"Thou has been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the Sardius, Topaz, and the Diamond, the Beryl, the Onyx, and the Jasper, the Sapphire, the Emerald, and the Carbuncle, and Gold...thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast on the holy mountain of God; thou has walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Note: Each fiery stone of heaven is corrupted by the fallen cherub, Lucifer, the "Light-Bringer" who was Keeper of the Stones, and it acquires a different character and a guiding deadly creature of evil genius hidden within it.
Agent Letter, Outlines, Strategy
2. The Ten Stones of Fire (Starlike, Jeweline, Super-intelligent, Alien Entities), each performing as OP, or, Opposing Player, with the aim of conquering and destroying the Earths, I and II, and their respective universes.
3. Dr. Pikkard's Computer Wargame, represented by Wally, an electronically-created, free-roaming butterly who fights for humanity's survival against the Alien(s)
4. Human "Alphabetic" or A-Z Champions, also a subgroup called DUBESOR, or the Rosebud Champions
5. Yeshua, the A and Z, the Alpha and Omega, and the Aleph and Tau (also known as FC, the so-called "Forbidden Category")
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 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.
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.
"No, father, I cannot disappoint such important and powerful men! 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 the gold!"
Gold drew robbers as 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 raised 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. 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 like strangers to him--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 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 barrell, 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. 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! 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 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 the two clans 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 wooden image of Thor and one too 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 thin air! What witchery was this? Dumbfounded, Ivar felt a tap on his head, looked up, and saw the blade of a battle-ax suspended over his head.
The 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, 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-head, I tell you, 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 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.
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! Ansgar! He is 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, 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 tall church tower 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 ripped apart, and he grabbed a couple leaves and looked at them. They were completely a mystery to them, 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, 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 had 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 (and 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 bad taste in his mouth, his lips curled with disgust.
"I went to fight soldiers, fight with grown, armed men, but they wanted me to slay feeble old men and crying children and cowering women! 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 Odin'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 grass and exposed rocks and trees had a 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 to leave his sign that would tell any woodsman to leave this tree alone, it was his, and he would return!
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 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 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 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 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 midst of the battle!
Royal 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.
"You answer for this effront to my dignity, son of Rasmus! You aren't more than a whelp of a bitch in the barn, 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 old carper was still within range.
Seeing this, Olof did not waste another moment to dispute with him and yelled 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 when bad. He wants to be free and active again as he was in his youth. But he is not young any long. I am not young either. We are 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 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' 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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. That takes away any offense they might have to their own unwashed bodies. I could never think of residing among them!"
"Why not, son?" Rasmus replied. "You see what Dane-land is like these days. 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 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 Dane-land. Our Danes will take a generation or more before they recover from the folly of Jarrow."
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 sailed all the way down around the lands of the Romans and Gauls and Hispania and through the Gates of Hercules into the Great Sea. 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 watchtowers to give them warning of longships coming, so they could get away in time to avoid them. Becca 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. Beyond Sicilia they came to some small, sun-scorched rocky islands between Africa and the boot of Italia. They were called 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, 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 magnificently attired imperial heralds came to greet Becca's warship on return from a campaign, riding right up to the ship berthed at the imperial wharves on four white richly decorated horses, their 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. Becca was called to court, and going with his Greek to write everything down and tell him what was happening, he witnessed with his own eyes the majesty he had only heard about before, but could scarcely believe.
A jem-incrusted throne that rose up into the air, transporting the emperor to the ceiling of a immense mead-hall that could contain all the mead-halls of the Danes and still have much room to spare? A golden mechanical tree by the throne that held golden, cunningly fashioned birds that sang as sweetly as any in the wood?
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 the Varangian Guard, whether it sounded strange to his ears or not! Deciding that it wasn't the worst thing to be 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 amphitheatre was a great attraction, of course, with four chariot races daily, attended tens of thousands of citizens, half of which were one color, half another, depending on the colors of the two favorite contenders.
But Danes were not particularly obsessed with horses, and they did not spend the day there, as most other visitors would. The grand buildings, the palaces, churches, baths, and huge commercial districts drew their chief attention. Allowed to remain armeds, to keep their swords and shields because they were imperial bodyguards, Becca and his Varangians were escorted through the most magnificent and largest temple on earth, the one built by Emperor Justinian three centuries before. Becca was more than thrilled by the sight, even moreso when he was told the edifice was called Divine Wisdom.
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 Arabs 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 followed, but his men were prevented from 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 guardians 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 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.
Becca's ship too was fitted with the golden lion whose mouth spewed flaming death on enemy ships and men. Covered with gold, the sight of these flame-spitting lions was terrifying and beautiful at the same time.
Alexios was aboard too, as he begged Becca not to send him back to his village. "We will be attacked again, and maybe I will be carried off as I was before, so what gain is that? No, keep me, and I will serve you gladly! This is a much better life than I could have in my village!
