prow of our longship broke the waves, the salt spray stinging my eyes. My legs
bent, and my feet shifted naturally at the rise and fall of the sea. Always, it
was the same, when the unfurling sail caught the wind and the ship surged
forward. Like when you put heels to horse and she runs. The same. My spirits
rising. The sun glistening off the surface of the sea.
was more to my liking than learning the ways of the realm, for surely my royal
Danish blood was many parts seawater.
turned and watched my father, King Cnute, standing with his back to the mast.
At forty years, Cnute was past his prime now, though he still maintained the
strength of his sword arm, and the force of his will could not be broken. With
his red cloak wrapped around him and the bronze circlet on his brow, my father
looked out toward the other longships as if his gaze alone was enough to gather
them in, to keep the wolf pack together. Four drakkars or longships, sixty men,
and a string of horses, an adequate force for a raid, but a mere fighting band
in a battle.
that moment, he saw me watching him.
my son,” he called. A broad smile lit up his face. I could tell the wind and
waves had ripped the weight of kingship from him. “It’s a fine day to be a
Dane.” He laughed in that way of his, tossing his head back, so his long mane
of gray-blond hair blew in the wind.
left the prow and walked the pitching deck to join him.
make the Norman shore by nightfall." His voice rose above the sound of the
wind. “The weather will hold so the ships can return with the morning tide.”
wish we were sailing all the way to Rome,” I said. “I am more at home on a deck
than a horse.”
am I. But I have need to see the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. There is much
to learn—for both of us.”
tried to discern if my father alluded to some of my past lapses of judgment:
fits of childish anger directed at him, a fondness for ale beyond my ability to
control my behavior, and a tendency to be overwhelmed with love for a pretty
face. This time, as at others, I could not read what lay behind his words.
My father continued. “This system the
Normans and Franks use—fee or fief they call it—I would see how it functions,
whether it enslaves those who work the land, or secures them.”
subjects prosper, Father. Is there need for change?”
looked at me shrewdly, wiping seaspray from his face. “Perhaps not. Let us say
we shall borrow that which we deem to be good and make note of the rest. A king
should always know about his friends, for one day they may be his enemies.”
God will all your days be lived in peace,” said a voice behind me. “Your
Eminence,” said the king. I had not seen Archbishop Lyfing approach. He was a
short, thin man, and his bishop’s robes only made him look smaller. “The Duke
of Normandy’s representative will be watching for us,” the prelate
said. “He will not want to miss collecting
the passage toll.” “I bear a letter from the Holy Father,” the king replied,
“that will serve as a pass through the toll collectors in any Catholic lands.”
was caught off guard, but replied, “I wasn’t aware of this arrangement.”“You
are my Archbishop of Canterbury and my confessor, but you are not privy to all
matters of state, Father Lyfing.”
a moment, the archbishop’s arrogance faded from his countenance, though he
recovered quickly, making a slight bow to the king. Whenever Cnute addressed
Lyfing as “Father,” he was reminding the man of his humble priestly beginnings,
a role he could be reduced to if he displeased his King.
Not able to keep the smile from my face, I
asked to be excused. My father nodded and continued his conversation with the
churchman. I made my way toward the stern where my two best friends, Torsten
and Gwyn, fished with hand lines ahead of the steersman.
said, “It looks to me the crew will be eating salt pork for supper tonight, not
passage is not yet over, young princeling,” Torsten replied. “Chide me at the
grinned. “If we land something spiny and full of worms, we’ll save it for your
shared the laugh. Torsten, Gwyn, and I had grown up together. Our fathers had
fought as shield brothers in the taking of our English kingdom. To be included
in this journey was an honor for their families.
The company of our friend, Gwyn, could not
be equaled. He loved to jest or tell a tale around a campfire or over horns of
ale. Like most Welshmen, Gwyn was dark and short in stature, a wild barbarian
in a fight.
had a different nature. With a Danish father and an English mother, he stood
tall and blond like a Northman. The impression he gave to strangers was of a
quiet shyness. But those who sought to take advantage of that lack of brashness
suffered for their mistake, for although Torsten was gifted with patience and
forbearance, the embers of injustice could be quickly fanned when the need
arose. In our world, the need did most often arise.
