Einar, horn-paired with Hrapp for the feast, watched the Jarl. He and Hrapp sat apart from everyone else by choice and circumstance; those who were canny strangers would have noticed that no-one challenged their decision to occupy the whole end of a bench, well below the salt dish. Canny strangers would have seen they were avoided and that it was best not to move close, even if only to free up your elbows in the press, for they were big men.
One was lean and dark, but there was muscle on him, even sitting. The other was red-haired Hrapp, whom they called Treefoot because he was a worker of wood for ships and was always covered in shavings. Save for tonight, when he was in his best finery and worst mood.
‘They do not care for us at all, Einar,’ he said out of the corner of his mouth, though he didn’t need to be low-spoken; there was noise enough to drown out a shout.
The dark man had no answer to the rightness of Hrapp. He watched the Jarl in his prowed high seat, resplendent in midnight blue and silver and looking down his nose at those he considered lesser folk. Which was everyone.
The Jarl was open-handed and smiling like a boiled cod at those he had invited to his new, first Christ’s Mass feast. He held it in the hall his da’s da had built years before, in the kingdom his da’s da’s da had built years before and both were constructed to be large and loud enough to cope with a few score men and women eating, drinking and yelling. Up until this time, the yells had been for Othinn and Thor.
On the far right of that, shoved sideways so far they were almost off the dias, were Vagn’s sons, Erikr and Svein, just come into the fullness of their youth.
They were a lounging slouch of no good who shared brotherly scowls with the bishop for being so treated. They shared nothing much else save mutual dislike and a fear of their Rigjarl, Harald Bluetooth.
On the other side sat Ketil, the Jarl’s steward. Once he’d been a thrall, then one of the Jarl’s Chosen and now, in the middle of his years, he was bluff, hearty and smiling, his tow-coloured hair more silvered and his eyes more twinkling merry than they had ever been. Cunning eyes, all the same, which missed little and felt like settling blowflies when they paused on you.
‘See him there,’ Hrapp said bitterly. ‘He came to me and told me I was done with. Him who was a fart-catcher for the Jarl for years and never knew which end of a wood-axe shaved the grain came and told me I was no good as a woodworker. Othinn’s arse, Einar, I am almost buried my wood-axe in his head.’
Einar said nothing, which was his way. His hair was coloured so black it was nearly blue as midnight and hung down past his cheeks as if some raven perched on him and spread lowered wings. They’d called him Black from the day he was born, so it was stuck on him now like a brand. He did not care for Ketil, but the Steward was right when he said Hrapp was no good as a woodworker; not for what the Jarl had wanted, which was what the bishop had wanted. Which was a White Christ god house the size of a monstrous naust.
There was such a naust in Bjornvik, which had been built by Hrapp and his da years before. Huge and arched, it had been a beautiful boathouse to see and the bishop had beamed and said how he wanted the first church in Bjornsvik to be like that. Only bigger. With three tiers.
Hrapp had tried, but it was beyond him; he’d been no more than a new man when he and his da built the naust and all the lore for it then had been his da’s. Einar had said as much to Ketil when Hrapp had been handed the task of the Christian god-house, but was not warmed by being right; he was aware, now, that he was partly to blame, for it had been beyond him as well.
He had provided the nails for it and they had neither been long enough, nor of the right sort – well, he made the one kind, same as his da had done. Good for nausts and the hovs of decent folk. He had made the ones for the Christ god-house the same way he made them for building a knarr, a fat trade ship. They were the only nails he knew how to make – when Hrapp built a snakeboat, he used wooden pegs because it had to be fast and sleek and flex over the waves. ‘Nails,’ he would say, ‘make it stiff, like an old man’s bad knees when he is ski-ing. Pegs and pine pitch, the sort that won’t dry hard and crack – now that makes a serpent of the seas.’
Perhaps so. All Einar knew was that the nails in the Christ god-house had pulled free of too much weight trusted on them and the top tier had fallen into the bottom tier and after weeks of work there was now just a pile of timber where there should have been a near-complete church for the bishop to throw blessings at. The only blessing in it was that no-one had been hurt.
