Becca the Red was one of the best fighting Danes, bear-shirted, with a lion's mane, and barely turned twenty, but already an accomplished hunter adept with bow, sword, and ax, which Danes had to be to be taken aboard a warship outbound for battle and prey and booty. Dane-land was a small place, without great forests and plains or much farmland, and far too crowded of late, so many cast eyes westerly and sought their fortunes and livings elsewhere, wherever defenses were weak and not too wary but the people rich, and the isles of Britannica was just what they were looking for.
An old wise man who did not toady up to a king? That was some brave man! Didn't he value the head attached to his shoulders? It was no wonder that some of the more thoughtful younger men visited him too. Becca the Red did not have to be told by other men how wise his grandfather Mimir was. He valued his grandfather greatly, and sought his side as often as he could spare from hunting, practice-fighting, sporting and gaming, building for pay on the chief's fleet of dragonships, and other manly pursuits.
The crafty one prevailed, and the plan was worked on in secret meetings in Hedeby and elsewhere in chieftains' mead-halls all over Dane-Land. It so happened that Becca the Red took part in several meetings, as his father, Rasmus the Green-Eyed, took him along with him to learn how grown men deal with important matters. It was rather boring to the young Becca at first, but when he saw that the Danes were allied in the matter and were truly determined to carry the daring thing through, he realized it actually concerned himself and his own life, and he began thinking what his own part of it might be. Yet it troubled him deep within. He knew of an authority greater than his father in his family, namely his aged, very wise grandfather, and he did not approve of the growing number of raids on neighboring kingdoms and cities the Danes were making with their sleek and deadly dragon ships. Plunder, riches of gold, silver, and beautiful women for sale as concubines later after they were "broken in" at orgies, was indeed coming back, but not all the men--there was the rub to such ventures. Wives lost husbands, brothers, and fathers even, and mothers lost sons, and sisters their brothers. While some men and families rejoiced in the booty they gained by attacking some far city, others wailed and mourned their dead.
What gain is that? Mimir would ask. "If it were truly a good thing to do," he observed once to Becca, "there would be merriment for all in it, not sorrow mixed in as with the blood-soaked booty that comes from this raiding." Becca too lost an older brother, Ansgar, just that way. He recalled how his mother had wailed in their house, the sound piercing through the walls and into the village to the other houses, until a party of drinking men came staggering and begged his father to shut his wife up, she was spoiling their celebration of a successful raid.
Life went on in his family's house, but never the same, as the loss of one brother and son was hard on the others. His mother too seldom found anything to laugh at after that, and her eyes were most often downcast, dark and sad as she went about her household chores. The house was full of gloom, consequently, and Becca avoided it as much as possible, only coming home late at night to crawl into his bed.
So Mimir's wisdom acted as restraint on the young, budding warrior, Becca the Red.
To please his grandfather, Becca thought how he might appreciate more warmth in his clothes, so he hunted a bear, brought him down with an arrow and a spear thrust, then flayed the skin and pelt and had it made into a wonderful bear-shirt. Mimir had outlived two wives, and a slave woman was his only helper now, caring for his household needs. He might have married her, even though she was much younger, but he judged himself too old for a wife now.
"Why not take her to bed, Grandfather, to warm your bones at nights? You don't need to marry her and give her your goods when you die. They can be buried with you or burned in a funeral pyre. And she is young enough to still give a man pleasure."
Mimir shook his head. "I will not force an old man's love on her. She is content to serve me as she is, my son. And I am content with her as she is. We get along just fine together, so there is no need for any change. I won't last too much longer anyway. I feel a chill strangeness creeping into my bones-- like cold wind is blowing there, scattering my elements, whirling them away into the darkness. Someday soon, I feel, that strange wind will blow ice and snow upon my heart and the frozen pieces will separate and fly away like leaves from a tree!"
"No, no, Grandfather," Becca protested, "you'll live many days yet! Life is good, it is sweet to the taste--you don't want to taste the bitterness of death yet! You've scarcely put a sweat on beneath your new bear-shirt, and now you will put it off for a thin, cold, burial shroud? Please don't talk that way!"
The old man laughed, then turned very stern. "But you are young and foolish, and do not know the world yet and how it must face the coming doom, the Ragnarok of the gods! Everything we know in this wide, bright world is surely coming to an end. Everything! Why, mighty, cloud-piercing Yggdrasil, the wondrous Ash-Tree that upholds the Universe, whose topmost boughs go up to Asgard the shining abode of the gods, is being consumed even while we speak. An evil serpent and his spawn are busy night and day gnawing its root beside Niflheim, his home in the world of the dead, which will kill the tree and bring the Universe and all we see and know crashing down!"
Becca was appalled the first time he heard this, but what could he say? His Grandfather knew all about it, and he knew virtually nothing!
"So don't look to Thor's hammer or Odin the One-Eyed Rune-Reader," his grandfather went on, "the Frost Giants and the Mountain Giants who live in Jotumheim, who are the enemies of all that is good, will someday go to battle against the divine gods, and their brute force will prevail and conquer. Asgard will be destroyed, Valhalla of the dead heroes will be destroyed, and all the broken, defeated gods driven into whirling darkness to wail and wander forever."
Something in Becca's heart and soul would not be placidly, hopelessly resigned to fate and rebelled, resisted the awful, inescapable judgment that his Grandfather described. But he had an immense difficulty that mocked him. He had nothing from his little store of wisdom and knowledge with which to counter his Grandfather's dreadful words, but still he pleaded with him.
"Is that the utter end? Isn't there going to be anything good come of it--just darkness and ashes and death?"
His Grandfather paused, rocking back and forth in his bear-shirt, muttering old verses of a wisemen and skalds who had combined them into long songs about gods, heroic deeds of men, and ultimate doom for all after the defeat of the gods.
In his thin, quaking voice, he began singing a few verses he still remembered about the end of the Universe:
"The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars fall from the sky,
And fire leaps high about heaven itself."
Squirming where he sat on a carved stool, Becca was beside himself, and wanted to run out of the room and lose his tormented thoughts in hunting some boar or bear, but he tried a last time.
"Oh, Grandfather! Is there no hope for us Danes at all? Surely, you know of something! Surely the gods would not leave us bereft of every last reason for living and drawing the breath of life into our lungs! What are these mighty gods and all their powers for? Balder, Freya, Frigga, Thor, Odin--are they altogether vain and useless to us?"
Mimir the Sage heard his distraught, favorite grandson, knew that the Northmen's gods were indeed useless to men in the last extremity, but paused, took a shuddering breath, and his eyes closed tightly, then sprang open and shone like two sparks from the hearth fire, singing:
"In wondrous beauty once again
The dwellings roofed with gold.
The fields unsowed bear ripened fruit
In happiness forevermore."
Hearing this, Becca's heart surged, for in these ancient words the old ones had recognized there was, indeed, a hope, a promise, for the Danes to cling to amidst the catastrophe of the overthrow of Odin and Thor and the Universe of stars and moon crashing and dying in darkness!
But what did the wise old ones see? What exactly was it? He had to know or die!
Becca sprang to his feet, then knelt over his grandfather, putting his ear closest to Mimir's check as he dared, so he would not miss a single word of his response.
"Is there more they say, Grandfather?" he urged him.
His Grandfather's hand reached and seized his grandson by his fiery hair, almost wrenching it from the roots.
"Yes! One is coming, He is coming!" he croaked.
Then he sang:
"A greater than all.
But I dare not ever to speak his name.
And there are few who can see beyond.
The moment when Odin falls."
With these last words from an long-ago, long-buried sage or skald, the old man collapsed back, breathing heavily, and Ingmar his maid-servant hurried forward to bring a soft, damp cloth to wipe her aged master's sweating brow.
She looked up at Becca with pleading eyes, as he rose, backing away, not sure what to do. Was his grandfather all right? Or dying? But at least he had not left him in despair. He had given hope in the last fruit of his lips! Becca moved back away, and slipped outside, waiting a short while, then looked in and saw that his grandfather was resting, eyes closed, and breathing regularly. The maid-servant looked up at him, her face composed and relieved.
"Good Ingmar," he called to the maid-servant. "You are a helpmate for his last days. Take good care of him! Do not fear. I will see that you are taken care of well for it, when he takes his last voyage. I--I thank you, Ingmar, for this service to my grandfather!"
Her eyes glistened, and she bowed her head to him, then returned to her watching her master.
Becca stood, amazed by his own words. What had he done? Thanked a servant?-- a mere slave who had been carried off to Dane-land years before in a raid, from some foreign land she had probably forgotten? Yet he knew he could go now, and not be worrying, with Ingmar (her Dane-given name) tending Mimir. With a whoop and shout almost of joy, he ran off, scattering the folk out of his path as he made for the open fields.
It was only in the wilds of a wood he paused to catch his breath, and then he thought. "But who is the coming "Greater Than All"? What would be his name?" His Grandfather had failed to say, or the skald's verses he was chanting were not complete enough to tell him. He saw he must return soon to find out if there were more verses that would resolve his puzzle. If only there were runes carved on big, tall stones that recorded the name of this "Greater Than All" and told his exploits. He would have to search for them in Dane-land and Jutland as well. But in the meantime, he was out to do some hunting, and the stalking of a particularly noble, many-pointed buck soon swept any bad thoughts out of his mind that could have spoiled such a beautiful, bright day as this one was.
Danes, great lovers of pleasure and ease and indefatigable boasters, could be extremely tight-lipped when they had to be--to keep the important matters of state from slipping into the ears of enemy spies sent to their forest camps and waterside villages to ferret out what next was hatching in their chiefs' conclaves. They had paid dearly when some Dane among them had been too loose of tongue after drinking meed and ale too freely among his friends. It had happened that the enemy they had gone to raid met them prepared for battle, and they had been worsted. No, they had to have surprise on their side, before the whole citizenry was aroused and came running with their weapons to drive the Danes back to their ships. Silence on the subject in public! Secret meetings! That was the key to any raid's success.
So Becca also said nothing to others outside the meetings the chief called about both the meetings and the matters discussed. All that outsiders could see was the feverish activity taking place down at the yards and boatsheds of the dragon fleet. What the cause of that hive-like activity was, they could only guess. And even if they had heard that talismanic name, Lindesfarne, it did not matter so much. They still could not know when the expedition would take place, or how many would go, and other such critical details. To learn them, a man sworn to secrecy with a blood oath would have to break that oath and later pay with the public butchering of his wives and daughters and sons before his very eyes before his eyes were put out with smoking firebrands. Then his skin would be flayed, piece by piece, in the famous way they had, excising rib by rib, until finally his lungs were exposed and then were pulled out of his living body and draped around his neck! So far nobody had ever broken that oath and the dreadful punishment had not been exacted.
Oh, it was clear that the Northumbrian king had many eyes and ears, some of them Danes well-paid for the service, but nobody in the clandestine meetings divulged a single item. As weeks stretched into months and the year drew toward the celebration day of the Birth of the Christ Child, the king and his court grew tired of the matter of the impending attack, and set little store in it. The Danes, just as well informed by their own network, knew the main force of soldiers stationed at Lindisfarne had been withdrawn back to the king's castle, and few left behind for them to deal with. Many, both Danes and Northumbrians, thought the expedition to Lindisfarne was even called off, for the good reason it was thought too daring and the weather normally too stormy at that time of year. For all anyone knew, the cunning Christian monarch, the Northumbrian king, would be laying a cunning trap, waiting to pounce on them when they showed up on his coasts. Wouldn't the Danes' fleet be sailing right into the mouth of a lion and be utterly devoured?
Despite the frequent meetings taking much of his time now, Becca saw his grandfather often as he could, prizing the moments with him. He could see the strength fading in the old one, day by day, yet Mimir's mind remained strong and his spirit fearless and unconquered by approaching death, just as a great veteran warrior's should be, Becca thought. If only he knew runes-craft and could carve on stone his grandfather's sayings! he thought. As it was, he had to memorize them, hoping he wouldn't forget one. They were all wonderful sayings of wisdom, and deserved passing on to the young Danes playing in the streets, lest they grow up ignorant as beasts.
So he asked him, "What is the chief prize that Dane men should seek?" He expected to hear wealth, women, booty, many strapping sons, and a fine ship for raiding, followed by a stately burial in a longship sunk into a lake, with women mourning and tearing their hair and clothes, and the warriors burning it and singing chants about his great deeds of war. But his grandfather replied:
"A man knows nothing if he knows not that wealth begets an ape."
That came as a shock to a wealth-worshipping, young Dane! But he continued. "Is war bad for a man, fighting a vain thing, and the sword a snare for him who holds and wields it?"
Mimir: "A coward thinks he will live forever if only he can shun warfare."
Feeling a bit better after hearing that, Becca proceeded.
"Drinking makes the heart glad, and puts shine in the eye of the lover and the one he loves, and looses the latch of love; besides friends are friendlier, and everywhere there is laughter where the mead flows freely. Is drink from the drinking horn the gift of the gods to us men?"
Mimir: "There lies less good than most believe in ale for mortal men."
The grandson was checked by this, for it recalled to Becca the many evils he had already seen come of drunkeness in the village--the wife beating, the servants abused by their masters, the crying children who could not escape their father's mean kicks, and other such things that too much drinking, not to mention the hunger it brought when everything was spent on ale instead of food, while the master lay sodden on his couch with his mead cup refilled all day by cringing slaves.
Becca thought of asking other, more pleasant things instead. "I have heard a skald laugh and say, Life is not but a fool's game, a jest, that's all! It is wrong to take it so serious. We are all the offspring of some merry god's jesting."
Mimir responded: "A paltry man and poor of mind is he who mocks at all things."
Again, a bit shocked to hear that even gods might be mockers and poor and paltry of mind, for if a god mocked men, then that would also be wrong even if he were a god, but he went on. "If not wealth, or much ale, or a big ship, or the other things, then what is the better prize for a man to hold in his heart?"
His grandfather did not hesitate. "I once was young and traveled alone. I met another and thought myself rich. Man is the joy of man. Be a friend to your friend. Give him laughter for laughter. To a good friend's house the path is straight, though he is far away."
How pleasing such wisdom was to Becca's mind! He was encouraged to ask more. "Can you trust the nature of a man?"
Mimir: "None so good that he has no faults. None so wicked that he is worth naught."
"Who can we trust most, man or woman?"
Mimir: "In a maiden's words let no man place faith, nor in what a woman says. But I know men and women both, and men's minds are unstable toward women."
Becca mulled over that for a while. It seemed that it needed more thought at another time. In any case, it counseled him not to prejudge a man or judge him too harshly if he did err or wrong him in some way, and be especially careful when he sought to place his faith in someone.
"Will we be judged for our wrongs someday?"
Mimir: "Cattle die and kindred die. We also die. But I know one thing that never dies, judgment on each one dead."
"The secret heart of a man? Where is it? Who can know it?"
Mimir: "The mind knows only what lies near the heart."
He still had his treasure of gold left over from his earlier days as a performer in much demand-- hidden away deep in a particular tree's clefted trunk. So what did he need of other gold? he thought, if he was destined to be just a farmer herding cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, with some grain fields besides to tend. Besides, his father would just take his earnings and rewards, if he ever performed again for the chiefs and the king himself.
How popular he had made himself before his father went and brought him home for good-- afraid that the wealth he was being given for his dances, singing, and fire leaping would draw robbers to his house if Becca continued to entertain in the mead-halls.
Becca sighed at the memory, how four years before he had performed before the king in the great hall at Hedeby on Jutland's coast. Built on a lake at the head of a fjord, the town was ringed by great ramparts of earth and timbers sunk deep in the earth, and the port was a forest of mooring masts, as cargo ships from all over the northern world came to trade. In the markets he mingled with men of all nations, dressed accordingly in their native costumes. Even Greeks, going by foot the thousand miles through every sort of danger and difficulty just to seek amber, the treasure of the Baltic sea coasts--he got to speak with one who told him about the Eastern emperor, who ruled from a capital city beyond compare in the world. The amber was going to adorn the necks of the empress and her ladies-in-waiting! He could name any price if he got there safely! Becca was fascinated, asking him many questions, for the man knew the Danish tongue well enough. What was the best sea-path to such a city and emperor? he asked him, and the man told him the way to go, and what to take with him to trade in the East. Thanking him, Becca put the information away in his memory-box for later use.
With over a thousand souls, Hedeby was the biggest city Becca had ever visited, and the king's mead-hall was jammed for the event of his performance with hundreds of warriors, nobles, and the king himself and his retainers and officials.
He got off some shots at several wild geese in the water, but the breeze off the water miscarried them and he only wounded one, then let them go and wandered up into the woods to see if he might flush any gamebirds there. One bird with so little meat wasn't worth trailing with a good, long swim, so he wasn't interested in pursuit of it.
His grandfather preferred venison over gamebird anyway. A nice young doe would be very tasty in the stew Ingmar would make for old Mimir--as his few teeth were not much good for chewing steaks these days!
As he crouched low with his bow and made his way carefully through the shrubs and bushes the deer preferred for forage, he thought of the performing he used to do.
Perhaps the hour was too late, for as time passed no deer came out to forage on the shrubs, so he decided to wait in the woods for the early morning when the deer would surely emerge hungry and not so wary as in the dusk.
He found a big, old log, pulled enough of it away at the side to be able to crawl into it, then pulled the wood down to create a blanket for him. Here he knew he would be warm and dry enough to pass the night hours. He slept, dreaming of his pleasant days as a performer before great men.
"Hear this riddle, great lords! Tell me what I am! My nose is downward [which he demonstrated], and I go on my belly [which he also demonstrated], and I dig into the ground [he clawed at the earth], driven as directed by the grey enemy of the forest and my master and protector, who walks stooping at my tail."
All the while many lords of his audience were shouting various answers, which others hooted at, until someone got it right: the plow, and the grey enemy of the forest being the ox, of course.
He first sang the verses recalling her long, wearisome journey, asking this favor from every rock, stream, sea, lake, tree and plant on earth, until at last she had got round to everybody and everything, and only failed to ask the mistletoe, which she thought too spineless and insignificant a shrub to be concerned about. Balder was safe and would live forever! she thought with relief.
But she had not reckoned on the envy of Loki, a god who was most cunning and thought of a way to put his rival out of the way. Everyone so far enjoyed the game of throwing anything at hand at Balder, but it bounced harmlessly off, for all things had sworn never to hurt Balder. But Loki knew something, and so he used Balder's blind brother, Hoder, to do the deadly deed. He sharpened the woody stems, small as they were, and glued them together with glue boiled from deer antlers and hooves, and so fashioned a dart, on which he twined some mistletoe leaves and berries to make it look harmless.
This he had the willing Hoder throw at Balder, everyone thinking it was some kind of a joke. Hoder threw the camouflaged dart. Loki then directed it to pierce Balder's heart, for the mistletoe was the only plant on earth that had not sworn to do Frigga's son no harm, and it did not bounce harmlessly off Balder's breast, as all the rocks, spears, even flaming brands had done. It pierced Balder right to the heart.
Balder was stricken dead!
The news sped across the world. All the earth mourned, and as a punishment the mistletoe was condemned to seek support and climb other plants and trees forever, without any strength in it to make it stand by itself.
After singing this tale, and falling down with a sprig of mistletoe on his breast, Becca was carried out of the mead-hall. The warriors used their black shields to carry him to the shore, then he was taken by a small boat to the pyre-ship, and then the ship was set aflame, though he was really still safely aboard the boat.
Later, returning home with all this treasure and the cattle pulling the cart carrying the sheep, enjoying the wild acclaim of his village and the admiration of all the women along with the envy in the eyes of the men, he found all sorts of messages coming, by boat or by courier on horseback--entreating him to come to various places all over Dane-land and even in farflung Norway.
It was then his father, seeing the pile of these important messages with the seals of great chiefs and even a royal seal of the king of Norway at Trondheim on one of them, put a stop to it, gathering the whole lot and casting them into the hearth fire.
"I can't let you go again!" he declared to the stunned Becca who dashed to sweep the messages from the fire, but couldn't save them. "This has got to stop now!"
Becca had been beside himself, understandably. He had done so well, the cheers of the warriors and nobles in the king's mead-hall still resounding in his ears, so how could he stop, when all the world seemingly wanted to see him and his cunning arts and would pay him any amount for him to come and perform.
"No, father, I cannot disappoint such important and powerful men! They cannot be insulted. I must go to them!"
This made his father very angry. "I will not have my youngest son, after losing one older, be lost in turn! If you grow rich, and you will grow very rich at this rate, while still living under my roof, I shall not sleep one night in peace, for fear of a band of robbers breaking in and murdering all of us for your gold!"
Gold drew thieves as thickly as a pot of honey drew flies! Everyone knew there was sense to what his father said, and Becca wisely withdrew quickly and nursed his disappointment in the woods by hunting. He came back when he was good and ready a day later, dragging the hindquarters of a buck on a makeshift sledge and the many-pointed antlers strapped to his shoulders.
His father, who had been worried that he might not return home at all, was greatly relieved and also pleased with the buck. After that, there was no argument, for his father would hear not a word more about the matter, once he had decided it. Besides, it was his house, and his father's word was law.
Thus it was in the land of the Danes, and Becca knew that as well as any Dane. He still had regrets and misgivings, since he knew he was missing the excitements of the larger world outside his own village, but it could not be changed--not while he was living at home and too young yet to set up on his own.
It wasn't easy for his aspirations to be crushed so early in the tender, green bud, but somehow he endured it without angry words with his father, which would have done him no good and perhaps some lasting harm if he had dare raise his own hand against his father.
Different from his brothers? Howso? Yet as he thought about his brothers, he saw the difference his father may have been talking about. After they had gone on raids and returned, they had changed into strangers. Twisted--that is how they were, just like the twisted oak of Grandfather Mimir's staff! Before the raids, they had been brothers, running and doing things together, always together. It was such joy to be with his brothers then. They hunted, swam, raced, and played pranks together on the village folk. They were punished together too when caught. Nothing could separate them then! Yet later, when they went off on the ships, he was too young to follow, and the first time he felt separate from them, and it was a bitter thing, but he still hoped he would grow up fast and join them, and everything would be as before.
Yet things never did change back to what they had been. His brothers returned, and were no longer brothers to him--they were cold, distant, aloof, even superior in attitudes. They wouldn't tell him what they had done, and refused to do any more household chores, dumping them on him and the servant, old Tiggard. It was a disgrace to be treated like this, but he had to bear it, and Tiggard--he was even beaten if he didn't obey them fast enough as they lounged about the house at all hours of the day, feasting and drinking up their earnings from the raids.
Once he had found his brothers taking turns dunking poor old Tiggard's head into the rain barrel, until he was half-drowned. How they had cursed him, their own brother, ridiculing him when he pulled Tiggard away from them.
"We're only having a little fun with him!" they jeered. "Can't he take a little wash now and then? He may need it, he stinks so bad!"
When he went and told his father how Tiggard was being mistreated, his father sighed. "It can't be helped, son! They are grown men now. They can use their numbers to beat me too, if they so decide they want to take over this house and stick me in a corner. You see how I can scarcely walk anymore, my feet and legs hurt so bad. I can't take a sword against my own sons, they know full well, no matter how bad and boorish they behave in my house and toward my household. So what can I do with these beasts whom I have fathered? All we can hope is they will grow tired of their life here and take their earnings and build houses of their own and raise families that will occupy them. Then we will have peace under this roof--only then! If they go on raids, let them! Good riddance to them! We have peace without them here, for a while at least. Only you-- I thank the gods you were born years after your brothers, so that I wouldn't lose you so soon!">
He was rewarded for his vigil, for there were the deer, five or six plump does in the herd, picking at the shrubs' buds while the canny buck stood somewhere near in the trees out of sight.
He soon had his doe, and carved out the choice, tenderer portions his grandfather could deal with best, including the inner organs that made such good stew stock when cooked with lentils, onions, lingonberries, and savory herbs.
Hurrying homeward, he went straight to his grandfather's and found Ingmar already up and going about stoking the fire and getting the utensils out for the morning meal. He brought in the deer meat, and she smiled at him, and took it gladly to fix for the old one's first food of the day.
Would he be eating with his grandfather? Ingmar asked him. "Later, I may return for a some portion of it," he told her. "But take all you like of it, whatever he doesn't want." Leaving his grandfather's lodge, Becca returned home, then remembered, going to check the notches he made on a wall of the house, that recorded his age and the months he had lived. He saw, notching the last day of the month, that he had now reached his birthday. It was time for him to claim a match for a berth as crewman on a raiding ship!
So he applied went to his father even before he had eaten his first meal, and asked him. His father did not protest, seeing it was his son's year to come of age. He replied to Becca he knew a captain that was related to them, but even with that relation he had to submit to a test of his fighting prowess and strength against a battle-proven warrior. Was he ready for that? his father asked him. Becca nodded, and so it was decided: his father would go to the captain and a testing match would soon be set. It could even happen that very day!
Becca had excited thoughts as he ate the morning meal with his father and brothers, and his mother and sisters serving. It was almost too much to think about and eat at the same time. His brothers had lately warmed up to him and were already discussing the coming match, and counseling Becca how best to fight with sword and the battle-ax, and other particulars they had never seen fit to discuss with him before. Of course, they assured him, the warrior would not slay him if he failed to not fend him off with shield and swordplay, but he would suffer disgrace and maybe not be taken on a ship if the captain thought he did too poorly and wasn't worth the risk.
"Better to not test than to shame and disgrace our family and our father's name," Hedmon, eldest of Becca's brothers, declared. Becca's hair rose from their roots, but he held his angry words back, as he realized this brother was no equal to the eldest brother they had lost--Ansgar who was solemn and careful of speech--and spoke without knowledge and was no great warrior himself, having been turned down by two captains before he succeeded in getting on a third ship, but only because it was under-manned and desperate to make up fifty for the oars.
Becca kept his own thoughts. He had prepared for this, long in advance, in truth. Training himself with all his weapons in turn, he mastered them, but he still was unsure how well he would do when the real test came. He knew he could shoot with the best and hit his quarry, but it was swords and battle-axes that decided a fight man to man.
He was taller than most Danes of his age, but not so broad in the shoulders as many older ones. He could run swiftly as a deer, but that did not help him swing for swing of the broad-ax or sword against a war shield. There it was the force a man could put into the blow, that often decided the match, he knew from times watching the various prospects being tested for the warships.
But he knew he had more wits than most men. Could he make them serve him so that he could overcome the broad-girthed warrior? So he had observed the matches with keen eyes as captains tested the applicants for their crews.
When the time came for his own match, he felt he had a good chance, having seen the weaknesses of being too big were about equal to the weaknesses of being too small. He was in between the two, and was both strong and swift. Surely, that would prove an advantage, if he used it with cunning and the right timing.
Meal over, the family and the others of the same clan met, discussed Becca's testing and giving much advice whether they had experience or not, and decided to go together to the event on the day set. But first Becca's father needed to speak to the captain. He left and soon returned, informing everybody it was indeed today, the captain was impatient to get his ship manned, and was wasting no time! Down to the ships! he ordered Becca, his brothers, and their brethren followed.
