The Swan's Roadby Garth Pettersen
Date Published: Nov. 15, 2017
Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing
In the eleventh century, Cnute, the Viking king of Engla-lond and Scandinavia, sails with his son, Harald, and his shield brothers to Rome. Thrown off course by a storm, they follow the route up the Rhine. When Harald hangs back to assist Selia, a beautiful Frisian woman, his path turns perilous. Newfound enemies, retainers of Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy, pursue them. Harald, Selia, and their companions fail to rendezvous with King Cnute, and are forced to travel cross-country on horseback. If Duke Robert's plan to assassinate Cnute succeeds, an invasion of Engla-lond will follow. Can Harald and Selia reach Rome in time to warn the King?
The 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.
This was more to my liking than learning the ways of the realm, for surely my royal Danish blood was many parts seawater.
I 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.
At that moment, he saw me watching him.
“Harald, 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.
I left the prow and walked the pitching deck to join him.
“We’ll 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.”
“I wish we were sailing all the way to Rome,” I said. “I am more at home on a deck than a horse.”
“As am I. But I have need to see the kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire. There is much to learn—for both of us.”
I 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.”
“Your subjects prosper, Father. Is there need for change?”
He 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.”
“May 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.”
Lyfing 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.”
For 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.
I said, “It looks to me the crew will be eating salt pork for supper tonight, not sea bass.”
“The passage is not yet over, young princeling,” Torsten replied. “Chide me at the day’s end.”
Gwyn grinned. “If we land something spiny and full of worms, we’ll save it for your highness’ supper.”
We 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.
Torsten 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?”
“Aye,” 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.”
“And 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.”
“I’m 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?”
“Clear 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 I?”
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?”
The 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 differently.
The 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.
“Deus!” 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.
After 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.
Muscled 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 churchman.
Lyfing 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.
“It 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.
“My father enjoyed the caress of the sea today.”
“Aye. The king in him oft times needs a deck under his feet to remind him who the man is.”
I 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.
“I 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.”
“Even a man like my father?”
“Especially a man like your father.” Alric gave me a hard look before wrapping his cloak about him and lying down by the fire.
Two days of waiting for the Norman horses passed; two days before our rider returned with news.
“Robert, 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.”
“The castellan voiced ignorance of any such arrangement and would not release mounts without the command of his lord.”
“And 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.
Archbishop 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—”
“Robert 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, “Alric.”
My 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.
“Sire?” Alric approached the king.
“Strike the camp. Reload the ships.”
“Good, 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.”
To 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.
The 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 monarch.
“The king might be considering the safety of a harbor,” Alric said in a voice raised to out-shout the rising gale.
“The king is thinking he has no friends along this coast,” Cnute replied.
“The 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.
“Then we have nothing to trouble us, do we, my friend?”
“As your majesty wisely instructs me,” Alric replied with a slight smile from his eyes.
The 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.
“Alric,” 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.
The 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, or Saxon.
As 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 existed.
We faltered at our stations, unwilling to believe.
“God bless them and take them,” the king shouted. “Grieve when there is time. Row for your souls.”
At 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.
All 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 our sculling.
About 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.
I 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.
For 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 Dead.
After 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.
“I need to know,” said Cnute, “your best reckoning of where we have landed.”
Sigurd, 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.”
“Alric?” 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.
The 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 spoke.
“It 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.”
“And when the river no longer takes us toward Rome...?” I asked.
“Then we purchase horses for the remainder of the journey,” my father replied.
“An excellent plan, Your Majesty,” Sigurd said.
“It will do,” said Alric.
“Now speak to your crews and find me one who knows these channels.” “Sire,” we said, rising to our feet to obey our King.
“And find time to say a prayer for the repose of the soul of Archbishop Lyfing. He will be sorely missed.”
Not by all.
Like 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.
Cnute 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 empty.
The 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 dying.
As 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.
Alric 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.
“Alric,” 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 town.”
“As you wish, Sire,” said Alric.
“And 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.
“Perhaps, Alric, my friends Gwyn and Torsten could accompany us as beasts of burden?” I asked.
“Aye, 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.”
As I turned to gather my mates, my father said, “And Harald...”
He looked at me without smiling this time. “Stay out of trouble.”
About the Author
Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer whose stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies. His story River's Rising was awarded an Honourable Mention for the Short Story America 2017 Prize, and his fantasy novella River Born was one of two runners-up in the Wundor Editions (UK) Short Fiction Prize. His debut historical novel, The Swan's Road was released in November 2017, published by Tirgearr Publishing.