Now the pair of them sat, shunned and brooding about the whole business and knowing that they’d feel the full weight of all those crashing timbers on their own shoulders soon enough. When Ketil got up, casual as if to stretch his legs or go out to piss, Einar stiffened. Hrapp hissed.
There was a decent skald called Tisti, who got everyone on their feet with mistilteinn sprigs raised while he told the tale of Baldur, slain by a dart of that wood and the wicked Loki’s scheming.
‘But Baldur’s mother, the goddess Freya, redeemed it in honour of her son,’ he intoned, ‘saying that mistilteinn should become a symbol of peace. From that time to this, enemies who meet under mistilteinn will lay down their arms and declare a truce. So it has been, so it is and so it will be.’
It was dignified but too pagan, so Tisti, already at the far end of the table, thought himself still too close to the bishop’s scowl and shrank into the lee of those around him.
Einar watched Ketil move through the throng, chaffering here, clapping a shoulder there. For the moment, the shouting was muted and the throwing limited to small bones, insults and bread. Einar followed the man’s progress through the throng, watching the man who watched everyone else until he arrived at their bench and sat himself down.
He had a face carved from a granite hoy, great faded wheat-straw plaits and moustaches whose ends, braided into silver rings, touched his collarbones. He was running to fat these days and had bright eyes, though the corners were fretted with the sort of lines you get from squinting at a horizon. Looking for opportunity, Einar thought. He knew his foster-father well enough.
‘How many times have we talked like this?’ Ketil said, sitting down, smiling. Einar said nothing and Hrapp, knowing it was not him Ketil spoke to, looked uneasy. He wonders if he should move away, Einar thought, as if he was a fifth leg on the pony.
‘When you were little and bright,’ Ketil went on, then stopped and laughed. ‘Though you were never bright.’
It was a double-slash, the way he said it. Einar the Black had always been a dark-coloured, brooding child – no coal-eater, but not overly clever and too often his black stubbornness overruled sense.
‘This is a bad one,’ Ketil went on, pilling bread between his big fingers. He looked at Hrapp. He wishes he hadn’t been included now, Einar thought.
‘You tumbled it all to ruin. Folk are not about to let this pass with a slap on the arse and a call to fix it.’
Einar remembered the arse-slaps, which was what Ketil had intended. Ever since his da had handed him over to be fostered he had suffered at the hands of Ketil – but that was what a foster-da did. Brought you up in the right way, taught you what the world was, your place in it and what your obligations were. An honour, his da had said, to have Ketil Ironhand foster you. Thrall he might have been once, but that was long since. He had been the Jarl’s right hand for so long – but the stink of thrall persisted for some and Einar had picked up on it.
He knew it was unfair and had come about because he had felt Ketil’s iron hand for six years, until he reached the full of his years. That’s what foster-fathers were supposed to do. It was an honour, as his da had said – but having Ketil take Einar also meant his da was admitting that Ketil was higher in status and rank. Einar did not think his da was lower than a thrall and brooded on that until he was 12.
At that age he became a man and went back to the forge. Started in to make metal. Now, it seemed, it was over. Just like that. As if it was no more than haar, as if his da and his da’s da had never been.
‘I am smith,’ he said lamely. ‘Like my da.’
Ketil shook his head. ‘So – it speaks. And only to tell me false.’
Einar bristled. ‘I have his forge. He passed it to me. I have made metal for this place for six years, four of them on my own since he died …’
Ketil waved a dismissive hand. The hall noise was deafening; they were calling for games now and were all just drunk enough to be reckless with them.
‘You are not a smith like him. You inherited his tools and the fire,’ he said, ‘which is not the same thing. You cannot forge what is needed here, boy. You have placed the Jarl in a bad light – that won’t be allowed to stand. The pins you made didn’t hold.’
‘Perhaps Othinn pulled them out,’ Hrapp suggested, frowning. ‘Or Freyja. The Old Gods have been here a long time to be uprooted because a new High King says so.’
‘No god pulled them out,’ Ketil said firmly. ‘They slid out because the timbers were pulling apart anyway. Timbers you laid, red-head.’
