Warriors Storm (extract)
Then suddenly, amazingly, Sæbroga shot into calm water. One moment she was in the grip of an angry sea, the next she was floating as placid as a swan on a sun-dappled lake. The sail that had beaten dementedly now filled tamely, the hull slowed, and my men slumped on their oars as we gently coasted on a limpid calm. ‘Welcome to Loch Cuan,’ Finan said with a crooked smile.
I felt the tension go from my arms. I had not even realised I was gripping the steering oar so hard. Then I stooped and took the pot of ale from Dudda’s hand and drained it. ‘You’re still not safe, Lord,’ he said with a grin.
‘Ledges! Reefs! This place can claw your hull to splinters! Best put a man on the prow, Lord. It looks calm enough but it’s full of sunken rocks!’
And full of enemies. Those who had seen us did not pursue us because they must have thought we had been sent by Ragnall and they were content to wait to discover our business. The great axe on the prow and the huge axe on the sail had lulled them, and I trusted those blood-dark symbols to deceive the other ships that waited somewhere ahead.
And so we rowed into a heaven. I have rarely seen a place so beautiful or so lush. It was a sea lake dotted by islands with seals on the beaches, fish beneath our oars, and more birds than a god could count. The hills were gentle, the grass rich and the loch’s edges lined with fish traps. No man could starve here. The oars dipped slowly and Sæbroga slid through the gentle water with scarcely a tremor. Our wake widened softly, rocking ducks, geese and gulls.
There were a few small crude fishing boats being paddled or rowed, none with more than three men and all of them hurried out of our path. Berg, who had refused to stay in Ceaster despite his wounded thigh, stood high in the prow with one arm hooked over the axe head, watching the water. I kept glancing behind, looking to see if either of the two ships we had seen in the narrows would put to sea and follow us, but their masts stayed motionless. A cow lowed on shore. A shawled woman collecting shellfish watched us pass. I waved, but she ignored the gesture. ‘So where’s Sigtryggr?’ I asked Vidarr.
‘The western bank, lord.’ He could not remember precisely where, but there was a smear of smoke on the loch’s western side and so we rowed towards that distant mark. We went slowly, wary of the sunken ledges and rocks. Berg made hand signals to guide us, but even so the oars on the steerboard side of the ship scraped stone twice. The small wind dropped, letting the sail sag, but I left it hanging as a signal that this was Ragnall’s ship.
‘There,’ Finan said, pointing ahead.
He had seen a mast behind a low island. Orvar, I knew, had two ships on the loch and I guessed one was north of Sigtryggr and the other south. They had evidently failed to assault Sigtryggr’s fort so the task of the ships now was to stop any small craft from carrying food to the besieged garrison. I strapped Serpent-Breath at my waist, then covered her with a rough brown woollen cloak. ‘I want you by my side, Vidarr,’ I said, ‘and my name is Ranulf Godricson.’
‘Ranulf Godricson,’ he repeated.
‘A Dane,’ I told him.
‘Ranulf Godricson,’ he said again.
I gave the steering oar to Dudda who, though half hazed by ale, was a competent enough helmsman. ‘When we reach that ship,’ I said, nodding towards the distant mast, ‘I’ll want to go alongside. If he doesn’t let us then we’ll have to break some of his oars, but not too many because we need them. Just put our bow alongside his.’
‘Bow to bow,’ Dudda said.
I sent Finan with twenty men to Sæbroga’s bow where they crouched or lay. No one wore a helmet, our mail was covered by cloaks and our shields were left flat on the deck. To a casual glance we were unprepared for war.
The far ship had seen us now. She appeared from behind the small island and I saw the sunlight flash from her oar banks as the blades rose wet from the water. A ripple of white showed at her prow as she turned towards us. A dragon or an eagle, it was hard to tell which, reared at that prow. ‘That’s Orvar’s ship,’ Vidarr told me.
The Hræsvelgr,’ he said.
I smiled at the name. Hræsvelgr is the eagle that sits at the topmost branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree. It is a vicious bird, watching both gods and men and ever ready to stoop and rend with claws or beak. Orvar’s job was to watch Sigtryggr, but it was Hræsvelgr that was about to be rended.
We brailed up the sail, tying it loosely to the great yard. ‘When I tell you,’ I called to the rowers, ‘bring the oars in slow! Make it ragged! Make it look as if you’re tired!’
‘We are tired,’ one of them called back.
‘And Christians!’ I called, ‘hide your crosses!’ I watched as the talismans were kissed, then tucked beneath mail coats. ‘And when we attack we go in fast! Finan!’
‘I want at least one prisoner. Someone who looks as if he knows what he’s talking about.’
We rowed on, rowing slow as weary men would, and then we were close enough for me to see that it was an eagle on Hræsvelgr’s bow and the bird’s eyes were painted white and the tip of her hooked beak red. A man was in her bows, presumably watching for sunken rocks just as Berg did. I tried to count the oars and guessed there were no more than twelve on each side. ‘And remember,’ I shouted, ‘look dozy. We want to surprise them!’