Near the waterside, with the dragon-headed prows of ships ready for sailing casting shadows over the waterline and sand, the match was arranged.
The applicant, Becca, and his opponent and testor, were called to present themselves and their weapons, and they both left their assembled brethren and curious other villagers and stood in the center of the small crowd.
Then for the first time each man took the others measure.
Pitted against a big, broad-shouldered, big-bellied warrior, Becca saw he had the perfect antagonist to test his green willow of a theory.
By this time, planks were pulled out of the lumber piles and set up so those of the two clans who wanted could sit down.
Knowing Ivar's reputation, Becca's father and brothers Hedmon, Hoder, and Eric sat down to watch, all grim-faced, knowing that this was the supreme test of Becca's manhood. Would he succeed or would his head with its flaming red hair end up dangling from Ivar's iron-studded belt? Ivar was as big around as some men were tall, so he could carry a lot of heads on that belt!
Becca's family was prepared to fight Ivar if it came to that, but they could not, would not, stop the testing, as this was the immemorial way of the warring and ship-wise Danes, to insure their captains good, fighting crews. Without high quality maintained, the crews and the ships would never return from the long and hazardous raids across the stormy sea waters.
Sitting on the planks laid on crewmen's wooden lockers, their swords drawn, facing Ivar's clan who were seated with their swords also drawn, the two families of their respective clans waited. The two men were taken with a man carrying a battle horn a short distance, where they each briefly knelt before a big wooden hammer of Thor and a raven of Odin, and then they returned, the horn was blown, and the battle was begun, as the captain looked on.
The testing did not take much time. All that was required was that a man, either the applicant or the testing warrior, was shown weaker than his opponent, or too poor in swordplay and liable to be killed if he kept on, and the match was called off with a sign from the captain to the man with the horn, who blew a blast and ended the event.
Everybody present knew, of course, that Ivar was too thick-headed to remember such niceties. He was like a big black boar of the thick swamp oaks, who lunged out at passing warriors, no matter how many were hunting him--it did not matter how many arrows he took, he kept fighting and slashing with his tusks. They knew that even the gods might not be able to save the loser of this match, since Ivar was in it and he knew no mercy.
Becca and Ivar, their weapon of choice drawn, circled each other, as everyone held their breath. Both held shields too, and Ivar had chosen to drink too much mead too, and was in a berserker-like frame of mind, with much snorting and fuming and rumbling of his throat. Suddenly, bellowing the Dane war cry Ivar lunged upon the younger, slighter man, intending to split him head to crotch with his sword, as he had done to many a man in the raids.
Becca whirled aside, letting him pass, slip and slide in the sand, then faced him, jeering Ivar with special taunts he knew. Snorting and rumbling, Ivar came rushing at him again, and Becca seemingly vanished, leaping aside at the last moment.
Ivar Hairy Breeches found he was slicing thin air, but rushed onward, then stopped, shaking his head and turning around with a bewildered expression. Everybody present, including the captain, could see that Becca could have easily followed and caught Ivar in the back of his head with a thrown ax, but had held off to wait for Ivar to regroup. Somehow, he refrained from calling the match by having the horn blown--this was just too good a match and spectacle to stop, and his own fighting instincts overruled his good sense.
Ivar meantime was doing some hard, if not fast thinking, apparently, as this had not happened before to him and he realized he had to do something differently if he were to catch this elusive Becca with his man-splitter.
He moved more slowly and carefully toward Becca, keeping his already narrow eyes focused on him like two traps on the same quarry. Just before he reached arm's length from Becca, Becca sprang back like a deer, which brought Ivar's immediate plunge forward and the Dane's bull-like war cry. But when Ivar swung the sword, where was Becca the Red?
He had flipped his willowy body and vanished in air! What witchery was this? Dumbfounded, Ivar felt a little tap on his head, looked up, and saw the blade of a battle-ax suspended over him.
The scene exploded.
Dozens of villagers and clans of Ivar and Becca erupted, all shouting at the same time and scrambling to get near the champion and touch his red hair for good luck, and Becca was carried on the shoulders of his brethren, rejoicing all the way, to the proud ship he was to sail.
After congratulating the young warrior for his triumph, Captain Soren was most pleased to show him his oar and seating, and then explain his duties, which were all guaranteed and spelled out according to the law of the Danes governing ships and crews and plunder.
Poor Ivar, skunked so badly by a mere youth, slunk away with his own brethren, cursing Becca, but unable to understand what had happened.
"It is witchery!" he protested. "That saucy red-headed boy, I tell you, he done cast a spell on me!"
Now Becca already knew the strict laws he agreed to obey in order to man an oar on Soren's ship or any such ship and to follow the captain unquestioningly as his commander on any raid taken. Among them, no fuel or quarrel was to be taken aboard or allowed on board. No woman aboard either. And any news or reports went directly to the captain. If any captives were taken in raids or war, they were to be brought to a meeting stake or pile, and there sould and divided according to rule. A man's war booty was his own, and his kindred did not have a right to it, he could take it to his grave if he chose. Simple rules, for the most part! Tried and true rules! They kept peace and maintained order aboard ship, with fifty crewmen and captain and sometimes thirty more crammed in if necessary, warriors or captives. All were as good at the helm as they were at the sword.
As for Soren's ship, close inspection and a tour of it with the captain pointing out various items showed Becca it fitted the standard admirably. He was proud to win a place on such a fine vessel. Broad and shallow, it could sail as easily up any creek as it could on the storm-tossed sea. Seventy six feet from stem to stern, and sixteen oars a side, each either 17 to 19 feet in length, all beautifully shaped and fitted through round oarlocks cut in the strake, with the holes fitted with shutters that closed when the oars were shipped.
Sixteen strakes a side of solid oak planks, she was fastened together with tree-nails and iron bolts, and caulked with woven animal hair cord. The strakes, fastened in this manner, could glide like a serpent across a choppy sea, and not take on water, though the strakes were so flexible, able to take the pounding of the seas and not break up as other, more rigid ship hulls did in severe storms at sea.
With pride Soren demonstrated the large wooden rudder and its wooden movable tiller, fastened to the hull with a cunning wood piece that gave the blade full play. Since Becca's father had special way with fashioning these rudders and tillers and the most cunning part, he had been kept busy making them and was well paid enough to stay in the village and in his home, without having to make raids to earn something more as he grew older. That is how Becca did not need Soren's instruction, for he already knew the secrets of the special rudder and tiller the Danes' ships carried.
Becca's heart was thrilled with the thought of their soon launching of the beautiful dragon-headed ship. The sight of their war shields, ranged for alternating colors of black and yellow along the sides, along with the dragon prows jutting out into the water, had thrilled him since he was a little boy hanging about the shoreline watching the ships come and go from the little port. Now he was going to sail on one of them as an oarsman!
This particular raid did not require much provisioning for a long sea voyage. They knew they would find plenty provisions where they were headed: Lindisfarne, the Holy Island. It lay directly across the northern sea between Norway and the big Saxon island.
They knew this venture was established by the king's command, and there was no turning back now from the venture, as the ships were all ready and accounted for. They sailed on a certain date known ony to the captains, the chiefs and the king. They only had to obey when they heard the summoning horn blast, and run to the ships with their weapons and whatever they wanted to carry along in their individual lockers aboard ship. Becca returned home for his things, then went quickly to see his grandfather, and told him he was tested and approved and was a crewsman on Soren's ship.
The old man was hoarse today and his speech slurred returning his greeting on this visit, Becca found. Mimir's eyes were closed, and he wasn't sure his grandfather was awake as he gave his news to him.
"We're going on a raid very soon, Grandfather!" he told him. "But I will be back with some gold for you."
"Yes, who told you!"
Mimir's lips curled slightly, as if he were about to smile. "A raven can fly in the high windows of the king's great hall and learn many things there and then go and tell the other ravens. That is why the king must beware of even birds in the rafters of his grand mead-hall!"
Becca laughed, but was still puzzled, and wanted to know how a bird had told his grandfather.
"If a tell-tale raven has flown to your bedside, Grandfather, can you also tell me when we will sail?"
Mimir smiled this time. "Tomorrow, before dawn."
Becca was scandalized and looked around, seeing only Ingmar busying herself with sweeping in the house and seemingly paying them no attention. Had she somehow found this out and told his grandfather? That was a fearful thing to do, to tell the king's secrets, even if it was to his grandfather!
"Don't worry, my boy!" Mimir croaked. "If you do not sail before dawn tomorrow, I will tell Odin's raven not to come again to this house and whisper tales to this poor old man! In fact, Ingmar may just clap him into one of her meat pies, after she plucks out his feathers to bolster my pillow! Wouldn't a raven pie be tasty!"
Becca chuckled at this, and then he left, for he saw his grandfather was now sleeping, his mouth gaping open in the way of old men sleeping.
Returned home, Becca sat and worked at polishing and sharpening his sword and battle-ax. He had time to think about the soon coming venture too while he worked. When he was satisfied his weapons were in order, he packed a few things--sharpening stones, an extra knife, some arrowheads, a chipping knife to make more arrows, which he wanted along in a wooden locker handed down to him from the few items not buried and belonging to his lost brother. Cautioned by his father, he laid in some dried vennison too, with smoked, salted codfish and herring, he might need it if they didn't find enough provisions after all, if the king of Northumbria should meet their flotilla with his own and force a long, hard battle on them, whether at sea or on land. Drinking water would have to be had aboard ship from the captain's stores. His mother gave him an herb for staunching bleeding from a wound and another herb to purge it of evil taken from the enemy's blade or the arrowhead. There were some cloths to wrap and dress wounds too.
When he had checked everything and seen that they were were satisfactory, and even his father was pleased with his preparations, he went and lay on his straw pallet with wool blanket over him, for he wanted to gain an extra hour or two of rest, just in case. After all, it had been a big day for him, the testing, to be followed shortly by the launching, if his grandfather's little bird was telling the truth!
He rolled from his pallet and sprang to his feet, his heart pounding. He heard the second blast of the horn, and knew what that meant--"To the ships on the double!"
He was prepared for this very moment. He had his things laid close by his bed, and so grabbed his locker and weapons and without giving any word to family or to his father he made for the door and was surprised when it opened to him, and his father faced him.
He was shocked, as he nearly ran his father down.
This was something his father had never done before, he took Becca in his arms. "Serve with honor, but don't do anything so that I will lose you!" his father whispered into his son's ear. "I never told you before, you were always my favorite son, and my heart would stop if I heard you were lost too! Alas, my son Ansgar! My son Ansgar! He is forever lost, but you are still mine! So do your duty, fight well for your captain and your ship, but come back alive! Alive! Then I shall have joy, not unending grief!"
Too astonished to know what to say at his father's display of emotion, Becca pulled away, then ran for the yards.
A hundred ships sailed in the flotilla that targeted the Holy Island, Lindisfarne, and all its treasures. The various fleets met at a prearranged point off a chosen island that belonged to the Jutes who hadn't sailed with the Saxons generations before, and then sailed westerly toward the Northumbrian coast.
Storm or good weather, they were not to be deterred from their objective. Previous days had seen sheet lighning, and much thundering of Odin's hammer striking a shield, but now calm had settled across the northern world. Stars had even fallen, and other fearsome signs as well. Yet the calming prevailed. Spies had reported to the king that now was the best time, as the monks' Christmas celebration was concluded, and the island would be jammed with the offerings brought to it by thousands of pilgrims who sought the blessing of the St. Cuthbert's bones in the great church on the island.
Moreover, their delay had put the Northumbrian king off, and he had recalled his main forces to deal with some raids from the Picts and other tribes of the far north. He was certain the Danes would not dare to anger his God by attacking on his holiest days of the year, when there was so much rejoicing in the birth of the God's Son. Even the heathen, idol-worshiping Danes were not thought capable of that much impiety.
The crew aboard Soren's ship was like the others, and did not think much about these matters, which were left for the captains, chiefs, and the king to deal with. Instead, they worked like a team together to make the voyage as quickly and uneventful as possible, quick to perform each duty as best a man could. Many had not eaten since the night before, but there was no grumbling, not a word. The captain brought out some food from his stores, and this was shared, and they kept up the work without pause. The wind was brisk, and the waves choppy, the wind blowing the wave tips into their faces, but no raging storms yet to test them and the ship. Perhaps Thor and Odin would favor them with good weather all the way! it was hoped.
Keeping in sight of each other, the fleet moved toward Lindisfarne. When they first sighted it, the towering church was standing above the waves, with the causeway to the coast the pilgrims used twice a day invisible under the high tide of water.
They all knew they would strike just at dawn, when
it was best to catch the unwary by surprise.
For all they knew, when they rushed from the ships
and ran up into the village and the churches and
monasteries that thickly covered the island's
northern half, they would catch the abbot and
his monks and even the guards still asleep in their
beds and dormitories! They would make short
work of them then!
Already, it was decided what each ship's crew
was to do. Soren's crew would send at least twenty men to
run in first, and attack and subdue the guards of the
king stationed on the island. There were many
pilgrims residing with the monks in the big
dormitories and even in the small, conelike
dwellings, these might be armed, but the soldiers
would be dealt with first. Soren was one picked
by Captain Soren for this duty. The other thirty men
would be sent to the big dormitories and the
stone huts. After they had
gotten the pilgrims and monks, selecting out
the best younger ones for sale, they could join in with
the sacking of the main edifice and the various storehouses.
Altogether, the fleet provided about 4,000 warriors
for combat and transport of valuables afterwards back
to the waiting ships,
and not all these would be needed, if the
Northumbrian king was not hiding a force somewhere of
ships that would attack them while they were
taking and sacking the island. To
deal with this threat, since spies had been known to
give false information before, some of the fleet was
detached to guard their own ships while the men were
on land raiding the monks' treasures.
The hours passed as the fleet waited for the
right hour, and no storm brewed and
hurled waves and winds at them.
The attack vessels, Soren's among them,
moved in, and then drew up by the shoreline with
a lightly falling surf. The men leaped out and
pulled their vessel up on the sand partway.
There were no coves or a creek to sail up, so this
would have to do for a few hours. As long as
no storm struck, the ships would be
not be in jeopardy.
Organized on the beach by their captains and
commanders, they were given the final order, and
they ran silently toward the sleeping
Christians in their tall, grand, stone and masonry buildings.
It was too dark as yet, so
they then moved slightly south of it, to the lee
of the island's highest point, a mount of bare rock, and
waited, in the hopes that no watchman was
standing duty there to give warning of them. They also
hoped no storm would blow up and
seriously endanger the whole fleet and the expedition.
It was dark, and they also counted on not being spotted
by any patrols sent out by the Northumbrian king. Perhaps they would be lucky, and the
king's eyes and ears would be shut, as they slept off the
effects of the glad celebrations of the days before.
They all knew they would strike just at dawn, when it was best to catch the unwary by surprise.
For all they knew, when they rushed from the ships and ran up into the village and the churches and monasteries that thickly covered the island's northern half, they would catch the abbot and his monks and even the guards still asleep in their beds and dormitories! They would make short work of them then!
Already, it was decided what each ship's crew was to do. Soren's crew would send at least twenty men to run in first, and attack and subdue the guards of the king stationed on the island. There were many pilgrims residing with the monks in the big dormitories and even in the small, conelike dwellings, these might be armed, but the soldiers would be dealt with first. Soren was one picked by Captain Soren for this duty. The other thirty men would be sent to the big dormitories and the stone huts. After they had gotten the pilgrims and monks, selecting out the best younger ones for sale, they could join in with the sacking of the main edifice and the various storehouses.
Altogether, the fleet provided about 4,000 warriors for combat and transport of valuables afterwards back to the waiting ships, and not all these would be needed, if the Northumbrian king was not hiding a force somewhere of ships that would attack them while they were taking and sacking the island. To deal with this threat, since spies had been known to give false information before, some of the fleet was detached to guard their own ships while the men were on land raiding the monks' treasures.
The hours passed as the fleet waited for the right hour, and no storm brewed and hurled waves and winds at them.
The attack vessels, Soren's among them, moved in, and then drew up by the shoreline with a lightly falling surf. The men leaped out and pulled their vessel up on the sand partway. There were no coves or a creek to sail up, so this would have to do for a few hours. As long as no storm struck, the ships would be not be in jeopardy.
Organized on the beach by their captains and commanders, they were given the final order, and they ran silently toward the sleeping Christians in their tall, grand, stone and masonry buildings.
Next the pilgrims and monks! There was less difficulty here, and the monks bore no arms at all! Only a few Pilgrims carried swords, and fewer still drew them in time to defend themselves. The Danes swept through the dormitories and the stone huts, and left them littered with bodies. Some captives were rushed together at a collection point, and later they were sent back under guard to the ships, for division and sale at the stake if there was time for that. Otherwise, they would have to be divided when they returned to Dane-Land, and that was not so desirable, as relatives might have other ideas who got what.
It was only when it came to his dealing with the monks that Becca felt something, a bad feeling, enter his heart. These were not men like other men, who could carry weapons and defend themselves. No, these were ones who carried crosses, not weapons, and could not defend themselves.
The monks were young and old, and the young ones quickly taken for sale as slaves. They were not the problem. But what to do with the old ones? Soren ordered them slain, with no delay.
As Soren went away to join the other captains and commanders in ransacking the big church and the storehouses, Becca was left with his men put in his charge now to dispatch the monks. The pilgrims, he had slain without thought as they drew weapons to fight him and his men. Yet why should the monks be a special problem for him? After all, they were nothing but strangers and aliens to him--Christians worshiping an alien, invisible God, whose only image was the Son of the God, called Christ. But when he raised his ax over the first in line, the old man looked like a grandfather to him so that he thought of his own, and he hesitated. That hesitation was a turning point for him. He could not make himself bring the ax down and split the man's head wide open. Why? He had caught a look from the man's eyes, the glance of an old man upon a young, foolish man about to do some very bad, shameful deed. It smote him in his heart, and he drew back, letting his battle-ax fall to his side.
His comrades rushed up, all talking at once. What is the matter? they wanted to know. We are to hurry with this lot, they reminded him. We have much to do yet to get all the goods to the ships along with the captives, they said.
"I can't kill these old priests in the robes," Becca protested, backing away. "I took the mariner's oath and joined to fight soldiers, soldiers who bear arms, not old men who bear nothing, who bear only those crosses round their necks! It disgusts me to kill harmless, old men like wretched chickens or sheep! They are more than that! And I am more than a beast which does such things!"
His men were shocked, but one or two were angry, and shouting. "The captain will deal with you! He will hear about this!"
"Go, run and tell him then, if you are such low animals!" Becca hurled back at them. "Tell him I am a man, Becca, sent to fight men, not little chickens and sheep! Give me men, armed men, and I will gladly fight them, man to man. These, never! Never!"
By this time, he was shouting so loud, that it was amazing they did not start fighting each other.
But then Soren came running partway toward them just as they were about to start a blood-letting of Danish blood, and knowing nothing about the trouble, he called to Becca to come and join him in sacking the great church. Becca turned to the men, and some stepped forward after taking a look at the old monk Becca had spared, and he ran with them to Soren, while the others who remained dealt with the remaining monks according to Soren's orders.
The awesomeness of the church, even during the raid, was beyond anything the raiders had encountered before in their lives. Nothing in Dane-land compared. They lived in hovels, their king's mead-hall fit for only a kennel of dogs in comparison with the magnificence rising pillar upon pillar, hall upon hall, to a soaring roof that touched the sky!
But they were here for business, not sight seeing and standing around with their eyes wide and their mouths agape! In the church, the men were surprised to find it so vast and full of great halls and all sorts of staircases and levels, with furniture of all sorts, and even stairs that led down below the church into crypts and secret storehouses. While Soren and other commanders and captains were seizing the altar's golden cross, saints' reliquaries, also gold but encrusted with jewels, and the rich brocades of the curtains and draperies, while smashing whatever they did not want to take with them, Becca and his men ran up to the next level.
No gold, so they were not interested in the contents of the big chamber, and started almost immediately to hack everything in reach to pieces and throw things through the tall windows, smashing out the translucent panes of fine glass.
Some Danes seized the huge books and began ripping out the pages, for a fire they started right in the center of the chamber.
Becca saw a book being torn apart, and he grabbed a couple leaves and looked at them. They were completely a mystery to him, of course. But he had seen nothing so fine in all Dane-land, the lettering so perfect and regular from line to line, page to page. It was most amazing to him, the craft and cunning that had gone into this rune-book of the monks, and now his men were burning what must have taken years of the monks' labor to write and bind together.
Whether he had thought it out or not, he felt he had to save some of the book closest to hand if he could. He grabbed a big section of the leaves, snatching them before the fire could ignite them, and stuffed them into his bear-shirt for safe-keeping.
Then he went and left the chamber, but thought to open a small door into an large wooden cupboard, and there he found some young monks, scribes perhaps, all crouched down in the shadows, writing tools and bottles of ink scattered around them.
He dragged several out, and saw that they were not monk, but the young ones that the older ones trained in schools. He pulled out a leaf of his book fragment and thrust it at one boy, and ordered him to read.
The boy could not understand Danish, but he knew what the red-haired Dane wanted, and trembling, his voice shaking, he began reading the lines as he pointed to the words. Hearing him do this, Becca was satisfied he had what he wanted, and he had an idea too. He took the boy and pointed to himself, saying his birth name, Becca. Several times he did this, then he pointed to the boy, and waited. The boy said, Aelfric. Becca repeated the name, so he would remember it and the boy's face, and then he and his men tied the boy's hands behind them and herded them out as captives.
Since the writing and book room held no gold or any valuables the Danes were seeking, and the smoke was now thick, they departed it and left it to burn. The captives were taken to the square for transport to the ships. Downstairs, and in the underground chambers, there was still a lot of valuable things to discover and take away before the flames made it too dangerous to remain there. Becca and his companions were now free to ransack them too.
Becca found Soren and the others had completed the sacking of the main sanctuary. The underground chambers contained many crypts and chapels, but they found a trove of golden ornaments not only decorating the chapel altars but laid in the ornate stone caskets which they pried open with their swords and axes. They found enough to fill many sacks, in fact, and a man could only carry one sack away at a time, it was so heavy.
That accomplished, Becca and his men, together with a hundred or more others from the other ships, left the building just in time as the roof started aflame, and the entire edifice was being consumed end to end.
Meanwhile the storehouses had all been looted, carts loaded up, cattle yoked and made to pull the carts, and stores of every kind of food, drink, fine clothing, bedding, furniture, golden treasures from the sanctuary, all were transported to the ships, with the captives driven there too on foot after the unsuitable ones, those too big or able to fight back, weeded out with a battle-ax laid to the skull.
Still, the king, when he was certain what he was up against, would have to call out his main force to deal with them, he couldn't just send a few hundred men he had on hand after sending so many soldiers to deal with the invading Picts on his northern marches. Not willing to split his forces and risk defeat at both places, this king was too crafty for rash actions like that. He would first muster as large a force as he could before he moved against the sea raiders. How long would they have till the king knew for certain Lindisfarne, his holy island and St. Cuthbert's, was taken and sacked by a very large fleet? It would be only a couple hours, at the most, as the causeway would appear above the receding waters in the first tide of the day, and the king could always send a force if he chose to challenge them. Even if it was just a feint, it would serve to disrupt their evacuation of the hostages and treasure, for they would have to turn and fight. So, to avoid the king's nipping at their heels, they had to move quickly to the ships with the booty and salable captives, load them aboard, and set sail for home!
When they got to the boat, a bearded, older Dane jumped down to stop them.
Aelfric watched the two Danes begin to argue right there on the beach in front of the crewmen, and the older man darted a cutting glance a time or two at Aelfric. The men waged a fierce battle with their words, while each held a clenching hand on his sword as if itching to draw them out for battle. That they did not come to blows and shed each other's blood was a wonder to the Saxon noviate.
"What's this I hear about your not wanting to fight like a man?" he challenged Becca. "Since you won't fight and then turn your belly up like a cowardly dog, you can swim back to Dane-land! For you'll not sail again on my ship, son of Rasmus the Green Eyed!"
"Fight like a man, you say?" Becca shot back. "Chopping old, defenseless grandfathers down, monks who carry not even a wooden club to ward off the wild dogs, that is fighting like a man to your mind? I came aboard your vessel agreeing to fight with my sword, ax, and bow, fight with other men for their goods, not to slaughter chickens and sheep and then boast about it to the fawning women and foolish children in Dane-land!"
Soren's face flushed. "Oh, so that is how you view your countrymen, your blood brothers? Are we less then fighting men, then, in your eyes, for killing these Christians and taking their goods from them in a fair fight? We did nothing dishonorable!"
"You know perfectly well, it wasn't to fight fair that we came as we did, like wolves at night on a fold of sheep. No, we came to take them by surprise, then kill the guards and make off with the treasures of the monks before the king's army could be got up out of their beds and driven here in time to catch us! Isn't that so, Captain?"
"Yes, that was the plan all right! You knew it well as anyone, and you agreed to it. For you to object now is too late. And for disobeying me and breaking your solemn oath I'll make you swim all the way back, for no boat of the Danes will carry a low, cowardly oath-breaker such as you!"
"All right, I will swim back! I am no oath-breaker! And you will answer to that charge before the king, for to him I will make my appeal. I will tell him what you commanded us, that we slaughter all these weak old men like sheep and chickens, though that was not part of my oath to you, and you knew that full well, didn't you. You only add that part because...because..."
By this time, Soren's chin beard was twitching right under Becca's chin, as they contested the matter to the bloody finish, whether his death or Becca's.
"Say, say it all!" Soren roared. "Because what?"
"Because you are still a Dane of honor, my blood relative and a brave man, and I think you are heartily ashamed of what you had your blood brothers do here, and won't admit it to someone younger like myself because...because you are also prideful and too full of yourself!"
The captain looked as if he had been slapped twice in the face, and his eyes rolled up in his head, then as everyone watching breathlessly fully expected him to seize his sword and swing, instead he spun away, facing seaward, his hands clenched as he roared like a wounded bull.
Raging back, he stopped, then turned around again, roaring. Finally, he stopped as if he had regained his sanity, slumped against the ship's hull, as if pondering his next move. But his hands then went slack at his sides, and he turned, his face covered with sweat and deathly pale.
He did not look up at Becca, who was still prepared to see Soren rush at him with his sword.
"Son of Rasmus, your words have pricked my heart to the quick. You won much treasure for us with your arms, I cannot deny it. What from it do you want? Tell me! I won't kill you or prevent your sailing with us this last time, but only keep out of my sight--and say no more to me, say no more."
"You ask what I want? One thing I ask from this venture--that slave named Aelfric there. I will pay gold for him if I must. All other booty is yours. It sickens me. I want nothing from it!"
"So be it! Take him! But say no more to me as agreed until the end of this voyage. For I shall surely then slay you and cast your flesh to the fish to eat!"
Soren, still without looking at Becca, climbed aboard the ship, and Soren and Aelfric followed.
Understandably, it was a very sober-faced, quiet crew all the way home to Dane-land. There was none of the rowdy jesting and talking aboard Soren's vessel, which they heard from the other ships, as the crews anticipated the celebrations in their villages when they reached home with their golden treasures and slaves.
