amused the captain when we asked if we could aid his crew as they hoisted and lowered the sails. He did not know that it was not us doing him the favour but the other way around. Ridley was still recovering from the wounds he had received when capturing Jorvik from the Normans and I had never truly recovered my strength after the wounds I suffered at Stamford Bridge. The exercise soon built up our muscles. We both enjoyed working with the sailors who quickly got over their amusement at two Housecarls working as seamen. They were good company and we enjoyed singing their songs with them. We also spent some time with Cnut who was a Dane serving on the ship for he taught us a few words of his language as we toiled across the grey and black sea. He was a good teacher and we quickly learned the phrases and sentences we needed. I knew that we would have a long journey down to Constantinople.
One night, after a supper of dried meat and week old bread washed down with the weakest beer I have ever drunk, we asked Cnut about the route to Byzantium. He shook his head, “I have only ever done that once masters and I swore never to do it again.
You sail through the land of the Rus across lakes and rivers. The people who live there are savages and the boats have to sail in numbers for protection. I did not enjoy the experience. Then there are the portages.”
Is that a Danish word?”
He laughed, “I know not where the word comes from but it is a cursed word in any case.
It means you empty the boat of cargo and people then carry it and your belongings overland until you find the next piece of water. The savages and barbarians who live in the land know that the merchants have to do this and they attack each time you do that.”
Ridley could not comprehend such a journey.
“Why do the ships do that then? Why not sail around the coast?”
“A much longer journey and there are many pirates and storms.
No, the merchants take the risk because the prizes are so valuable. Byzantium pays much for the wood and furs from Rus and the merchants can buy spices quite cheaply to sell at home. Oft times the ships sail in little groups for protection.” He looked shrewdly at the two of us. “If I were you two I would hire myself out as guards to a merchant and you will be paid to travel on the ships.”
“Thank you, Cnut, that makes sense for we would have the same hardship whether we were paid or we were passengers.”
“Are the ships like this one?”
I knew what Ridley was thinking; these ships were so big that it was inconceivable that they could be carried. Cnut laughed. “No, they are like the dragon boats; you mainly row them unless
you are lucky enough to catch the wind. They are quite light and they are low to the water for there are no high waves on the rivers and the lakes.”
We were five days from Leith and, according to our new friend Cnut, about to begin to turn east to our destination, when we saw the pirates.
There were three small dragon boats and they were approaching from the north west. “Look like Orkney Vikings, nasty buggers they are.” He looked at us as we hauled on the ropes to get the maximum sail. “They were the ones who you lot beat at Stamford Bridge. That is where they went.”
We could see them gaining on us.
Ridley shook his head. “These Norns that the Danes have, spinning webs, they are cunning aren’t they?”
“They are that, and if these Norse can catch us and find out who we are, then I am afraid we would not have a glorious end.” I wondered, as we pulled and tugged on the thick rope if the captain might not offer us in exchange for his freedom; our fame had spread before us and we were known, amongst the Danes at least.
I glanced up at the captain who seemed oblivious both to the danger and to us. I took heart from the fact that he appeared to be unconcerned. He kept glancing up at the mast head pennant and nodding, as though he liked what he saw. The reason became clear as the bow turned slightly south and the wind was on our quarter; I had learned such terms from the sailors. We suddenly leapt forwards as though we had been released from a trap. Although the wind helped the dragon boats too, they did not have the spread of canvas available to the captain and the merchant ship began to pull inexorably away. The low freeboard of the dragon ship also slowed them for the wind made the waves a little choppier and, as we later found out, the faster such a ship travels in rough seas, the more water is taken on board.
He wandered down to us.
“I think someone must be watching over you Saxon, for that wind came from nowhere. I had thought that we had lost the cargo and you two with it until the change in the air.” So he knew who we were and we had come close to capture. I thanked Nanna and Aethelward although there were so many of those close to me who had gone beyond this world that I knew not who to thank.
Hedeby was an old town nestling on the north eastern side of Denmark.
My military eye saw that its wooden walls would not stand up to an assault by a modern army but as the only enemies in this part of the world were other Norse warriors then Sweyn would not have a problem. It also showed why he had been so ill equipped to take Jorvik. Perhaps if I hadn’t helped him then the people of the north would not have been slaughtered? The complex threads of my life threatened to strangle me.
We had become quite close to Cnut and we tried to persuade him to accompany us as a translator and guide.
He shook his head, “I like you two and I think it will be an adventure worth a saga but I would not undertake that river voyage again for all the gold in Mikelgard but if you will take my advice, then you will hire someone as a servant for you will need one.” He looked askance at the heavy bags we had, “and I would make it someone big because they are not small bags are they?”
As we stepped from the gangplank on to the stone jetty we felt unsteady on our feet; having been on the ship for six days, it felt as though the land was moving, not the ship.
However I felt a lot more comfortable and at home for there was no sign of the Norman influence and it was like Jorvik when I was growing up. The buildings were all wooden and built to personal design: even the smells were the same. We stopped at the edge of the streets leading to the main town, partly to regain our balance and partly to decide where we ought to go. At least we had a smattering of Danish but I knew if the speaker spoke rapidly then I would understand nothing.
“Well Aelfraed, what are we waiting for? We know where we have to go; the court of King Sweyn.”
He was right of course but now that we were here I wondered about the wisdom of that choice for we could, just as easily, get a boat and sail off to Constantinople but at the back of my mind was Sweyn’s promise to give us aid should we ever need it. Much as I wanted to take his head off with the daneaxe, Death Bringer, I knew that would not happen and yet I wanted him to pay, in some way for the deaths he had caused in my homeland. “You are right. Let us beard the bear in his den!”
We could see the huge hall whose roof dominated the town and we headed up that way.
Death Bringer was slung across the back of my shield and I saw many interested looks as we made our way through the crowded streets. We stood out for we were much taller than all of the women and most of the men but it was the blade which drew their attention. The runes and markings were a story for any Dane who could read them. King Sweyn had told me that it belonged to a famous Viking and it obviously intrigued many Danes. There were two guards at the door and as warriors from Sweyn’s army they recognised us at once. One held up his hand to halt us while the other went inside. I wondered what sort of reception we would receive. There was no reason to think that Sweyn would not make us welcome for we had parted on good terms but I suspected that he knew of both my animosity and my words when I heard of his perfidy. The meeting, if it happened at all, would be an interesting one. The guard came back and beckoned us in. We dropped our gear and weapons at the door. There was little point appearing to be prepared for war when we only intended to speak and it would make him think we feared him, which we did not. The dimly lit hall reminded me of the warrior hall at Winchester but this one had a higher roof. There was a raised dais at one end, just beyond the blazing fire. Sweyn was seated upon a huge chair with intricately carved arms and legs, it looked to have dragons etched and carved upon it. I noticed that he had put on weight and he looked a little greyer but he still had his distinctive plaited beard with just the one strand unlike his famous ancestor Sweyn Forkbeard who had two. There were four huge men and a thinner, smaller one who stood near him. I recognised one as his son Harald but the rest I did not. Sweyn was famous for his large number of illegitimate sons. I should feel in good company then for I was one of Harold Godwinson’s bastards.