The Narrow Seas
The sky was thick with cloud, and the rain was coming down in sheets. It buffeted the squalid fishing village — now a longphort — as well the larger town of Hamptun across the water and all of the south coast of Engla-land, it seemed. Maybe the entire world, as far as anyone could tell. The open ground between the hovels closest to the river and the river itself, which was damp earth in the best of times, was a field of mud now, interspersed with great puddles that danced and rippled in the downpour.
Thorgrim Night Wolf stood under the edge of the tent, a massive affair made from one of the ship’s sails spread over a stout frame. He stood just back from the stream of water coming off the bolt rope and looked out over the soaked ground.
Good day to take a man’s head off, he thought.
This village where they had come ashore was on the south side of a wide river the English called the River Terstan, or so they had been told by Geldwine, the Saxon fisherman they had taken as their pilot. It was a sorry place, a cluster of a few dozen wattle and daub-built thatched huts, a couple of wooden docks extending out from the shore, a church with a stunted, square tower. There were fishing boats pulled up on the banks and nets spread out on the shore to dry, Thorgrim guessed, though how anything was supposed to dry in that miserable country he could not imagine.
The Northmen had been a few weeks at that place, landing there after doing battle with an English fleet that had surprised them on the river. Thorgrim and his men reckoned it a victory of sorts, seeing that the English had retreated, but they had paid a heavy blood price for that dubious honor.
They tied their ships to the docks and pulled them up on the muddy banks, putting the water between them and the Wessex army to the north. They found the village deserted, which was hardly a surprise. When a fleet of longships appeared off an undefended town, the folk rarely stayed behind to welcome the newcomers.
Thorgrim stared for a moment at the mud and the wide and growing puddles, then sighed and pulled his hood up over his head and stepped out into the rain. The hood and the cloak he wore over his mail shirt were still damp from the last time he had ventured out from under the tent, and he knew they would never actually be dry until the sun came out, which he assumed it had to do eventually. But at least the wool garments spared him the irritation of having the rain falling on his head and his shoulders.
He crossed the open ground, heading for the river’s shore, the mud pulling at his soft shoes. He stopped for a moment and looked behind him, running his eyes over the walls that made up the longphort. When they realized they would be in that place for more than just a few days they had fortified it against an attack from the landward side. They had pulled down a half dozen houses, depriving any attackers of the cover the structures might have provided, and used the timbers to build a crude half-circle wall, running from shoreline to shoreline and enclosing that part of the river bank they meant to defend.
Thorgrim watched the sentries on the walls moving slowly back and forth, no doubt miserable in the rain and waiting for their watches to end. There were more men under the tents, some gaming, some tending to weapons. He knew there were men sleeping in the small huts that had been left standing within the confines of the walls.
Time for some entertainment, he thought.
“Harald! Louis! With me!” he shouted and moment later his son Harald ducked out from under the tent. Harald was sixteen and not quite as tall as Thorgrim (though Thorgrim was of no great height) but he was powerfully built and considerably more filled out than he had been when they sailed from Vik several years before. His hair was blond, like his mother’s, and braided behind, and his beard, such that it was, was blond as well.
He tromped through the mud and the rain toward Thorgrim. Like Thorgrim he wore a mail shirt, but he wore no cloak over it, and the polished iron links, wet with the rain, shone in the muted light. At his side he carried the sword Oak Cleaver, a magnificent Ulfberht blade which had belonged to his grandfather, Ornolf the Restless.
Harald stopped a few feet from where Thorgrim stood, his expression serious, the rain running in streams down his face and hair.
“Today?” he asked.
“Today,” Thorgrim said.
A moment later Louis de Roumois joined them. Louis was a Frank, though he had been a run-away apostolate from the monastery at Glendalough when he had been taken prisoner by Thorgrim’s war band. He had traveled with them ever since, fought in many battles alongside Thorgrim and his men and was given his freedom, but still he remained with them. Like Thorgrim, he wanted only to get back to his home, and knowing that Thorgrim would have to cross to Frankia, or at least Frisia, to get there, Louis figured staying with the Northmen was his shortest route.
“Yes, Thorgrim?” Louis asked as he approached. In his time with them Louis had picked up the Northmen’s language to an admirable degree. “Why must you drag me out in this miserable rain?”