Rufus Urbanus was upset, for the sake of his Honorius. Was this to be the memory of it bequeathed by a father to his son? If so, it was a bad journey! Rufus thought, feeling he should have gone alone and faced such things rather than expose his young son to them. Yet further on they found the real borders of the shrunken Western Empire still held firm, for the time being anyway. Beyond was Roman civilization as it had always been--glorious and proud and well-ordered--and they proceeded south on the Roman road directly to the Queen City itself. There young Honorius would see the sights that would forever blaze in his memory: Roma in her full glory and splendor, a city beyond description, the like of which the world had never seen before and would never see again after the barbarians broke through the borders and had their way with her.
Waste of Youth's most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of glory, waste of God--War"--Woodbine Willie, Chaplain, British Fourth Army
This war was, indeed, great in scope and consequence. It would topple the crowned heads of the monarchies of most of the European powers. As prophesied by a bearded, robed, iconic staretz in the Kremlin, this war broke out that would exhaust Europe, killing off nearly a whole generation in all the countries that fought it, then resume again some years later to devastate the entire continent with tens of millions more slain, both military and civilians.
June 28, 1914, two years after the Titanic converged with what was thought to be an iceberg and sank in the frigid Northern Atlantic waters off the island of Newfoundland, the heir to the imperial Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, paid a state visit to the South Slavs. What was so special about this? State visits by the Archduke were a matter of routine, for he was a world traveller. Where hadn't he visited? So a visit to the Balkans was not special, except that it went wrong, terribly wrong.
An expert huntsman (insofar as it required expertise to shoot game that was driven toward him by teams of men encircling the animals), whose palace walls back in Vienna were covered top to bottom with upwards of 200,000 antlers and mounted heads of every kind of game animal, the Archduke was in turn hunted and his carriage bombed by Serbian nationalists in Croatia.
Shock waves struck the hearts of the many peoples of Europe after the news flew rapidly by telegraph to every capital. Ultimatums were issued from Vienna to Serbia, and when they were not met by the recalcitrant Serbs, war was declared on Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Imperial Germany following suit as an ally.
The banners of all the newspapers blazed with war declarations of country after country. Orders went out to the male citizenry of France, Britain, Germany, and Austria, and other countries--mass mobilizations were begun. Millions of fighting quality age kissed their wives and children and left their homes and jobs and trekked to the army centers and depots for induction, training, outfitting, and weaponry.
Armies already in the field were rushed by train and on foot to positions along the borders between France and Germany. Factories were rapidly converted to supplying the many war machines. All available resources were committed to the war effort. Propaganda offices worked overtime, churning out war posters that portrayed the respective antagonists in the worst possible light. Spies fanned out by the thousands across Europe, slipping discreet bribes to officials in sensitive positions in war departments, using pretty women to lure army officers to divulge information, infiltrating wherever they could into the enemy countries to spot weaknesses or major movements of troops and material.
Army battalions paraded in the streets of a thousand cities, as men marched off to the Front with bands blaring and crowds madly waving handkerchiefs and flags and cheering them along.
All Europe (except neutralist Switzerland, Sweden, and a few other small countries who had nothing to gain from fighting with lions) was caught up in a frenzy of high expectation, terror, anxiety, anger, and vengence. This time the anciently seething wrongs which Europe never could forgive and forget would be righted, the enemy would be crushed and rendered powerless forever. Yet Europe was thought to be so civilized and enlightened by science and the Age of Reason, this time it would be different: unlike in the past, vengeance would not ignite another cycle of strife and warfare like in the past. Modern 20th Century Civilization with its enlightenment of the mind and spirit and nature of man would surely prevail over savagery, the primitive brute creature of base instincts that lingered as a vestigial legacy of ancestral Neanderthals in man's pedigree. Refined by education and the arts, modern man stood poised like an Olympic athlete in white running togs on the cusp of a new era of mankind's upward progress and development, entering a brave new world where there would never be need of war again, for victory would kiss the dove of peace and never let it fly away. A thousand years of peace would prevail over the entire earth, and science and industry would transform it into a paradise where the parliament of man, spoken of by Alfred Tennyson, would sit and levy only just decrees that would treat everyone equally.
This was, from the onset, to be the war to end all war: most everyone (except the grim, dark eyed staretz in the Kremlin) bought this wonderful, shining idea, and it added a burning fervor to the war not seen in all the prior conflicts on the Continent since the Thirty Years War and other wars of religion in the 1700s. The sirens of war, looking either their most seductive or just like the girl next door cried out to an entire generation of young men: "Fight this war, my darling, and win everlasting peace and happiness for yourself and your nation! Do your duty by the Fatherland and the blood of your forefathers! Defend the sacred hearth of the Home and your mother and sister's virtue against the raping barbarian! Crush our enemies, strike him down to the dust once and for all, trample him, etc., and your nation will heap on you imperishable honor and gratitude!"
Flags, flags, flags! Bands! Martial music and marching musicians with little boys tramping alongside with wooden rifles and stick bayonets! Speeches by government leaders before tens of thousands in public squares and grand boulevards. Parades. Cheering masses. Madness...as the dogs of Europe barked and howled from Edinburgh to Moscow.