Of the three of us, I would have to admit
to being the most hotheaded and impulsive. I had once chosen like-minded
companions, but our antics many times reached the ears of the king. It is one
thing to be reprimanded by one’s father; it is quite another when one’s father
is the king of the realm. Cnute made it a clear choice: either pursue a royal path
or be on my way to the devil. My former companions found themselves shipped off
to rustic and unknown relatives in different parts of my father’s vast
kingdoms. I found better friends.
“Look, Harald,” said Gwyn, checking his
fishline, “what’s all this Holy Roman whatnot we’re off to?”
said Torsten, “the king’s not one to give his rowers lessons in statecraft.”
“That’s because you’re better at rowing than listening.” Torsten reached over
to cuff his friend on the head, but Gwyn ducked the blow. “Both of you listen,
and I’ll explain it to you,” I said. “You know Cnute rules the
northern lands of Engla-lond, Danmark,
Nordvegr, and parts of Sverige? Well, the kingdoms directly south, in central
Europe, are tied together as the Holy Roman Empire. This is not the Empire of
the old Roman legions, but a Christian alliance of kingdoms under a monarch who
is appointed by the Pope in Rome. A new emperor is to be crowned in Rome, and
this voyage from Engla-lond, across the Narrow Sea, is the first leg of our journey.
Once we get to Normandy, we go overland. I don’t know the whole route, but we
keep heading south, all the way to Rome.”
that’s why the archbishop’s crawled out from ’neath his rock, isn’t it?” said
Gwyn. “So he can sample the Pope’s wine.”
sure there are many reasons for Lyfing to be with us. One is to make our King
appear to be more than a northern barbarian. Another is to strengthen our ties
with the Holy See. Does this all make sense?”
enough,” Torsten replied, peering down at the sea.
“Perfectly clear, Harald,” said Gwyn.
“Except the part about the Holy See. I thought we were going overland, didn’t
Just then Gwyn’s line jerked taut, and he
struggled to keep hold of it. “Now if you’ve finished preaching to the
ignorant, could you help me pull in your supper?”
wind held throughout the day, and by evening, the crying of gulls greeted us as
we approached the Frankish shore, now held by our Norman cousins. As we neared
the beach, we hauled up the sail. It was then an odd thing happened. My actions
would cause me to later wonder what the outcome would have been had I acted
horses had been tied to ropes stretched across the gunwales. Whether the cause
was the smell of land or the nip of a dominant mare, there was a sudden flurry
of kicking and biting. At one point, a number of horses shifted to the port
side, and the ship tipped. As I steadied my stance, Archbishop Lyfing hit the
gunwale, and before the ship could right itself, the priest’s momentum cartwheeled
him over the side.
he cried, before splashing into the sea.
As other crewmen secured the horses, those
of us on the port side looked to the bishop’s plight. Encumbered by his heavy
bishop’s robe, the man thrashed frantically. To any seafaring man, it was
obvious this priest could not swim. I untied my sword, dropped it to the deck,
climbed upon the gunwale, and dove into the sea.
the first spirit-cleansing shock of the cold seawater, I bobbed to the surface
and struck out toward the flailing priest. A drowning man gave in to his panic,
which quickly drove him to exhaustion then to sinking.
Our longship had passed us by, though the
crew would be fixing the oars at this moment. The distance between Lyfing and
me shrank rapidly. My strokes cut through the water with the strength and
determination of youth.
The bishop's head submerged and failed to
rise again. I tucked and dove. The darkness of the sea had me blind, but my
hand touched a swirl of cloak, and I grabbed hold, then turned and kicked
upward, hauling up the would-be martyr.