As Becca sat at his oar, with scarcely any need to work it as the winds sped them homeward most of the way without the oars, he had plenty time to think over the raid and his part in it.
He was amazed at the power of his own words falling like a sword upon a man's secret heart. He had not imagined his words could cut so deep as they did into Soren, a war-scarred veteran of many bold raids. What had he said to render the man so weaponless and exposed, when he had been ready, just a moment before, to cut Becca his challenger into many pieces if he could? He had uncovered a man's hidden shame, which was perhaps a secret even to the man himself. Truly, that proved he was a man of honor, or a man who at least respected what was honorable and noble, even if he had chosen not to live up to it. But was that all?
As Becca sensed, and wise old Grandfather Mimir hinted from time to time, there had to be something more than just plunder that lay as the motivation of the raiding Danes, particularly as they were always attacking Christian kingdoms and Christian lands. For centuries they had heard of the Christian God and His Christ, and had ransacked enough churches and Christian dwellings to know what the cross signified, that this Christ of the Christians had died on a Roman stake in an earlier age, and had made himself thus a sacrifice for men's sins. Missionaries had come, indeed, to their lands to teach them this very message, but they were either run off or slain on the spot. After all, they had their great, noble, fearless, and concubine-rich Northern gods, and did not want to change them yet, as their gods were giving them such great success in their long-boats on the raids they conducted year after year. Their gods paid well to believe in them, so why convert to Christianity which preached penance, piety, and purity? So they remained in their easy religion and were satisfied with it, for all their lusts were accounted for and indulged endlessly. Only were they satisfied? No, never!
The ferocious way they treated the Christians they captured in battle and the way they dealt with the cities and towns, churches and monasteries and schools-- that spoke of how unsettled and unstable and inferior they really felt deep inside their northern hearts. All the time they felt something was missing in themselves and in their religion, but what was it?
Becca looked out upon the tossing waves, and it seemed they, the Danes, were just like them--never resting, never at calm. Why was that?
Then it came clear to his mind. The increasing contacts with Christian things on their raids reminded them, like cold slaps of sea waves in the face, that they lacked one essential thing, which nothing they won by bloody conquest could fill. They hauled home beautiful women captives and fine clothing and costly crafted things from towns and cities and the plunder, sacks of gold, jewelry, and coins from the sacked monasteries and churches and towns and villages they overran, but all the Christian wealth they could desire did not satisfy. In fact it had the opposite effect, it reminded them of their own inner poverty and starvation of the soul.
So, the wealth angered them, spurred them on to greater ferocity than before. Wolves to begin with, they deliberately took sense-dulling drugs and much mead before battle, and wore bearskins and became "berserkers," men so enraged with blood and violence they became savage animals that would bite off ears and rip their victims with their teeth.
They weren't merely out for plunder, no, they were out to cover their secret shame by acts of revenge and and expeditions to utterly destroy the civilization and the Church that offered them something they were denying, while feeling the pangs of utter soul starvation gnawing within and rendering them hollow men.
That denial, that flight from the answers that Christian faith provided for men's soul hunger and yearning for God and salvation, fueled their rage and lust. It sent them again and again out from their northern bases to hurl their longships, swords and battle-axes in lightning raids upon the innocent, and sleeping Christian townships and communities round about Dane-land. It had even sent them across the northern sea to attack the farflung isles of the Saxons and Britons. Would they ever stop on their own, until they laid the whole world waste? It seemed unthinkable that the Danes would stop. They had the ships to carry them anywhere on the wide seas and to every country on earth. All the treasures of the nations lay open to them to seize and carry off. What power on earth could stop them now? The fury of an arrow speeding toward its target could not be recalled to the bow.
There were, as agreed, no words between them. They did not even look at each other. Soren saw that the ship was firmly tied to the land, and then after a final check to see that nothing was left behind that was valuable, stepped ashore and without a backward glance left Becca and his slave. Becca and Aelfric were in no hurry, as Becca knew his father and brothers would be coming. Word would have reached them by now that they were back, and the word was not good either, thus the delay.
Did he have a home to return to? Becca, not knowing for sure, waited patiently.
Finally, he saw his father coming, but no one was with him.
Limbing badly because of an attack of gout, his feet bandaged and leaning on a stick, his father's head was down, as if he avoided the glances of passers-by, and then they were standing before each other.
His father lifted his head and his eyes met Becca's, in a moment that was uncomfortable for each.
Rasmus's green eyes squinted, as if he were in more pain than the gout had ever given him.
"What could you be thinking of, my son!" he rasped out. "I hear you refused to fight, and so Soren would have left you at Lindesfarne, to the delight of the Saxon dogs to carve up at their leisure, except that he felt pity for me the father, that I should bear such disgrace. Now I have the duty to kill you myself to retrieve my honor! And I will do it!
Drawing his sword, Rasmus shuddered with pain more from his son's disgrace than his throbing gout. Shocking Becca, Rasmus slumped down to his knees. He pulled and tore at his own clothes and hair, grabbing dirt and casting it over himself. "My son! You were the best of my offspring! Except for Ansgar, the others are evil brutes and oafs, but you--you were my best hope for my declining days! You are the precious jewel of my old age! Now you have thrown away your prospects and mine too--for what? Why did you do this terrible thing to Soren my friend and relative and to me your father, disgracing me and my respectable name? This is worse than if you had fallen to a Saxon arrow or sword blow in foreign parts. Here you are, a living coward! You have brought unending darkness and grief and shame to me. How do you answer to this?"
As Mimir had no doubt observed, it is strange how fortune can strike at the most inauspicious times. At that very moment, when his young life seemed so eclipsed and cast into shadow, Becca the Red knew what he would do to recoup his losses. He also knew what to say to his bereaved, distraught father.
"Father, get up! Get up! You have no reason to be ashamed of me and for yourself. Enemies who cannot face me have told cowardly lies about me. Go and ask Soren if this is not so! I did not break my oath to him. I won more treasure for him and my brother Danes than anyone else. Envious, base fellows saw me do that, yet from evil spite and envy have sought to rob me of my deeds. Ask Soren, father!"
Rasmus got to his feet, shakily, but a different expression in his face. He brushed the dirt from his clothes and his hair, and squared his jaw. He seemed to gather hope that his son's words were true. He had not heard from Soren, just from two men who stopped by his house with the "news" that his son had disgraced the whole expedition with his base conduct and cowardice. He had believed them, and had not gone to Soren to see if such were so.
"I will do it, my son!" Then he left Becca, who stood gazing after his father limp away, while Aelfric observed from a discreet distance.
Becca turned to find Aelfric was looking at him. "He will find that my words are true, as the sun and the moon are witnesses, for Soren will not lie to him. Soren will be loath to tell him assuredly, as he himself is wounded in his own heart, but he will tell him the truth. Be assured of that. No, my enemies' lying tongues will be torn out before this day is through! My father will see to that, and Soren will not lift a hand, nor anyone else, to save them from my father's wrath!"
The Danes retained grisly but effective laws in their tribal code, and a way to deal with liars in their midst that would prevent them committing ever again from that particular crime. For that reason they had few professional liars at court or serving the various chiefs. Soren confirmed what Becca had said, and so the men were hunted down and taken by Rasmus and those elders and warriors who went with him. The fight was soon out of them, for they knew they were guilty and not believed any longer, since Soren had not sworn against Becca as they thought he would.
Soren's own nephew was one of them, but the uncle and their own fathers stood by silently, as the two liars had their tongues cut out by Rasmus, who as Becca's father had the right and privilege of punishing the lying pair for defaming his honor and his household. Mute to the end of their days, they learned a costly lesson, that to murder a man's reputation was the same as to murder the man himself. "To defame a man unjustly behind his back, that is worse than open cowardice," observed old Mimir to Becca when he heard of the incident.
The very worst family crisis over, Becca had now to decide what to do with the days and years ahead. If he would not go on any more raids, how could he support himself and the wife and family he planned for himself? He went down to the yards. Not able to think with the people staring at him, probably still wondering why he had gone on the raid if all he returned with and wanted was a half-baked little Saxon slave, he left, with Aelfric following. He went up to the hilltop. Leaving Aelfric and walking to a solitary place, he sought counsel beyond that of any man's.
Hearing of this upcoming venture while he began work on his ship, Becca knew he wanted no part of it. His grandfather too had no good feeling when he caught wind of it, his ravens never failing somehow to bring him information.
"Listen, my son, think twice about going with them! Tell the rain to fall in the same place. Command the waves to fall on the same rocks upon the shore! Tell the wind to blow on the same spot tomorrow that it blew yesterday! Even the fool knows a leaf does not grow on the same tree the following season--it comes once, grows and dies and withers away, and never returns to that tree," he told Becca. "Only a simple fool thinks that he can count on a harvest just as good as the one before, or that his orchard tree will bear the same bounty unfailingly each year, counting his apples beforetime, for as things may well go, and flocks of birds come to fill their beaks, he may find nothing! Nothing!"
Becca, who remembered with disgust what the Danes did to the harmless priests, wanted nothing more to do with such raids. There had to be a better way to make a living. If the farms around the village had grown too tight and small, divided up too many times to households bursting with lusty sons, then he needed to sail beyond Dane-land to other, broader, richer but men-poor lands--there his living could be made by his cunning and strength.
Whenever he thought of Lindesfarne, it was a like a foul taste in his mouth, his lips curled with disgust.
"I went to fight soldiers, fight with grown, armed men such as myself, but they commanded me to slay feeble old men, grandfathers and crying children and cowering womenfolk! Is that a soldier's duty? Pfaugh! Never again!"
Becca sat for a little while, then realized he was not going to find anything that way. No tree would come to him, so he had to go to it! That meant a lot of walking and searching, perhaps for days, by the looks of it! He told Aelfric to wait for him, and went a distance further where he could be alone.
He knelt down, and clasped his hands in the way he had seen Aelfric pray.
Desperate, he would try this God of Aelfric's, to see if he would listen to the prayer of one truly seeking him.
He had never prayed such a long prayer, even to Odin, whom he had seen his father sacrifice to since he was a boy old enough to be taken to the raven god's shrine. He had brought bowls of curds and sometimes fresh goat milk. His father too would take curds and milk, with honey mixed in, to Odin. If a special favor was asked, such as a cure for his father's painful legs and feet, then a goat was taken to the shrine, sacrificed, and the priest ate well that day after the god was offered the fat and liver.
Becca rose to his feet and looked around. He had tried the woods on the hills that all the shipmasters had used for years. Why should he remain there, he wondered. Why not go further. Of course, it would be much more difficult to bring a tree all the way, without the easy slopes to descend from where he stood. Water was not the far awayto float the logs anywhere they wanted to work on them, and that was the reason they had worked these woods.
He called Aelfric, and together they walked on.
"I feel we are to go further on," he told Aelfric. They walked on and on, all the while Becca feeling this was maybe a wild goose chase, all for nothing. Yet he felt impellled to continue until he heard from Lord Christos. He had to know if this Greater Than All answered a man's heart cry and prayer. If he did, then he was greater indeed than Odin and Thor, who never answered his father's prayers despite all his faithful sacrifices.
Finally, they reached a ridge that was windswept, with few trees on it. Few trees grew on it for good reason. It was mostly scanty tufts of grass and exposed rocks and trees had a hard struggle to grow there, because the gales from the seas on the western side of Dane-land over-swept the land and cast their salts on this ridge. Besides that, it was distant from any village, and too hard to bring any tree back from there for cutting into boards. No wonder woodsmen avoided the area.
Suddenly, he felt something, a knowingness, a certainty, that this was the place to search.
With pounding heart, and a dryness in his mouth, Becca signalled to Aelfric to begin a thorough search, and they parted company.
Becca continued walking, passing one stunted, twisted oak after another. Some were rotten too at the core, as he tested them with his ax, to hear the sound them made as his father had taught him.
Then he noticed one tree and forgot the others immediately. This one was very tall, and straight, and he held his breath as he went up to it and thumped it with his ax. It sounded true, and his heart leaped. Could this be it?
He stood back, to see how tall it was, but then decided to climb up, testing the trunk all the way. Aelfric came and watched him doing this. He yelled down from near the top, he was so excited. "It's good for the keel!"
He scrambled down to the ground and got got his breath. Then he heard in his heart these words, which he knew for a certainty were not his own imaginings, for he had never thought such thing in his life, nor did he know anyone else who had ever spoken such things.
He swung his ax and sank it into the tree, and left it as his sign that would tell any woodsman to leave this tree alone, it was his, and he would return and fight for it if necessary!
He had hired six oxen, but they were not enough. Finally, he wondered if he would ever get it out. Aelfric prayed this time, seeing his master was at his wits end.
Then Aelfric, on ending his prayer, came to Becca and told him, just wait a week, a snow will come, it will be so slick and icy the tree will be easy to get out, and you will need only the six oxen, so you need not hire any others.
Yes! Becca thought. Why hadn't he thought of it! So he waited the week, with great impatience, and it was as Aelfric had said. The weather turned, and the cold was sharp and then snow! It was not like other snows, for it turned wet, and then froze again. The ground was covered with a sheet of ice. The oxen could still walk, for their weight brought their feet through the crust so they could get their footing, but the trunk slid over the ice and snow like a sled, they found.
It made easy work of the work, and they got the tree to the boat shed that Becca had already set up near the water.
There Becca and Aelfric worked on the trunk, cutting it down to the size and shape required. Then, that completed, they worked do the ribs, using the wood from the tree's branches he had also brought. So Becca continued slowly at his work, with Aelfric's help, and his father's advice guiding him, not to mention his grandfather Mimir's wise counsels. In the evenings he took Aelfric to his grandfather's where the boy translated the heavenly runes of the monks' holy book to them--the very task Becca had saved him for. Both Mimir and Becca learned many things in the halting Danish of Aelfric as the days passed, though he could only translate one verse at a time in a word by word manner. Mimir had ranged far afield in his younger days, coming to know parts of different tongues and languages, and knew considerable Saxon words too. This helped Aelfric greatly.
Becca said nothing, but pulled out of his bear-shirt the sheaf of manuscript pages torn from the Heavenly Rune-Book of the Lindesfarnians.
He laid them on the lap of his grandfather and watched his reaction.
His grandfather looked down at them, and seemed bewildered. "What are these things? Is this your booty and treasure, won by your weapons?"
"Yes, Grandfather! These are all my takings--runes from their holy book, which I have brought to show to you. My bonds-man Aelfric of the Saxon monks is here with me, to read them for us. Do you want to hear them read to you now?"
Ingmar, working in the shadows, knocking drinking horns and crockery and wooden bowls together as she washed them, fell silent all of a sudden.
Aelfric went to the side of the old Mimir, knelt and took one of the vellum pages in his trembling hands.
Ingmar brought a lighted tallow-fed lamp, for it was dim in the room at that hour.
Stumbling at first, Aelfric read, but where was the translator of the Roman's tongue of Latin? Neither Mimir or Becca or anyone else but Aelfric in the village knew the old Roman tongue that was still spoken in some parts of the southlands, but only by monks in the northern Christian lands.
But when Aelfric had finished reading a verse, he paused, then in Saxon, translated. Mimir, who knew some Saxon, then gave the meaning of the words he knew. Together, they worked out the meaning of the verse. When they had finished, and knew what the verse meant, Becca was very pleased. The first runes had been revealed in all their glory.
The page happened to be from the Book of Isaiah.
But what did it mean, this servant who would be coming to the earth to suffer for the people who had committed wrongs? Becca turned to his grandfather to explain this, and to Aelfric too. Was this speaking of the same coming "Greater than All" that Mimir had revealed from the ancient sayings of the wise?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
for he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely, he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all... Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days...
therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sins of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors."
"My son, could it be the Saxon runes are speaking of us too--that he bore our transgressions too? That he bore my iniquities, though I be a Dane skilled in warcraft and raiding from our ships and my hands are covered with blood?"
Becca was indignant. "You are a transgressor? How can you say that about yourself, Grandfather! You were always wise and good! There is nothing wrong with being a brave warrior of Dane-land! The runes do not speak of you."
"Oh, but I am hoping against hope they do! I see the darkness, I feel the cruel, icy darkness, creeping into my bones and chilling my veins and my heart. You are too young to know, but I was a foolish, hot and hasty youth. I killed men, many men, just for gold and treasure and slaves. I slew the monks and priests of the Christians wherever they fell into my hands. Once when a monk came to this village bearing the word of his Christian God, all written down in a book he carried, I threw his book into the fire and axed the monk from head to foot, then roasted him in our dinner fire! That is the iniquity that weighs heavy upon my heart, for which I will stand for judgment before the gods someday soon! Woe to me! Woe to me!"
"No, no!" cried Becca, very distraught. "You are wise and good! You will not be judged for those deeds. It is too long ago, it is long forgotten. No one knows but you and me, and I will tell no one else. And Ingmar and Aelfric will be commanded by me to speak of it to no one."
"Oh, but the ravens of the gods are listening! They tell Odin everything they hear is happening here. And the blood of all those I wrongfully slew, that blood speaks too. It has voices in it, and it cries out for revenge from the ground. Someday very soon my own blood will be required for payment, and my soul shall be cast down in chains to the fires prepared for the wicked and cowardly Danes! Woe is me!"
Becca was horrified. He did not know what further to say or do. But he turned to see Aelfric, and Aelfric was holding up one of the rune pages, and reading something, and smiling broadly!
Amazed, Becca asked him what was he reading that made him so happy.
Aelfric bowed to his master, then came to him, showing him the page. "This will surely speak comfort to your grandfather," he said.
Becca stared at the page, which was full of runes unknown to him, but pulled from the Book of Romans.
"Read it then to us! At once, for I cannot bear to see my grandfather grieve so sorely!"
With his grandfather helping from his stock of Saxon words he could translate to Danish, they proceeded to uncover the meaning of the words from Paul's letter to the Romans.
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Through whom also we have access by faith into this grace
in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
...For when we were without strength,
in due time Christ died for our sins.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die,
yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.
But God demonstrated his own love toward us,
that while we were sinners Christ died for us.
Much more then, having now been justified
by His blood, we shall be saved
from wrath through Him.
For if when we were enemies
we were reconciled to God through the death
of His Son, much more, having been
reconciled, we shall be saved by His life."
Never had he seen so much peace or felt so much peace under that roof. Ingmar, she was smiling and joyful, even though in tears. Aelfric too was changed, from a lowly bonds-man and slave to a brother in the same faith of this "Greater than All," this great the Son of God Jesus Christ whose willing self-sacrifice of his life and blood had taken away all their sins forever.
"Aelfric," he said, seeing him in a different way now. "How could you bear losing your home, all you had known, and torn from your homeland and brought here a slave. Will you ask for your freedom and want to return home now? I am in a mind to grant it, if you wish."
Aelfric seemed surprised, then shook his head slowly. "Until this day I was praying for escape, but now I feel another way. I wish to remain with you, and serve you!"
"But surely you were sad and crushed by what we did to you and your former masters at the Holy Island. All your friends too--they are dead or serving as slaves in other parts of Dane-land. Don't you feel bitter and dream of revenge against us Danes?"
"My true master, sir, is not a man but the Lord Jesus. He is Lord and King over all the earth, and he allowed this to happen to me, and I trust him to take care of me now, even in a foreign land. Whatever happens, he will tell me someday what it means."
"You really believe that?" the astonished Becca cried.
Aelfric solemnly nodded. "My father and mother and my brothers and sisters too were all slain by Picts raiding from the north country. Passing monks found me under the hay stack and took me away and clothed and fed me, teaching me about God and also the letters in the holy books. But though I have lost a second home, God has not forsaken me."
"How can you say that?"
"Well, I hear his footsteps sometimes, walking in the shadows, and feel him reaching out to me, to let me know he is near."
Becca was satisfied with Aelfric's words, and he turned back to his grandther.
He saw his grandfather believed the Runes, had indeed found the answer to all the troubling sins of his youth. This was more than he had hoped, it was beyond mere comfort given an old, old man on the doorstep of death, and it encouraged him to do the same.
Ingmar came forward this time, and knelt, confessing, "Young master, I was a Saxon too like your bondsman, and a Christian. I too believe the holy book. I too am a follower of the heavenly Son who died for us!"
Somehow Becca found his way out, his mind whirling with the holy peace he had encountered for the first time in his life, and it was burning in his heart, shining and driving away all the darkness away he had ever known.
"They are all going to come to grief," thought Becca as he watched the Danish men and the strongest of the youth rush to apply to the ships' captains. "My grandfather is right, they are counting sweet apples they will never taste, and if there happens to fall an apple in their hands, it will become bitter and poison in their mouths and bellies!"
Indeed, it did turn out to be a rotten, evil-tasting apple and a bitter harvest--this second expedition. Two hundreds ships set out in a grand armada toward the northern Saxon kingdoms of England in the coming year. To help supply the ships the village was stripped of all fighting men, including Becca's brothers who could be not dissuaded from joining, particularly since their earnings from past raids were running low, and they needed to refresh their wealth since they refused to do anything else to support themselves. Left to carry on the farms and work in the depleted village, Becca and his father and Mimir and Aelfric and the womenfolk of the household, not to mention Ingmar the good maid-servant of Mimir's, went about their tasks and work in the strangely silent village.
Then the first ship was sighted as Becca labored down at the yards on his boat with Aelfric, with his father coming to visit from time to time to give instructions and help fashion one item or another.
The ship made landfall at dusk, and was drawn up slowly and with great difficulty, and there were no shouts of victory and excitement on board, nor was there any sign of heaped booty. The king's flags were not flying either, telling of success.
Becca's three brothers climbed down, glum and unwilling to say anything as they just stood there. The women rushed up to them, to try to get them to tell them. Where were all the crew? All they had was barely half their number that launched forth two weeks before. Some were even lying in the hold, with rags wrapped around their limbs and bandages on their heads. More women came running, then started wailing as they found out from the men that one or another husband, brother, father and son was missing, not among the ship's number. It became a terrible scene, as yet another ship like the first one straggled in, with few aboard, and no booty, and even missing a captain. Women, whose hopes ran high at the first sight of it, now were dashed as they found it was no better off and one after the other was told she was a widow.
This was the case for all Dane-land, according to the word of the returned raiders. Bereft of both their best fighting men and most all their ships, Dane-land was soon in mourning. The village, with the facts known at last, was full of wailing of the women and the wretchedness of all who had lost family members.
Becca saw this wrath fallen upon them was worse than he had imagined. Could Dane-land, small and surrounded as it was, survive an attack of its many enemies now that their best fighting men were lying slain, food for the ravens, on a distant battlefield? Who would help defend the Danes? Would the Jutes? He was not so sure--as the Jutes and the Saxons were close relatives, and many Jutes had emigrated to the British isles and remained there, bearing no love for the Danes who now came raiding in the dragon-ships. If the Saxons should come across the water, the Danes would be swept off their own land and have to flee!
Even the king was taken, tortured and slain! What would the Danes do now? Becca could not help himself. This was his nation in the depths of a great disaster. He wept for his people. The brave men, the fearless, clean-limbed young warriors, who were so mighty of arm and strength-- cut down like dogs for the birds to feast upon! Never to be buried, their bones chewed by the wild beasts.
Without any thought beforehand about it, a song composed itself in the pain of his heart and poured out of him.
Tell it not in Jorik, declare it not in the streets of Winchester;
lest the daughters of the mourning Northumbrians rejoice,
lest the daughters of our enemies exult.
"Yon blue mountains of Lothian and Strathclyde,
let there be no dew or rain upon you in summer, nor snow and ice upon you in winter,
for the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of our king, Hagen FairHaired, not anointed with oil,
but broken in pieces and thrown into the fire like worn-out plowshares.
"From the blood of the slain, the strength of the mighty,
the carved and ivoried bow of Hagen turned not back,
the sword of Hagen returned not empty. Hagen and his son the bold prince and heir, both beloved and handsome! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
"You fair golden-haired daughters of Dane-land,
weep over Hagen FairHaired your fallen king,
whose ships clothed you in scarlet and pearls,
who put ornaments of gold upon your headbands and arms.
"How are the mighty fallen in the heat of the battle!
Royal-hearted Hagen lies slain upon the fields of Jarrow.
I am distressed for you, my king and your chiefs;
very kingly and generous you have been to me;
your favor to me was wonderful,
passing all you gave royally to singers before me.
How are the mighty fallen,
and the weapons of war and the beauty of our dragon-prowed ships perished!
There is none your like that shall come again!"
But mourning could not go on forever for able, life-loving youth such as Becca. He returned vigorously to work, with his assistant Aelfric. The ship, now a year in the making, was taking shape. Months passed, and he made even more progress. Without standing too close, it looked as if it were finished. Still his brothers did not come, at least to take a look! He knew why. They had sunk to low classes, mere laborers on their father's fields--doing work the hired men had done in better times. Now they hated and resented farm work, and did it poorly too, so they gained little by their efforts and his father's holdings produced little for his household. His father then grew angry and told them he would not suffer their idleness, and soon turn them out if they did not mend their ways! How they hated hearing that rebuke! All this they held against him, envying him and resenting him because he had not gone and suffered with the rest, and his lot in life even had promise of much improvement, with his own ship as evidence of that promise.
Becca knew Olof well enough, and said nothing. He knew what to expect, and he was not disappointed.
Olof approached nearer, watching Becca fit the boards to the ribs running from the keel, which was one huge log cut to form a single beam.
Becca heard some chuckling, and was annoyed but he kept his peace and continued working.
"Nei, nei, that'll never do, son of Rasmus! She'll sink beneath thee, sure as I am standing here!"
He kept it up, repeating himself, until finally Becca had enough and turned round to face Olof.
Yet this was the elder man, so Becca was not going to grab him and send him with a kick back toward the village.
"Oh?" he replied. "What is wrong with what I am doing? My father instructed me to do it thus."
Olof grinned, showing his broken, stained teeth. He spat to one side, missing the boat. "Then he should have told you that the boards all overlap, or you will have the water coming up between and fill the ship! You'll be swimming as soon as you launch, my boy! Hehehehe!"
It was all Becca could do not to grab an oar nearby and give Olof's head a swipe that would have made it spin.
Somehow, remembering this was an elder, he controlled his anger and swung back around to continue his work.
He knew as much as Olof did, that the ships of the Danes's were clinker-built, with all the boards overlapping below the water line, then sewn, not nailed, to the ribs, thus giving them flexibility that would keep them from breaking up in the worst, pounding seas. So what was wrong with his work?
Fortunately, he saw his father approaching, and Olof seemed to lose interest all of a sudden and ambled off in another direction, as if avoiding Rasmus.
His father came up to Becca, and glanced at Olof beating a retreat.
"What's he had to say, son?" Rasmus said. Becca shook his head. "I don't know if it is of any worth, father. He was laughing at my work, and I have tried to do it exactly as you showed me. But just to make sure it is right, would you inspect it?"
Rasmus agreed and stepped up to the work in progress, examining it with utmost care and taking his time. He even pounded on the boards with his fist to see how the hull responded.
Becca thought his father might even knock the boards off, he struck them so hard. At last his father grunted and stepped back.
"She'll is sound, son! Fine work!"