‘No-one was hurt. These things happen …’
‘The Christ priests don’t think that. They paid the Jarl for a church and now they have a heap of firewood.’
‘Then tell the Christ priests to sod off,’ Hrapp said suddenly, viciously. ‘We don’t need them. What is so wrong with the Old Gods? Why do we need folk like these Christ priests telling us what to do? Thor’s Hairy Arse, they broke down four decent hovs to clear space for their fucking god-house. Folk lived in those.’
‘And were paid for the loss,’ Ketil spat back. ‘More than they deserved and more than they needed. They have gone off happy. The Christ priests have the backing of the High King and they have this …’
He stopped and rubbed thumb and forefinger together.
‘Our Jarl thinks more of that than his folk these days,’ Einar said and Ketil slapped the table, loud enough for those nearest to stop their noise for a heartbeat or two.
‘In your da’s da’s day,’ Ketil said, ‘this was a rickle of hovs and a decent bay. In your da’s day it was a kaupang, a trade place for a season and empty of ships all winter. Now it is a trade place all year round.’
‘It grows,’ Einar admitted. ‘Just at the right pace for folk to enjoy.’
‘Too slow. It needs wharves and storehouses. It needs to be bigger and the Christ priests can do that – you’ve seen it. You can’t trade with Hammaburg unless you are wetted with their blessed water and wave their cross. Hammaburg – and the like – is where the riches are. It no longer serves just to turn a Thor amulet upside down and pretend.’
‘Then raid them,’ Einar said sullenly. ‘Take all their riches. The way we did once. When everyone made what they needed and took what they could get for it.’
Ketil flung up his hands. ‘I should whack you,’ he said, but Hrapp saw the look he and Einar exchanged and knew those days were long gone; no-one struck Einar unless he had fast feet or a stronger arm. Few had both.
‘The raiding days are gone. The High King wants this Christ church. The jarl wants this Christ church and all the folk who want wealth want this Christ church.’
He pointed from one to the other. ‘You pair cannot give it. You pair, in fact, broke it. Now the bishop has ordered his own church-builder all the way from Hammaburg. And a proper smith besides.’
‘I am a proper smith,’ Einar said and both men could see the curl in him, the tightening. Ketil growled and shook his head.
‘Not now. You will give up your forge, which is the Jarl’s anyway. You can keep the tools, of course.’
‘And do what? Go where?’
‘Where you choose. Not here, though. Set up as smith somewhere else.’
‘It’s an insult,’ Hrapp said loyally and Ketil rounded on him.
‘What’s insulting is that you cannot build a church,’ he said. ‘You and Einar can team up, perhaps. Make hovs and fat cargo boats for folk elsewhere. Keep to the Old Gods somewhere else. I would go far, though – the new High King’s shadow is long.’
‘Me?’ Hrapp said, astounded. ‘I am working on the Blade. That I know well enough and the Jarl needs …’
‘What the Jarl needs is the memory of you pair as distant. The Sea Blade is no longer your concern – it is not even the concern of the Jarl. He has gifted it to the bishop.’
Hrapp’s mouth opened and closed a few times, but his throat wouldn’t work. Einar scowled at Ketil.
‘Gifted? What does a White Christ bishop need with a war-boat such as the Sea Blade? Will all those canting brown-robes man her oars? Strike down enemies with prayers?’
Ketil shook his head sorrowfully. ‘It is a symbol. Like everything else, they will pay folk to do their bidding. The Christ priests have the heart-blood of wars, Einar – silver. They know how to make it and how to spend it wisely.’
‘Only if folk can be bought,’ Einar answered curtly and had the brief, flickering satisfaction of seeing Ketil jerk as if gaffed. The noise was raucous now; Ketil had to lean forward, almost touching their heads, in order to be heard.
‘The Norns, if they even exist now, are weaving anew, lads,’ he said. ‘Their own wyrd-doom, if the Christ priests have it right. For me, I don’t much care, but I am sure that if you listen you can hear their loom shuttling for the last time. Get out of its way or have your threads snipped.’