There had been countless continental wars before, sometimes of great magnitude, especially in the times of Napoleon, so people thought it would be much the same thing, as most wars were far less ambitious in scope and therefore not that serious. Surely, this Europe was so civilized that this time time peace would be instituted and maintained indefinitely. After some bloodletting in a battle or two, the peace envoys would confer at some palace or other in France or Britain or Holland, a deal would be struck, and life would revert to the old paths and people could go on with their regular pursuits as before. But a new player entered the geopolitics in 1914, unknown and uninvited by the Great Powers, which changed everything and opened the abyss itself as the whole world for the first time was involved in a single war so destructive it seemed about to destroy civilization itself.
Not stopping over at London Rev. Kennedy went directly to Portsmouth, staggering beneath loaded bags aboard ship to Calais. The crossing was routine enough, with no Zeppelins dropping bombs on them this time, but the choppy water and the rolling old trawler turned transport made him run for the rail a number of times. Then Calais was a mad house. Every kind of transport was taken by military troops or hordes of fleeing citizenry from the provinces affected by the war. Showing his papers, the Customs waved him and his bags through without inspection. But where was he to stay, and how was he to get to the Front? He must have asked a hundred different people before he found a way out of Calais.
After paying an exorbitant amount as a bribe to the station master, he wedged himself and his bags into an officer's berth in a troop transporting train and reached Rouen, stoutly declaring to Customs he was carrying Bibles and religious materials (which was not a blatant lie, since the bags did contain some Bibles and religious materials, and the cigarettes were for the troops' morale). Once he was free of the French authorities, he broke out the first case of cigarettes at the British canteen.
He was a smash hit from the start! The thin, poorly rolled, adulterated French cigarettes were clearly inferior to the British smokes based on prime Egyptian tobaccos, and expensive and hard to get too--and here they were being given free Brit cigarettes by the pack! Easily the most popular chaplain with his boyish looks and his generous way with cigarettes, he was being called "Woodbine Willie," and was talking to as many soldiers as he could before they departed to the Front, just to inject some hope and cheer into the men headed for the trenches. He could see the specter of fear, even stark terror shining in the eyes of the grinning young men--the older ones were resigned to a bullet in the vitals or, for the less lucky, an exploding Teutonic shell with their names on it, but not these smooth-cheeked youths, who looked like mere choir boys to the chaplain. For these he had come--he knew he could drive out that paralyzing fear with love of country and love of God, and everyone knew that the Huns imperilled not only all Christian civilization but their homes and families. He would remind these boys they were here in France defending their beloved British mothers, daughters, and sisters back home, whom the Huns would surely rape if they could break through the Western Front and invade the homeland. The tow-haired Huns and Teutons of Kaiser Wilhelm had already ravished Belgium and to Poland and Russia; they had to be stopped in France, or they would overwhelm the whole West with rapine and barbarism!
He might have stayed in the relative comfort of the ancient, civilized city of old Normandy renowed for its ties to Joan of Arc, the teenaged maiden savior of France, and let the troops come to him. Other clerics might have done that, rather than muddy their shoes and clerical robes in the muck of war. But after waving away a hundred or so of his countrymen, Woodbine Willie felt he was not doing all he could any more. He couldn't just sit in safety and comfort, a nice pension around the corner to park his gear and bathe and sleep, while the troops were off facing and battling the Kaiser's hordes, slogging through mud, mud, and more mud. No, he had to do more! He needed to go with them and experience what they were going through, he decided. He expressed this desire of his heart to a soldier at his table, in fact, since he had nothing to hide in coming to minister faith and hope to Britain's grand warriors.
Then he smiled his most winning way whenever he was dealing with a man of the cloth--since he hadn't always found them men of practical reason, such as military men had to be if they weren't absolute bloody incompetents and flunkeys.
"Are you saying, sir, you'd order me to stop here?"
"No, I am not saying that!" the colonel blustered. "You have your commission and orders drawn up at the War Office, I presume, and no doubt they don't stipulate your precise location of duty--which is generally left at your own discretion in these cases--but, as one gentleman to another, I have seen these wars often enough, and I am just trying to give you a more sensible plan of action, one that will preserve your life for the sake of the troops who need a little cheer-up!"
Woodbine Willie smiled. "Your sentiment is appreciated, but the Lord will preserve me, not the governors of this war. He alone is my refuge, my fortress, my high tower. I'm not afraid of what mere flesh and blood or bombs can do to me. When can I go forward to stand alongside our brave lads? I can have my bags and my gear ready in five minutes, sir, but please afford me ten at least, so I can settle up properly with Madame Leblanc, the proprietress and concierge at my pension. I don't want the French to think we British take advantage of our allies and hosts!"
Motorized columns along with horse-drawn lorries converted from street cabs and wagons were already rolling out from Rouen, carrying cheering, laughing, celebrating troops to the Front on the Somme, where a major offensive by the Germans was just then being launched. They could even hear the distant thunder of the Big Berthas, the Germans' most powerful, long range artillery.