Becca sighed with relief. He had done a lot of the boards, and now wouldn't have to redo everything, costing him much time and labor.
Becca didn't expect to see Olof again for a time, but he was wrong. He showed up again, about the same time the following day. He repeated himself, questioning the quality of Becca's work and the seaworthiness of the ship. This Becca was prepared for, and he steadily ignored him and his taunts. But then he shifted and began questioning Becca's own abilities to be a ship master, and this hit home, as Becca already knew he could not claim much of any experience along that line.
"Got the knowledge, son, to steer a ship like this? How many ships have you commandeered anyway? None? I thought so! Well, what causes you to think you can do it now? Do you know the winds and the locations of the rocks and reefs that the ships come to grief on, all the way from the Jute-land to the Saxons and their isles? It is one thing building a ship to sail, and another thing being the captain! Got what it takes, son? What folly is this, you, the son of a farmer and cattleman, going to sea in his own ship? I never heard tell of such a thing. You'll surely come to nothing--the first sailing and you will end up on the bottom of the sea! The gods can't help you either--they don't suffer young fools gladly, you know!"
Becca was stung. He whirled around, his tools clenched dangerously in his hand. "They don't suffer old fools gladly either!" Becca spat at him savagely.
Olof's face colored, and he seemed as if to protest such insolence from the younger man. "Farmer! You little goat-herd! Why--"
Becca moved toward him, and Olof sprang away with surprising agility for his years, and then when Becca contined toward him turned and ran back up the road. Then he stopped, hurling insults.
"By the high gods Odin and Thor, you will answer for this effront to my dignity, son of Rasmus! You aren't more than a wretched whelp of a nasty bitch that lets a whole pack have her, yet you think you can be a ship-wright and a ship captain in one man! No one has ever claimed to be both and lived to boast about it! Well, I gave you my best advice, and you flung it back in my face! You'll hear about this, son of Rasmus!"
Just to end the matter, Becca grabbed his bow and put an arrow to it and took aim, as the dirty-mouthed old carper was still within range.
Seeing this, Olof did not waste another moment to dispute with him and yelled bloody murder and ran for his life.
She was a quiet, retiring soul, and seldom left her hearthside and the loom, so he was surprised to find her outdoors and come all the way down to see the ship. She stood looking at it admiringly. Her expression made him feel proud, better than he had felt for some time, for he had doubts like any man should, who was doing a great, difficult work like this for the first time.
"You have done what others have described, but it is much better than their words! Yes, I am very pleased by your work!"
"But why have you come, just to look at it? You never leave the house."
Her expression changed, and she glanced with concern toward their house.
"Your father," she began, pausing, "he is not well enouch for taking a ship's command, and I wonder if he will insist he go with you. I know he wants to go and help you on your voyage East, but he really could not, it might kill him!"
"Don't worry, mother," Becca told her. "I will think of something, to get him to stay with you. I would not be the cause of much pain."
His mother sighed, and shook her head. "I hope so. He is so impatient with his condition. He wasn't old when his feet and legs went bad. He wants to be free and happy and active again as he was in his youth. But he is not young any long. I am not young either. We are growing old now, and it is time to give these things up and let..."
She didn't have to finish. Becc knew and just nodded. He touched her shoulder. "It will be all right. I will think of something to say to him, so his pride will not be offended."
His mother's tears glistened in her eyes, as she clasped his hand briefly, then turned and hurried back to the house of Rasmus.
She caught his glance, then turned and walked slowly away, only turning once to glance back at him.
With an ominous feeling already in his heart from seeing Olof dart away like a big black crow, he went round the woodshed, and then found the bear cub lying on its side. He knelt and pulled it up and saw it was dead, a wound in its ribs like a spearthrust.
What was that? He saw some bluish smoke rising from the middle of it. He leaped up and over into the ship and found live coals had been thrown in, and a fire was burning the strakes. He grabbed coals with his bare hands and heaved them over the side as quick as he could. But even without the coals the fire was growing, not dying back. He leaped out, ran to the water, tore off his bear shirt, soaked it in water, then ran back and beat at the flames. Soon he had smoke with no fire. He grabbed a bucket, and ran back and got water and then poured it on the burned area in the ship. The ship was saved!
He called again and again, "Aelfric!" Then he went back for another bucket of water and saw something dark on the waves. He had missed seeing it before, he was so intent on putting out the fire.
It looked like old clothes, laundry discards hung on two poles thrown in by washer-women.
Becca's father was distraught at the news.
His eyes roved in their sockets, as he sought some reason for this crime, and to discover who had done it.
Finally, he shook his head and sat down heavily in his chair.
"Go fetch your brothers to my chair, and I will deal with them.
"No, I will go with you. I don't want them to defile my house any more with their presence!"
He rose, despite his painful feet and legs, and using his staff and also leaning on Becca's arm, they went out. Danes were not fond of riding and preferred the good earth beneath their feet, but they found a mule and spreading a blanket upon it brought it up and Rasmus climbed on. By this time curious Danes were gathering, and they had heard of the fire in the ship and also that Becca's Saxon slave had been slain. There is no keeping such news from such folk, for in any Danish village everyone knew everyone's business.
A small crowd left the village, armed with staves, pitchforks, and also iron weapons, and made its way to the tillable fields and grazing land Rasmus owned.
When they neared the hired men's hut on the property, Becca's brothers came out bearing weapons.
Helmod and his brothers, Hoder the Cross-Eyed, and Eric the Black chiming in, began to protest, claiming they were innocent and that their honor had been defamed by some envious liar and braggart.
"Shut up, you are the malefactors!" Rasmus cried. "No one else remains in the village who would dare commit such a vile, cowardly deed as this! You have disgraced me a final time. I won't dirty my sword with your filthy blood, but you are banished from my presence forever. Get off my ancestors' sacred land--I disinherit you of all your claim to it--all goes to Becca my son upon my death! You carry nothing away from here but your wretched clothes and your dishonor--now go!"
Seeing this was final, that their father was resolved, and that he had the backing of the village, Becca's brothers began to plead, still clutching their weapons but falling to their knees.
Rasmus turned around. "I am going back to my chair to sit down and rest! I will not look upon them any more! Now, fellow Danes! Purge the stinking goat offal from my land!"
Becca did not have to do anything. Hurling obscenities, clods of manure, and threats, villagers raised their weapons and rushed at the three, who sprang up, threw down their weapons, and ran for their lives. Pelted with rocks, they soon vanished from view as they fled up the valley toward the thick wooded hills.
Then Becca sang a song, a different kind of Lament, for a brother in Christ who was wrongfully slain while defending his master's ship.
Daughters of Dane-land answer me if you know!
This one named Aelfric, a foreigner of the Saxon tribes, was my true brother,
for only a short time, but he proved more than true to me.
And he was more a brother than my own blood brothers,
base, cowardly, slatternly fellows who now run in rags in the woods and bear unending disgrace.
I sing to thee of Aelfric the honorable Saxon!
He opened to me the light of the Heavenly Runes;
my soul is ravished by the beauty of them;
my hope is shining in them,
fairer than any golden ornament won in war,
fairer even than the movement of a mighty ship on the waves of the cold, northern seas.
Farewell to you, my Saxon brother!
You gave your life to save my ship!
Now, since I cannot bring you back from death,
launch forth on the proud ship sent down to take you to Valhalla,
and ascend to the glad, golden hall of the One who was smitten for our sins.
If not for you, I would never have heard tell of Him!
I owe you all this I have learned of Him,
And I owe you my ship for which you fought and gave your life,
For my ship you fought and gave your life,
when you were yet too young and your arms too short for the long oars!"
After the banishing of Helmod the Eldest, Hoder the Cross-Eyed, and Eric the Black, no one would dare touch it or do it any harm.
But who was to man it now that the best Danes were rotting on Saxon fields?
Applicants for crew came forward, but for want of better they were the lowest specimens of Danish manhood.
Mimir did not see there was such a great problem.
He looked north and pointed with his boney finger. "Go to those brethren of ours, the
ones across the water. You'll find all the men you would want there, all
anxious to do your bidding in Mandal and Holm. I was there once,
carrying slaves and concubines there after a raid, and
found the villages over-full of goodly young men able to row and fight."
Becca was astonished. "Can you mean that, Grandfather? Those
tribes are wild, crude, and rigid beasts, they are not like our Danes,
so much merrier and gentlemenly! Why, I couldn't bear some of the revolting
things they eat--the fish they soak in lye, then fry in
rancid cow butter! Ugh! Others bury a lake fish and dig it up later and eat it
like the finest thing imaginable!
I really can't have such savages on board my fine ship! It would
make my stomach heave if I saw them cooking or eating such offal like swine
in a gutter!"
His father snorted. "Well, then, take these wretched dregs of Dane-land aboard,
and don't complain to us again!"
His father strode out. Becca looked after him, then
smiled and followed.
In the weeks after he and his father took a small craft Becca had built for
his own ship to carry and boated over the narrow channel between the lush, green Danish islands and peninsula and the huge, barren territories of the
northernmost tribes, and as soon as it was known that they were Danes and
had even been involved with the sack of Lindesfarne, the whole
area round was buzzing with the news of their arrival. Everyone there had
already had been excited to a fever pitch about the taking of Lindesfarne's treasures by the Danes and
aspired to do the same, if only given the opportunity. That is why so many new
ships were being built up and down the coasts and fjords, in a thousand
different hamlets and villages. Many men were sacrificing all they possessed in
houses and lands, selling
even their birthrights, to get enough money to pay the carpenters and buy the sail cloth, and
necessary provisions and fittings.
This was the reason, then, that Becca was soon very busy interviewing eager applicants
for the crew. It was very difficult to make choices, Becca found.
Most all were more than suitable. Such manly fellows, able to fight
and row with the best of the Danes of old. But were they
obedient? Would they follow orders? He could have no quarrels and squabbles on board, nor
would he tolerate anyone questioning his authority as captain when every
storm or battle depended on their obedience to see through without disaster.
Did they understand that part of the contract well enough? They were
all brave, strong, vigorous, and adventurous. But
would they obey even at severe cost or hazard to themselves?
He wasn't sure, for the tribes he dealt with in their villages
were just as he had heard they were--wild, crude, and unbendingly
rigid and set in their ways.
To find out, he had to devise a test for obedience. After all,
there was the added problem that he was not of their
tribes, but was an outsider, a Dane. Wouldn't they resent that
and conspire against him in a difficult situation when he needed
their obedience most?
He decided to tell them the full truth, not keeping anything back. So he
told them they were being
recruited for his long-ship, but not for raiding but for
service to some great king who would hire them for
his wars. They would surely find fighting, and
perhaps good pay, but not quick rewards they could enjoy back
in their own villages. Would they still want to go, if
the voyage did not promise them booty and a quick return home to
celebrate, drink, and eat their earnings with their friends, wives,
and children? They might be gone for years, not just
days or weeks or even months. Could they see fit to
join and still take orders, when they weren't
loading themselves up with treasure from captured
towns and villages?
He put these questions to the applicants, and it was like
water thrown on a fire. Almost all of the men shrank back and
went away. This eliminated
the unwanted ones right at the start. Whenever he
gave the same word in each vilalge, he found very few still willing to
go with him. The ones that did agree to
it were unlike the others who were all eager to reap quick
and huge rewards from their service to a ship captain. They
were more adventurous and committed to a life of independence
and voyage than the others--not so tied to their little villages
and the surroundings they had grown up in. They were freer
spirits, he saw, freer in their minds and hearts to cast anchor and sail off into
unknown waters for years on end without getting up a mutiny.
Taking the few he found willing to join him from each village,
Becca and his father made their way, Rasmus riding a horse
to save his feet and legs, through the south part of the northmost
It took more time this way to find the fifty men he needed, but
it was worth all the extra trouble. The fifty he did
get seemed most remarkable to him, and committed to him
as a captain even above the tempting visions of treasure and beautiful
concubines that dazzled and drew most of the northern tribesmen.
What were they seeking then as their rewards? He asked each one, and
got varying answers, most unlike any one else's. He was
intrigued with these men, they were such individuals, men who thought
for themselves and were not content to follow the herd.
Their fellow tribesmen were all common sorts, all
pretty much the same in their desires, hopes, lusts, and animal-like
needs. What did they need to think about anyway? But these fellows who joined his crew, they each
had a different sea-path chosen, where men had seldom sailed
before or thought to sail. In a way, they reminded
him of his own heart. He too was sailing a different sea-path
than his fellow Danes, was he not?
He shared this with his crew, when he had assembled them
all together. They were full of questions he
was happy to answer. They asked about Lindesfarne, and
his refusal to slaughter Christian men, women, and children of the
Saxon race. He replied that he had given oath to fight and
bear an oar, not slaughter harmless people for no good reason, he
Though they had never heard anyone say this before, these men
were sober and considered his words before one or two
There wasn't a one he could take! It was useless to test any of them, he knew
they were unsuitable the moment he set eyes on them. After sending them away, he
went to his grandfather and father, asking their counsel, telling them it
seemed hopeless to find a crew among the Danes that were left.
Mimir did not see there was such a great problem.
He looked north and pointed with his boney finger. "Go to those brethren of ours, the ones across the water. You'll find all the men you would want there, all anxious to do your bidding in Mandal and Holm. I was there once, carrying slaves and concubines there after a raid, and found the villages over-full of goodly young men able to row and fight."
Becca was astonished. "Can you mean that, Grandfather? Those tribes are wild, crude, and rigid beasts, they are not like our Danes, so much merrier and gentlemenly! Why, I couldn't bear some of the revolting things they eat--the fish they soak in lye, then fry in rancid cow butter! Ugh! Others bury a lake fish and dig it up later and eat it like the finest thing imaginable! I really can't have such savages on board my fine ship! It would make my stomach heave if I saw them cooking or eating such offal like swine in a gutter!"
His father snorted. "Well, then, take these wretched dregs of Dane-land aboard, and don't complain to us again!"
His father strode out. Becca looked after him, then smiled and followed.
In the weeks after he and his father took a small craft Becca had built for his own ship to carry and boated over the narrow channel between the lush, green Danish islands and peninsula and the huge, barren territories of the northernmost tribes, and as soon as it was known that they were Danes and had even been involved with the sack of Lindesfarne, the whole area round was buzzing with the news of their arrival. Everyone there had already had been excited to a fever pitch about the taking of Lindesfarne's treasures by the Danes and aspired to do the same, if only given the opportunity. That is why so many new ships were being built up and down the coasts and fjords, in a thousand different hamlets and villages. Many men were sacrificing all they possessed in houses and lands, selling even their birthrights, to get enough money to pay the carpenters and buy the sail cloth, and necessary provisions and fittings.
This was the reason, then, that Becca was soon very busy interviewing eager applicants for the crew. It was very difficult to make choices, Becca found. Most all were more than suitable. Such manly fellows, able to fight and row with the best of the Danes of old. But were they obedient? Would they follow orders? He could have no quarrels and squabbles on board, nor would he tolerate anyone questioning his authority as captain when every storm or battle depended on their obedience to see through without disaster. Did they understand that part of the contract well enough? They were all brave, strong, vigorous, and adventurous. But would they obey even at severe cost or hazard to themselves? He wasn't sure, for the tribes he dealt with in their villages were just as he had heard they were--wild, crude, and unbendingly rigid and set in their ways.
To find out, he had to devise a test for obedience. After all, there was the added problem that he was not of their tribes, but was an outsider, a Dane. Wouldn't they resent that and conspire against him in a difficult situation when he needed their obedience most?
He decided to tell them the full truth, not keeping anything back. So he told them they were being recruited for his long-ship, but not for raiding but for service to some great king who would hire them for his wars. They would surely find fighting, and perhaps good pay, but not quick rewards they could enjoy back in their own villages. Would they still want to go, if the voyage did not promise them booty and a quick return home to celebrate, drink, and eat their earnings with their friends, wives, and children? They might be gone for years, not just days or weeks or even months. Could they see fit to join and still take orders, when they weren't loading themselves up with treasure from captured towns and villages?
He put these questions to the applicants, and it was like water thrown on a fire. Almost all of the men shrank back and went away. This eliminated the unwanted ones right at the start. Whenever he gave the same word in each vilalge, he found very few still willing to go with him. The ones that did agree to it were unlike the others who were all eager to reap quick and huge rewards from their service to a ship captain. They were more adventurous and committed to a life of independence and voyage than the others--not so tied to their little villages and the surroundings they had grown up in. They were freer spirits, he saw, freer in their minds and hearts to cast anchor and sail off into unknown waters for years on end without getting up a mutiny.
Taking the few he found willing to join him from each village, Becca and his father made their way, Rasmus riding a horse to save his feet and legs, through the south part of the northmost tribes. It took more time this way to find the fifty men he needed, but it was worth all the extra trouble. The fifty he did get seemed most remarkable to him, and committed to him as a captain even above the tempting visions of treasure and beautiful concubines that dazzled and drew most of the northern tribesmen. What were they seeking then as their rewards? He asked each one, and got varying answers, most unlike any one else's. He was intrigued with these men, they were such individuals, men who thought for themselves and were not content to follow the herd. Their fellow tribesmen were all common sorts, all pretty much the same in their desires, hopes, lusts, and animal-like needs. What did they need to think about anyway?
But these fellows who joined his crew, they each had a different sea-path chosen, where men had seldom sailed before or thought to sail. In a way, they reminded him of his own heart. He too was sailing a different sea-path than his fellow Danes, was he not?
He shared this with his crew, when he had assembled them all together. They were full of questions he was happy to answer. They asked about Lindesfarne, and his refusal to slaughter Christian men, women, and children of the Saxon race. He replied that he had given oath to fight and bear an oar, not slaughter harmless people for no good reason, he told them.
Though they had never heard anyone say this before, these men were sober and considered his words before one or two spoke again.
The first was from Holm, one of the three men who had left the village to join Becca. His name was Andreas.
This was a startling idea for Becca. Leave his own birth-home? He hadn't imagined such a thing before. His father looked at him as if he should consider it, surprising him even more.
Afterwards, Becca consulted with his father.
"How can you consider such a thing? To take of their people for my crew, that is one thing. But to forsake our own people and reside among these crude, wild folk? You've seen yourself how they live, with their own beasts sharing their houses in all seasons. And if the stink of their cattle on them wasn't enough, they don't bathe, they just go to the sweat lodges now and then when their wives can't take the stench of them any longer. You always know where they are, because you can smell them first! No wonder! You've seen what rank things they eat too. That takes away any offense they might have to their own unwashed bodies. Working with them, yes. But I could never think of residing among them!"
"Why not, son?" Rasmus replied. "You see what Dane-land is like these days. It isn't worth a goat's entrails. Could it be more dismal? They ruined themselves for this generation at least. There is no future there for the household of Rasmus, none that I can see. Why not move to this more populaced land and people who are untutored and wild but are yet friendly to us and willing to learn new ways and hear new things. There is hope for a better life amongst these savages, something I do not see in our diminished Dane-land. Our Danes will take a generation or more before they recover from the folly of Jarrow. I am too old to see the recovery and take any joy in it. In the meantime we would fare much better in this adopted land."
Becca could not argue with that counsel. It seemed very wise indeed. So he did not refuse to hear about it again, when it came up, and put it way to to ask his grandfather about when he returned to Dane-land in the next few days to retrieve his ship.
Recruitment concluded successfully, Becca and Rasmus left the northernmost tribes, and returned home, taking half a crew's number with them to help outfit the ship. The rest were left to requisition supplies they would need, all specified by Rasmus, which they would take on board on their return. Rasmus had already found a house in which to move with all his household on their return. It would be a fully loaded ship! They might have to take some goods and small cattle on hired boats, of course. The biggest livestock might as well be sold and another herd built up in the pastures of their new home.
Pulling up their little boat on the beach, Becca ran to see his grandfather and tell him the news and how his venture had gone. But Ingmar met him with sad but relieved eyes. She motioned for him to proceed after her, and he knew immediately that Mimir's last hour had arrived. All he hoped now was that he was just in time after nearly missing it.
He found his grandfather sleeping, but there was something different, he scarcely drew a visible breath. Becca knelt down and put his ear close to the old man's lips, to catch anything he might say. Aside from a word or two, his grandfather seemed to be mumbling in his sleep.
His grandfather moved slightly, and groaned, then slowly, very slowly he began speaking.
"Hear me, my son! I have been waiting long for you! I prayed the gods, and the Greater Than all the Gods, that He bring you to me on the wings of a great wind before I pass from here to the darkness..."
These were painful things for Becca to hear, but he did not dare interrupt, and presently, after a pause for breath and strength, the old one continued.
"You must remember my words! Do not forget them. Get a big stone and write them with sacred runes, lest they be lost to the young ones who come after us.
They must not be left ignorant of the things to come.
I have seen them! The heavens have opened and disclosed their secrets to my eyes...
Fitful breathing followed, and he halted again, in an attempt to gather his strength. Finally, though it took some time, old Mimir again took up the thread of his last words.
"The Danes will lose their manly character and strength of heart and their noble, fighting spirit. They will be assailed by greater tribes and powers who are coming with their armies and fleets time and again. Oh, for a time they will be great, and they will have kings far into the mists of times to come, but they will not be brave like ours now, they will not be soldiers, they will be wearing fine robes and live in great mead-halls, that is all.
Then a great ruler, foreign to us, the greatest of men, will come and take the scepter away, and the Danes will be made his slaves. They will gladly give up their freedom, thinking that a small price to pay for what the fierce ruler of the world will give them.
I was shown his face and countenance. He was seemly to the eyes, but he devoured our people like a wolf who has not eaten for a long time. He ripped all our flesh off, then crushed our bones for the marrow, even the skull was gnawed to pieces. We were made mere slaves.
And we did not resist him, whatever he chose to do with us.
We were already killing our children in the womb-- for profit and for the ease of a life without children to clothe, feed, and train.
We were already killing the old in their beds to make way for those who were younger.
We had cast away our weapons and no longer could raise a force of brave fighting men to defend our lands.
We asked others more powerful to come and drive away our enemies when they attacked--that is how cowardly and fat we became.
We loved pleasure and ease, but in the end we lost everything we desired in life..."
"But who is he, Grandfather?" Becca broke in at last. "What is the name of this despicable man? Was it shown to you?"
His grandfather seemed to be troubled, and he shifted on his bed.
"No, no! No man knows his name, but only his number.
His grandfather then thrust out first one hand, then the other, reaching for Becca.
Becca felt his grandfather's hands drop on his own after feeling his face and shoulders.
Mimir's finger tapped out six times in Becca's palm, three times he did this.
When he was finished, his grandfather seemed relieved. "That is his number! You do not have to know his name, for that is a mystery until he appears on the earth to rule it. For he will come suddenly and ascend his throne and command that this number is put to the foreheads and hands of all Danes and all other peoples he rules as slaves--and they cannot buy or sell anything without his number!"
Becca's head was whirling. This number was greater than any he had known. But now he knew there had to be such a number. The heavens had revealed it to his grandfather! And it was a name of a most wicked ruler!
"But why?" he pleaded. "If he makes us all slaves in our own land, why must we wear his number?"
His grandfather replied without any hesitation.
"Because he claims to be God! He claims to be Greater Than All! But he is a vile, lying imposter, yet many people will believe him and fall down and worship him. Even the priests, who serve Odin and Thor in that day, though they call them other names of their own, will worship him! They won't care that they are mere slaves to him, just so they can fill their bellies with the food he gives them. But you must not do that! For if you do, all who do that will be destroyed with him, when the Greater Than All, Jesus the Nazarene, comes with his mighty men of war and sweeps them off the earth and hurls them into the flames of the dark burning lake prepared for them..."
After his grandfather breathed his last breath and lay still, Becca held his hands clasped in his own to keep them warm, though the beloved spirit had departed. Finally, he let his grandfather's hands go and arose, and Ingmar came to the bedside, and Becca and his father stepped away so she could wash the body. Clean blankets were laid round him, and other preparations made for his funeral pyre and the mourning vigil. Then then Becca, hearing the wailing of the village women for Mimir the Wise already breaking forth at the news of his passing, left the village to shed unseen tears as well as to think over what had happened and the strange, troubling things he had heard about the destructions of the end times to come.
No, it was better to seek other ways to a better life! But what could those ways be? He had some vague ideas of how to find them. He had heard of great opportunities to serve mighty kings in the East. But it would take ships to reach their dominions, and if they arrived on foot they couldn't demand as great a price for their service, so he was determined to go by water in his own ship.
Would his father go with him? He did not think so. His father preferred the comforts of his own hearth at this time of his life, having hazarded his life often enough in previous years. If he could scarcely walk, he wouldn't want to go along. Even the rocking of the boat would disturb his legs and feet and give him great pains.
So he would have to leave his father, mother, and their household, after seeing that they were safely settled in their new home in Holm or Mandal, where the people were most friendly to them.
How long would he be away? He decided he would not return until he had gained his fortune bearing arms for the king he chose to serve. He was young and had many good years of strength in his body, so he was in no hurry. The crew would be the same, for they were all about his age, with no households and wives and children to be concerned about leaving so long.
Yet he already felt grief at the thought his father and mother would be gone, passed from this life, before he finally returned to them. Would he only find their grave markers when he arrived back laden with spoil from his ventures in the East? What could he do? How could he do otherwise?
He decided it was best not to think about something he could not change, and so he finished his thoughts in the fields overlooking the water and made his way back to the village and his father's home. As he neared the village and saw the smoke curling from his father's chimney, he thought how was much packing and loading of household goods to do before they could sail, perhaps in a few days time. He would have to go to Hedeby and hire a big, wide tradeship, a knorr, for a few small boats to accompany them in his ship would not be enough. He was thankful he had brought so many from his crew, for all would be handy. So many hands would make fast, light work getting his father's goods and furniture from the home to the ship and whatever boats they could hire. It was best they be quick in their departure, too, as then there would be less time to grieve over it. Only when they were aboard ship and headed toward the northern coasts, would they have time to reflect and realize they had given up their fatherland for a foreign land. Then the womenfolk could shed tears, and the strong men could stare silently out to sea. Danes were sea-rovers, after all. The open, wild sea was their pasture and road. It was something they knew could happen to any of them--leave-taking of their ancestral homes. Yet when it happened they shut the doors of their empty houses, and drove out the cattle and sheep and took them away, leaving only a silent homestead behind, they still felt torn in their hearts. It could not be helped!
"You are a servant, by your own choice, in my father's household then!" Becca told her. "Take good care of him, and when I return I will come and reward you with enough silver pieces to keep you in your own house if you prefer one then, for the rest of your days. If anyone mistreats you, he will answer to my ax and sword!" With his grandfather's heart aboard, enclosed by the sheaves of the Book of the Heavenly Runes, Becca did not feel so forelorn as they launched forth and watched the Danish fatherland recede from view across the waters.
He decided to take Mimir's heart wherever he roamed, for no one had given him more wise counsel, and the heart would remind him of it, perhaps when he needed wisdom most.
It turned out that it was well he did this! He would need to remember Mimir's wisdom, not to mention the Heavenly Runes' even greater wisdom, many times in difficult circumstances in the coming years.
Following the sea path described to him by the Greek trader in amber at Hedeby, Becca and his ship set off to make a living with his arms and seacraft.