Breaking the surface, I laughed. Perhaps
it was the exuberance of my young manhood or the joy of using my strength, but
I believe it was amusement at the thought of Archbishop Lyfing gaining entrance
to heaven because he drowned while on a pilgrimage to Rome.
arms took the archbishop’s limp form from me and plucked him from the sea. A
moment later I was hauled over the rail in like manner. Standing with the
seawater dripping from my body, I observed the efforts being made to revive the
lay on the deck chest down, face turned to the side. Alric, my father’s friend
and shield brother, thrust straight-armed at the blades of the priest’s
shoulders. The king and crew stood round, watching. Water gushed from Lyfing’s
mouth, and the soggy-cloaked mass that was our archbishop gasped in a breath.
Cheers and laughter broke out from the seamen. The priest drew his knees up
under him and proceeded to purge the sea and his last meal onto the planking.
would appear, I won’t be needing a new archbishop,” Cnute said with a smile.
With the longships beached and secured,
the king had us make camp while we awaited the arrival of more horses to be
supplied by the Duke of Normandy. The wind subsided as the sun dropped into the
sea, the night air fresh rather than cold. When most of the men lay wrapped in
cloaks around the various fires that bejeweled the strand, I sat up with Alric,
poking our blaze with a smoking stick.
father enjoyed the caress of the sea today.”
The king in him oft times needs a deck under his feet to remind him who the man
smiled at Alric’s wisdom. This red-bearded bear of a man still looked the
Viking, even after years at King Cnute’s court. The uncut mane of reddish hair
showed wisps of gray now, but his sword arm still held true. I had learned the
sword craft from him, and could only aspire to one day have his skill at arms.
believe by journey’s end, he will need much time at the tiller of a ship,”
Alric said. “All this politics and alliance-balancing wears on a man.”
a man like my father?”
a man like your father.” Alric gave me a hard look before wrapping his cloak
about him and lying down by the fire.
days of waiting for the Norman horses passed; two days before our rider
returned with news.
Duke of Normandy has left for Rome to attend the coronation, Sire,” said the
rider, a young guardsman named Bjorn. Cnute frowned. “And what of the horses he
pledged us?” Those of us within hearing shared quiet grumbles. The Norman lord
sent entreaties of friendship to our king, but it was commonly said that the
man “talked from the side of his mouth.”
castellan voiced ignorance of any such arrangement and would not release mounts
without the command of his lord.”
how truthful did this castellan appear to be?” asked the king. “With your
permission, Sire, he appeared to be as slippery as an eel.” “Thank you, Bjorn.
Well done,” Cnute said, dismissing him.
Lyfing stepped out from the shade of the king’s pavilion. “I’m sure Duke Robert
has many pressing affairs, Sire. If he is remiss in this one area—”
has no difficulty managing affairs of state, Your Eminence. I doubt that
leaving the King of Engla-lond and Scandinavia without transport was an
unconscious sin of omission.” Then, with a glance at his men, he called out,
father would not display anger over an obstacle of this nature, but I was sure
that inside the embers glowed. The Duke of Normandy would one day regret
breaking trust with Cnute of Engla-lond-Scandinavia.
Alric approached the king.
the camp. Reload the ships.”
Sire. May I ask our destination?” Cnute focused his steely gaze on Alric, then
raised his voice so all the men could hear. “We sail to Danmark.”
be on the sea once more, just when I believed I’d be away from it, acted as a
salve to the setback of Normandy. I hoped my father felt as I. We would procure
mounts from his Kingdom of Danmark. The journey to Rome would be longer, but
the time would suffice.
wind hailed from the west, and our four ships stood to, sailing before it like
the old Norse gods were with us. Only off the Flemish coast did we mind the
black clouds following. The sail swelled like the breast of a woodcock, and the
chop of the channel turned into the heave and roll of a following sea.
Alric approached the king where he sat
amidships and with the privilege won in battle, placed himself down beside his
king might be considering the safety of a harbor,” Alric said in a voice raised
to out-shout the rising gale.
king is thinking he has no friends along this coast,” Cnute replied.
sea is also acting in a most unfriendly manner at the moment, Sire. I’m sure
our Lord Archbishop is on his knees by now, asking Jesus to calm the waters.”