The colonel shook his head over the vivacity and spirit of this young chaplain, which had communicated visibly to most of the army personnel in the crowded room, then send an aide to find a place for him in his own staff car--a new American vehicle shipped over for the British ally.
As he was moving toward another sand-bagged trench system nearest the German lines, incoming shells from Big Berthas reached the forward position before he could. He found himself wandering about dazedly in the next minutes, his ears ringing, as the ground eventually settled back, the air cleared, and he could see again where he was. But everything was changed, so utterly the terrain looked nothing like what it had been just a short time before. He had been walking through some wizened apple trees of an old orchard that still had apples clinging to unpicked branches, and now the orchard was gone, except for one shattered tree behind him. The farmhouse, requisitioned for the HQ of the frontline commander, Lt. Col. Blastwaite, was also blown away--not a trace remaining! Everywhere, the earth lay in smoking heaps, with water filled craters between. He made his way slowly through the torn up earth and tree roots, trying to find his way back to where he had been, but then heard moaning and wheezing sounds. He went to investigate, and found a soldier lying on his back on the inner lip of a bomb crater. He was moving his arms in a feeble sort of way, flopping them about limp-wristedly, and appeared barely conscious or alive.
Kneeling down by him, he found the soldier was missing his legs from the thigh down. He was ashen colored in his face, and it was certain to Woodbine Willie the young man had only a few more moments of life, if that.
"What is your name, son?" he stammered, as he pressed a cross against his forehead. The young man blinked and answered, and Woodbine Willie recognized him by his voice. Charles Harnsworth, from Tewksbury. He grew up just a few steps from the old Norman cathedral and used to play marbles with his chums on its steps and even in the vestibule until the vicar caught wind of it and chased them off! He had met this very fellow at the canteen in Rouen, and had a jolly conversation boosting his spirits, as unlike his buddies around him he had seemed particularly down at the time, confessing to him that he greatly feared imminent death--what with his fiance waiting for him back home and all.
All he could do was clamp his hands over his head and ears as the horrific explosions took place. Sometimes big clods of mud and earth dumped down on him. One time the shell came so close when it exploded that he felt the earth rise up under his feet, and he was pitched forward. When he realized he was alive and intact, he found he had fallen face into the mud, most of which was a blown-up manure pile.
He had no time to answer, as he was surrounded by dark forms, which spoke British and had to be his countrymen. He called out for help, and was then dragged from the muck and hauled to his feet.
He stood trying to tell his rescuers what had happened, but nothing coherent came out. He said some strange things--about poor bloody Charles, the Norman cathedral, the marble game, and quite left out that he was a vicar, a commissioned chaplain at the Front, and had got lost in no-man's land after finding poor Charles in such a bad way, virtually legsless.
What did a legless man matter? Hundreds of such happened every hour on the Front. Having seen many a man go daft like this before in the trenches, the sergeant ordered his men to take the noncombatant back to the HQ that had just been set up to replace the one the late Colonel Blastwaite had so briefly occupied. A fire had been started in the ancient ceramic-tiled stove of the farmhouse, a water pot rummaged out of the litter on the floor, some water strained through a cloth from a big puddle where a dead cat lay floating with a doll's head, enough to put on for tea, and a group with some cards was having a little amusement while they waited for a replacement for Blastwaite to show up--probably a rosy-cheeked lieutenant, with too much spit and polish this time, fresh out of officer's school, they figured, as colonels weren't considered as expendable as privates and corporals so no more would be hazarded at that luckless post.
"Hell's bells," one player remarked about his former commander. "You oughta seen what was left of the old colonel. Nothing! A fair decent bloke for an officer, he was! Let me share his private reserve of a fancy sherry, chilled in a bucket of ice he brought along from his hotel--which was jolly fine of him. Talked straight to me as though I were a colonel too! Shame it had to be him, but better than it be me, mates!" He laughed, and the others joined.
Stripped of his coat, scarf, and clerical shirt and collar, which had been strung over the stove on a length of barbed wire on two poles, Woodbine Willie sat miserably crouched in his skivvies on a crate, trying to get warm as the fire gained on the wood scraps and tree limbs stuffed into the stove.
"Reverend, you must return to Rouen! This is no place for the likes of you. It's not safe here. You're a gentleman, a man of the cloth. You haven't been trained for it, what you see here. It has shook your mind a bit off the rails, that's all it is, but a day or two in Rouen will bring you back, and you'll be fine again, your old self. Treat yourself a nice, hot milk with whiskey and go straight to bed! That will fix you. We'll send you right back in the motorcar that fetches our new commander. I'm sure that will be fine with him--as he won't be going anywhere soon, not when the Huns crank those Big Berthas in our direction again! You just sit and watch your clothes dry, and I'll speak to the bloody lieutenant when he comes. It shouldn't be long now, as we sent word about Blastwaite in four hours ago. They said they'd send someone immediately! Of course, they had to finish their cigars and brandy first!"