It was a reasonable question, but Thorgrim was not sure he would bother with an answer. He did not particularly like Louis, and had meant to kill him on various occasions, but had always been stopped by the Irishwoman, Failend, who had been Louis’s lover once, and then Thorgrim’s.
Still, Thorgrim had come to have a grudging respect for the Frank. Louis was bold and skilled in battle, and sensible in council. What’s more, he seemed to have a better grasp on the complex politics that were swirling around them, there in the kingdom of Wessex, better than Thorgrim or any Northman could hope for. Not that Thorgrim cared in the least about the politics, but he understood it might have an effect on ransom payments, which he cared about very much.
“Time to keep my promise to this king of Wessex,” Thorgrim said. He had heard the king’s name, several times, but he could not begin to pronounce it.
Louis frowned. “One more day, perhaps?” he asked.
“No,” Thorgrim said. He looked back at the big tent and he could see the crew of his own ship, Sea Hammer, getting reluctantly to their feet, strapping on swords and wrapping cloaks around their shoulders and heads. They knew what Thorgrim was about, and knew they would be expected to join him.
“Sea Hammers, to me!” Thorgrim called, and the men ducked out from under the tent and came stomping through the mud in his direction. He turned and continued down toward the water. All of the ships had been secured to the shore or the docks, save for Sea Hammer, which was anchored by the stern fifty feet from the bank with a cable run from her bow to a heavy stake driven into the earth. The prisoners were housed aboard her, and they were easier to guard out on the water like that.
Thorgrim stopped by the stake jutting up out of the mud and looked toward the bow of his ship, blinking the rain out of his eyes. Gudrid, who, with a few others had remained aboard to guard the prisoners, was standing on the foredeck, leaning over the side and looking back ashore. Thorgrim waved an arm as if beckoning him and Gudrid waved back, then turned and disappeared aft.
“Take up that cable,” Thorgrim said, nodding toward the rope tied to the sake. “Pull her in.”
A dozen of Sea Hammer’s crew grabbed onto the cable and began to heave as Gudrid and his men eased the anchor line off the stern and the ship was hauled bodily toward the bank. Soon the bow came to a stop in the shallow water, as close to shore as it was going to get, and the men made the rope fast to the stake once more.
Gudrid leaned over the side. “All of them?” he asked.
“Yes, all of them,” Thorgrim said. There was a lesson to be learned here, and Thorgrim wanted to be sure it was learned well.
Two of Thorgrim’s men came over Sea Hammer’s side and landed in the waist-high water, spears in their hands, and the first of the prisoners came after them. There were fourteen in total and they varied greatly in appearance, from young and fit to old and corpulent. They did, however, have several things in common. They were all wealthy, all men of great importance in Wessex. They were all dressed in torn and filthy clothing that had once been the finest of tunics and leggings. They all wore expressions of anger and fear.
They had been taken at Winchester, while Thorgrim and a handful of his men, imprisoned and condemned to burn at the stake, were trying to escape from that town. The Northmen had managed to get free, managed to get over the wall, when these West Saxons had come riding out in pursuit. They were the nobles of the shire, what the English called ealdormen, and they had ridden forth to impress their king and for the fun of cutting the escaping heathens down. They had ridden right into an ambush that Louis and Bergthor had set for them.
Now they waded ashore as the spearmen of Sea Hammer formed a loose cordon around them, though the prisoners did not look quite up to make any bold attempt at escape. They had been a week aboard the ship, drinking water and eating dried fish and bread, not the sort of fare they were accustomed to in their great halls. They had slept on the deck under a tent spread over the yard and used a wooden bucket as their privy. They had not been mistreated in any way, but the sustained terror and the boredom and the unaccustomed hardship had taken any fight right out of them.
Thorgrim turned and led the way back up the shore. Most of the Northmen had come out from under the tent now, or from the huts, because they, too, were bored and this offered some potential entertainment. Someone had moved the stump they used for cutting kindling and set it up in the open, and now the men made a broad half-circle around it.
When he reached the stump Thorgrim turned and gestured for the prisoners to stand in a loose line facing the others. Bergthor stepped up to Thorgrim’s side, his expression cheery as ever, if a bit worried as well.
“You’re going to do this thing?” he asked.
