The Old Gods: Extract


Face down, I draw in a heavy breath that tastes of rotting kelp, my left eye is closed by the sting of seagull shit, I can barely hold the shield I’ve had to borrow and I’m having my arse kicked by a girl. Perhaps that spiteful old skald was right and I will not be remembered. If the gods care for me at all, let me not be remembered for this.

‘Get up you flapping little fish! I’ve seen a dead pig’s cock stay up longer than you!’ The fat man’s hollered insult draws more laughter from his fellow onlookers, ringing shame in my ears, already buzzing from the last blow of this dog-daughter’s shield. I would answer the bastard back, but it is his shields I have to borrow and he only has one left for me.

I pull myself to my feet while the warrior woman lifts her hands to bait the crowd, drawing cheers by raising the handle of my fallen axe between her legs in mockery of manhood.

‘Give it to me,’ I gasp, putting out my hand to the fat man, who is crying fatter tears now as he snatches breath between laughter. ‘I am not done yet. I have one shield left. Give it to me!’

‘Shall I give it to him? Who wants to see him dance again?’ the man calls out, and I hear cheers filled with mockery and I feel the rage of humiliation. He throws the shield to me, over the deer-leap width of shallow water that separates this flat battle rock from the scorn-lined shore. His throw is short and it clatters against the barnacles that cling to the stone, sounding the hollow rattle of weak wood. It is not much of a shield; I suppose he would not have given it to me if it was. It would no doubt break as easily as the other two, and then I would have to defend myself with axe alone. At least that is what she will think I must do. I have other ideas.

This is not my first holmgang. I did not come to Kaupangen as a wet-eared braggart, for all these people mock me. I carried my axe for old Iron Beard, Jerskjegge. I bore my shield in his service and, if not for a long time, at least I bore it well. I cut down the brother of Ljóðolfr, the son of Gunnar the blacksmith, when we put down our cloaks on the shore of Stjørnfjorden and clashed between the hazel rods. I sacrificed two shields that day too, and yet it was his blood that kissed the cloth and closed our quarrel.

I hear more laughter. Behind me, this sword-witch raised the handle of my axe to my buttocks as I bent over and now she lifts her eyes questioningly to the crowd as if to ask where she should put it. I stand to face her and she smiles as she hands me back my weapon.

‘You will need this,’ she says, ‘if you know how to use it. Would you like me to show you how it works?’

I snatch the axe from her and she steps back, pulling her shield up with a deliberate show of slowness for the crowd. Her shield is strong. I see that. And her axe is sharp. She has confidence. I am relying on that. I will put my own axe to work, and lessons will be learned; though not by me – and I shall call my axe ‘Hard-Teacher’.

Of course, I should not be fighting her; it is another who should feel Hard-Teacher’s edge. There in the crowd I see the man I should be facing – not this steel-sinewed sorceress, but that sallow-faced, balding word-wrangler who cursed me in the first place. I throw him a look to let him know my insult still stands and he shrugs narrow shoulders that would not bear a weapon’s weight. There is no honour in killing old men, and so I accepted his champion, and he smiled when I saw who I was to fight. I suspect he saw some poetry in it. My words are not so delicately woven as a skald’s. I wield mine like a hand axe: short and sharp.

‘Argr skald!’ I call out to him. It is the gravest insult you can put to a man, and one he richly deserved when I put it on him first to provoke this fight. He calls himself skald – poet – but he plays at seer, doing women’s work in picking at the woven threads of fate. Unmanly: argr. ‘There will be no stories written of you,’ he had told me. He would curse me with that vision and so I would scold him as less than a man and so he must fight me.
‘Argr skald! Eilífr Goðrúnarson, you are an old woman! Even hiding in your skirts you will feel what it is to lose this fight. Your sorcery will not have seen this!’ I hurl my words like an ash spear at his pride and then I throw my shield – but not at him.

Twice my opponent has shattered my shields with her axe edge, twice I held them before me to take the force of her blows as she beat me down under their cover. Not this time. I pull back my arm and let fly. My shield rim spins towards her and she bends her back to drop under it. Just a moment without balance, a second of surprise, that is all I need, and I am on her. She pulls herself back up straight and, as her unsteady body rises to standing, my blade comes down to meet her and – shit! Who moves that fast?