Lyfing sailed in one of the other longships, attending to a dying seaman.
we have nothing to trouble us, do we, my friend?”
your majesty wisely instructs me,” Alric replied with a slight smile from his
black sky overtook the gray and with the increasing severity of the wind came a
relentless downpour. With the seas breaking over our bow and the rain adding to
the constant slosh at our feet, all available hands set to bailing.
I called. I saw his head turn toward me as he manned the tiller. “We’ve lost
the other ships.” Alric’s nod to me told me he already knew.
“Lower the sail,” he shouted, and men
scrambled to obey. With the sail secured, he ordered the crew to man the oars.
Our ship slowed without the pull of the sail, but the oars aided the tillerman
in keeping us on course.
dark skies grew into the blackness of night as the sun deserted us. I received
a roll of thunder that my ears took like a blow from a fist. A flash of
lightning followed in its wake. In that instant of illumination, I saw one of
our sister ships. More lightning flashes cracked through the storm’s might, and
I saw the other longship floundering. It sat low in the water and scraps of
sailcloth snapped in the wind like rags on a beggar. Crewmen bailed for their
lives, others cast their eyes skyward imploring their God or gods to save them
or perhaps take them, I know not which. All were good northmen, be they Dane, Angle,
a godly surge lifted the bow, the sea flowed in over the gunwales, and she sat
low in the stern. In one flash of lightning, the ship was there, in the next
she was gone. The sea rolled and roiled over her grave as if she had never
faltered at our stations, unwilling to believe.
bless them and take them,” the king shouted. “Grieve when there is time. Row
for your souls.”
the king’s command, our crew threw themselves into their rowing or bailing.
With the heavy seas, my father lurched among his men like a noble drunkard,
encouraging them at their tasks, and, when one rower lagged, he stepped in and
replaced him at the oar. We rowed together as if our hearts would break. Though
I had arm strength to be proud of, I learned the fatigue of battle during that
hellish night in the storm.
through those hours of darkness, we fought sea and storm, at times riding the
crest of a wave like conquerors, eventually sliding down into the following
trough. The thought came to me many times, is this Purgatory I have entered?
Am I destined to a near eternity of rowing, my arms and back forever screaming
until I somehow atone for my sins? There was no answer, but the strokes of
the time the first light of a gray dawn appeared in the east, the storm
subsided. We spied the coastline off our starboard side. I observed Alric
confer with the king, and after that, a lookout kept watch for safe harbour.
awakened to brightness and the warmth of the sun on my face. I lay on my side
against the hard surface of the rowing bench. The welcoming cry of gulls filled
my ears as I resurrected myself into a sitting position. All around me the crew
slept the deep sleep of exhaustion. I sought my father and found him at rest in
the bow. Our longship lay aground, and I remembered how by the grace of God, we
had beached her on a tidal island by the first light of day.
My eyes scanned the surroundings. Scrub
and grass covered our sandy island, and gentle swells broke along its shoreline.
The sky had cleared to a piercing blue, and the air had that clarity only a
storm can bring. Our beach ran a distance in both directions, and I recognized
another of our ships down the strand. I could see several men stirring. Of the
other two ships, there was no sign.
the remainder of that day, we rested, dried our goods and garments, and made
such repairs as we were able. A watch was kept for our missing ships, though
nothing came of it. Those of us with friends and comrades lost either grieved
or worried, though we knew it was God’s will if they survived. Any who followed
the old gods prayed the drowned would have a straight voyage to the Realm of
the noon sun had traveled on, the king summoned to council Alric, myself, and
Sigurd, the captain of our sister ship. We sat upon driftwood logs around the
ashes of a lifeless fire.
need to know,” said Cnute, “your best reckoning of where we have landed.”
who always struck me as cocksure and vain in his manner—he tied his blond curls
back, off a face that would have been acceptable on a woman—spoke first without
deferring to Alric or myself. “This island is one of many in the mouthlands of
the river the Frisians and Belges call the Rhine.”
the king said. I wasn’t disappointed my father failed to ask me, for I had no
experience with these shores.