They watched him go. Hrapp had the look of a sacrifice horse, the instant he feels the blade. Einar felt sorry for him – but the anger burned that away. It flared and consumed everything. Hrapp seemed to feel some of the uncomfortable heat of it, for he shifted sideways on the bench a little and took a long swallow from the horn. Then another.
Ketil went back to his place. There was a closeness of heads with him and the Jarl, a look from one, then the other, over to where Einar and Hrapp sat. Neither man cared for it.
‘I built his Blade,’ Hrapp said between swallows – which was mostly lie. He had helped with the keel-tree and a few planks, but it took a deal of men to build a warboat the size of the Sea Blade. Biggest ship ever seen in Bjornvik, never mind having been built there.
Einar thought it was a waste of tree. For the price and effort of the Sea Blade you could get five snakeboats like the Otter or the West Wind. Proper river-raiders, not a puffed-up keel-deep bloater like the Sea Blade.
‘Bloater?’ Hrapp said, astonished when Einar hoiked this up. ‘That’s a great warship. A fist you shake at your enemies. You can get a long-hundred of men in the Sea Blade – Othinn’s Arse, you’d need those five snakeboats to make that up.’
‘The Jarl doesn’t have five snakeboats,’ Einar pointed out. ‘He has two – and now he has handed that great sea cow to the White Christ bishop.’
In the morning, Einar went up to find Veleeda, the Wand-Wed. It was a trip he had done before, almost out of daring the first time, then the lure of curiousity and then, finally … something else. Some feeling like smoke he could not grasp. She would have answers.
She was higher up the thickly wooded slope, up where the pine scent was trapped under branches by the heat, so thick it swam your head. Where the summer hissed quietly and the insects swarmed until, suddenly, they were blown away by a breath of wind that rustled the trees as if they spoke. If they did, they whispered the names of the gods Einar fretted over, the ones who seemed to be powerless, for all their magic and Hammer, against the meek, unarmed White Christ.
Sometimes they were places of stones raised to the Old Gods, even older than the Aesir. Not in this place. This sacred place was not for the warriors, the Aesir. It was for the Vanir, who wreathed here with the mists and the sigh of wind. The gods of field and tree, who make crops for the earth and in the bellies of women.
She told him it was a place of peace and if he came with peace it would be a place of peace forever after. If he came troubled, he would find peace but could never take it away with him; this sacred place would be, forever, a place of troubles balmed and nothing more. So it had been, all his life.
Once over the wooded crest, thick with stunted pine and gnarl, the grass fought to keep scree between broken rocks. The crest wound round in a half-circle like a broken torc, then fell away back to the land below, spuming water like spilled blood.
Einar shaded his eyes with one hand. He had been here before and more than once but each time he found it just as hard to find Veleeda’s hov Yet it was there, a little hut made of grey stone, low to the ground and dug out so that it seemed built for a black duergar no bigger than a child, yet once inside you could stand up and the roof seemed lofty.
‘So, you come to me again, smith’s boy.’
It unnerved him, every time. She was not there, then she was, leaning on the long stick that gave her the name – Wand Woman – wearing wadmal ragged at the edges and hung about with odd weavings and old bones. Her face was blurred, as if a young one seen under the ripples of a clear mountain stream. She walked as if old, but never seemed to shuffle much of an existence of her passing into the grass or soil she trod.
‘I bring honey and news,’ Einar said. She nodded, as if she had known, then cocked her head and squinted at the sun.
‘Best come in, then, for the nights are cold. I have fire and something tasty in a pot. You can help me milk the cows.’
As if summoned – Hrapp, if he had dared be here at all, would have sworn it – two cows ambled round the edge of the rocks and walked quietly up to the hov. Tame as dogs, Einar thought, and knowing when milking was due. That was all.
Every time, he said this or something like it to the strangeness that was here. Every time. And each time he was less sure he was right.
He milked the cow and ate her pot-tasty, a broth with meat in it. She sat, creased and pleated face set with black eyes glittering out of slanting slices. He hair was white, bound back in a long single braid. She listened closely as he told her, seemed to Einar to listen more closely when he came to the nun. Perhaps Veleeda’s hair was not old, but white like that nun, he thought. Yet Veleeda did not have the strange eyes, or the pale lashes.