Woodbine Willie cradled his head in his arms. How it ached! His whole body ached. But it wasn't from any injury, it was just from the crashing realization of what war really signified, which he couldn't possibly put into words. Despite the vision in the mud, his every cell and atom screamed speechlessly, "NO, NO, NO, NO!"
God, vision or no vision, couldn't get off so easily with a vision, if that was what it was, he thought. It was still No! to war, to the blowing up of all the bright-eyed, apple-cheeked Charley Harnsworths, and for nothing really! What good did it do to snuff out Harnsworth and tens of thousands of lads like him? Nobody even knew it back at HQ where Harnsworth was or what had happened to him. He had tried to tell the men, but they just laughed and joked.
"Well, well, isn't that so!" they humored him. "We'll not expect him then at reverie, will we chums? Hahaha!"
"And dip me out at mess one more cup of rotten whore's ----, righto?" quipped another, slapping his knee with a card.
Even the chaplain, unused to such filthy talk in clerical circles, recognized the term, the dirtiest he had ever heard as a boy from bad street boys.
Clothes or no clothes, Woodbine Willie wanted to rush out into the night. How could these men be so savage as to joke ghoulishly about the deaths of their countrymen like that, brave men who had given their very lives for the Empire and its cause? War had turned them into brute barbarians! That had to be the reason. Surely, if he could only get back to civilization and the code of honor among gentlemen, he would report them, and they would be hauled out and soundly disciplined as they should be.
But who would listen to him, if he ran out of there practically naked? They might think he had lost all his wits and clap him in the infirmary back at base camp. No, he realized he had to wait, and let his things dry out first, then try to make himself more presentable in the present appalling conditions.
The kindly serjeant brought him a cup he had found among the crockery in the cupboards he had filled from a bottle after blowing out the dust and mouse droppings in the cup.
Woodbine Willie looked up at the serjeant.
"Just a little kiss from the vine to strengthen your spirits, Reverend," the sergeant smiled. "Try it! It'll warm and settle your vitals. You will feel better soon."
Woodbine Willie took a sip, and realized somehow the serjeant had found a vintage year wine, maybe taken from a hidden cellar he had found and broken into. Centuries old French farmsteads that looked like nothing but peasants' hovels on the outside were renowned for gold socked away in foundations and hidden cellars stuffed with first-class cheeses, wines, sausages--which the owners left when they fled the area under attack, intending to return later to empty them out once the armies quit fighting and moved on. But sometimes the farmers were long delayed, as they couldn't get passes through the lines, and so the stocked cellars--if they could be found--fell to whomever was fortunate to find them first.
Slicing the excellent, smoked sausage, the friendly serjeant passed some on his big Swiss knife to the chaplain, along with a wedge of cheese. "Help yourself, sir, it may be some time before you get to a commissary and have a proper meal. It'll keep the life in you until then, that is."
Woodbine took the cheese and sausage, washed it down with the wonderful wine, and he did feel better after a few minutes--though not so merry he wanted to laugh at corpses of dead boys.
Gratefully, he felt a degree of warmth and ease circulate in his body and the terrible drumbeat of war withdrew from his shattered nerves, enough so that he nearly dozed off sitting, a pad in his hand where he had scribbled something that turned out to be his first war poem....
The new commanding officer walked in, and stood as the card players quickly kicked back from the table and stood to attention.
But not quick enough for the new chief! "Serjeant!" the lieutenant barked. "What is the meaning of this? Why aren't you and your men at your duties, what is going on here? I caught you all playing cards! There is a war going on...a war! Are you here to play or to fight for the Empire? I will have you all demoted for this, if you don't mend your ways at once!"
"What in the world is wrong with that soldier there? Where is his uniform? He's practically...indecent! Serjeant, get him a uniform at once!"
The serjeant moved quickly, saluting, then explaining, "The Chaplain, sir! He had a little accident out in the wet--got his clothes a little muddy. So we've been dryin' them off for him, sir!"
Lt. Crasswell exploded. "This is my headquarters! I won't have it looking like Chinese laundry! Pull that line down! Sweep this floor! I want this place tidied up immediately. And get him attired properly. I have no use for chaplains here--send him on his way at once. We have a war to fight, not a ladies' tea social!"
Embarrassed and also angered, Woodbine Willie hastily pulled on his clothes with the serjeant's help, and even if they were a bit damp, they were warm enough and at least could be worn.
Meanwhile, the men had cleared the table, set it with a single chair, and the lieutenant was now seated, with his papers spread out as if he were conducting a major campaign.
Lt. Crasswell turned to the serjeant. "Well, get moving! Pack him off to Rouen at once! I don't want him here, whoever he is. Time is of the essence if we're to beat the bloody Huns and burn Berlin to the ground! I've got a lot of work to do!"
"But sir, it requires a transport to move him! He's been badly shaken up and can't walk in his condition! He has no horse either. We must furnish transport, sir!"
"Well, then, use my staff car if you must! Just get him out of my sight, so I can have install some order here!"