It was a bright day, with no clouds, as they launched, and they were soon on their way, the breezes good enough to fill the sail and save their oars.
But within a couple hours, everything seemed to turn sour.
Bad weather--contrary gusting winds, forcing them to furl the sail, get out the oars, and fight their way through the sea rather than be forced back to Dane-land. They made such poor progress that way, and were exhausting themselves. Then downpours, hour after hour. They struggled to find a safe anchorage as the daylight failed. The next day, the same. Their food and water stocks draining down, they fished, but got few fish, and poor ones at that, for their efforts. Hunting gained them little but a few, scrawny rabbits and other small woodland creatures for the stew pot, and it was raining, so that the fire smoked and sputtered, and never did cook anything all through. Days of this, and the rope and leather rotted, and grew mold, and rashes broke out on arms and legs, and even fever took men to the sick bay where they languished under cover. Such little meat and fish, they were hungry most of the time. The weather grew more fierce, and the landings they made were no better. They met hostile, armed groups wherever they touched land to fetch water and hunt provisions. Clouds and fogs kept them fearful of ripping their ship open on hidden reefs and rocks. All this time the men grew more fearful and anxious, as the number of the sick increased. One day Becca noticed stains on the oars, and he examined one or two and it was the same: blood! He grabbed a man's hands, and they were cracked, oozing blood! He went from one man to another, and found the same thing, the men had kept it from him, that their hands were cracked and bleeding.
Becca awoke as if from a trance, gazed at the cloudy heavens, and then ordered the men to put him to land and wait for him.
Glumly, sick, dispirited, the men obeyed, and he got out on some sea rocks and climbed ashore.
When he had climbed round to a more solitary place out of sight of the ship, he began to pray openly. He was shouting above the crash of the waves nearby, as he could not help himself. All the turmoil in his heart was in his words. "What is this you are doing to us? It is you, Lord Christos, who wield power over heaven and earth! You are the God I bow to, not Odin and Thor and all the rest. You! Why is this happening to us?"
He stood there, feeling foolish all the while, as the waves kept crashing, and nobody answered. He looked first around, then up at the sky with all its rain-dark clouds, and felt the dampness of his clothes dragging on his body, and wanted to be anywhere but there. But he had to get an answer! For the sake of his men he had to come back with some direction! What was he to do?
He knew they couldn't go on like they had. It had to change, for they were finished! Obviously, there was no blessing on their voyage. The men were close to rising up and demanding that they return to Dane-land. They were all superstitious men, and thought that somehow they had offended Thor and Odin--so that their efforts were all in vain.
Becca's heart sank at the thought that perhaps they were right. They had offended the gods, and this was the result. But he didn't believe in them! So how could they be doing this to them? Surely, Lord Christos would protect them, and warn off these gods, if they were trying to ruin his voyage? Who was greater, Lord Christos, or these doomed gods of his ancestors, who were all going to be defeated someday by the Frost Giants, as his grandfather had told him?
He sat down, discouraged. He felt he was getting nowhere in his prayer. What else could he say to God anyway than what he had just said? Would many words bring an answer? He doubted that very much. So he waited, pulling his wolf shirt up around his ears. He was determined to sit there until he turned to stone if necessary. Let his men return to their homes--and take his ship too! What good was it anyway if God did not favor him?
He must have drifted off, his mind lulled by the sound of the surf. Then words drifted into his thoughts, as if cast up by a slow wave. They curled round in his mind then began to recede in an ebb flow. But he realized, this was his answer! He sprang in his spirit upon the words and would not let them go, though they were dark sayings.
Once aboard, Becca could see from swift glances and the mood of the men that they were all very expectant, wanting to find out what he had done ashore, and why he had gone.
Becca thought furiously. "I will call them to account, as the Lord commanded. Maybe then I will be given more instruction."
When the men assembled, and they were listening closely to him, Becca's eye happened to fall upon the bear amulet shining on Bjorn's chest, and as he looked at another man he saw he was wearing a raven-decorated bracelet in honor of Odin, and yet another had a shirt with a hammer design, all point to Thor of course. These things spoke to him. It was plain.
What else was the reason for the curse? It had to be this! They were dishonoring God by bringing all these idols aboard, and God was saying, "I the Lord am a jealous God. I will have no other gods before Me. I have had enough of this! Choose you this day whom you will serve, your vain, lifeless idols or Me!"
Becca was at a loss for words, even if he now knew the reason for the disfavor that had fallen upon the ship.
"Men, we are at fault for what has happened to us! The gods have not done this to us, for they are vain, useless dead things that foolish men make and then serve, though they themselves fashioned these gods out of wood, stone, and women's looms. We dishonor God, the Living God! Greater Than All has told me, that all these idols must go, they must be cast from us! Will you obey? This is the only way we will receive favor."
Becca was surprised more than any other man on board, when he saw his crew rush forward, tear the amulets from their necks, dig wooden images of Thor or Odin from their lockers, even pull off valuable bracelets and clothes with the signs of gods engraved or woven into them and cast them in a heap on the deck.
He too was just as relieved, for he thought they would have stubbornly resisted his call to cast away their ancestors' gods. But it was such a repugnant thought, that they should have endure another day of such wretchedness as they had suffered for weeks, reducing them all to desperation, that they gladly gave up their helpless, useless gods. They had to dispose of the idols and objects of magic and sorcery, but how? Burn them or merely cast them overboard.
It seemed best for them to burn them, he thought. Then they would see them utterly consumed, and shown to be powerless to save themselves.
So they continued at his command down the coast and found a harbor and anchored. It seemed safe enough, with no fires or signs of habitation, and they went ashore, though still carrying all their arms. They found wood and started a good fire, and soon they were casting in the objects and images, all watching the flames consume them.
When these things had turn to ash, the men brought buckets, put out the fire, then scooped out the ashes and cast them into the sea. When this was done, their hands and arms were dirty, so they washed and then returned to ship, but not before a curious buck came down to the shore and received an arrow from Haakon's bow that pierced his heart.
They lit another fire, and before long were feasting, enjoying a meal together they had not enjoyed since they left their homes.
Providence smiled upon them after that. They sailed all the way down around the lands of the Romanized Gauls and Franks and the peninsula of Hispania and through the Gates of Hercules' Pillars into the Great Sea.
But after the Gates of Hercules, the countryside grew very wary of the northern, dragon-prowed ships. Wherever they made landfall, if there was a village or town, the people fled away, sometimes leaving their meals on the table! They usually had tall, stone watchtowers to give them warning of Northmen's longships coming, so they could get away in time to avoid them. Becca had tradegoods to barter and intended them no harm, he just wanted to buy some provisions and take on water, but it was everywhere the same along the coasts, the people fled at the sight of them. It was apparent that his countrymen had been there before them, raiding and attacking these coastslands. Sicilia was a very large island, with many cities and big mountains and plains. It appeared very fertile too, with many cultivated areas showing fruit trees and grain fields. At the largest city they were allowed entrance as a tradeship, since they did not come with a fleet of warships. They were much in need of water and bread. They did not stay long, as prices were high and the crafty merchants knew how to separate visitors from their money, all too quickly too. Down around to the south of Sicilia they came to some small, sun-scorched rocky islands between Sicilia and Africa. They were called the isles of Malta from earliest times and the original Maltese people had never been driven off, though now men of all nations came and traded there in the markets of the two largest cities. Becca did not think these barren-looking islands were fertile enough to be of use for provising the ship, but he was wrong after they entered the harbor of a city they found hidden away behind the headlands.
More than that, the location of these islands was just right for a great trade center. The commercial worlds of north, east and west and south sent thousands of merchants who thronged the islands to buy and sell, just as the traders came from all over to buy and sell at Hedeby in the far north.
Going ashore, Becca and his men passed through arches to the covered suks of the Arabs, and were passing through the carpets and jewelry and copper ware shops, regaling themselves of the delicious foods and fresh breads and sweet nectars of the street venders, when Becca saw some slaves, captives from some raiding ship, their hands all bound behind them, and ropes fastened to iron neck collars, all tied together.
One young slave caught his eye, for he seemed different, more polished and cultured from the others who looked like common farmers and vinedressers. There was pain in his eyes, understandably, but no defiance or even despair; clearly, the man had spirit and a knowledge of his own worth and dignity despite the misfortunes of falling into the cruel hands of the seafaring raiders, the Saracens.
"Not for sale!" he was told, as his sign language eventually was understood by Hakim and his fellow Muslim business colleagues.
Becca would not be dissuaded.
He took a gold coin, then several jewels, and held them out to the dealer.
Hakim eyed it, but scowled and turned away.
Becca went and stood round in front of Hakim, and then held up the money, with another jewel, this time amber earrings set in big plates of silver, added.
The trader stroked his beard, and eyed the amount, then nodded, snatching the money and prize amber earrings, and the slave was Becca's. Handlers quickly untied him from the others, and pushed the slave toward Becca. Becca sought the man's eyes, and he saw he was right: there was a look of true intelligence, even if a lot of pain and fright was in that face right at that moment.
Becca reached round and untied the man's hands, and watched his slave rub his wrists and begin to look as if he weren't in pain any longer. Then he did something unexpected, unseen before in that market. He stretched his hands with gratitude to Becca, as if casting himself on the benevolence and charity of his new master.
When it was late, he let the slave hold the tiller as he had done, for he had watched long enough to see how it was done. The slave smiled and took the duty, as Becca's crew glanced with surprise and even shock at them.
Gaining the man's confidence with this act of trust and also some other acts of kindness, Becca worked with him to find out as much as he could about his former life. He learned that the young fellow's name was Alexios and he was a Cypriote, and had been taken by an Arab saracen that had suddenly pounced on his waterside town, taking many of the youth like himself for sale in Carthage, Alexandria, and other African cities. Thousands had vanished to cruel fates before him, so he expected nothing better at the hands of the slavers. He never expected to see his home again and had despaired of his life, for the Saracens were known to be very cruel, and slaves were often worked to death. Here he was no farmer or had worked in olive orchards and vineyards. But he was probably destined for a mine or a brick maker or dye vats, some such drudgery that would kill him in a few years.
"He whipped you too," Becca observed from the marks on Alexios's back. "What was the reason for him whipping you?"
"He knew we were Christians, of course, and so he forced us to convert to his god, whom they call Allah. Those who refused were whipped until they converted. But I could not accept his cruel, false god and deny the only true God. Mohammed, the one who is the champion of this religion, is not a true prophet of God, for his book says that God has no Son, and I know His Son, He is Christos, who is Savior and Lord! How could I deny Him! I would rather be whipped to death. And so they whipped, beat, and starved me--and would have killed me, except that our slave master, Hakim, decided against going that far with me, as he hoped to yet get some money for me in the markets if he spared my life. Just the same, whenever he saw me, he had to grind me to the floor with his foot and he spat on me and hurled every insult these barbarous Saracens know. And then he always mocked me and my God, saying that worse was to come, in the African mines or in the quarries, which he said were too good for infidels like me! Jews were pigs, and Christians were monkeys, he said, quoting his holy book that Mohammed wrote! To Hakim we Christians were fit only to be slaughtered or to be made low caste and forced to pay high taxes."
So, with the Greek slave able to give Becca all the information he needed to make it to his destination, they sailed across the Great Sea all the way east to the farthest end of the Great Sea, passing by Cyprus on this journey until they reached the City of Constantine, New Roma.
Were they good enough? They were tested in every art of war and handing a ship at sea, and came through with flying colors. Becca was told he could name his price, since he was of exceptional worth to his new masters. Becca declined to name a price, only said that he preferred a tenth of the spoils of war he and his ship could win in battle, and a tenth more for the the widows and poor of the city. Asking so little for himself and showing his love for the poor of a city foreign to him, immediately gained him wide approval and friendship. In this way, not grasping for every advantage for which he could, Becca was not like the other barbarians who flocked to serve in the armed forces of the Emperor. He was cunning enough to hold his own in any bargaining but he was wise and good, and these sterling qualities along with his feats of bravery in fighting the emperor's chief enemies, the invading Arabs of Arabia who followed Mohammed and his successors, travelled all the way up the chain of authority to the emperor.
One day a bejeweled, magnificently silk attired imperial herald came to greet Becca's warship on return from a campaign, riding right up to the ship berthed at the imperial wharves on a quadriga drawn by four white richly decorated horses, his pages carrying the imperial standard, to deliver a summons even before the ship could be unloaded of the booty and an accounting and division made. The herald stepped down from the imperial gold quadriga onto a piece of carpet. Becca came forward to him, and the herald extended his hand, which Becca took, not knowing what else to do. Was he to bow? He had never bowed to anyone, even the king of the Danes did not demand such obeisance.
The herald did not seem to be effronted, showing no sign he was displeased at Becca's behavior.
But there was more! Becca was called to court, a most rare invitation for a newcomer, and barbarian at that!
So, dressed in his best, going to the Hall of Ambassadors in the palace, he witnessed with his own eyes the majesty he had only heard about before, but could scarcely believe.
Although the emperor allowed few imperial guards to be posted nearest him, since some previous emperors had been slain by their own guards enlisted in various power struggles, the palace was thronged with them, inside and out. Uncountable warriors all equipped with golden shields and wearing shining tunics of silver mail. Why even the posts that held up the walls and ceilings of the emperor's palace were made of gold and held inset jewels in them! The emperor's riches were beyond numbering, his war ships and armed horsemen beyond count, and the walls that encircled his sea-girt capital were at least three days journey by land! If the thirteen miles of land and sea walls alone, with all their fortresses and walled harbors along the Golden Horn and Bosporus, were stretched out, wouldn't it be a hundred miles?
And this great ruler of the Empire of Eastern Christendom wanted to see him and speak to him, a Danish sea-rover, Becca the Red, the son of Rasmus the Green-Eyed! Wouldn't his father be proud if he knew? After his audience with the emperor, Becca was given some days ashore to relax and full freedom to go anywhere he chose with his men, who were also given passes. After all, the emperor had chosen them to be his special bodyguard whenever he sailed on the Bosporus or the Sea of Marmara. For this great honor they were given magnificent tunics and shields, and all new weapons. As Becca and his crew toured the city, Becca's ship was completely outfitted and restored in the emperor's shipyards by the best shipwrights. The only thing a bit strange to him was the name they were given by the imperial recorders: "Varangian."
"Varangian?" He and his men were called to be called that, whether it sounded strange to his ears or not! Deciding that it wasn't the worst thing Danes were called, he did not argue for "Dane", and let it go.
They toured the city, which was the largest and most splendid in the world. The lands alone were a great sight to see, built by Emperor Theodosius in the 4th century.
The immense, tall, domed buildings, the palaces, churches, baths, and huge commercial districts strung out along the major thoroughfares, all pillared and covered with canopies, drew their chief attention, since they had not seen the like anywhere else, except perhaps in Gaul where the ruins of the Roman cities were still very impressive. The Port officials showed them the special fortresses guarding the shoreline and the ship-defying chain that was winched up from both sides to block the mouth of the Golden Horn, the inner harbor of Byzantium. Then, from a high tower Becca looked down upon the Golden Horn in the midst of the city. Hedeby would have fit in just one small piece of it, and be swallowed up so it couldn't even be found! But this city was larger than his eye could see, even from the vantage of this tower.
Surely, there was no other place on earth that could as rightly claim such a name as this! he thought. As he looked up into the vast dome overhead, pierced with many windows all around, he thought for sure he was looking through heaven's window as the light flooded down, multi-colored, into the sanctuary where thousands of worshipers and priests daily assembled. This indeed was the center of the world, of the universe, for him! Could there be more glorious spot? The beauty and splendor was indescribable and left him speechless.
As long as Divine Wisdom stood overlooking the sea approaches to the city, Becca's rune would testify that he, the son of Rasmus and the grandson of Mimir, had stood in that glorious place, and it would still be there on the day that the Usurper who claimed to be Greater Than All ascended his throne to rule the world.
So the Danish Varangians were pressed soon into active service for when the Caliph launched yet another armada to take the capital, just as Mohammed had commanded, that they should strike at the head of their enemy, then mop up the other cities and countryside at their leisure.
Becca was allowed to follow Basil, but both he and his men were prevented from any sight of the workshop where the Greek fire was produced, as this was a most secret place of all, its secrets guarded on pain of death if they were compromised in any way. How naptha, saltpetre, petroleum and other ingredients were blended in a way to produce the volatile Greek Fire, only the Basil and his select workers knew, and they weren't telling, so Becca learned nothing that the man in the street did not know.
Afterwards, Becca emerged from the munitions buildings and talked some more with Basil. "If we Danes had this wonderful liquid fire of yours, we could have conquered all the Saxons and taken their lands years ago! Danes would give anything for the list of the ingredients! They would pay any amount of gold for it!"
Basil shook his head, and spoke low as if they might be overheard. "No, sir, we would never sell such a thing. Our city, our homeland, our people of Christ all depend upon it not getting into the hands of our enemies or even our friends such as you. Don't think they haven't tried countless times to wrest the secret from us! We have been offered enormous bribes for it, but we cannot hand our city and people and our holy places over to the infidel, though they offer us all the gold and treasure of the whole earth! God himself gave the secret of it to my forefather. We have heard from his lips, as it was passed to me by my own grandfather and father, that God answered the prayer of the Christians for such a great weapon, that they could use it to ward off the coming hordes of the infidels who follow Mohammed their prophet.
The Lord God told my forefather this: "I will protect you until the time you grow rich and fat and heedless of my commands. When you abandon me for the sake of your luxuries and sinful pleasures, when you turn as unholy as the heathen who assaults your walls, then I will give you over to the cruelty and oppression of your enemies. Until then you will be saved by My Hand and you will overcome your enemies, every one."
Becca had to wonder. "How long will that be?" he asked Basil. Basil did not smile, just shook his head slowly. "Perhaps we are beyond the point now, and are being judged, and will not survive this coming attack. But we still have the fire, only we know that the enemy may have something similar, for he has made many attempts that we have heard about. God will not let us have preeminence forever if we have abandoned Him. That was His stern warning to our rulers and the people. Even this holy nation may fall to the infidel--for God plays no favorites when you pollute his sanctuary with your sin, unbelief and rebellion."
Basil then showed him how the fire was to be used, by a tube being inserted through the prow of Becca's warship. A pump was installed, and when the Greek fire container was brought, it had to be handled without jostling it, as it could explode, Becca was warned. Water only increased the flames, so if a fire started aboard from a spill of the Greek fire, water could not put it out. It burned on water just as greedily as on wood. Even metal and masonry were consumed! Nothing so far had stopped Greek fire, Basil observed. With it Byzantium stood as a fortress beyond peer, throwing back the repeated onslaughts of the Muslim infidels, century after century. How long that would be the case depended on their love of God and faithfulness to his commands, he concluded.
Once he was saved from drowning or being burnt alive in the pools of floating Greek fire, the captive sat glowering at them, showing no sign he was grateful to them for sparing his life.
Alexios looked doubtfully at the captive, shaking his head at the thought that an enemy should be accorded such rights. If he had a whip, he would have been tempted to use it, to get all the information he could out of him that way. But of course, he could not,a s a slave, do any such thing.
The prisoner, his hands bound behind him, gave him a look of pure venom as he slowly spat out the words. "Hasayn! I am the son of Walid Husayn ibn Ibrahim of Al Alexandriya. Why did you spare my life? Kill me with your sword! It is a shame that I should live while my brethren perish?"
"Why do you wish to die?" Alexios asked. "What good is it if you perish like the others?"
"You know nothing, Christian! We go straight to Paradise, as the Prophet has promised. But now I shall not go there, if perchance I do not fall in battle with the infidel."
Alexios's face colored, as he knew full well what Hasayn meant by "infidel."
"YOU are the infidel!" he protested. "We Greeks were at peace with you, but you came and attacked us, driving us from our homes on our own island that has belonged to us for over a thousand years, even carrying some of us off to your ships to make slaves of us! How dare you call us infidels! We knew God and Christ His Son centuries before you even left your viper's nest in the deserts of Arabia!"
Hasayn's face showed he was gloating, satisfied with the effect he had on Alexios.
"So I come from a viper's nest? What do you come from? You are a slave to your captain, are you not? You are Greek, you say? Did he carry you off, or did we? Are you one of those we carried off to our ships and made slaves of? Is that the cause of your anger toward me? I had nothing to do with it, if that is the case. Evenso, if I had the chance of enslaving you, I would gladly do it, for that is commanded by our God and our holy book. You Christians are nothing but pigs and monkeys--fit only for being slaves, if we do not kill you first."
Alexios was furious, and Becca, glancing over and seeing how the interview was going, intervened.
He took Alexios aside. "What did you learn from him?"
Alexios had a hard time calming down, and finally he did and was able to answer in a reasonable way.
"I am sorry, master. We Greeks from the islands have too much emotion, and it is hard for me to listen to the insolent things he says. He says he would enslave us if he could, if he did not kill us first. He is nothing but a dog, a barbarian!"
Becca's brows lifted. "Why? What could make him want to do that, since his own country is rich enough to build a mighty war fleet, and one able to do that surely does not need to attack this land and people to find provision for itself?"
"Oh, they are greedy and covet the emperor's gold and silver, the wealth of the Christians, no doubt, master. But the chief reason for what they do is this: they believe their God, their religion, compels them to attack us, wherever they find Christians, and drive us either into slavery or into the grave. That is their reason for what they do. Otherwise, they would not have come to hazard themselves and their ships to Greek fire, though they had heard of it and knew how bad it could hurt them."
Becca could not believe it. "But we Danes attacked others to take away their gold and silver, and also make slaves of some of them. But we did not seek to do this to the entire earth, nor did we think the gods Odin and Thor commanded it. Does he really believe such a thing is commanded him and his people?"
Alexios nodded grimly.
Becca was sickened by the thought. "How can there be room enough on even this wide an earth for both these people and everyone else? They will continually be at war, and not rest as they take the sword against everyone who is not under their heel. Even we Danes will find these wolves coming to take our flocks."
Alexios nodded again. "Yes, they are on our doorsteps today, master, but tomorrow, or the next day, they will be on yours!"
The great iron sea-chain that blocked the mouth the Golden Horn was let down into the water, and they were able to pass through into the waterway and anchor within a small, enclosed harbor of one of the fortresses.
But thousands of people, seeing them, rushed to line up in an informal triumph. Cheering, shouting, throwing flowers, the crowd's favor was evident, that they were over-joyed with Becca and his men's victorious attack on the enemy fleet, even beyond that of all the other commanders serving the emperor.
Or he might say, or add, "The only way from a mountain top is down!"
How true, how wise! Becca thought, as he glanced at the citizens of the world's greatest city calling his name and shouting their gratitude and God's blessings on him and his men.
He wondered how they would respond, if in the next campaign he did not do so well. Was all this glory so fleeting! Surely it was! So why take pride--after all--what glory he might earn now, it might all be gone in a moment later, when the circumstances turned against him. Better not let his heart swell up in pride! he cautioned himself. He knew he had a long way to go, before he and his men returned home. There would be many pitfalls, toils, and snares in store for him in the sea-path ahead, he knew. The cheering was, for him, premature.
"Better a king's favor at the end, than at the beginning
That, he recalled, was yet another wise saying of his grandfather's!
With the cheers of seemingly the whole capital still dinning in their ears, garlands of flowers drapped around their necks, Becca and his men made it to their quarters in the Varangian barracks. The captive was with them, and Alexios was one who eyed him most closely, to watch his every move, since as a Greek who had suffered most from Musim Arabs he had good reason to distrust this one the most.
Becca and his crew supposed rightly. They were going to be rewarded handsomely for playing a major part in the triumph.
So how was the emperor to reward his imperial bodyguard, both Byzantine and mercenary, and his navy, and his Varangian auxiliaries? Banquets were arranged, with entertainment of music and dancing, a bag of silver coins awarded each navyman. But the ship of Becca received special largess from the imperial treasury. Gold coins instead of silver given out to each Varangian, and silver fittings were ordered by the emperor for their swords and shields. Besides this, each man received two new suits of clothes and unforms. Finally, the barracks of the Varangian guard was carpeted, the stone floors that were so cold in winter would not be much warmer to the the men's feet, and fine blankets were also dispensed to them from the imperial stores. The imperial kitchens were also ordered to supply meals directly to the Varangians, thrice a day, and no longer would they need their own cook, who was nothing so good as what the emperor's cooks could provide.
The fifty of course were very happy with all this, for the more they earned, the sooner they could return home with their earnings to live on the rest of their days. Becca too was pleased, for he was well treated besides all this, he received a double share as captain and commander. A special, private audience with the emperor was also arranged, so that the emperor could learn just how Becca had achieved such remarkable success with his ship, which had shot like lightning through the enemy fleet, leaving nothing but flaming hulks on the water along its path.
It was all done so quickly that Becca did not have time to look around at the imperial suite, but found himself facing a man in a private chamber with only two attendants present. He knew this had to be the emperor, as his escorting guards bowed low, then left them.
"I received news of your prowess even far as the Gates of Hercules and Sicilia, but you have exceeded them all! I am very pleased."
Becca was amazed. "How did you know of me, sire?"
The emperor smiled. "I could not be where I am without another army, one of sharp eyes and ears who go everywhere across the world, and tell me what is going on with the barbarians, so that we can be prepared here at home if they should come here."
Becca understood that very well, but Sicilia and Malta? That was a long way off! And he hadn't noticed anyone giving him special attention there.
The emperor noted that Becca was still a little doubtful.
"You took aboard a Greek, Alexios by name, at Malta, a slave from the market that had been captured by the infidel, did you not? Then in the battle today you took aboard a certain barbarian, of the infidel Mohammed's faith, did you not? His name is Hasayn, according to the report I have been reading just before you came."
The emperor glanced toward the table in the room that was stacked with scrolls and papers.
"Yes," he continued, "we know about you, more than you knew was possible, but that is not the point of this talk. My admirals and commanders are amazed at your successes against the enemy today. You put most of my commanders to shame. And though they are unhappy, I am most pleased. I wish not only to reward you specially, but to find out what gives your ship such an advantage over ours."
"Your majesty, I would be happy to tell you, but the building of my sea-steed was tedious from start to finish, and so would be the description of how it is built. It is the cunning craft of my ancestors that made it, and I followed their wisdom in every part of it until it was finished. We do not rush the craft, it has to be done right with much care, and then it will all fit together perfectly and do what it is supposed to do."
"But it can't be only your ship, I believe it has to do with your leadership as well. Tell me, how did you come to this great fighting ability of yours that afforded you such an amazing, swift progress today right through the heart of the enemy's fleet?"
Becca was embarrassed by this point. "But," he protested, "my men could not be held back a moment longer! When they saw the massed ships of the enemy ranged against us, their good Danish blood boiled up and they all itched for this fight! And I fight no differently than my ancestors or my brother Danes. I am no different from them. We were all raised since boyhood to cast aside our fears and wield the ax, the bow, and the sword, and to ride the steed of the sea."
The emperor smiled again. "It is clear you learn your lessons well, Commander--for I am making you commander of the auxiliaries, whether Varangian or anybody else from among our confederates and allies."