Her shield-arm pushes up my axe-hand so that my death blow becomes a dull flap against the wind, wrist hanging helpless over the edge of linden wood and leather. In the same instant she pulls up her own axe and drives its broad edge hard into my softest parts. The pain roars from between my legs into the core of my body, burning me with a fire that explodes my senses. For a second it feels as if Thor himself has brought all the force of hammer and lightning to bear on my body. I cannot stand, but she does not let me fall. Instead she pulls me up by my hair and, through watery eyes, I see just enough to catch her smile before she brings her forehead down into the bridge of my nose. Blinded by the flash of pain-light, I stagger back and my foot falls from under me, pulling the rest of me down to douse the flames of my agony in the cold of seaweed and saltwater.

‘No,’ Eilífr Goðrúnarson says, ‘you are right, I have definitely not seen that before.’


I will give him credit. His arm may not have been strong enough to hold a sword against me, but Eilífr had strength enough to help pull me up from the water. The fat man too; he took the most of my weight. I did not like him, he had a pink and doughy face into which time had pressed a permanent smile, creases kept soft with a sheen of sweat. I should thank him for the shields, but they were made of worm-wood and I knew the price of them was simply to deepen that oily smile of his further.

Some of those on the shoreline had stayed long enough to throw insults or emptied crab shells at me, most had wandered off to seek whatever other distractions they could find in the temples, bars and brothels of Kaupangen. I saw one of those priests of the new king among the lingerers, his lip sweating as he watched my conqueror clean down her blade and I imagined which of those places would be his next call. I already knew mine.

‘I need a beer,’ I said. ‘A proper one.’

‘You shall have the best in Kaupangen,’ Eilífr said. ‘After all, you are paying.’

I had insulted Eilífr, scolded him. So he had no choice but to call the holmgang. This is the way it is, these are the rules. If he had lost – if his champion had lost for him – then he would lose all honour and be considered less than a man and scorned by all. That is the way it is too. And if I lost, then by rights Eilífr could demand everything I owned in compensation for my slander. Instead he demanded only six marks of silver, which would have been generous of him if it was not six more than I owned. But I would wait until we had beer in our belly before I told him that. Though perhaps he expected it, as he called on his tame valkyrie to join us.

‘You fought well,’ the woman said, and she slapped my lower back just where I am sure she knew her mark still burned.

‘Not well enough, it seems,’ I said, through teeth gritted at least partly by pain. ‘You are fast, I’ve never seen–.’

‘They always say that, don’t they, Eilífr? I’m always fast. Isn’t that right?’

The skald gave a sly smile. ‘That does seem to happen, Heitha.’

I looked between them, one to the other. ‘But you are fast?’

‘How fast was I when I beat down your second shield and kicked your arse into the seagrass, milk-boy?’


‘It’s funny isn’t it, Eilífr, how a man can have his nose bloodied by me when I am too fast for him, or too cunning, or too skilled in seiðr, but never when I am stronger than him. It is a strange thing to win so often and never be the strongest.’

‘I am not a milk-boy, I am a man.’

She didn’t laugh at that. I could not read her face, but I knew enough of what it showed that I might rather she had.

‘Well then, milk-man,’ she said, ‘let’s see if you drink better than you fight.’

I did learn something that day – that having your nose broken takes away much of the pleasure of drinking beer. It tasted only of bitterness, blood and iron, but by the fifth I began to notice its flavour less, and the pain also faded. My skald too, it seemed, was made less sour from the sweetness of barley.

‘I hope that there will be no hard feelings between us, boy. I never meant to goad you with my words, and you should not have taken them to heart. You are a good fighter – many a brave shield-warrior has gone the same way against Heitha, there is no shame in it.’

‘My name is Einar,’ I said.

‘Uh?’ The skald looked up, his eyes duller now even than age had made them.

‘Einar. Son of Leif, son of Einar. Spear-warrior of Skjegge Asbjørnson–’
‘Old Iron Beard? Poor sod. I’d keep that quiet if I were you, it’s not much of a boast and you don’t want to go the same way as him. You weren’t looking after him when they…?’ He gestured his hand shakily across his throat and I shook my head with a sigh.