Woodbine Willie was in no mood to argue with the shouting lieutenant. He was escorted out of the farmhouse by the searjeant and to the car, who tipped his hat and spoke privately to the chaplain.
"My apologies, Reverend, for this new comer. He is new at this game, and, just between you and me, sir, he don't know which end he sits on. Why, my old chums back serving at the main command post--you know, where all the colonels and the generals hobnob and dance with the high-class Parisian ladies at the club and drink too much-- sent word to me on the sly the Fourth Army has been destroyed. Destroyed! Now what's left of us will soon be pulled back to somewhere south. We're waiting for the order to come down any time now, so why fight?--we've been beat so bad there isn't a Fourth Army, so what's the use of sticking our necks out to get them shot off now? Will you be leaving the Front? I'd advise it, sir. It's nothing but a Bulgarian meatgrinder here--and we're the meat!"
"That's all right, serjeant," Woodbine Willie said. "I have to just think about it before I decide what to do next." The serjeant nodded, saluted, then shut the door, and the car moved off down the farmstead road.
"I'm Terrence Blassinggame Codd, at your service, sir, but you can call me just T.B. or Coddie if you like. And you're the famed army chaplain, Woodbine Willie, I presume?"
"Oh, so what if I am!"
"Well, I remember seeing you back at the Canteen, and you gave me two whole packs of Woodbines and we talking for the longest time! Jolly nice of you, Reverend! We all think you are a great fellow, for being so generous to us."
Woodbine Willie did not reply. Oddly, he didn't remember Codd, and he knew he never forgot a face. But the corporal rattled on, sharing all his thoughts the moment they flitted through his skull.
"You may think this is rather queer, sir, how this here is a staff car without officer's flags and insignia. But the Germans got wind of us and sent snipers wearing the uniforms of captured the uniforms of captured Brits and crossed the lines, and they were picking off the officers in their cars, one after the other. It was a turkey shoot! So I've removed the flags on the hood, and Crasswell approved, after he heard how many shots we took before I did that! He practically hugged the floorboards as I drove to the post though. And this is that fancy American car shipped over, so I have to sit on the left and steer--imagine that, a steer wheel on the left, right next to the uncoming traffic--what sense is that? I'd be the first to be hit!
"Uh, I wonder if we'll find the main track. This country is all new to me! I don't like it one bit! It's beastly. These bloody allies the Frenchies are quite a different kettle of fish, aren't they? I am German on my mother's side, and never did like the French much, but that's the breaks, we have to fight and do our duty by the King and save them from getting whipped all the way back to Paris--for we all know what poor fighters these little chaps are, not like us red-blooded Brits, who can turn back a whole battalion with only a single Lee-Enfield passed between us!"
The corporal laughed as he searched the terrain for the main road. The road appeared, not as a metalled road but a mass of snow and mud churned up by countless feet, horses' hooves, and even the tracks of the new experimental tank that was being tried out at the Front.
It was a very bumpy ride for the chaplain, as he was thrown up and down and side to side as they lurched toward Rouen to the south.
They met masses of infantry slogging forward through the muck and snow, their heads down. Occasionally, a few looked up, somehow recognized Woodbine Willie in the cab, and shouted and waved to him.
Woodbine Willie, after a couple times of this, sank down in his seat.
They got stuck several times, but Codd proved efficient at dealing with potholes, jumping out and grabbing a shovel from the back and with a sack under the wheel, he soon had it out, and they were on their way again. A couple times Woodbine Willie got out and pushed, and Codd thanked him, saying the lieutenant wouldn't have done something like to save his life. They had got stuck four times on the trip out, and the Crasswell and his aides just sat in the cab and wouldn't lift one finger to help him. They didn't want to muddy boots and gloves!
Woodbine Willie liked Codd better after hearing this, and they rode on.
They met a mass of infantry, mostly on the road but also moving up on both sides. It seemed to have halted for some reason, as a car from HQ brought word.
Seeing the confusion and the delay it would cost them--for it would be hard to press through all those hundreds of men, wagons, and horses, and the occasional tank--Codd left the chaplain and went to inquire from any officer he could find.
He came back a few minutes later, and grinned at the chaplain. "Everyone is ordered back, to be repositioned south! That means Crasswell too! But he can cool his heels a while, as I take you to town first and then take your leave and hit a few nightspots I know of--your're invited, sir, if you would like that sort of thing--but I presume you aren't my kind, righto?"
Codd winked, but Woodbine Willie was not responding, so Codd started whistling something jaunty he had learned in a London playhouse and left the chaplain to his somber thoughts.
The road was soon cleared enough as the men let their car through.
They made good time, despite some more potholes and some shoveling out incidents. Rouen appeared, hazy and spired, on the horizon. Behind them, the columns of what was left of the British Fourth Army straggled southward to take up a rearguard position, which was all they had troop numbers for.