I waited through ten more lazy oar beats. ‘Ship oars!’
The oars came up clumsily. There was a moment’s confusion as the long looms were brought inboard and laid in Sæbroga’s centre, then the ship settled as we coasted on. Whoever commanded the other ship saw what we intended and shipped his oars too. It was a lovely piece of seamanship, the two great boats gliding softly together. My men were slumped on their benches, but their hands were already gripping the hilts of swords or the hafts of axes.
‘Hail them,’ I told Vidarr.
‘Jarl Orvar!’ he shouted
A man waved from the stern of the Hræsvelgr. ‘Vidarr!’ he bellowed, ‘is that you? Is the jarl with you?’
‘Jarl Ranulf is here!’
The name could not have meant anything to Orvar, but he ignored it for the moment. ‘Why are you here?’ he called.
‘Why do you think?’
Orvar spat over the side. ‘You’ve come for Sigtryggr’s bitch? You go and fetch her!’
‘The jarl wants her!’ I shouted in Danish. ‘He can’t wait!’
Orvar spat again. He was a burly man, grey-bearded, sun-darkened, standing beside his own steersman. Hræsvelgr had far fewer men than Sæbroga, a mere fifty or so. ‘He’ll have the bitch soon enough,’ he called back as the two ships closed on each other, ‘they must starve soon!’
‘How does a man starve here?’ I demanded just as a fish leaped from the water with a flash of silver scales. ‘We have to attack them!’
Orvar strode between his rowers’ benches, going to Hræsvelgr’s prow to see us better. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
‘Ranulf Godricson,’ I called back.
‘Never heard of you,’ he snarled.
‘I’ve heard of you!’
‘The jarl sent you?’
‘He’s tired of waiting,’ I said. I did not need to shout because the ships were just paces apart now, slowly coming together.
‘So how many men must die just so he can get between that bitch’s thighs?’ Orvar demanded, and at that moment the two boats touched and my men seized Hræsvelgr’s upper strake and hauled her into Sæbroga’s steerboard flank.
‘Go!’ I shouted. I could not leap the gap from the stern, but I hurried forward as the first of my men scrambled across, weapons showing. Finan led, jumping across the gap with a drawn sword.
Jumping to slaughter.
The crew of Hræsvelgr were good men, brave men, warriors of the north. They deserved better. They were not ready for battle, they were grinning a welcome one moment and dying the next. Few even had time to find a weapon. My men, like hounds smelling blood, poured across the boats’ sides and started killing. They gutted the centre of Hræsvelgr instantly, clearing a space in her belly. Finan led his men towards her stern while I took mine towards the eagle-proud bows. By now some of Orvar’s crew had seized swords or axes, but none was dressed in mail. A blade thumped on my ribs, did not cut the iron links and I chopped Serpent-Breath sideways, striking the man on the side of his neck with the base of the blade. He went down and my son finished him with a thrust of his sword Raven-Beak. Men retreated in front of us, tripping over the benches, and some leaped overboard rather than face our wet blades. I could not see Orvar, but I could hear a man roaring, ‘No! No! No! No!’
A youngster lunged at me from the deck, plunging his sword two-handed at my waist. I turned the lunge away with Serpent-Breath and kneed him in the face then stamped on his groin.
‘No! No!’ the voice still roared. The youngster kicked me and I tripped on a stiff coil of rope and sprawled onto the deck and two of my men stepped protectively over me. Eadger slid his sword point into the youngster’s mouth, then drove the point hard down to the deck beneath. Vidarr gave me his hand and hauled me upright. The voice still shouted, ‘No! No!’
I rammed Serpent-Breath at a man readying to strike at Eadger with an axe. The man fell backwards. I was ready to slide Serpent-Breath into his rib-cage when the axe was snatched from his hand and I saw that Orvar had pushed his way from the ship’s prow and now stood on a bench above the prone axeman. ‘No, no!’ Orvar shouted at me, then realised he had been bellowing the wrong message because he dropped the axe and spread his hands wide, ‘I yield!’ he called, ‘I yield!’ He was staring at me, shock and pain on his face, ‘I yield!’ he cried again. ‘Stop fighting!’
‘Stop fighting!’ It was my turn to shout. ‘Stop!’
The deck was slippery with blood. Men groaned, men cried, men whimpered as the two ships, tied together now, rocked slightly on the lake’s placid water. One of Orvar’s men lurched to Hræsvelgr’s side and vomited blood.
‘Stop fighting!’ Finan echoed my shout.
Orvar still stared at me, then he took a sword from one of his men, stepped down from the bench and held the sword’s hilt to me. ‘I yield,’ he said again, ‘I yield, you bastard.’
And now I had two ships.