The emperor glanced toward an aide, and he came forward with a chain and gold medallion, which he put on Becca's neck.
"I am greatly honored, Your Majesty," Becca responded.
"And moreover, I direct you to go to the arsenals and ships to instruct my shipwrights. Also I want you to teach my navy your seacraft that you learned back in your homeland, which enables you leave the formation of our navy and to dart in and between the ships of a massed fleet while you do it the most damage. You were so swift they could not touch you! I myself was watching you from the palace tower!"
Becca's interview, with a few more words, was soon over. But he was shown every courtesy as he was escorted out of the palace, the gold chain and medallion from the emperor signifying he was a naval commander shining on his chest.
These Bulgars were barbarians like so many others, no better, no worse, but ungovernable, it was thought, so the emperor wanted them driven out. Becca was to prevent them fleeing by boat from the scene of the next battle along a big river. Though beaten, they could still swim to safety, then regroup to attack the emperor's army again. No, they had to be completely crushed and all of them either killed or rounded up, to break their barbarian spirit and force their chieftains to negotiate.
Knowing that this was their last time in some weeks ahead before they would enjoy a comfortable, warm bed again, the men retired early and were fast asleep. Becca made a last patrol of the barracks, saw that Hasayn, his Moslem captive, was asleep in the small chamber with a guard posted nearby, and then retired to his own chamber. The carpets for his chamber were rolled up outside, ready to be installed when he left for the northern campaign.
A torch or two was burning in the hallway where the carpets lay, but no guards were posted, as everyone was trying to get as much sleep as possible for the next day. The carpeting began to stir, however, and something crawled out, then slid along the floor to the doorway of Becca's chamber, and pushing it open very slowly, slid in like a silent shadow.
Becca felt a body crash down on him, and he fought awake and began to fight for his life, but realized his assailant was not moving. But there was a second assailant he faced next, and he felt a knive plunge into his shoulder. That was all he needed to respond, with a ferocious kick that sent his would-be killer smashing against the stone wall. The man gave a cry and slumped own. Becca staggered away, holding his shoulder with the assassin's dagger still in it, and reached the hallway, and got a torch. He called his men, who leaped to his aid. And together they returned to his chamber, and the entire story was now revealed. The man on his bed was Alexios--dead! He had bled to death from a knifing wound in his back. But the other? Hasayn, who was lying unconscious, but badly hurt from his head wound, crumpled against the wall.
Becca seized Hasayn with his hand and shook him. "What were you doing, attacking me like this?"
Hasayn's eyes rolled in their sockets, but he seemed to remember Becca and what he had tried to do to him.
"I hate you, infidel!" Hasayn mumbled. "Allah Akbar! May the Caliph be avenged!"
Then his eyes closed, and Becca knew he was dying.
"Wait, why did you strike me, when I spared your life? I showed you mercy, Hasayn!"
A sneer apppeared, logsided, on Hasayn's face. "But-- but you knew I was a snake, master, when you spared me. If I bite you, an infidel, it is your fault, not mine! This way, I go straight to heaven as a hero, don't you see?"
Letting Hasayn fall, Becca stepped back, still holding his shoulder, but with a cloth pressed hard against it to staunch the blood. He had already extracted the dagger, and called for the naval doctor to be brought, then sank down on the bed where Alexios lay.
He knew now what had happened. Alexios, whose name Alexios had told him once meant Protector, had thrown himself between Hasayn's dagger and himself, having crept in during the night just to make sure of his master's safety. He had been lying at the foot of the bed when Hasayn entered like a gliding dark shadow. He did the only thing he could, since he wasn't the superior in arms that Hasayn was and couldn't stop him any other way.
How had it happened that his guard let Hasayn get away? Becca wondered. He had to find out, even before the doctor arrived. He could have sent a man to find out, but wanted to see himself what had happened, and question the man if he were still alive.
But Torkel was not going to answer any questions, Becca found. In the light of his torch Torkel lay on the tile, his throat slit with his own knife.
So he went and laid Torkel's knife down by his body, and then covered him with a fine blanket.
Could he take the body home, or bury him in this foreign land? And Alexios? Shouldn't he find a metal-lined coffin for him, and take his body to his family and relatives on his home island? They would want his body for burial, surely. What to do?
His mind whirling, and feeling throbbing pain in his shoulder, he returned to his chamber to avoid the stares and remarks of his crew. He wanted to be alone more than anything, to consider his own thoughts and what he must best do for both Alexios and Torkel. As for the treacherous dog Hasayn? Let his carcass be dragged out and burnt in the city dump with the other carcasses of dead things hauled there! The sooner the better!
And he thought how he had tried to treat him kindly, to bring him around to a loving, forgiving Christ rather and away from own cruel desert god! It had not worked with the likes of Hasayn-- he had used his kindness only to try to kill him, and taken away poor Alexios's life and Torkel's too--two brave men he and his crew would sorely miss in the days ahead!
The doctor came, glanced at the bodies of the two dead men in the chamber, then ignored them--for the dead did not require his medical attention--and treated Becca's wound, and the news was not so bad. The dagger had struck a bone and not penetrated deeply into his chest, and if it had, he might have suffered a punctured lung and bled to death, as his servant no doubt did. But now he would mend swiftly, if all went well. The doctor cleaned and cauterized the wound, using the ointments he brought and the dressings and bandages as well, then gave final instruction to not disturb the wound and to rest as much as possible while the mending proceeded. If anything seemed amiss, he was to be called at once. The doctor took his leave without mention of pay, as he was on the royal staff, attending only the strategoi (supreme imperial commanders), and came to Becca's aid because Becca had been put on the list by special imperial order--a sign of how good an impression Becca had made on the emperor!
Becca heard quite a lot more than this from the doctor--somewhat more than he knew what to do about. The doctor was outspoken, in fact, about the emperor, Constantine VI by title, of the Isaurian dynasty that had ruled since 717. So valued was a court doctor, he knew he was not expendable. Of noble blood, powerful enough to command his own imperial guards when he cared to take them along, he cared nothing about spies and what they might report about what he said, and so was immune to anything they might do to trouble him. He told Becca that the emperor needed all the friends he could get at this time, even if they were barbarians in his employ, as he had quite run out friends among his own countrymen after just a few years. He had begun reigning at a young age, for he was now only 26 years of age, though he looked much older. He had aged particularly fast in several years, after cutting the tongues off four of his father's brothers upon accession and blinding Alexios Moselle, the esteemed and popular Armenian general who was in charge of all the imperial forces. That had greatly angered the emperor's Armenian allies, who had put him in power against his own mother's wishes (who exercised the imperial power herself alone during his regency), and he turned on them and crushed them most cruelly despite the great favors done him by them. With his military in disarray due to his treatment of the loyal Armenians, his first major foreign enterprise had failed badly, sending an army out to the north which was then defeated by Khan Kargan of the Bulgars, thereby exposing the entire northern themes to massive Bulgar invasions. What had he done that had not weakened the empire and divided it? Diplomacy might have saved the say with Khan Khargan, for the Bulgars were like any crude, illiterate and ignorant barbarians and lusted for gold more than lands that required careful and laborious tillage to produce their grain and fruits, and he could have been bought off and an imperial army saved from defeat, losing forces they sorely needed to push back the Arabs encroaching in the south and east. To make matters even worse for the realm and for his own throne he had divorced his wife, Maria of Amnia, and married Theodote his mistress, hoping to get a son from her, as Maria was childless. This angered the people, because Theodote was unpopular with them and Maria was much loved for her charitable giving and piety. How long would he reign? was the question. How long would the Dowager Empress Irene, his mother and the widow of the late Leo IV the Isaurian, his father, permit the son to ruin the whole country like this?
There were certain rumors going about, that the empress, Irene of Athens, was very restless of late, and was being sought out by many great patricians, nobles who were some of the most powerful in the realm. Perhaps, they would be able to do something, to rein in this emperor from making further mischief for them all? Like the barbers, the doctor knew everything too, for he was in contact with everybody who was somebody--and so his patient was spared nothing!
Shaking his head over the follies of the young emperor, the doctor went away, leaving his patient to mull over all these things along with the deaths of his two servants.
After hearing what the doctor said, now Becca was unsure that to continue with the emperor was perhaps not such a good idea. Wouldn't this latest campaign fall flat as the other had? Greek fire had saved the day against the Arabs on the sea, true enough, but on land the Bulgars had proved a match for the best imperial army sent to drive them back north. However vital the sea lanes were to the realm, the land was just as important, or even moreso, since an empire needed lands, plenty of them, to support the whole apparatus of state and the royal throne and household and capital. With the drastic shrinkage of the borders caused by the Bulgars, how long could they absorb such losses in territory and still continue to fend off enemies that ringed the realm on every side?
But Becca had first to consider hiw own strategy and particular priorities. Was it time to call an assembly of his crew--to determine how they might think about this imperial campaign against the Bulgars and their own role in the Varangian imperial bodyguard?
He thought about it in the remaining hour or so before dawn, lying on the side of the bed where Alexio's blood had not reached, unable to sleep, and interrupting his thoughts to give orders concerning the bodies of the dog-assassin and his own two friends.
This seemed a boon to the refuse handler, and he readily agreed to the task. So Hasayn was wrapped in some old carpet and hauled off in the dump-man's hand cart, and then disposed of where dead dogs were carted and dumped into shallow graves. With some such unfortunate dogs, Hasayn shared his grave.
At nightfall, the city's wild dogs crept out of their dens and made for the dumps that lay outside the walls, though there was one inside, the first such dump of the city that was still being used.
Inside the walls, the dogs had found enough holes to hide in during the day, lest they be found and driven out of the city or killed where they were hiding.
A hundred or so of these soon scented the fresh burial, and began furiously digging to get at whatever lay beneath the shallow topping of dirt.
Ringed by the beaten dogs, the victor tore at the cadavers.
When the dust cleared a bit, and the sky lightened enough to make some things out, the bodies had disappeared, and instead all anyone viewing this grisly sight could see was a mass of moving haunches, bolt upright tails, and hairy rib cages and the only sound, crunching jaws as they devoured Hasayn, part by part, and then got to gnawing his bones, including his detached skull. When these dogs were finished, there was little left for the rest of the pack--some fingers and toes and palms of his hands, some ribs and pelvic bones, and of course the flayed skull with the staring, lidless eyeballs. But the moment the top dogs slunk off, their bellies dragging, the rest scrambled in, and the whole process was repeated, with initial madcap fights and chases and contests as to which dog got what delicacy. Yet there wasn't nearly enough for them all, of course, so they were left hungry, their bellies paining them, and then they did what they always did, they sat back and howled. But not to much or too long! They were creatures of the night, and nothing but beasts, but they were cunning in their wretched lives of surviving in such a place, and so they knew that men with swords might come if they made too much of a fuss and hunt them down relentlessly with torches and hunting dogs--so they too, after a little howling, slunk off to their dens as soon as it grew too light to safely forage.
Now all that was changed forever! He also took the carpet that was made Hasayn's winding sheet (the same he had hidden in), which was still a new salable one, coming from the imperial palace's own carpet factory. In the main carpets emporium it sold immediately for a substantial sum despite some blood stains that needed cleaning with cold water. Now Claudius had more money, and putting the two sums together he purchased a strong, young donkey to draw his cart, and thus rose to the status of professional carter. Claudius the Carter! He could now leave the nasty smelling, filthy work of refuse handler for the dumps forever and take his place among the other carters and bid for the day's business at the countless wharves or among any the teaming markets and shopping avenues he chose to operate in. Yes, there might well be some vigorous opposition by the established carters who might not like newcomers like Claudius, but in this big a metropolis they couldn't control all the cartage trade and so he wasn't one to be put off easily, he would just keep at it and wedge in sooner or later and no one would put him out. After all, heaven had smiled on him, and he knew it! This was his golden opportunity, and he was thankful to God for it--being simple and uncomplicated in his mind and thinking and so more clear about what is a true blessing from God and what is not. Now, being on the rock bottom, the only way he could possibly go was up!
Now he and his valiant fifty were warriors in liege to Charles the Great himself! Salaried too! They didn't have to wait for a campaign to be concluded before they began drawing pay from the treasurer of the court. The administration of the Frankish crown was most efficient too-- paying promptly on time in either Frankish coinage or imperial East Roman byzants.
Charles the Great had lands sprawling across most of the world, so there was opportunity for service in many different places, most of them accessible to ships such as Becca's, via the coasts and the many intersecting rivers that flowed to the the various seas, north, west, and south.
Charles's realms stretched, in fact, from the environs of Dane-land to old Roma, and from Brittany in the far west to the Goths and Huns in the far eastern marchlands of Scythia and the Kingdom of Kiev and Novgorod. His capital was a roving one, but often he preferred residence in Aachen, his chosen capital city and where he had built a splendid palace for himself and his court, with heated floors, as the Romans had done, and a swimming pool indoors. Yet the great king was restless, and couldn't be held there for long, and would set off, from one part of his realm to the other, fighting and subduing enemies along the borders, even adding to his territories. For this reason, he was always seeing good fighting men, Frankish or some other tribe, for his armies.
Becca could hardly believe his good fortune. Leaving instructions and money for the coffins of both Alexios and Torkel's bodies, his shoulder wrapped and bandaged, he and his men had gone dutifully to the front against the Bulgars, not with enthusiasm after the doctor's revelations to him about Constantine VI's cruelty and unpopular mistress-wife and his mistreatment of his friends and allies, the Armenians. But after he threw the question open to his men, whether to obey the command or not, and listened to whoever wished to speak out, he decided they still must fulfil their contract with the emperor, whether he was a good ruler or not. So far the emperor had not mistreated them, and seemed to trust them above his own people. How could they, the Varangian Imperial Guard, let him down if he counted on them so much as that? It would have been a base thing, to Becca's mind, to betray the emperor's trust. No, they had better do what they had agreed to do, but after this campaign, then they could reasonably move for a change, or even decline further service.
So they had gone up in the ship, passed through the Bosporus channel, and sailed with other ships of the imperial fleet, to the great river that divided the northern territories. The lands south of that river were still safe enough, but the Bulgars has ravaged all those north of it. It was somewhere along that riverine border that a challenge would be made to the Bulgar khan and a battle fought to decide things. His duty, he was instructed by a strategos, was to remain in the river with his ship and men, and pick up any Bulgars attempting to flee by small water craft. The objective was to administer as crushing a defeat as possible, to discourage the khan of the Bulgars from attempting further attacks on the empire and to sue for peace. If they could capture the khan himself, but that was not hoped for, since the Bulgars were adept at fleeing away, if the battle seemed to be turning against them, on their swift Scythian ponies and then regrouping somewhere else in order to once again attack. That was the Sychian mode, which usually prevented their being totally crushed once and for all. Mobile, more mobile thant than the imperial forces, they carried little or no baggage, and thus could carry on this way for some time, while the imperial forces were worn down in chases that turned up nothing more than empty air.
How was this battle going to succeed any better than the last major campaign that failed? Becca had wondered. The strategos had anticipated the question anyhow, and he didn't need to voice his misgivings, fortunately.
"This time we have much gold to show them, for bribery, to get them to agree to peace, so they will have their eyes on this great amount of gold, and that will keep them all close enough. At a certain time in the parley, we will make a surprise attack on them in all their camps with another army coming from their rear. We must do everything with utmost secrecy of course, as they have their roving scouts watching our movements at all time, just as we have our sentries watching theirs. But the terrain we have picked is ideal for hiding our own forces for the rear attack of their camps while we engage them in the diplomacy with the promise of much gold."
This seemed a very crafty and daring plan to Becca, but one with good possibility to succeed. It had made his blood race to hear about it. Who had thought of it? He thought it sounded very Danish to him.
Perhaps, there would be a victory over these formidable Bulgar hordes after all!
He felt better after his private conference with the imperial commander-in-chief, who had no idea that Becca's shoulder was bandaged up, being hidden by his wolf shirt. Becca could see the strategos had not held back anything substantial from him in the plans, and his own part was laid out in a clear way. He was not asked to do impossible things, or foolhardly things that would probably lead his men into disaster. What he was commanded to do was quite acceptable. After all, the Bulgars were attacking the empire's territories in the north, spreading fire and ruin everywhere, looting, raping, taking everything they could get their hands on that they liked and burning the rest. These were nothing but savages, and must be stopped, so there was good reason to stop them now if they could. And it seemed now they might do just that.
So he and his men proceeded to the campaign ground along the river, then anchored where he was told it would be best. A line of ships were strung out for several miles, to make sure they could catch as many Bulgars as possible that were pushed into the water by the fighting on land. Even these good swimmers, as they were reputed to be, would not be able to swim fast enough to elude Becca's and his men's good, flesh-biting arrows!
For days, however, after they anchored, nothing happened, and Becca's shoulder had more time to mend. The Bulgars showed up late to the parley they had agreed to hold with the imperial delegation and the strategoi. When they did appear, they did so haughtily, with a great show of their arms and numbers and powers. When that was over, the Khan Khargan stepped from his golden chariot and with hundreds of his best fighting warriors and commanders proceeded on foot to the tent of meeting.
It was a tense moment when the imperial legates and military commanders stepped forth to greet them. But the greetings over, things seemed less tense, and the negotiations commenced. Slaves brought out the gold for the imperial tribute. It was presented in baskets of false bottoms, so the endless baskets actually held far less than they did, but the sight was absolutely spell-binding to the Bulgars. None had seen so much gold in their entire lives, even from the sack of some 60 cities, and now they stood agape, lusting for the gold. The presentation concluded, the baskets of gold were stacked in sight of the Bulgars under guard, and the parley began.
The Bulgars reclined upon gold-enlaid ivory couches brought out to them. The legates reclined on theirs. Dancing Circassian girls performed meanwhile, with the dispensing of food and wine to the upper grades while the diplomacy went on.
Becca heard all this was going on through periodic reports from imperials, and so he waited, and waited. Meanwhile, he sense something was about to happen, for he was not even told beforehand, when the strike would be made, it was the utmost secret in the plan, which only the strategoi were privy to. One thing only would notify him of it: an arrow with a red streamer would be sent out from the shore, at various points along the shore. So he had kept his men's eyes on the shore, for it could happen anytime now, he knew.
What was that? It was the red-ribboned arrow, shot over their bow!
The battle had begun!
All Becca's men grabbed their weapons and stood ready at the oars, waiting for orders.
Becca had the ship oared into the river, just far enough so that any Bulgars escaping there might think they could get into the water safely in the boats they had hidden in the reeds (which the imperial forces had been instructed not to disturb).
Sure enough, after several hours, Becca and his men saw movement on the bank. A swarm of men fanned out over the ground, searching along the water's edge. Then boats began to appear coming out of the reeds, with armed warriors in them.
This was their moment to respond--and they turned the boat, put arrows to their bows, and at Becca's command, waited until the little boats loaded with Bulgars were within good shooting distance. Then Becca gave the word, and the arrows whistled to their targets. The boats were immediately in trouble, as the men in them rose up and then fell into the river, arrow-pierced. Unmanned boats began drifting with oars downstream. Becca had the ship moved closer to the bank, and then the swimmers were dealt with, all those who couldn't find boats.
Using up their arrows on them, they next waited until they could reach the swimmers, and then used their swords on them, or clubbed them with their oar handles. They cleared the whole area that was their responsibility. Then they went to the aid of the other ships, and helped them, one by one.
After an hour of this, fewer and fewer Bulgars ventured forth into the water, and ran back, or rode away if they had ponies.
Victory! it was time for the Danish and Norse victory shouts and chants! And they let them go--startling the imperials, who felt the hair rising on the backs of their necks, they had never heard more savage a sound as these chants and shouts of the northern lands.
The strategos came riding up in his chariot, got down, and Becca saw he was beckoned to come to land for a talk with the commander.
Becca did not think to take anyone. He left his men with instructions to wait, and he took the small boat aboard and slipped quickly to land.
The strategos had news for Becca, besides the great news that the imperial forces had routed the Bulgars, so decisively that Khan Khargan was expected to come and acknowledge defeat by signing a truce and even a peace treaty already waiting for him in the proper papers. He would be further pacified with gifts of gold, so that he would not seek revenge when he went back to his decimated forces.
Gold has a healing quality, everyone knew, among the beaten pagan commanders such as this great, proud khan--it would greatly mollify his wounded pride and make him think he was not as beaten as he was.
Becca noticed for the first time an ambassador, his riding cloak covered in the dust of long travel and held by a retainer, while the owner waiting for the strategos to make a sign to him. But the strategos dealt first with Becca.
He confided to Becca's ears alone: "I have no desire for you to speak with him, as you are under imperial orders and are subject to us, yet there is a further matter I shall convey to you after he delivers his message to you, about a change that has come about for the good, and which will directly affect you. So reserve your judgment until you hear what I have to tell you. Will you obey me in this?"
Becca agreed he would withhold his judgment until he heard from the strategos, his supreme commander.
Introduced formally, Becca found he was looking into the keen, dark eyes of Rauncifel, a count and ambassador of the Franks, come straight from the court of Charles the Great in Aachen his capital!
What could he tell them? So much had happened to him, to them all, and where should he begin?
The ambassador had an offer he had to take seriously, to go and engage himself and his ship and crew to the service of Charles the Great, with really extraordinary wages promised them. Charles the Great paid extremely well, for he governed most of Europe and received tribute from dozens of tributary vassal kings within his own empire. His treasury rivaled the treasury of East Rome, and perhaps surpassed it in holdings.
Then the strategos had divulged to him the most shocking news. The emperor, Constantine VI had been deposed, he was under arrest somewhere, and he had been blinded in both eyes, just as he had done to the loyal supreme strategos, the Armenian Alexios Moselle. His mother Irene, the Empress, was now supreme ruler, with much help from the Armenians and the highest patricians of the realm, and was soon to receive the imperial title, Emperor of Rome.
Would he, Becca, now declare his loyalty to to Irene as his Emperor?
A woman who called herself "Emperor?" A queen mother who was not content with her title of Empress, that she had to take a man's title too? Becca, though he knew little about how things were down in the Christian Empire of East Roma, somehow knew this was unprecedented, and that few woman would claim such a thing, unless they were very proud and also insecure. Something about this did not strike the right note, he felt. And the emperor, however bad and cruel he really was, why was he blinded, if this was a Christian empire? Why was he treated that way, even if he had treated others so cruelly? Surely, there was supposed to be forgiveness, according to the word of the Christos, which he kept wrapped against damp in seal skins in his locker aboard ship. In his tours of the capital, he had seen with his own eyes if the people actually practiced the words he had read, loving their neighbors as themselves, and blessing their enemies too with prayers and help in need, and he had seen many signs that the people understood and also obeyed the commands of the Christos. But why then didn't this new queen who styled herself "Emperor" rather than rightfully Empress? How could she allow or sanction her own son, who had sat on the throne, to be blinded and arrested?
It was the greatest decision he had been asked to make, to decide whom to serve, Charles the Great or the mother of the emperor he had contracted himself and his men and ship to serve.
So we will know if you decide to join with us as a servant of the Emperor Irene, if you set course to the capital. If not, you are an enemy, and I have given orders for any forces of us who sight you to attack and destroy you and your men and take no prisoners! Is this clear? Do you understand what I say? Say now!
He saluted the strategos, and then it was over, and they parted.
Now as he faced his men, he still had nothing he could say that would settle the matter for them.
So he took the boat out again, and set in it by himself out of sight of the ship. He drew near to the bank and tied up in the reeds, and sat, and then thought, why not pray? I need counsel from Christos himself! He will clear up my bewilderment and show me the right path. His written runes tell me this is so!"
Becca was so relieved, that the Lord Yeshua approved his own heart's desire to transfer to the service of the Frankish king, but he couldn't get something else out of his heart and mind. The bodies of his two men, what was he to do about them? They wsere still lying in the capital in coffins he had ordered brought to the barracks. What would become of them if he did not return for them?
But Becca could not obey. He could not accept this at all. Everything he was bred up to respect was trampled on, he felt. How could he disrespect the dead, especially the bodies of his comrades, Alexios and Torkel? They were as good as Danes! So he couldn't abandon them to be thrown no doubt to the dogs in the dumps just as the traitor Hasayn had been!
He returned to the ship, and gave command, and the ship turned back to the capital.
Then before they even sighted the ships of the Empire that cordoned the coast and the river's mouth, it happened, just as Lord Yeshua had said.
The sky darkened, and the sun was gone! It was a black sphere somewhere in the clouds.
Becca did not put to land at first, thinking it would pass soon, but as they sailed on, they must have passed the imperial warships, but saw none, though there were some small lights of lanterns shining above the water line at various points.
Should he go and seek them out? Becca wondered. But he felt a caution, and kept the ship turned toward the Bosporus, as they kept within hearing distance of the breaking waves on the shores of the Euxine Sea.
As for striking a reef or a submerged rock, they had to be most careful, and take the risk, if he were to keep going at night without even moonlight to light the way.
It was slow going, as they crept alone, with very little wind to fill the sail, so that they used the oars. The trip was more than twice as long, since they couldn't catch enough wind to speed them along.
The men aboard were increasingly restive and fearful, as the darkness continued the next day, and the next.
"Is this Ragnarok, the end of the gods and the world?" one man spoke out abruptly.
Many had been wondering the same thing, for they dropped their oars and were crying out for their families and those who had wives for them and their children, now that it was the End and they were caught in foreign waters so far away from home they despaired of ever seeing their loved ones again.
Becca had to step in, as he was losing the control of his own ship and crew.
He called an assembly right there on the open sea. He held up a lantern so he could be better seen.
"Comrades," he said as soon as they were gathered and quiet. "Hear Becca the Red, your sworn captain, and the son of Rasmus the Green-Eyed who was a sea-farer before me, renowned among the Danes! Riders of this fair sea-steed, I wouldn't lead you into danger or difficulty if there were no other way to do it. But our comrades Alexios and Torkel still remain in the barracks of the city, and we must go and retrieve them, lest something foul happen to them and they are dishonored. Can you allow that to happen?"
The murmur that followed was assuring. The men obviously agreed, that to allow the two comrades bodies to be abandoned and possibly dishonored, was beyond thinking. Honor for their fallen comrades was a first rule, was it not? They couldn't make an exception and hope that something better would be done for their bones, if it came to dying in some foreign place.
Becca pressed his point. "These days of darkness are the Lord's to end by His almighty hand, for He called them upon the earth for His own purposes to be fulfilled. But it is not the dreadful End the ancients of our peoples foretold, for the end this present darkness will come in a matter of days." He handed the lantern to Torwald, and held up two hands. "Count these fingers, that is the full number of the days that are left."
With that done, he concluded. "Now we shall sail on to the capital for our fallen comrades' bones. We must carry them to their homes. What say you all? Yea or nay? Speak now!" The men all agreed, not one holding back, that they should retrieve the remains of their two comrades.
Now Becca did not mention the word of the Lord concerning letting the dead bury the dead, and his men were left ignorant of that word.
The darkness of the blackened sun continued over the whole sea and the approaches through the Bosporos to the capital.