Finally, she spoke in her quite tolerable English. "You do not wish the absinthe, Monsieur? I think not it is so good for you. Please get rest and not drink so much, oui? You are feeling ill? I could call the doctor who take care of my mother when she die. He would know how to help you. You really do not look your old self, Monsieur."
The next conscious thing he was aware of was that he was looking up into the nostrils of a huge whiskery gentleman.
The doctor turned to Madame Leblanc as he was moving toward the door. She brought his hat, cane, and cloak. As he got ready to go out, he turned back to his patient. "I counseled you like a father, not only a doctor. Take my counsel! It is for your own good. Do not punish yourself so, for you are young, things will change. I do not know why you were doing this to your body, but I can tell you--whatever it is, a lost lover, a business collapse, some other great disappointment in your life--it is not worth destroying your life. Live! Live! You see things change, if only you will carry on. No adieu!
The doctor tipped his tall, beaverskin hat to the landlady, told her there would be no charge, and she showed him out, bowing her head as he stepped with dignity out of the room.
Madame Leblanc stood at the doorway and gazed back at chaplains.
"What will you do now, Monsieur? What will you decide? I was most concerned for you these last days. Please give heed to the good doctor. He is a fine gentleman, oui?"
Woodbine Willie stared at her with bleary eyes, and then laid his head back on the pillow of the bed where someone had carried him. He closed his eyes, and Madame Leblanc sighed, then quietly closed the door.
The air of the outdoors struck his burning face like a slap of cold salt water in the face. But he continued walking down the street, dodging the wheeled traffic and dogs and people and bicycles. When he had got to a wooded park, he turned in through the high iron gate, paying the woman in charge to take the gravel paths that would lead him to more solitude at that moment when he felt he needed it most. Just to get away from prying eyes, that was what he wanted. He came to a bench and swept the snow from it and sat to rest himself. He leaned his head back, despite the icy coldness of the iron frame. It felt good and eased his over-heated brain. His thoughts wandered. But then always came back to the question: what now? If no God, what now? What would he do? What meaning was there to life now? He felt cast utterly adrift in a black, trackless waste of ocean.
Then he thought about Charles Harnsworth. He had tried to help him, give him some comfort in his last moments. Had he succeeded? At least he had not died alone, abandoned by everyone out there. That is one thing he knew. Where there others like him? Surely! They could not be counted! Men on both sides of the conflict, no doubt, missed but not searched for, and so they perished alone in absolute wretchedness. What about them?
It slowly dawned on him as he sat lingering in the late afternoon of the dying day in old Rouen's park that he could do something--something was needed that he could do if he chose. He owed it as his duty to his fellow man, he felt, to try and comfort the dying on the fields of war, no matter who they were,l or what they believed. Could he do that?
He sat up, his head a bit dizzy, but now more conscious of a gleam in the darkness that had engulfed and smothered him for days. The drink had not helped in the ease, only put off the final decision: to live or take his life. But now he had a reason to live possibly: aiding the suffering and dying boys on the war front. Yes, there was the Red Cross, but they could not be everywhere, and so thousands still perished alone, uncared for. As a chaplain, he could go places they could not. He had more freedom of movement, being a single person, and could reach forward positions and even no-man's land where the Red Cross was not permitted.
He rose to his feet. He now saw the gleam become a shining, beckoning light, illuminating the gravel path before him. He began walking on it, and it led him back out of the park and back to his pension. He nodded to Madame Leblanc and then went up to his room. As he was getting his things together for another trip into the war zone, he called Madame Leblanc to send up a medicinal tea, if she had such. She brought peppermint, and he was able to take a few sips. Then he went to bed and rested the night through, sleeping soundly. In the morning he rose early, ate half a croissant and washed it down with some more tea, then went out, and his legs felt stronger now as he continued toward the canteen. There he knew he would find the officers who commanded at the front, as they passed through on their way. He would also find the boys who needed his help, not at the canteen but perhaps later out in no-man's land where millions were still being slaughtered week after week. While at the Canteen, he could also take names and addresses of families the boys wanted him to contact if anything happened to them.
In the darkness, death, and despair that hung over the greatest wound men could inflict on themselves and the planet, where whole nations were bleeding to death, a single greater light began to shine. Already millions of British and French, nearly a whole generation of young men in each nation, were slain, and millions more drawn from old age and boyhood years faced the same fate in the coming weeks, but shone like a star, and it was a star, the miraculous Nativity Star of Christmas Eve. Only that star could drive back the Red Star and penetrate the turbulent, fear-haunted morasses of mile upon mile of trenches, bunkers and fortresses and no-man's land with its light and reach the hearts of the combatants, German, British, French, and Austrian.
Nothing like it had ever happened before, for soon German troops at their side of the Front began singing Christmas carols, and the Brits and French across the shell-cratered, barbwired strip of no-man's land that separated the two armies responded with Christmas carols, joining the Germans in the celebration. The guns stopped firing. Men began to get up out of the trenches, and the bravest, still singing, began to move forward, without their guns. Slowly, they approached each other, and then the miracle of this first Christmas Eve on the Western Front: men who were committed to killing each other clasped hands and smiled and laughed, wishing each other Merry Christmas in their respective languages. What was happening? What was this? It was the Christmas Truce of 1914.