In truth, I should have been, but he had sent me away before they pulled him from the temple and took his head. He’d been unwise enough to speak against the new king and his faith in the nailed god of the Franks. I liked Skjegge, we all did, but when he made a blood enemy of King Olav his followers melted away like sea ice in spring. I had sworn my oath to a lord, but there is a point when few enough remain under his command that he knows he can be called a lord no more. So I’d come to Olav’s town to look for a new gold-giver, and instead I’d lost everything I owned to this drunken poet and I needed to work out where I would go next and how I could get out of this tavern without Heitha seeing me. But that could wait; Eilífr’s credit seemed good enough that they took his word I would be paying, so I might as well be hanged for a barrel as a cup.

‘At least my lord didn’t get his head cut off by a slave in a pig-sty,’ I said. ‘I would love to hear the drapa you wrote about that.’

Eilífr’s face darkened suddenly. ‘Haakon Jarl was a good man.’

‘Haakon The Bad was good? Didn’t he whore the daughters of noble men and horde gold for himself? I see your skill with words, skald, you turn them right on their heads.’

‘Haakon The Powerful, boy. Don’t be taken in by what your lord-killers want you to believe. A king is not like a normal man, if you want to kill him you need to kill him twice – once with the sword then again with words. Haakon was a good man, but Olav has good skalds.’

I nodded for two more beers. ‘I am sorry. I suppose we both look for work now then, I must find people to fight and you must find those to write to death.’

I was relieved to see him smile. ‘I write for Olav now,’ he said, sucking at the brimming top of his freshly poured beer. ‘I am one of those skalds trampling the dirt on poor Haakon’s grave. But I have no appetite for it – there is no poetry in the deeds of their god. I am a poor imitation now of who I should be.’

Beer can ease the pain of a broken nose, but I know too it can worsen that of a broken spirit, and I saw sadness in Eilífr’s dull eyes. For a moment I sensed a softness in him, the bitter sweetness of melancholy. Perhaps now would be a good time to ease in a little more disappointment, while his heart-courage was laid too low to rise up in anger.

‘Eilífr, I must tell you something.’

He pulled in his new cup to his chest, though I could see there was still a good draw left in his old one. ‘What is it, boy?’

I swallowed hard on my beer, not putting down the cup until it was drained. ‘I know you are a good man, and a great skald, and that the gods put generosity into a poet’s heart so–’

He sat up and pulled hard at his ear, glancing around the room as he did, before turning back to me. ‘Don’t feed me horse shit and call it honey, boy. What is it?’

‘The thing is…’ I followed his lead in checking the room to see if I could catch any sign of that she-demon Heitha, and I wondered now if I shouldn’t have waited for him to drink just one more cup before speaking. ‘The thing is, I don’t have six silver marks. I can’t pay you what I owe you. I’m sorry. I will find it. If I can win glory with–’

‘Is there a problem, Eilífr?’ She had come up behind me as if from nowhere, and I thought perhaps she was a seiðr-witch after all. And now there was another with her, looming on my other side – a man who looked as if he could stand a good half-head taller than me and must know the shield wall, from the scar on his face.

‘No, Heitha. Stígulf.’ Eilífr nodded to the tall man, who dipped his head in response. The boy here was just telling me… well, why don’t you tell them yourself, boy, after all it’s their money too. Heitha doesn’t work for free.’

The tall man glared at me. I stood to face him, and realised I may have missed another half-head off my estimation. I looked into a face that carried far too many marks of experience, and none of humour. I forced a weak smile. ‘I was just saying that right now. Here. Today. I have a temporary issue with getting hold of the silver that–’

‘He’s got no money!’ Heitha snarled. ‘You little bastard, you swore that money before the fight.’

‘I wouldn’t say I swore it. It was more a… suggestion really. I–’

The tall man caught hold of my shirt and the weight of his arms pushed me down to pin me on the table. Big as he was, I would have fought back, but now Heitha’s dagger was at my throat.

‘Give me what you have, pay for these beers, then I will take you outside and we can finish what we started on the holm.’ She glared at Eilífr. ‘And you can make up the rest. I’m sorry, Eilífr, but you should check their marks before you send them to me.’

Eilífr nodded. ‘I suppose that is fair. What do you have, boy? Let’s settle this here in a calm manner.’ He addressed those last words to my assailants.