At the sea gates of the fortresses that guarded the Golden Horn, the fires of the lighthouses and at various seawalls were brightly lit. As there was no immediate threat from any enemy navy (the Bulgars possessed no fleet of warships), the harbor chain had not been pulled up. Approaching close in Becca's sea-steed was sighted and, after being haled and asked a few questions, allowed to pass unmolested. He berthed at the imperial military wharves, and his men got out as he inspected the ship before he himself got out. He was just stepping from the gangplank onto the dock when imperial guards rushed at him, and he was surrounded. His own men turned round in surprise, and would have fought for him evenso, but he shouted, and they dropped their arms, and they too were taken into custody. Arrested! What for? he wondered, as they all were led away to the prison.
Strange things happened as they were being led away, even stopping their progress forward. Crowds of fearful citizens jammed the squares, many carrying lanterns. Prophets, or men who thought themselves called to that holy office, had entered the squares and were exciting the already disturbed masses, crying out such things as, "Judgement of God for our wickedness has come in this great darkness that has lain upon us like a shroud for many days. A woman, Irene of Athens, who was wife to Leo the Khazar now rules instead of a man, and blinds her own son to do it? Foul deed this is, O People of the Holy Kingdom of the East Romans! Will you be judged for this? Rather, repent and escape the wrath of God for this foul deed in the palace of our rulers!"
Imperial officials and guards were furious of course with them, and would have arrested them, but the crowds were in favor of hearing them out, and so the authorities did not dare provoke a riot by arresting the men or cutting them down with swords or arrows where they had climbed up on church steps here and there to be better heard.
One of these prophets rushed down from his place when he saw Becca and his men being taken someplace by the armed soldiers.
He seemed to know Becca by sight.
"Harken, O people! Is this not the great champion of our city and realm, the foreign prince who came and led our forces on the sea to victory over the infidel?"
"Yes! Yes!" the crowd began to roar as Becca's name was passed along from those who recognized him too.
"He would make a great leader of us Christians and Romans, would he not? Take him up, O people, as your sovereign commander, and surely he will save our city and our homes and sacred places-- or continue with the usurper who sits on her throne of iniquity, her son's bloood on her hands!"
The crowds went wild, and there was no controlling them, as they rushed to grab Becca and thrust him up into view of the entire multitude.
Horrified, his guards rushed him right into the nearest building, barricading the doors with furniture. The tumult outside threatened to burst in the doors, but by this time imperial troops had arrived, mounted, highly disciplined, and they began to press into the crowds to disperse them. In the confusion, Becca's captors took him out a back way and then through alleys, avoiding the public squares, and the main thoroughfare, the Mesa, and managed to reach a guardhouse, where he was thrust into the prison and guards were set to repel any citizens that might force themselves in. But the citizens of the capital did not give up easily. They wanted no part of this queen mother, and the very idea of her taking the title "Basileus," "Emperor," away from her own son, by dethroning him and then allowing his eyes to be burnt out, was an atrocity not to be borne by a civilized Christian people. It did not take long before word was passed along of Becca's whereabouts. Even the guards were of various opinions concerning them, and many favored him above the queen, preferring even a foreign prince to her. After all they had had non-Greek foreign princes before become Emperor, and they served the realm and the Christian faith honorably and with courage. So what if he were Varangian? They had just had Leo the Khazar before the misguided young Constantine VI, and he had been a good Emperor, was that not true? The dynasty had been a good one until now, when it suddeny turned rotten and impossibly corrupt.
The commanders, viewing the tumult of the city that was swayed in Becca's favor, were of different minds too. Some favored taking up Becca's standard, others were for remaining loyal to the "Emperor" in women's robes, and others had their own favorites among the patricians of true Roman and Greek bloodlines.
One thing all could not ignore, however, was that the masses were wholly in favor of Becca the Varangian! They had to do something, come to agreement soon, or the city would dissolve into uncontrollable anarchy and widespread rioting.
The palace itself might be stormed, set on fire, and the Irene slain. Such things had happened before, and it seemed clear they were about to happen now in a matter of minutes or even an hour.
There were few words spoken, and no long speeches about the peril they all were in. If they continued to delay their decision longer, they knew they would have a complete insurrection, and worse might happen than the dethroning and slaying of the queen mother.
Where was the blinded son, the deposed emperor?
It was known by some of the commanders, who had taken a direct part in his arrest and the events that quickly followed, that he was already dead.
Yet they did not let the others know, for Irene had strictly commanded them to keep this secret as a state secret, or their lives would be required. The people must not know, she told them, lest they turn on me. Ignorance of him will keep them from doing anything rash, and his friends will be divided and unwilling to attack me until they know for sure.
So they remained silent, but it did not matter to the commanders of the realm. They had a more pressing matter: what to do with Becca, the people's favorite?
Becca soon found out what was to be done with him and his men and ship. A strategos, not the supreme strategos, but still a powerful ruler of the the theme that enclosed the capital, was escorted into Becca's cell.
Becca rose from the bare cot in the cell, and stood waiting. He had been listening to the shouts of the crowds gathered outside the prison and guardhouse, and they were growing ever more loud and boisterous with each passing minute.
The strategos got right to the point. "What is it you want, if we are to let you go free immediately?" the strategos demanded, foregoing the customary introductions and formality. "But we cannot turn you over to the people, it must be understood. You must leave the city at once!"
Becca thought fast, and he had no trouble deciding what he wanted.
He had no desire to become ruler of the Christian Empire of the East Romans! How long would he last, if the throne changed hands so many times and quickly as this one seemed to? Truly, it was set on water and sand, which cannot together make a firm foundation. He preferred his own people, the rule over his own ship which he himself built, and the company of honest men he had picked as the best among the northern tribes. What more could a sea-farer, earning his gold by service with his arms and valor, want than that? It was enough for him and his men! Yet one thing he lacked, his comrades' coffined bodies. He must have them before he departed.
"I will do as you wish, leave this place immediately, except I must have the bodies of my slain comrades, left for safekeeping in my barracks. Escort us safely to the ship, but I will not sail until we have our two comrades aboard, and a safe passage letter signed by your ruler, the mother of the Emperor! Nothing less will move me to leave this place. And if you should kill me here, instead of giving me what is justfully mine, the people out there will soon know, and you will have to bear their fury and all the consequences of that foul deed. So, let me have my life, my men's lives everyone, my ship, and my two slain comrades, and our freedom, as well as the safe conduct from your queen, and we will happily depart. As for our wages, give me what is fair, and...a cask of the Greek fire."
The strategos's face was ashen, as he had no problem with the other requests but never intended to let go any Greek fire. But the crowds would not wait. They all wanted Becca! He quickly nodded assent. "You have all your requests, including Greek fire. A letter of safe conduct, with the imperial seal, will be brought to you at the dock where your ship awaits you. You will be paid your wages. Your men will be brought out, every one. Your comrades too. Now to the ship! We will send for the safe conduct and your other requests delivered immediately!"
"Just one more thing to consider first!" Becca said, holding up his hand. The strategos's eyes were lit with anger at the delay, but he restrained himself to listen to Becca the barbarian Dane.
Becca continued, choosing his words carefully, as Mimir his grandfather had taught him when dealing with great and mighty men, "You must know that the king of the Franks has requested my service. As I informed the stragegos of the Bulgarian campaign just days ago, I withheld my decision, whether to serve under your new ruler or under the Frankish king's standard. Well, it is clear by now that my service here in the East is ended, is it not? I shall go to serve Charles the Great. But if he should hear that I have been slain by your soldiers on the way, either by sea or by land, he will be very angry, no doubt, as he sent an envoy expressly to me, meeting with me at your own imperial strategos's camp, so Charles will hear of this matter if my life is taken by you or any of my men is done any harm on the way to the Franks. is this clear? This safe conduct issued to me must be good all the way to his court, or you will have an enemy in him in defying him in this matter. So, along with the letter of safe conduct, give me the imperial standard to fly from my mast, one that has the crest of the emperor! Nothing else will do!
The furious commander nodded to this last demand also, and then left Becca after orders given to his keepers.
Asking the way along the coast at various cities, where they were well treated by local city officials and imperial commanders due to their safe conduct pass and the imperial insignia on the flag they carried, they made their way amply, even royally supplied, with provisions to Cyprus.
They located, by inquiring at ports, for Alexios's city. It had to be a shoreside city, by his own description, somewhere on the southern coast, so thatb narrowed the search. After several inquiries, the name Alexios, his description of his home and family, and the slave taking raid was remembered. They were led straight to the home of his family, and his aged mother and father happened to be home, with some younger brothers still present. It was not good news Becca brought, but a cause for many tears, though they had been resigned to bad news, ever since the raid.
Becca did everything he could to break the news gently, then called for the coffin to be brought, and he remained several days, as the body was taken and prepared as custom dictated in that city, and then a ceremony was held in the local church, and the bishop came to officiate, after hearing of the imperial-ensigned ship bearing the body of Alexios home to his ancestral home.
L A big crowd had gathered from the whole area, including a number of outlying villages in the hills, and so the bishop had a large audience to do proper respects to the dead.
Afterwards, at the graveside, Becca threw into the open grave his own tokens of love, and some Danish emblems of his own with the flowers of that district.
They returned to the ship, many villagers and townspeople and also the family following them.
Becca, before they cast off, gave the parents a sum of gold in a bag, enough to keep them well into their later years. "This is your son's wages, though I cannot repay all his service to me, for he was my friend too, not just my servant."
The trip to the north of the continent was not so happy as this one had been, even with the funeral. Torkel's body still lay in its coffin, and how were they to convey it there if the Frankish king was anxious to take them in service?
Becca was not sure what to do, sail to the northern territory first, Torkel's homeland, or later on after seeing to the Frankish king's request.
It was not wise to delay a king, his grandfather had cautioned him. "When these great ones wish to favor you, my son, it is disgrace or dishonor in their thinking and feeling, if you hold back a while to consider. Rulers and monarchs and great men will not take dallying to receive a royal favor as a compliment!"
Becca could not disagree, though it tugged hard at his heart not to return to the northern home of Torkel immediately.
But he thought of something. Could not he see to the request of the great king, Charles, then immediately sail north and deliver Torkel to his rest in his native soil? Perhaps, the king had need of his some service, in connection with a northern campaign he wished to conduct, and so he could do it without inconveniencing his new master and lord.
This thought lightened his heart, and he shared it with the men, who approved, though many by now hankered for a visit home after such a long sea-voyage and the hard-fought campaigns they had already fought for the East Romans.
Besides this, they had their wages in hand, which were more than sufficient, as the East Romans had been all too glad, their commanders and queen most of all, to get rid of them, that they sent them on their way with double the sum they had expected! All solid gold solidi too-- not one silver coin in the lot, though the Danes and northmen were most enamored of silver for jewelry and ornaments for their armor and sword belt.
To lighten the days for the men, music was a great help. They liked to hear his singing, and so he entertained them. He acquired a harp and began to compose new songs.
He sang of the slain comrades, and the grief of the people, and that their noble deeds would follow long after them.
That is what northern men preferred of course, as it cheered them to think that their deeds and sacrifices would not be forgotten by those who followed after them, among kinsmen as well as friends.
But after meeting with King Charles at his court, held in another city he had deep in the lands of the Burgundians whom he had added to his realm some years before, Becca began singing another kind of song. He had gained much experience of life, both in service to the East Romans, and now with the Frankish king, who was a noble king and paid him well and did not defraud him and his men of just wages or expose him to treachery of any kind, being a foreigner in his service and not a Frank.
It had happened as he had desired, the king sent forth his forces on campaigns against the Gascons, Magyars, Saxons, Lombards, Basques, Muslims, and others in a realm that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. There was plenty opportunity for thousands of mercenaries and paid foreign troops under his banner. And so when a force of footmen, mounted troops, and even ships was ordered to proceed agains the pagan Saxons of northern tribal territories still resisting the Cross of Christ, Becca saw his chance to carry the remains of poor Torkel home to rest at last in the soil of his ancesters.
So he did, and his relatives were greatly comforted, despite their grief, when Torkel's coffin was most carefully and solemnly carried from Becca's ship to the burial ground where his ancestors lay.
Again, Becca lay upon the coffin his own ornaments and other special tributes to Torkel, and with some northern flowers too, and then with a prayer given by a priest Becca had brought with him concluded, the soil was thrown on and the mound of stones erected over the grave site, with the customary chanting and weeping of the womenfolk, and the burning of a great fire all night long. He did not forget his duty to the dead man's family either, and gave them Torkel's wages, doubled out of his own gold horde. His family were well-provided for indeed!
Only when his duty was done there did he turn toward his own home and family, and hurried, as he did not know if his father still lived. He found him in bed, attended by his aged mother and especially by Ingmar, who was now in charge of all the household and the servants. Though his father had the best of care available, it was hard for Becca to find him bed-bound like this. Yet Rasmus was cheerful. He heard all of Becca's stories of the things that had happened to him with great interest. His eyes shone, as he heard the part where Becca was given service by Charles the Great."
"So you are now much closer to home--and we may see you again yet! That is the answer to my prayers. Perhaps you will even return here soon and take a wife and give me grandsons? That would make me happy enough to die!"
Becca assured him as best he could, "Well, that may be. The Lord is good to me. I have asked him for a wife He has chosen, as she will be the best wife that could be the mother of my sons and your grandsons! Is that not wise, father?"
His father nodded. The time was not long, that he could spent there, but it was enough, and then Becca returned to the service of the Frankish king and emperor, for he had been crowned Emperor of the Roman Empire by the pope in Roma.
He had his pick of the younger men who had proven their valor and character, but he tested them again, and took only the ones he most liked, who were agreeable in their persons and how they treated their companions.
He did not hold back his own faith in the Christos, and asked them if they approved such beliefs, and only the ones who favored them or took at least an interest walked onboard his sea-steed, for he could not afford any arguments and dissent to disturb the peace of the crew and ship once they sailed.
His was a Christian ship and enterprise! And God blessed him continually. How else could it be explained, that he prospered wherever he went, no matter how difficult the circumstances?
Becca, though he knew that Alcuin was a Christian Saxon, did not hesitate. This man's fame was now spread across all of the Frankish empire. He was spoken of highly everywhere, for the court of Charles had gathered the luminaries of the world, and culture and the arts and learning flourished as it did in few places of the world before or since. Only East Roma, the City of Constantine on the Golden Horn, rivaled the court of Charles for its wonderful scholars and learning.
Alcuin of York was the shining jewel of Charles' court, in fact. The palace school attracted princes from all the kingdoms of the realm, and their sons were educated there as well.
Becca went to see himself what this great man of letters, who could decipher any runes of any nation presented to him for translation, was like as a man. He found out that the kindly gentleman in the chamber of Alcuin was the one he sought, but not exactly the man he expected.
Alcuin seemed to be a bit surprised. "I was expected an older man, after all the reports I heard of you and your various campaigns, both for the East Romans and for our great King Charles!"
He gave Becca a smile, indicated a chair for Becca, then remained standing.
"One thing I did not learn, was how you came to serve both realms, or perhaps I should ask it this way. What took you from your ancestral homeland, which I hear is the land and isles of the Danes, and so far from it to foreign rulers. Why not remain at home as the Danes commonly do, and go on raids and such as they seem so fond of doing, attacking civilized places and sacking the cities and towns and even the churches? Are you not the same as them? Or are you somehow different?"
Becca was now a little uneasy. The man's questions were very probing. And they covered a lot of ground. It would not be easy to give him careful words. But he must try, or he would be showing disrespect to this great man of learning and wits.
Becca bowed again. "I fear you think ill of my countrymen, but I assure you they are not all the same as they are renowned. Some do not follow the path others follow, but another. I follow the Christos, my Lord and Savior, from an early age. With him, I cannot do the things common to Danes who do not know him. That is why I have gone in service to foreign kings, rather than remain home and only depart to go on raids for pillage and slaves."
Alcuin remained silent, eyeing Becca for a few moments. He stroked his thin beard too, and then turned away to look at his books and the new translation of the scriptures he was beginning for Charles the Great, which though Charles could not read would be read to him, as he had requested. Charles was not a Christian in all his ways, but he was leaning toward the conversion that Alcuin hoped for and prayed for daily, and he said so now.
This little picture of the older man's hopes for his employer and friend, the king, touched Becca. Then Alcuin turned back to him, with some more sharp questions.
"But you say you follow the Christos, which I cannot doubt you do. But did you not convert to Him when young, you say? How young in years were you? We in my homeland have suffered much from the Danes, grievously in truth, and continue to suffer much, as they have returned to attack the churches and the monasteries all round the isles of Saxon Britain."
Becca tried to answer to these questions as well. "You seem more than interested in my life, which is a compliment for me, a simple man skilled in warcraft, but I am somewhat bewildered. Why must you know so much? I am a soldier for pay and I try to do my job well by my lord, the great king, Charles, so does it matter what I did in my ignorant, heathen youth?"
Alcuin smiled thinly. "I suspect it might. Just where did you encounter Christ, and how? Can you tell me that at least, and then I will let you go."
Becca could not but give him what he sought, and he told him the trouble he had encountered in his own soul concerning the treatment of old men of the Christian churches they encountered on raids. It was that mistreatment that spoke most to his heart, that this was wrong, though the customs of his people sanctioned it somehow. He had not wanted to murder old, holy men, even if they were Christians, and so he had quit the raids for good.
"So you went on raids, well, which ones, and where?"
The moment "Lindesfarne" was mentioned by Becca, Alcuin froze and his features turned white. He was already a very pale man in his face, with so many hours spent at his studies indoors with only a lamp to light his lettering and his reading, but now he looked as if he were near to collapse. Indeed, he moved away from Becca and almost stumbed and fell, gasping as he went, "I knew it! It had to be! I felt it all the time. You were there--you destroyed the Holy Island! You are nothing but the worst, impious barbarian masquerading as a follower of my Lord! How dare you!"
Becca was appalled, but it was not as Alcuin had said. Yet he had to say something that would give the old man some comfort if he possibly could.
"It is true I took part in that raid, but I repented of it. Does not Christos have forgiveness enough for such as myself, a heathen Dane, with blood of holy men on his ax and hand? He forgave his own executioners, the Romans and the Jews, did he not?"
Alcuin stiffened, and he sank down on his chair, breathing heavily. His face was wet with tears. "Yes, yes, that is so. I am so ashamed that you of all people have to remind me of it. My own sins nailed the Precious Lord of Life to the cross! Not merely your own! I too am a child of His forgiveness and grace--a wretched slave of sin saved by the blood of the Lamb of God! But for him I would still be a heathen Saxon cowherd, on my way to eternal punishment for my sins and wicked heart, but his Gospel reached me, shot a dart into my dark, sinful heart, and I could not escape the light, the truth, the matchless love of Father God--so I surrendered my life, such as it was, to him, even as a small boy."
He rose from his chair, went to Becca, and took his hand, almost like a grandfather would his devoted grandson. "I was beside myself for a moment. Please forgive me my indiscretion and hasty word! You must come again, and we will converse on better terms, but right now I must rest a while, for the heart has been through much sorrow over the injuries suffered by my kinsmen over in my homeland, and they still continue without redress. Being allied with Offa of Mercia, his own daughter married to a son of Offa's, Charles will not add our Christian Saxon lands to his own, and bring order back again to the northern kingdoms. So if Offa will not do anything beyond the Humber River, they are open to attack, and are being ruined by the seafarers who come in their ships, hundreds of them, year after year. But even though that is so, I perceive you are true to the Lord and a man of truth, and so I want your friendship, and will you give it to me? After all, in Christos, as the holy scriptures instruct us there is neither Jew nor Greek, Saxon nor Dane," if I may say it that way!" Becca was impressed by the man's humility, and was even more assured this was a great man, who could be so forthcoming and sincere with him, a mere foreign mercenary, and a Dane at that!
Becca brought out the seal-skin covered papers he carried beneath his wolf shirt. How precious they were to him. As Alcuin looked on curiously, his eyes looked startled as he saw the first page--then they filled with tears!
"I cannot believe what I am seeing! Jesus, have mercy on me! This is from the Bible at Lindesfarne! How did you come by it, and the others I see you have here too?"
"They were my most precious possessions, and still are. My comrades were going to burn the books, but I rescued these pages, full of heavenly runes. They were translated to me by a boy from the chamber of the books, and in their runes I found the Christos speaking to my heart, and I was converted to Him and forsook Odin and Thor and all my native gods!"
Alcuin was again beside himself, but this time with joy. His face shone, he was so happy. "May I" he asked, and Becca let him take the pages and lay them out carefully on his writing desk. "May I keep them and study them for a while, and then deliver them back to your safekeeping?"
Becca thought, but he decided then and there, "No, do not return them. I carry the words now in my heart, and try to live by them, and you should keep them better than I can, for they were written in the place your heart loves most to this day."
Before the weeping scholar and man of God, the great Alcuin, could respond any more, Becca let himself out of his chamber and went back to his barracks, his mind whirling, but his heart glad. He had wanted to comfort Alcuin, but it had gone far better than he could have hoped.
An official hurried to find out, then returned to Charles.
"Just a northerner, a Dane, Your Imperial Majesty! One of your hirelings, he says. I believe he lately served in the forces of the East Romans, in the navy of Alexios the Isaurian, Leo's son, before being called here to serve you after Queen Irene's usurpation."
"But he's a mere heathen, an ignorant barbarian," another official who favored Venetian robes and refinement interposed. "Should I send him away, sire?"
The emperor frowned. "Are YOU a blockhead? I've not seen so fine a fighting man as this in a long time. He's my hireling, you say, and I didn't know it? Tell him to follow me out, and go hunting with me and my party, and I think we'll shoot something worth setting on my table. For days now all you've served up is wretched poultry and ham and fish, done up in Venetian dishes with all those fine sauces and pretty trickery--and how I crave a simple meal of game, red and meaty, fit for a real man! Anything less I vow I will throw to the dogs!"
The hunt was a great success, and thanks to Becca boar, two stags, and four wild mountain eyes were taken, enough for a grand banquet.
The emperor was very pleased, indeed, despite it being such a foul, cold, and rainy day that it hadn't seemed promising when they set out under the dark, hail-spitting clouds.
"The sun seems to want to shine on you alone!" the emperor remarked to Becca, warming his hands as they sat before a roaring fire lit in the woods while the game was being prepared for transport back to the palace. "I have something I wish to say to you."
Charles gave an order, and the courtiers all withdrew reluctantly from the fire's warmth, and then he turned privately to Becca.
"I have a special task for you. My commanders have not been able to reduce a certain Muslim redoubt in the southern mountains of my border. Just because it seems unimportant to them, they make all kinds of excuses why it still hasn't been crushed, but you won't give me any excuse, will you? You look like a man of action to me, and will do what I ask. Gascony is now within my scepter's reach, a tributary and vassal, but their king is not up to taking this fortress either. He requires my imperial forces, he claims, and I believe him, for reports tell me this citadel has never been taken from the Muslims since they seized it from the Christians of Spain. But unlike him, and even my commanders, I get what I want. So this is my plan. You will take your ship, and lead what ships and men I have to spare you, and take the river that leads up from the coast until you reach this fortress. You will not be able to miss it. Then proceed beyond it a ways where it seems safe enough to land, and hold the river at that point captive with your men and arms, let nothing proceed beyond you to deliver aid to the city. My land forces will then attack as planned, or I will cut their heads off on return! There should be no problem after that. We have superior numbers, and they are cut off from any hope of help from their people. We will have deprived the followers of Mohammed this gateway into my realm and slammed the door in their faces. Let them keep Hispania a while more, for I have lands enough here in the heartlands of Europa to civilize! My Franks grow quickly weary in foreign countries treading alien soil, and I cannot make them want to garrison it for a long period, so let the Christians that might still be there there fight and win it back from Mohammed's hellish hordes--for it is their homeland after all, not Mohammed's, and God shall surely give it back to them, if only we give him a little help!" Becca listened to this with excited interest, and could see this was a good plan. He recalled his own experience with the Muslims, and knew there was no real peace to be made with them, as they always used peace treaties to prepare themselves for a future attack in order to take yet more Christian lands.
"We can do it! When do we launch, Your Imperial Majesty?"
"That's the fighting spirit I like to see! At once, soon as you gather the ships under your lead and issue your commands. A navigator with maps my scholars have drawn will be granted you, to serve you on board your flagship. He will direct you exactly where you are to go. We also have interpreters for you, agile-tongued in the languages you will encounter. I know these followers of Mohammed! They are cunning and fierce, but they can be beaten by Christian men of faith and courage! My grandfather Charles, my namesake, stopped them from taking all of Gaul as they swooped in from Hispania. That was at Poitiers. They have not dared try that again. But this fortress in the mountains, called Sheep Fort or something like that, it could be used for such a venture, and I want my flag to fly there. Right now they use it only to send bands raiding into Gascony, but if the infidels perceive we are weak on our borders they will be emboldened to send an army sooner or later. Well, we shall smite them before they get such a fool idea again into their narrow infidel skulls!"
A man of action, who loved action more than much talk, Charles rose and seized an imperial standard and threw it to Becca, who grabbed it before it could fall.
"Hoist my standard from the tallest tower, the one they use to call Mohammed's wretched slaves to impious prayer five times a day! And after that, raise a cross up on its topmost point, and have the priests say morning and evening prayers, that no infidel ever again treads the ground beneath, unless he has come to convert to the mercy of Christ!"
Such a manly, straight-forward emperor! Becca was thrilled to serve him! He understood a fighting man and how to deal with him, he saw.
The banquet was a success too, thanks to all the wonderful game Becca's prowess at hunting had flushed out, but Becca was not long in his cups and did not stuff himself, taking all he could from the kitchens to his shipmates to feast on. Soon he was on his way south along the coast of Biscay's bay, also called Godolfo de Vizcaya, with his ship and men, heading a naval force of his own, once again a commander of warships!
Many rivers and streams ran down to the northern shores of Hispania from the mountains that divided Hispania from Gaul. His map-interpreting scholar located the one called Nive, a tributary to an even greater river in Gaul, but one that he needed to take him up within striking distance of the Muslims. With only a few stretches of rapids, that they worked through by pulling the ship with ropes, oars and sometimes even the sails proved sufficient on the calmer stretches, despite some swift currents now and then.
He found the fortress mountain city, the "Lamb Fortess" renamed Lion by its Muslim occupiers, set seemingly impregnable with its stone walls, cloud-piercing towers, and eagle-nested crag high above the river. Already warned by spies at the Frankish court of Charles' approaching army, the gates were shut tight, set with all the soldiers available, and preparations completed to resist a long siege of months and perhaps over a year--long enough to discourage the invaders with starvation, since the mountains were bare of necessities for such a large force as the emperor's. Besides all this, the big pack of wolves holding the Lamb Fortress were not content to just sit tight but would, at any opportunity, go on the offensive.
It seemed after encountering no resistance that the Muslims had not anticipated his coming, thinking that all they had to deal with would be the imperial army if Charles attacked them. This was all very well for Becca the seafarer. He could see that the city was land-based and set too high up to wield control of the river, so he proceeded without incident up the gorge, keeping his watch out for any surprises from the natives.
They passed beneath the remnants of a Roman bridge, that in the days of the Caesars once served a once busy road through the pass that led down to southern Gaul.