All the trees for miles around had been blasted to bits, but the men, both British and Germans, gathered branches and stray bits, and wired together a "weihnachsbaum," a Christmas tree.
Hanging medals on it taken from their uniforms, anything they could find that would add some beauty and gleam to the makeshift tree, the men gathered round it and sang "Silent Night," which was an international song that reached across all the divisions of war and politics.
Peace broke out all along the Front, as the soldiers poured out of the trenches, to join the ones gathered at the Christmas Tree.
Yet the Truce, while it lasted, was more than magical. It was unlike anything ever experienced on earth before, at least since the First Nativity.
Surviving the war, Woodbine Willie laid aside his clerical collar and robe and campaigned tirelessly in meeting after meeting for disarmament and the abolition of war and all armies and weaponry. He believed that if no one was permitted to bear arms, and even speech in favor of fighting was banned, universal peace would result. He met many who disagreed, often Christians who pointed out the underlying sin problem with humanity, that envy, greed, and lust and fear caused ceaseless warfare and would always do so until Christ came again to reign over the whole earth. But he always had an answer to them: the Great War. Was good was it? What good did any war do? But who or what could have stopped it in its tracks? Well, he knew the only logical answer which the Christian religion had failed to supply: the world had not yet agreed to ban war and anything that might contribute to causing it, but if it would do so, a new world of compassion and love could be brought into existence. The old Christian God had utterly failed, he said, to solve the age-old conflicts; war bred war, in an endless cycle. Christ on the Cross had not stopped the machine gunning and the Krupp artillery. Christ was a failure. But man could do what God could or would not do. He declared to cheering thousands in Liverpool (his last speech) that if a parliament of mankind were called, and the vote taken to put a ban into effect, with all the law enforcement agencies ordered to make it stick with severe penalties, peace would be achieved, lastingly, for the entire world.
Woodbine Willie forget the vision he had of Christ as he lay in the bomb crater. He thought it was only a figment of his imagination. The reality of war, the insanity of it, drove him to the end, and his end, a collapse at the lectern, came even as he was speaking for peace and the absolute necessity of a world parliament and a ban against war.
A League of Nations was formed after the Armistice of 1918, and movements for disarmament gathered momentum at the same time, sending delegates who tried to catch the ears of the various Western leaders at the Palace of Versailles outside France where the fate of Germany and other defeated powers was decided. Somehow peace did not prevail, even after such a costly victory, and vengeance against Germany was sought and put into effect by the treaty, humiliating and impoverishing Germany.
Woodbine Willie, still not deterred, continued his campaigns for an international ban on war. Forgetting the miracle and promise of the Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front, Peace had become his god, and he himself became the cross on which his illusion of peace was nailed.
World War II broke out in 1939 with the Nazis' invasion of Poland. This was the lunacy of the Great War all over again, but with greater destructiveness, due to all the new weaponry and aircraft, missles and submarines, not to mention jet aircraft and a nuclear bomb.
Yet somehow this stunning failure of Woodbine Willie's, added to that of thousands like him, did not stop the peace movements which held as their objective the banning of war. The movements survived their founders' deaths, and flourished right up to the time of the last war. Yeshua (Himself the Christmas Truce of Universal Peace) would return, setting his foot on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem, splitting it, while slaying the world's armies that had come to assault his city and slay all the Jews.
The light show was incredibly staged, with colors programmed and coordinated to change every few seconds to keep the world bedazzled.
He only sensed a tremendous surge beneath of the water whenever the rocket hurdled a bridge, scraping off some of his hull, but losing nothing essential to the engine and on-board nuclear plant which were nearly indestructible, encased in massive titanium and lead shields.
He was reaching a rather soaring point in his loudly applauded speech detailing the heroic sacrifices required from the British people to save the Planet with drastically reduced carbon emissions (thermostats turned down to fifty six, virtually no private cars, far less bathing, thousands of factories and businesses closed either closed or barely running due to failure to secure adequate carbon credits, essential hospital services and medicines cut back, rationing of oxygen to patients with respiratory problems, shutdown of all mines, refineries, coal-fired electric plants...) when Larry's flying bomb displaced the roof and ceiling.
You would have thought Larry's unannounced intrusion would have provided a most spectacular climax to the Prime Minister's concluding words: "Know that I indeed feel your momentary pain and discomfort, my fellow citizens of the world! Yet what little we give up, we gain immeasurably thereby, for after our sacrifices we can look forward to climbing together, hand in hand, entering the broad uplands of human progress and happiness, whilst being strengthened with the full assurance that this frail barque, Planet Earth,with its human, animal, and vegetable burden, will continue to fly for many years to come."
The applause was deafening. It was a magnificent, upbeat speech, with just the right touch of a Churchillian allusion to inspire everybody. Yet the moment before Larry erupted so rudely upon the scene there was nobody there, the entire edifice was completely vacant.