‘Nothing,’ I mumbled.

‘I’m sorry?’ Stígulf growled.

‘Nothing. I have nothing. I don’t have a quarter mark. I can’t even pay for these beers.’ I braced myself for Stígulf’s fist, or something sharper. Instead Eilífr stood up and put his hand across me to take the big man’s arm.

‘You’ll get nothing for killing him. Come, let him up.’ Stígulf slowly loosened his grip, enough to throw me firmly into the table and stand back off me.

My head snapped back on the hard wood and a little of Eilífr’s beer splashed out across my face. ‘You will get your money, Heitha. It is to me he owes his promise, and I will see he pays it.’

I rubbed the back of my head. It was wet – a check of my fingers told me it was from beer not blood. ‘You’ll get your silver,’ I said. ‘You just need to give me a little time.’

‘No,’ Eilífr said, smiling as he wiped what was left of his ale from his grey whiskers. ‘You are going to give me a little time. About two years of it, I would say.’

Heitha glared at him. ‘You’re not seriously suggesting–’

‘Suggesting what?’ I asked, and Stígulf shook his head while Eilífr laughed. Neither gesture filled me with confidence.

‘Maybe I was wrong about you, boy.’ Eilífr grinned. ‘Maybe I will write about you after all.’

3: Groenland

I had come to Kaupangen to find glory, to give my spear arm to a new lord, to give my oath to a king. And instead I find myself honour-bound to a wine-wasted poet who can barely summon the will to write yet wants to find the edge of the world. And instead of standing in the van of King Olav’s army I am to nurse two feeble priests through frost-hard waters to the lands beyond Ísland, just so they can spread their stories of nailed gods to the outlaws and half-wild Skraelings who make their burrows in the earth there. The gods punish me for abandoning Iron Beard, I know it.

Eilífr is tired of life, I think. He seems to believe he will find poetry again in the wastes of the north waters. He has looked hard for it in the bottom of a cup, and doesn’t find it – yet I would say it would be easier to discover in that small water than in all the vastness of the ocean. But I am not tired of life – I am far from tired of it, it has only just begun for me.

For 12 summers after my mother nursed me I sailed with my father; buying sealskin, tar and saltfish wherever they would ask the least for it, and selling it where they would pay the most. And for four more I was lodged at Østråt and paid my keep with my axe and my shield and my spear. In truth, I was not called on to pay in that currency more than a handful of times, but I know my worth, and I was ready to show it, and to take my place in the world, until Eilífr goaded me. Now I wonder if he had meant to trap me with words – though I do not think he has the wit to do that, and perhaps I simply caught myself up in my haste to heroism.

King Olav has the fire of the Franks’ god in him. He demands his people burn with the same flame, and will convince them with priests’ words or a spear’s steel. That is why my old lord died, that is why Olav put a snake in the mouth of the blood-priest Raud and took his beautiful ship. It seems this Franks’ god is a jealous one, who asks all men to worship him alone and will tolerate no others, and so Olav seeks to please him by having his name sung even to the ends of the world. This last summer, that king sent a priest of the jealous god to preach his faith among those they say have found a new land in the far seas. Perhaps one priest is not enough for a whole land, and so two more go now. And a skald to tell their tale, and some of us who will keep the priests from being killed, as it seems their god – for all his power – cannot do that on his own.

I have nothing against this jealous god – he speaks of peace while his worshippers kill to show his truth, but that is how I know gods to be. I will give him service if it is required, but for this journey I need a god I can trust. So I play nicely with the priest who has come to clean my soul for the journey, but I will not turn my back now on those who have helped me in the past. Not when I will need them more than ever.

‘Where are you from, boy?’ I called him boy, though in truth he may be older than me – he just fits that name better. The priest chewed up his words in an accent I don’t know, and his nerves made his mumbles softer still.

The boy is as thin as a withy stick, and sways like one as he talks, pulling at his fingers and picking at the nail ends. ‘I came as a boy from the west, from Northumbria, lord. My father’s father’s father was a priest in the service of Erik Bloodaxe who was of Jorvik there, lord. They say he was one of those that opened that hard warrior’s eyes to the light of God.’

He calls me lord, I try not to laugh. I imagine outside of other priests the only men like me this boy speaks to expect that title. I wasn’t going to stop him just yet.