She licked honey from bread when he had done and nodded slowly.
‘Good gifts. Now – what else do you bring?’
Einar felt his heart start pounding and did not want to speak, though this was all of what had brought him here. In the end, he blurted it out.
‘Why have the gods left us?’
She hissed like water on a fire. Like a cat arching against shadows.
‘You should ask them.’
‘I do. I ask them every day. I beg for answers – yet every day, the White Christ and his father, the One God, bring more upset and misery. They are two and the Old Ones are many …’
‘Ask them,’ she persisted and poured mead into a horn beaker, offered it to him. ‘Go to Valhalla and ask them.’
‘I want answers, not death,’ he replied tersely. She laughed.
‘Valhalla lies to the east. Everyone knows that.’
Einar admitted it. They had talked of this before, about how you might travel to Othinn’s hall. Not sail all the way, for Einar had heard that there were seas and lochs big enough to be seas and rivers long enough to sail on, but all of them, sooner or later, ran dry and left you with boots in the mud.
And Valhalla was near the edge of the world. Or at least the entrance to it. It might not even be this world, Middle Earth, but on one of the other of the Nine, further up and down the World Tree.
The mead was bitter under the sweet and he made a face at it.
‘There is a quicker way,’ she said and the firelight bloodied her face, so that he blinked. ‘Ask them when you reach it.’
She seemed to shrug and the wadmal slithered from her shoulders and pooled at her waist. Einar was shocked, not just by the sudden appearance of her breasts – not entirely as withered as he had expected, he saw – but by the fact that she was skin-marked from below the neckline to the waist.
Everywhere. Black runes skeined round her as if she was a memory stone set up in some sacred place. His mouth went dry at the magic that was in them; they seemed to shift and glow in the firelight. It seemed as if the crackle and spit of it was louder, echoed as if he sat in a cave.
She stretched and flickered; he sat, unable to move at all while the wind whispered, but it wasn’t the wind, it was the alfar, the Silent-Moving Folk who could only be seen out of the corner of the eye, vanishing when you gazed directly at them.
Suddenly there was a whirr by his ear, and there was a raven that settled on his shoulder for a moment, plucked a tiny black feather from its breast, dropped it in his lap. With a shadowed leap and a clap of wings it was gone … followed almost at once by another. Another. Another — and then it seemed there was a cloud of birds whirling around Einar in the firelight, each dropping a feather.
Veleeda seemed frozen in stillness. Sound seemed frozen. Only the whirr of wings was there, and the soft pattering as the feathers fell like black snow. They fell in his lap. Shoulders. Chest. Hair. Where they fell it was as though holes were cut through him, as if he was shredded like smoke in a wind. Through his arms he saw the fire and the beaten earth. Through his left leg the mat he squatted on.
Then, in an instant, he was gone. In another, he was Somewhere Else.
The house was round; in it, there was a cot, a loom, a kist. There was a hearth in the middle. He sat in a stone-lined hole filled with hot water and she came and poured sweet oil of roses. She was small and dark, no larger than a girl, yet she bathed him as though she had been his mother and sang a song that made him weep for memory.
She was crooning softly when she slithered round to the front, where he was like a bar of iron and, while she sat gloriously on him, rocking gently until he felt he must scream aloud, the hut door banged open and something stormed in like a wind.
Big. A shadow more than a form. A voice that seemed to grind like stones and whisper like the aftermath of a storm wind.
‘Not his time.’
‘I know it. He was sent for answers.’
Now the water was reddening and Einar saw he was sitting in blood, thick and clotted. The woman on him smiled, but her eyes were sunken, the cheeks flaked and rot-holed so that the strake of her teeth showed when she smiled.
He could not scream, could not move. The giant shadow shoved down on him, a face like a rock with caves for eyes and blood tendriling like red hair. There was a hammer. Einar was sure there was a hammer.
‘Too many have forgotten. Too many are weak. Do what you will to balance that.’
The voice felt like the bones of his skull were being ground to powder. The woman stood, dripping red and looked at him. A worm fell from her red-lipped, rot-toothed mouth.