“I agree. The Rhine.” Alric never said two
words when one would do.
king leaned back against the large roots of the tree trunk on which he sat; he
made a church with his fingers and stroked his thick moustache with the
steeple. After a long silence, which my father always used to advantage, he
is in my mind, that this sea voyage is ill-fated. It is time to turn southward
before more lives are lost. The Rhine will take us into the heart of Europe,
all the way to the Alpine Mountains. The states and principalities through
which we pass are all subject to the Holy Roman Emperor, and given our mission,
they will offer no objection to our passage.”
when the river no longer takes us toward Rome...?” I asked.
we purchase horses for the remainder of the journey,” my father replied.
excellent plan, Your Majesty,” Sigurd said.
will do,” said Alric.
speak to your crews and find me one who knows these channels.” “Sire,” we said, rising to our feet to obey
find time to say a prayer for the repose of the soul of Archbishop Lyfing. He
will be sorely missed.”
most river deltas, the lands created by the Rhine were cut and divided like
some sorcerer’s puzzle piece. We rowed through the wider channels and poled
through the narrows and the shallows. It took our two ships a day and a night
and part of another day before we found a passage where we could hoist the
sails. Our hearts and backs rejoiced to be under sail once more, and we had the
leisure to watch the reed and sedge marshes turn to wetlands, and the wetlands
give way to hay and grazing pastures for sheep, cattle, and horses. Sometimes
we viewed the occasional ploughman running hell bent across fertile, river-rich
farmland, thinking us Viking raiders, for indeed we looked the part. Moving
further inland, we recognized woodlands of alder, oak, and elm.
Our longships passed small settlements
nestled on higher ground with pathways down to small docks, all appearing
deserted. Word of our coming had run ahead, and we saw not a soul for days,
though the unease of being watched came to be our constant companion.
had us heave-to where the woodland sloped down steeply to water’s edge, and a
small party jumped ashore. They returned shortly with fir branches that we hung
round the longships’ bows above the water, our sign of coming with sword hands
first large trading center on the Rhine we knew to be the town of Dorestadt. It
was there the Lower Rhine met the old Crooked Rhine, but that channel had
silted over, and Dorestadt saw less and less trade from the North Sea. Those in
our crew who had plied this trade route all told the same story, Dorestadt was
we neared the town, we took in our sails. I stood with my father in the bow.
Plots of land ran down in strips to the river and the collection of warehouses
and shops assembled along the main road, and other streets crossed it. Beyond the
town, cultivated land dominated the landscape. A number of wharves thrust out
into the waterway, though some had long required repair. Dorestadt must have
once housed a few thousand citizens, but I estimated at present its population
boasted only two hundred.
turned our stern landward and, as we came abreast of the dock, oarsmen on the
open side swept us in. I leapt to the dockwork and tied us down. Another seaman
roped off the stern. Sigurd’s longship had followed our lead and prepared to
dock on the opposite side.
the king said, “procure us fresh meat for the men and a barrel of local cider
for each ship, and any other supplies you judge we will need before the next
you wish, Sire,” said Alric.
take Harald with you. He needs to learn how a man scores a bargain.” My father
gave me a look bordered by the crescent folds around his eyes that only
appeared when he laughed. I had been chastised many times for completing
foolish trades as a child. “I’ll send Sigurd to find us accommodation. Your
illustrious monarch should occasionally lay the royal carcass down upon
something other than a longship bench or a sandy beach.”
The three of us shared a laugh over this,
as Cnute was still as sturdy as any warrior in the crew.
Alric, my friends Gwyn and Torsten could accompany us as beasts of burden?” I
they are a pair of animals, those two. But I’m sure they could each haul a side
of beef or a score of hams.”
I turned to gather my mates, my father said, “And Harald...”
looked at me without smiling this time. “Stay out of trouble.”