“Yes,” Thorgrim said.
The two men had known each other of old, and their fleets had blundered into one another a few weeks before. They had joined forces, and though Bergthor was ostensibly Thorgrim’s equal in command, he generally deferred to Thorgrim, as most men did.
“But…not all of them?” Bergthor asked.
“No,” Thorgrim said. “Just one. I want the others to watch. If we set them free, I want them to fear us. To know we’re men of our word. So I want them to see.”
Bergthor nodded and said nothing more. Thorgrim turned to Harald.
"Harald, tell these sorry bastards that I gave their king one week to deliver their ransoms, and that one week is at an end.”
Harald nodded and spoke to the assembled men, translating his father’s words. In the short time that they had been in Engla-land, Harald had managed to pick up enough of the English tongue to communicate tolerably well. He seemed to have a surprising ability with language, which had only become clear upon his learning Irish in order to pursue an Irish girl with whom he was smitten, and English was much closer to their native Norse than that. In truth, even Thorgrim could understand an occasional word or two of English.
As Harald spoke Thorgrim watched the prisoners’ faces. He could see traces of renewed alarm, but for the most part their looks did not change. This announcement would come as no surprise. They would have guessed by now why they had been brought ashore. If they had not guessed at first, the chopping block should have tipped them off.
Harald stopped and turned back to Thorgrim. “Tell them I promised if the ransom was not here in a week I would send their heads back to the king. And now I mean to do that,” Thorgrim said.
Louis stepped up as Harald was speaking the words. “Is this the best path, Thorgrim?” he asked, speaking softly. “Sure it would be better to give it some more time.”
“No,” Thorgrim said. “If they think we’re weak, we’ll get nothing. But I will show some of that mercy you Christ-men are always going on about. I’ll just kill one, not the whole lot.”
“Merciful,” Louis said. “And of course, there’s no ransom to be had for dead men.”
Thorgrim nodded. “That’s right.” He turned to Harald. “Tell them I mean to send one man’s head back to their king. Ask them if any wish to volunteer.”
Harald called out the words and Thorgrim watched their faces. Glances back and forth along the line, or eyes downcast, feet shuffling. Then one man pressed his lips together and took a step forward. He was older than most, but well-built and had a noble bearing about him. That, and the fact that he had the guts to step up to die for the others, suggested to Thorgrim he was one of the chief men of the area. Probably the one the king would least like to lose, which made him more valuable alive.
“Boldly done,” Thorgrim said. “But I think we’ll hold onto that one for now.” He pointed to a man three over from the volunteer, a younger man, more frightened looking, with less of the air of a leader about him. He wore a silk tunic that had probably a been fine garment when he rode from Winchester, and leggings so shredded they were hardly worth wearing.
"We’ll have that one,” Thorgrim said. Three of the Sea Hammers stepped over to the chosen man, grabbed him by the arms and pulled him out of line. He made some sound of protest, and his fear turned to confusion and then disbelief and panic as he was all but dragged forward.
They pulled him over to the chopping block and pushed him down to his knees. He looked up at Thorgrim, rain streaming down his blanched face. He spoke, the words coming loud and fast.
“He says…” Harald began, but Thorgrim held up his hand.
“It doesn’t matter what he says,” Thorgrim replied. He pulled his sword, Iron-tooth, from its scabbard and stepped around until he was sideways to the kneeling man. He nodded and two of those who had dragged the man over pushed his head down onto the chopping block. The Saxon was still yelling something though his head remained pressed to the wood. Thorgrim lifted the sword over his shoulder.
The voice came from the wall, one of the sentries who was standing watch. “Lord Thorgrim!”
Thorgrim frowned with annoyance. He lowered the sword and turned. “Yes?”
“Message from the tower, Lord! Men coming!” Thorgrim had positioned men as look-outs in the tower of the small church. It was not terribly high, but it was the highest point around. They were instructed to send word to the wall if they saw anything of note.
“Men?” Thorgrim called.
“Yes, Lord! They say riders…a dozen or so. With shields and banners. And two carts. Heading here, by their looks!”
Thorgrim nodded. He looked down at the man on his knees, his head still pressed to the chopping block. “Harald,” he said. “Tell this one he might be the luckiest bastard in all of Engla-land.”