By then the gorge rose high overhead, the sides nearly meeting, and he called a halt, as the river had become a deadly trap. His map-scholar had not warned him of this! His map was showing itself a false, treacherous guide, for the high crags over the upper river could be taken by a few men and used to destroy his ships with dislodged rocks! Yet it was pictured as the lower river had been-- pondlike for the most part, with no such rocks overhanging it.
"Did you draw the River Nive on this map?" he demanded from the cartographer. "Yes, Captain!" the scholar said.
"Why then doesn't it show what we are seeing with our own eyes? You can see as well as I, this map has got the river's girth completely wrong! Here on the upper stretches we are squeezed in like olives in a press, not able to even hoist a sail or stand two oars together! It is completely changed from the lower Nive."
"But I was going by another scholar's map, sir, who claimed he had been here, and his drawing gave us a wide channel at this point!"
Who was this other scholar, and could his words and map be trusted? Obviously, it was a mistake of some kind, but maybe on purpose? Some Frankish courtiers and officials hated the Danes and called Danes self-serving barbarian trash, he knew. He just suspected he had been sent into a death-trap, perhaps by someone who envied him at Charles' court? There was no time to inquire into this, it could be done later on his escape, if they came out of it alive, that is.
But such questions were beside the point now. He had to take action very soon, or they might be attacked where they were and not be able to sail out.
His lookout shouted down to him, that he had seen a movement of someone, and it was a girl of all things, climbing down the cliffs like one of the native wild sheep or chamois!
Becca, despite the peril of the situation, waited, wondering what this signified.
The shepherdess turned out to be a Christian maiden from the area's original Iberian people, the Basques. She knew some Spanish, though her people spoke another language of their own, Euskara, which no other race after them knew, because it was the ancestral language of Eskual Herria, and they refused to teach their enemies their mother-tongue.
Are you from Laith? they asked her. Interpreted by one of the men given to him to do this task, the spirited maiden spat when hearing the name of the city her enemies had given it, and said her name was Alissa, while keeping her eyes modestly from meeting his or any of the men around them watching with great interest.
Her father, mother, and entire family were Christians, she continued. But they were called "Dhimmi," "people of the Book," the despised but "tolerated" class that was subject to the Muslims and not killed if they refused to convert, but they were heavily taxed and had to take only the most menial jobs that nobody else wanted.
The Fortress of the Lambs had been their home originally, and they had lived well there, but they had been forced out of their homes into crude shelters outside the wall. Her father was now only a shepherd for the iman of the city, such work being thought good enough for an infidel but not good enough for a Muslim.
Quickly, she told him of the grave danger he faced, while Becca admired her hair, which was like a cloud and fleecy and soft like a lamb's.
"They are aware of your presence, and are moving to kill all of you very soon with an ambush. Do not go further upstream, for they are waiting for you there, where they can surround you on all sides and keep you from retreating. That is why I am glad you stopped here. It gave me a chance to climb down and warn you. I led my flock along the gorge, hoping you would stop, and you did. How I prayed for this!"
Becca thanked her, and handed her some gold coins.
She shrugged, and would not take them.
"We cannot accept money for your lives. You are our guests, being Christians, sharing the same Lord and faith."
"But aren't you taking a great risk, coming here to warn us? Won't they punish you if they find out what you have done to alert us?"
She looked at him for the first time, directly in the eyes. "We know what these infidel invaders of our homeland can do. There is no baseness, no cruelty, no treachery they will shrink from, though they call their god "Allah the Compassionate." But we could not let you be slain, your heads cut off and your bodies fed to dogs, when you came to free us from their cruel yoke! If we perish, we perish, but some of our people will survive and will live here again as free Christian people! We all think that is worth anything we might have to suffer. We are the first people who ever abode in this country and tended its goodness. It is our country, and we should not be made to live as abject slaves in our own motherland!-- and certainly not when our oppressors are such low jackals and carrion birds as these servants of Mohammed that you have come to fight!"
At last, she disappeared from view.
"Now what?" Becca wondered. Should they retreat to a safer part of the river? That seemed the best course to take. He did not have time to issue his order, as a cloth-covered object was lowered over the cliff face on a long rope. Immediately, everyone grabbing their weapons and shields and staring up at the tops of the gorge, but they could see nothing, only the bag on a rope.
Slowly, it slid down the rocks and dangled within reach. Becca reached up and cut the rope and took the bag.
He looked in, his eyes widened, then set it gently on the deck and stepped away. The men came to look, some of them turning away, their faces showing they felt sick to their stomachs, despite the fact they were veterans of many conflicts and had seen many such things.
But this was Alissa's head, and she was a brave-hearted maiden, willing to risk her life for her country's freedom. For that her eyes were gouged out, her tongue cut off, and worse things done as well.
They were right about worse things. As they saw watched, hands and feet came sliding down the cliffs to land in the water, and last of all the trunk of her decapitated and defiled body.
Furious and horrified, Becca could not do anything to retaliate, as there was nobody in sight, and all his arrows would be wasted, bouncing harmlessly off the rocks, if they tried to punish Alissa's foul and cowardly killers.
He gave the order to turn back at once. They tried to locate as much of her body as possible, but the river's water were silt-choked and black, and they could see nothing.
But as soon as the river widened enough for him and his ships to avoid being stoned to death, he called a halt and he had the ships form a defensive ring.
There they remained, anchored just above the fortress, still able to stop any craft that came with supplies from either direction to break the siege.
Becca's two interpreters tried first one language, then another (and they knew six or seven languages between them), but it was Spanish that the youth answered to most readily.
From Spanish to Frankish words too the parley went, which Becca now understood to a workable extent, and so he learned that the youth was a younger brother to Alissa (who was eldest in the family) and his name was Ranorr.
His father would have come, he said, but his absence at home would have drawn the attention of the imam, who would have severely punished the entire family if he heard that the father had gone out to bring warning to the invaders of the traps being laid.
Becca questioned him further.
"What is it you want? How can we help you?"
"We want only our sister's body, as we know she has had to be seized and slain, as she has not returned with the sheep. They don't keep captive Christians, they kill them after they torture them. They would hack me into little pieces on sight if they caught me looking for her. Can you take me there in your ship? If we go by the usual paths, the imam's men will be waiting for us, for my father overheard the imam and his men plotting how to trap you."
It was a difficult thing to grant. But Becca nodded.
"Yes, I will take you there, but I must not hazard the ship, we must find some small boat we can use. It will perhaps not be seen if we go up at dusk. And we will go to the spot where we met your sister. But how do you think you will find her? All we have is..."
Those words and how Becca paused, unable to say the words, seemed to stun the brother, and now his eyes alighted on the bloodstained bag on the deck. By the expression in his face, he seemed to know immediately what it had to be.
But then he showed he was not sleeping. He was mumbling words, as if to himself, of an old prayer of his people's perhaps. But the words rose in volume, though his head remained bent.
"What is he saying?" Becca said, turning to his interpreters.
They listened in, and shook their heads at first.
"Must be his own Basque tongue," one said. "And nobody knows how to interpret that!"
"No," the other said. "he is now using other words, it is a speech I know, Alani, a dialect brought south by the tribes--which I learned from what my nursemaid, who was a tribeswoman and slave in our household, and she taught me as a little child. That was years ago, but I can just barely make it out, what he is saying."
"Your enemies are weighed in the scales. High and low, they are weighed, and they are both less than vapor and a breath.
"They shall melt away before you, my champion, like the burning sun on morning mist! Like misty vapor they will vanish away in the morning breezes!
"Be not afraid of them. I am your Strong Fortress, the Lion of Judah. I shall fight for you and the lambs, and you shall hold your peace.
"I will go before you and burn them up, and where they were, they shall all disappear.
"Veiled women afar off in their walled city will wait and ask each other, 'Where are our men? When will they come so we can divide the spoils of war?'
"They will wait, watching behind their latticed windows, cooing like doves, and then mourn, and grow old! "Their men will never return,
their wives and children will see them no more--for I the Lord have consumed them in my wrath, and wiped away these evil-doers from the earth!"
"What is he saying?" Becca said. "It sounds like poetry! Is he speaking these things to me?"
As soon as he said this, the youth's poetic utterances suddenly turned very direct and commanding, as if he were receiving orders from his superior officer!
"The son of Rasmus is in My hand, a skilled instrument of war I have devised, and I will give him my counsel, and afterward will receive him in glory.
"His enemies will not succeed against him, and their craft will be caught like a pot smashed and ground to powder between two milling stones."
"How?" Becca burst out, interrupting the youth. "If he knows so much, ask him how this is to be done, for we are in a bad way here!"
His answer was not tardy.
"He shall light the fire of the dragon, and the dragon will spew forth on all his enemies.
"They shall not be able to stand before him. He shall consume them, and they shall flee away.
"I am His God, I will not forsake him, and I will give him my mercy and grace, and he shall find, at the last, safe haven."
The Basque youth fell silent.
Becca looked expectantly for more. What he heard he struggled to understand. Was this a prophetic utterance he would do well to heed? He had heard of such things. But could it be trusted? Wasn't it just the ramblings of a poor fellow whose virgin sister had just been brutally torn apart, and who was racked with deep sorrow?
But the youth seem to divine his thoughts, and his jet-black Basque eyes shot open, and he looked up into Becca's emerald-green eyes with an unmistakable expression of utter urgency.
"They are coming! The Lord has told me! Prepare at once, for they will be here within the hour, with all their men, to destroy you utterly!"
"But what exactly does the Lord tell me to do?"
"You have heard him! Just obey Him! He said to turn the fire of the dragon against them! But first there will come something you can do nothing about. He will tell you what to do himself, in a little while he will tell you, but not here, not right now. I cannot tell you anything more. That is all He said to me!"
The youth rose, his expression changed from despair to courage and determination, seemingly not grieving anymore, and then dove into the water, before Becca could stop him, making swifty to the shore.
Becca watched him go for a moment, and the the revelation came! Of course! He had the dragon, he had the fire! As a kind of afterthought, he had asked the strategos for a stock of Greek fire to be put onboard his ship as part of the bargain for not claiming the throne of East Roma during the uprising. He had saved that casque of Greek fire, put it in a safe place in the keel, and wrapped it with a lot of wool and felt blankets to keep it from being jostled or struck. It was still there, buried under some folded tents and other supplies!
Becca giving orders, it was brought out most carefully, for it could blow up in their hands if handled roughly, and the prow's system was still there as it had not been removed when he quitted Constantine's City, due to the confusion and haste of his departure.
Would it still work? The ship might be blown up the moment they tried using the system.
There was nothing for it. They had to try it.
As fast as they could, they connected the parts, and the casque of Greek fire was attached to the siphon which in turn fed the liquid fire out the mouth of the prow's dragonhead, with the bellows working to spray it at a selected target.
Would burn them up instead of their enemies? They had no time to practice. The attack of the mountain Muslims was probably going to start in a matter of moments, they all sensed, for by this time their instincts for such times had been sharpened to a fine point by much practice and experience.
This done, the men grabbed their weapons, laid them close by their oars and sat, breath bated, waiting for Becca's next orders.
In whatever time he had, Becca used every moment he might have to the full. He stood, holding up Charles's royal standard for the first time, getting their full attention instantly.
"Comrades, I speak not as your captain only but speak my heart and my blood to you to you and your heart and blood! These are my deepest words. If you thought yourselves strangers and intruders in coming here, you are not strangers and aliens. We are invading no honest man's house and taking no man's possessions that are rightfully his! These people in the towers on the height above us are robbers, they came and took away everything from the rightful people. You know two of them now, and see how they fare here! Know that our enterprise here is just in God's holy eyes! We shall fight for these oppressed people, with the strength and craft that our God has given us! These people are Christians, made slaves by the Mohammetans! It is time to take back what is theirs and return it to the rightful owners! Since they do not have the power, we can help them! Think of your own homes and families, would you not do it for them. Well, these folk are also under our charge, to do them as much good as we can!"
He had drawn his sword, and now he raised it into the air. All his men did the same, and they echoed him, saying, "May the mighty sword of God set them free this day!"
A surge of something like joy swept through every one of the fifty, and the interpreters and map-scholars as well! It was a thrilling moment, though it was the most dangerous of places to be, and much harm and death could still flood down upon them shortly.
Indeed, it was a flood of a different kind that now threatened to loose its fully fury upon them-- the surprise precursor of the expected attack. This was no brief run-off from a thunderstorm, for the sky was clear. The waters had to have been deliberately dammed upstream by dislodging masses of rocks into the narrow channel, enough to create a mass of waters that when they broke over the top now rushed furiously down to engulf them.
If they had been in the narrow gorge, of course they would have been smashed to bits instantly. But, thanks in part to Alissa's warning, here, in the wider channel, they stood a chance, though how much a chance, only time would tell.
Becca heard the roaring sound in the gorge, almost like thousands of bulls in a stampede, and the crews of all the ships, froze as they heard the same thing. The river, though the water in its channel had sunk unusually low, was coming with all its pent-up waters in one big wave! Even as they heard it, it was passing the Great Stone Face, chasing terrified swallows before it.
The only problem was, would the Greek fire explode when the first big waves struck his ship? He and his men would all be incinerated in a huge explosion. He didn't have time to warn his men--he had to think of the other ships first.
He shouted again, for the ships to move clear of his ship and each other. They all needed room if they were not to be thrown and smashed against each other in the surging floodwaters.
Frantically, the other crews worked their oars to obey him, increasing the spaces between them as much as they could in the sharply reduced depth.
"All ships face toward the flood!" he shouted. "And every man ply his oar hard, and run fast at the approaching water and keep oaring even on the crest of it if we should escape overturning, and keep at the oaring lest we all be swept downstream and smashed against the river banks!"
Would it work? He had no idea any part of his orders would save them from being swept away and destroyed and drowned, but they had to try. But even if they weren't drowned, would the Greek fire explode when the waves struck the ship a terrific blow and threw them backwards? What could keep it from igniting in the violence that would soon engulf the ship?
through the dragon-spawning sea,
out of sight of land and hearth...
my faithful Lord,
his eyes were watching me.
"My mast stands tall,
though the ship is storm-tossed,
I cast no anchor,
though the sail is torn.
I still plunge forward
on my bucking steed,
my mast stands tall
inspite of the storm.
"I've known great applause and golden horns spilling king's honey mead,
and I've owned flocks merry in the grass.
I've even held jeweled treasure in the palms of my hands.
But as such things go,
they slip right through,
from my fingers they spill like mere grains of sand!
"I have been young,
my strength the envy of many a man,
and there's been glory my arms have won.
But it was in the darkness,
when my rudder lost her way,
that's when my Lord proved his love to me.
My mast still stands,
though my sea-steed grows weary,
my mast still stands
though the sails are patched.
I have searched for safe haven
as the waves mount higher,
but my mast stands tall,
inspite of the storm."
But was it her Sailor?
But would he find someone suitable? He had left his homeland when it was in sad straits, its men of war mostly all slain on Saxon shores, and the few that were left but pitiful remnants of the once proud Danish stock. The women were better, much better, but then he was not looking for a wife, he was young and wanted to test his strength and warcraft against others in the great outer world, seeking his fortune under the banners of whatever great kings he found there. And he had found what he sought--more or less. With the Emperor of the East Romans, to start, then under Charles the Great, for whom he fought most of ten years. But Charles was aged, and no longer campaigned, and his sons were poor fighting men, so before things turned sour for him, Becca decided the time had come to depart.
His ship needed much repair, and the Frankish carpenters he employed never quite seemed to get their repairs right. He wanted the best work only, but whatever he paid he could not find the skill only fellow Danes possessed.
And he had not married--though many in his crew by this time had taken wives, some of them foreign, while others were waiting for them men to return home someday, to greet children that were years older than they had left them.
Becca had no idea what he would find, but he went to see for himself if there was the woman he wanted in his homeland.
He had the ship drawn up, and tied to the sagging wharf that many years before he had sailed from. Besides the racks of drying cod, he observed the few men and boys working at various craft nearby and repairing an old boat, and they exchanged glances, but nobody recognized him, and since he and his men were so heavily armed, no one challenged him either.
He called out to a boy, and the boy seemed surprised to hear a stranger using the village's own dialect that told him immediately here was a native son returned home.
The boy came to him most reluctantly, his uneasiness showing in his manner, but he came. "I am the son of Rasmus the Green-Eyed. Remember him? My name is Becca the Red. I am his youngest son, and the only seafaring son he has left."
The boy stared at him blankly without a flicker of recognition in his eyes.
Becca tried again, more simply with the oafish boy. "Call your father or your elder brother, son, and see if he knows these names I've given you. Do you think you can remember them, 'Rasmus' and 'Becca'? Now before you forget, run!"
The boy did not hesitate to do what he already wanted to do, run for his life, as he was eyeing Becca's sword the whole time and also the weaponry of the non-Danish speaking crew looking on.
Becca had a good laugh, while wondering if all the boys in the village were grown as dull-edged in wits as this one. A short time later, however, a man came hurrying down from a house in the village.
He shaded his eyes, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing, then stopped, and shook his head. Then he ran to Becca, holding out his hand to him.
"Welcome, welcome back to your beloved village home!" the man cried. "Yes, yes, we know who you are! Forgive my boy! Such a little dolt, he knows nothing at his age! He said somebody fierce as a wolf and calling himself Rasibec had come to kill all of us and burn our houses down! Perhaps a few more whippings, and he may get a little keener in his head? But do you remember me? I am Oddney the Oat-Eater! You know, they called me that because I loved my oat mush more than the cooked barley everyone else ate! Well, I still eat oats and let the barley go to the cattle! Ha ha!"
A good natured fellow, he laughed at himself, as he grasped Becca's shoulders, while taking stock of Becca and his crew and his ship.
He suddenly grew more sober. He bowed somewhat too to Becca. "I see you are no longer that youth who left us so long ago. You have become a man of noble parts, a veteran of experience, and perhaps you be carrying back some hoard of treasure too?"
He grinned and rubbed his fingers together.
Becca laughed. "Yes, I have fought in many battles for some great kings, and they paid us well. But what of it? Do you wish to enter my crew and fight and receive some reward for it perhaps?"
"Oh, no! I am too old for sea-faring now, but I was just wondering..."
He glanced toward a certain house and window higher up on the ridge.
Becca sobered and his eyes narrowed. "Are you talking foolishness, man, and playing a silly game with me? What do you mean, someone is waiting for me? Who could that be? When the village fell into poor straits, my father and I gathered up our entire household and stock from here years ago and moved across the waters north and west of here! We abide among the northern tribes that allowed us to settle amongst them. I went seafaring with my own ship and crew. This is the first time I have seen my native village since our departure. Who could possibly be waiting for me? This is absurd, what you are saying!"
The man bowed low this time, sweeping his arm up and pointing toward the house he meant.
"Ah, the little fair one is this minute at her window, gazing upon you with a fast-beating heart in her fine bosum... she is faithful, that one! But go see for yourself. This is for you to decide. Maybe you are the one she turns every suitor away for, but maybe not! She might wait too long for her chosen one, and end up without a mate in old age--but she has a mind of her own, a mind of her own, that one!"
Becca wasted no more time on the talkative Oat-Eater.
He climbed up the little hill and paused at the gate of the house.
A wattle fence and bolted gate kept him out, but the goats that ran freely within the enclosure were better than fierce watchdogs and gate bolts. They wouldn't let anyone come in without being horned in his groin, if they could help it.
So he waited, and someone opened the cottage's door, and Becca thought he saw a woman's skirts.
Without a word, the mistress of the house walked to the gate, her eyes meeting his fearlessly.
You are welcome," she said simply. "Will you come in and dine with me? I am just now preparing a meal."
Becca glanced toward his ship, and she caught the direction. "They are welcome too. I think I have food for that many in my storehouse, and I will not turn away the poor and hungry."
"No, please let them be, though I thank with a thousand thanks for your hospitality. We have plenty food stores aboard. They are good at doing for themselves, so they will be fine where they are until I return."
She stepped ahead of him, and the goats were eyeing Becca keenly but did not make one move to rush at him, while behind the house he heard some sheepdogs moaning, as they snarled and tried to get free of their ropes or chains to run the intruder off the property.
"Do you need all these beasts for protection? Have you no man or a watchman?" he asked her as she opened the door and he stepped inside.
She did not reply, but showed him to a large, ornately carved chair set with big cushions, much like those used for feather-beds.
He sat down, and she went out of the room, then returned a moment later with a large wooden tray covered with all kinds of prepared cheeses and sliced sausages and all sorts of meats--lamb, fowl, ham, venison.
She sat the tray down before him on a wooden stool, and after a short prayer of thanks to Yeshua he helped himself and began to eat. She didn't take a thing and just watched him, standing a little toward the back of the room nearest the single big window with the shutters.
It was delicious, but when she saw he was eating most of it, she vanished into the solid-wood beamed, absolutely spotless pantry, then returned with a fresh tray of many other items, including spiced, pickled cod fish and sardines and baked flat bread the many other fine delicacies the women of the Danes knew best how to prepare for special occasions.
When he looked up and handed her the tray, she went and brought out another, but he waved it away, rising. "I must be going, but I would ask one thing, why do you do all this for a stranger?"
"You are no stranger to me!" she replied. "I always knew you would return for me, to make me your wife."
He was speechless. Who was she? He racked his memory, but then it seemed light broke in, and he realized there was a possibility. Was it the way she glanced at him, over her shoulder as he went to the kitchen for more food?
"Ingrid, is it you?" he said lamely. He had left a girl scarcely turned a woman, but here was a fully-developed woman!
"So it dawns on you, son of Rasmus! What is so strange, that you show such surprise? How should I look, after you spent ten years sea-faring with your fellows? Time will make some changes in all of us. Am I as poor to look at as all that?"
He smiled, shaking his head.
"No, you are very fair in my eyes. Time makes changes as you say, but I like the changes!"
Her lips curled in a slight smile, but she ducked her head and vanished.
He was left several minutes wondering what to do, and then as he was about to let himself out, despite the goat bucks eager to gore him and the sheepdogs who wanted just as much to tear at his legs and haunches, she returned, wearing a beautiful Danish gown fit for a wedding.
It took his breath away. In her hair shone golden combs and an embroidered gold and silver-threaded crown that the most accomplished seamstresses of the village women knew how to make, that were special designs known to this village alone.
He found his heart beating fast as he gazed at her. She too seemed disturbed, but made no move toward him, letting him decide whether he wanted her for his lawful Christian wife or not.
But first he had one question. Everything hinged on the answer.
"How did you manage to remain unmarried all this time?"
She looked closely at him, then slowly answered.
"It was not easy, and very hard at first for a young girl like myself to resist them. My parents promised me to an old man I refused the moment I heard he was coming to the house to get me. They had it all arranged, without asking me if I wanted him or not!
I didn't argue, I ran off into the woods, and stayed there days, eating berries, until I decided they thought me dead, then I returned.
My father wanted to whip me, but I confronted him.
"How can you make me his slave like this? I will not take an old man like him! It is disgusting. I want a better man than that! And I know a better man-- the one who left us in his fine ship, who return someday for me if I remain true to him."
My father was beside himself, of course. He still wanted to beat and whip me, but he knew I wouldn't stand there and take it and would run off again, so he did not mistreat me. But my mother tormented me for days afterwards, nagging me, accusing me of making her cry her eyes out all day and all night, saying she would be thrown into poverty if she were left a widow and I didn't marry this rich old man who had a lot of sheep and goats and some barley fields too, all of which would be enough for her in her old age, once my old husband passed away, and only she and I were left, with whatever children I could get off an old billy goat like him!
Of course, I wouldn't answer to such rubbish as that. But she kept on anyway, making life misery for me. I decided I had to get into a house of my own. I could not bear this daily torment they gave me. And they didn't stop trying to marry me off, first to that old one, then to a mere boy who was a nothing, whose father had some substance, but he had hardly a man's desires and knew nothing about women--so how could I live with him if he wasn't yet a man? No, I refused him too!
"What did you do?"
She drew a long breath, then continued.
"I hired myself out to herd the sheep and goats of various people, and it was hard work, since they paid so little, and even stole my wages and wouldn't pay me sometimes. But I got enough to buy a sheep and a goat, then another of each, and with them began to breed my own little flocks. It took time, but I got enough to live on that way, and when I saw it was time and I could make it on my own and not starve, I moved out.
My parents followed right to this house of mine, demanding I return, accusing me, that I had stolen the money to buy the sheep, the goats, and the house too, but I had stolen nothing. It wass all mine, every bit of it! They too knew full well I had worked for everything I had. Though they had to right to take everything, as it is our custom for parents to lay by some wealth due a daughter for her dowry, I would have gone to the elders and called for an aethelring. I could have made my czase to them. I would have told them the truth, I did not want any of the men they were forcing on me for a husband, so that they would be seizing my dowry, not safeguarding it. It told my parents to leave me alone, else I do this, and they did not want the scandal of having a daughter who would not marry, or so they thought, so they let me alone after that. She glanced around the house with satisfaction, and it was evident she knew what was good, for the home was filled with fine weavings that covered walls and kept out draughts, while everything was neat and spotlessly clean. From the looks of it, he might well take pride from her hard, excellent work and be considered, in that village, a woman of substance and wealth.
"So all you see here is my rightful dowry, and I give it to my husband--you!--if you want me, that is."
Becca was satisfied, fully.
His eyes shone with admiration for her.
"Is that all your story?" he said.
Oh, there were many suitors after that, when they saw I was a good woman and could prosper on my own like this, even make a man rich. They would come at me at all hours. I couldn't go about my work or even sleep at night, as they were always trying to catch me. So I got all these dogs and let my wild goats roam free in the yard, and that way I kept them from climbing in my windows at night. I would have killed them, with the sword I keep by my bed, but this way I did not need to lose any sleep nor dirty my hand with their blood. It worked very well, and I was never once molested by those scoundrels."
Becca took her hand, drew her to himself, and they kissed.
"I will be your lawful wife in good time," she said, "but I will remain chaste until the night we are married! I want to save this for you, my chosen man!"
"So be it!" he agreed, though his face was flushed, and his heart was thumbing against his ribs. Then he returned to his ship, dashed some cold sea water on his face, and his men were full of questions, he could see it in their keen glances.
"I am going to be married, I have found the woman I really want for my wife!" he announced as cooly as he could manage.
The ship erupted. Wild cheers went up from the ship and everyone in the village heard it, including Ingrid standing at her window looking down at the moored ship. She could not help smiling. Then she went back to her work of preparing her things for packing. There was an enormous amount to pack too! She had best get started now, she thought! It wasn't going to be easy, but she knew exactly how everything should be done, and she would go the next day and get some women she trusted to help her, as she didn't trust any of the village men, nor had they ever done anything to gain that trust.
As it developed, which was not surprising because Becca's betrothed was a woman of considerable wealth, it took a total of three rented knorrs from Hedeby to transport her goods to the northern Viking land. She had many goods of all kinds accumulated, saved up for this very event that she believed would happen. Becca was already a rich man in his own right, but his wife need not be thought the poorer mate--for she could do very well on her own without a bread-winning husband, this was apparent to all when they began to load her possessions on the first of the knorrs.