‘Whenever you feel weak, like the white-livers you know, remember this. Hel is watching. This face waits for you if you die like that.’
The hut trembled, the giant shadow flung back the door and a wind seemed to roar in that spun everything, whirled it up and tore it to ash and shadows. Tore him to ash and shadows, so that he rose up and up and felt himself ripped to shreds, to where he was nothing …
Then there was a sense of being. Of himself.
I left late in the morning, with a mouth like withered grass and a head to match. Blasted by visions and knowing everything had changed. That I had changed. Was me. Of myself, deep in the bones of me.
Veleeda knew, too. Asked nothing. Spoke only when I said I knew she had fed me some strange brew.
‘Next time you need to reach Othinn’s hall,’ she said, ‘you will have to walk.’
‘It was Hel’s hall,’ I said, remembering. She laid a hand on my arm.
‘No, she was there because Loki is her da. And she likes strong younglings like you.’
I wondered. Had she just herbed me into a state where I’d have fucked a haired floor, then used me up? Was it the sly of a reasty old crone of a Cunning Woman to scratch a winter-long itch?
I remembered the giant with the bloody hair. The hammer. The worm on ruby lips. Remembered how real it had been.
The walk was downhill, the forest mad with birds beating their songs back and forth between the branches, as if only for the joy of singing. The heat cracked open pine and oozed out the juicy scent, things scuttled and whirred; I remembered the blizzard of ravens. I sucked in the heat and the resin smell and all the birdsong, driving out the clotted shadows in me.
I smelled smoke and thought nothing of it – Hrapp’s charcoal burning. Then I smelled that iron reek and thought everything of it, fell into a fighting crouch and walked softly, taking a circled route in.
We made iron, da and me. Skillets and kettles, eating blades, curved ones for scythes with wooden handles. Nails – lots and lots of nails. Now and then we took broken swords and made long-knives out of what was left and, for these to be re-tempered properly, my da insisted on blood.
‘Pig blood,’ he said. ‘Closest to Man blood you can get’. He always sounded wistfully sad that it wasn’t actually Man blood, but it seemed to work all the same and the smell of it, hot iron and copper and reek, was the smell of the forge for me. The smell of my da, long gone …
It was everywhere here. There was a delicate fretwork of slow pits and pats, the dim of Hrapp’s hut was thick with stink, so that my throat closed. The patter was slow drops of thickening blood from the matt of his hair, dropping one by one on to the viscous, crusting pool beneath him, the blue-white coil of his insides writhing with droning black flies.
They had slaughtered him like a winter sheep, hung him by a rope tied to a bar thrust through both heel bones. Hauled him to the rafters and opened him up. There was a small knife thrust into his throat, the handle bone and carved.
I pulled the knife free. It was a finger long, no more. An eating knife that would never again be used for eating, but I would keep it. It was now a Truth Knife and the first truth it told was who had done this; this had been Svein’s knife.
The brothers had come, with enough skulking feet-kissers to make it no contest. Eirkr had probably done the heavy work, hauling him up and the like. Svein would have done the blood work, I knew. He liked that. And he had left this message, clear as anything, because he did not fear any retribution – it was both of us they had sought and they would keep seeking me.
I sat back on my heels while the flies circled and the reek choked. Sat there long enough to work out why the brothers would fear no Thing-ruling on a murder like this. Killing an outlaw was no murder.
The Christ priests would have arranged it, sanctioned it, blessed it in their canting way. Hrapp and Einar, outlawed. They would lie and say we had stayed beyond the obligatory days to quit the land – Svein had seen a challenge and wanted it answered.
I rose up on the timber balks of my legs and staggered out, to the sun and the birdsong and the clean rasp of charcoal smoke. I had caused this. Should never have been so foolish as to humiliate Eirikr and, by association his brother. Should have made longer nails,with barbs …
The great shadowed face, the bath of blood, the grinding-boulder voice: ‘do what you will to balance that’. And her face, worm slithering from ruby lips: ‘remember this face if you feel weak’.
I started a fire in the hut. It wasn’t hard and the flame burned clean with hardly any smoke. Burned off the blood reek in a heady perfume of pine resin, crackled and leaped with the Loki-joy of vicious release. It would probably burn the whole forest in the end – what did I care?
I only took two items with me. One was my forge hammer – the rest of the tools I left to melt with my old life and Hrapp’s flesh. The other was Svein’s knife, the Truth Knife.
I needed nothing else.
I knew some of them. Old Ma Njallson, gathering wood. Bjorn’s son querning flour by his da’s bake oven. It was ordinary enough, save for the grey-back women moving like a sick skein in and around a clutch of hovs I knew had once belonged to Hrapp’s family. They clearly lived there now and the anger swirled round me like the insects – they had moved in like lice and now I knew one other reason for Hrapp being killed.
I wanted to run at them all. It burned and twisted like wildfire – like the one I imagined burning behind me; once I saw Ketil and he looked directly at me, which froze all the leaping flames of me for an instant. Did he have such a power, to see me here, to know I was watching him?
Then he pointed and others followed.
The fire. They would see Hrapp, smoking to the sky. Take it, I thought with vicious triumph, and know I am coming.
I sat there all day, until the twilight insects finally grew tired of chewing on me and left. I rose up, stiff, worked a little out of the muscles. Smelled smoke, strong on the wind, coming from behind and to my left.
When I turned, the night glowed and I blinked back at it. My fire. Hrapp had taken it, had become it, one with Loki, was leaping, running with the wind through the trees, slowly growing and growing. Now the night wind that blew off the vik was turning him to revenge on the village.
It was coming down on the houses, heralded by legions of embers like flies; I thought I could feel the heat of it on me, too. I saw folk running this way and that, shouting as the sparks frosted the night. They started to bring water, at first dousing their own houses, then louder voices bawled and they started to form chains and soak all the nearest houses.
That was Ketil, for sure. The water made me realise I hadn’t drunk or eaten anything all day and now I really could feel the heat on my back, so I started down the hill towards them.
A few people on the fringes saw me, looked up. Big shadow with a hammer was what they saw at first and one or two screamed. I felt sorry for them, but then they had done nothing at all to stop what had been done to Hrapp and me. Nothing to stop the Christ priests coming.
I saw the nuns and the Christ-priests, too, with their warriors huddled round them like a cote round sheep. They could have helped, but they were all concerned with protecting the heap of half-cleared timbers that had been their church before it fell down. The nuns were shrieking and praying, which was all they seemed to be doing. Later, I found out that it was most of what they did at any time.
Houses had caught light now and the shouting and screams grew louder and higher. I walked past running folk who did not spare me much of a glance; now they were grabbing up what they could and heading out, anywhere away from the flames.
One of the Christ-warriors saw me at the church timbers and called out. Then he came up, trotting and sweating, his silly helmet slightly askew. I let him get close and swung the hammer, felt it jar, heard the crunch, saw him fall. I beat his helmet with it, same as I had once done making nails; it was poor work, that helmet. The segments split at the seaming and blood came out his mouth; I wondered if this was the one I had spoken with on the road. He had been friendlier than the others and I did not like to think on it being his head I had beaten to bloody pulp.
The other warriors – well, I called them that but really they were no more than carriers of spears – milled and clucked like chooks. The priests yelled out and the nuns fled into their hov and shut the door.
The warriors were easy. I supposed it was because of how I looked, with fire at my back making me a giant shadow with a hammer. I had become what I had seen in my Valholl-dream and felt it then, felt huge and laughed. My head was iced, my face flamed with the fire heat.
The first one went down without so much as raising his spear; the hammer took him in the face and felt like I had beaten in some poor daub. The next waved the spear and tried a jab. I broke the shaft with one blow and he squealed, so I smacked him on the upswing and his jaw flew off trailing blood.
The next two tried to come at me together but one lost heart in it and ran off sideways, throwing away the spear he had in one hand and the wind-whipped torch he had in the other. I felled the second with a blow between neck and shoulder that gave a crack like a wind-split tree.
The rest fled. The priests fled or cowered and I saw the bishop, trying not to tremble. Trying to stand up. He put his hands up, palms out.
‘The Lord is a God of mercy and bountifulness: be a source of mercy and bountifulness to your neighbors. If you will be such, you will find salvation yourself with everlasting glory.’
I paused and the priests moaned. Everywhere was shrieking and burning now.
‘Give mercy to men and you will be cleansed of your sin for ever more.’
I had a saying, too. I told him that and gave it to him.
‘Make a fire for a man and he’ll be warm for a day,’ I said. ‘Set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life.’
Then I picked up the torch and put it on the bishop’s robes. The rest of the priests shrieked and ran from him. He screamed, high and thin, staggering, flailing, becoming one more pillar of flame in the horror of the burning.
I turned away, to where the nuns huddled and cried out in their hov. I dragged the Bishop to the door and blocked it with his body, then set fire to it, so that his head bobbled and banged every time thenuns screamed and hammered to open it.
I turned away and I thought that now I would find Svein and Eirikr. I hadn’t thought what to do after that, hadn’t thought of anything – but they were nowhere to be seen. There were shadows, all the same and one of them was Ketil. The Jarl, too. I realized they were trying to save the ships from the flames and that Svein and Eirikr would be there.
Yet there was a little boat that would take me away. I hesitated. I could see Ketil and, for a moment, I thought he could see me. I went sideways towards the boat and into the darkness.
It was a little knarr with a square sail. You could sail it with six – or two. For all it was small, it was heavy and so was out from shore where it could float free, far enough that I had to swim the last little bit.
I stood to the ankles in the slight, rolling surf, bright with moonlight. That was because Ketil was coming up at a stumbling run. He even had his long-knife out and his face was blood-dyed by firelight and twisted with rage.
‘You did this,’ he roared. ‘I know it. You did this. You have doomed us all, Einar.’
‘They slaughtered Hrapp like a side of beef,’ I said. ‘Left a sign for me to find.’
He knew, that was clear. ‘I killed no-one but Christ-followers,’ I added, though I knew it would do no good.
‘You butchered priests and nuns,’ he roared back. ‘You burned the whole village. They will come back at us. You killed their god’s wives.’
‘They are a jest,’ I said. ‘They died easy – where was their god? You see that fire? That’s Loki. You see this hammer … this is Thor. Why are you so afraid of these folk, that you make out that the herd is better than the pack, the ox more than the wolf?’
He stopped then. Looked lost as any small boy far from home, which is a strangeness in a grey-bearded man.
‘They believe,’ he said in a cracking voice. ‘As we once did. When men believe like that, they cannot be stopped.’
‘The way they believe is for thralls. For those with no honour.’
He looked at me and his voice broke entirely, splintered into tears. ‘Our Old Gods have left us.’
It was so obvious I laughed and that wasn’t what he had expected.
‘They haven’t left us,’ I told him. ‘They have left you.’
He shrieked with the truth of it, the crushing weight of it. ‘You are wrong. You should have been smacked hard when the church fell. We were too easy on you …’
‘You were done with smacks long ago, Ironhand. Now you can do it to me only in your dreams, old man.’
He came at me in a clumsy rush with his longknife, stumbling and roaring in his anger. I sidestepped it, cracked the hammer on his armbone and broke the knife from his grip. He writhed, bellowing with pain and I stepped up close, put my foot on his wounded forearm and ground it into the shingle as I leaned down.
‘The gods are coming,’ I told him, knowing it, seeing it. I heard the ruby lips laugh delightedly.
‘The Norns are weaving something new. Get out of the way or have your threads snipped.’
He looked up at me, saw his wyrd. The hot flame-wind blew then and, for a moment, I saw what he saw – a giant shadow with crow-wing hair spread out, the hammer raised high.
I swam out to the ship like a walrus, floundering clumsy with the hammer in one hand, dragged myself over. I got the sail up and started to tack out of the bay. It was slow work, for the wind was wrong, but it wasn’t blowing back to the shore at least.
When I had time, I looked back at the red leaping and the black, flitting shadows. Hrapp was exultant, for sure, he and Loki both. I thought I heard shouts, thought I heard my name. I was sure it was Svein, or Eirikr or both.
Where now? I had not thought of it at all but the answer was clear.
Run with the wind. Let the gods decide.