‘And what is your name, boy?’

‘Per, lord. Per Christiansson.’

‘That is a good name for you.’ I said. ‘I am Einar Liefsson, which is a good name for me.’

Per looked confused. ‘Lord?’

‘A name is more honest than a story, my old lord used to tell me.’

He reddened, his long face bobbing nervously somewhere between a nod and a shake.

I waved my hand to clear his confusion. ‘It’s nothing. And please, stop calling me lord. I’ve lost the humour of it. Call me Einar.’

‘Yes, lord… Einar.’ He blushed again.

There was silence for a moment, then we went to speak at the same time and I gestured for him to give his words first.

‘Lor– I’m sorry. Father Kjell, my master, he says King Olav has said, that all new men on the journey must be of the true faith, he says.’

‘Is that what he says? Well, my faith is true so that should make it easy for him.’

The boy priest looked at the pendant I wear about my neck and his hand went to his own, a cross of wood he fumbled nervously. ‘I wonder, if… if you might…’ He pointed at my faith token, a hammer of iron. I smiled.

‘You think I should wear a cross?’

‘It would just help, you know. Just, so I can say… maybe turn it upside down?’ His voice rose with the question like a child mewling for his mother’s milk. I could see why they needed us on this journey, but if they need our axes they must take our hammers too.

‘I will tuck it under my shirt, how about that? Will that stop your master casting me into the fire?

‘That would help,’ he said, forcing his lips to a wide smile that showed teeth so crooked and small he might be a child after all.

I might have shown more resistance to his plea, but if I had learned anything from my meeting with Heitha on the holm it was that I will live longer if I pick my fights more carefully. That damn skald owns me, and he wants me on this trip – no doubt to punish me further. He will insist on it, loudly and in public, and in King Olav’s town it is fine to worship whichever god you choose, unless you make yourself known as one who stands against the Christ, and then they’ll boil your innards with hot coals. It’s the king’s ship, so I’ll keep my hammer tucked away, at least until we are far enough from land that I fear the thunder of Thor and the waves of Rán more than I do the fire of a christian king.

Per’s nervous twitching seemed to settle a little once he thought he could tell his master he had made a believer of this heathen. I wondered if perhaps they would make him one of their saints for it, once I had found my proper place in the world. From what I have heard of it, you have to die badly before they give you that honour, and I was sure there would be opportunity enough for that where we were going.

I was to meet Eilífr back at the inn on the eve of our sailing. There he would introduce me to those who would be my sword-companions on this trip. I would have chosen a different place to meet, as I had been in that inn twice with that skald and the first time saw me get my nose broken by a she-wolf and the second tied to a ship bound for Hel. As I stood outside that familiar door again, I imagined if we all made it back out of there today without bloodshed I would consider it a good introduction.

The skald was in his familiar place, close to the fire and spouting his verses to those who would buy him a beer to hear their name in one. That is where I had seen him first, and paid my ale-price for his services. ‘Yours is not a name that should be heard in verse,’ he had told me. ‘I see no drapa for your honour, no stories of your deeds.’ Is it any wonder I scolded him?
My face must have betrayed my thoughts as I watched him flatter some grey-bearded, one-eyed brawler with paid-for praise of his half-arsed glory, and I felt a hand on my shoulder.

‘I can understand why you wanted to put an axe in his bald crown, he’s a cunning old bastard that one.’

I turned to see the smiling face of a man I assumed must be one of those warriors who would join me on my trip. Only a sword-skilled man puts his hand to a stranger in a tavern with such confidence.

He studied me carefully, the beginning of a mischievous smile playing on his bright face. ‘Judging by the way you’re looking at Eilífr, and the state of your nose, I guess you must be Einar? I am Arne, son of Arne. Who was also son of Arne, as it happens. When you are on to a good thing, why change it?’

I didn’t respond more than to lift an eyebrow, which didn’t deter him from putting out his hand.

‘I think I should get you a beer,” he said. ‘We are going to spend a lot of time in each other’s company and I find you don’t really know a man until you’ve seen him drunk.’

I took the hand he offered, though not with any great enthusiasm. I took the beer more willingly and drew deep from it to wet the parched root of my dry tongue. ‘Did Eilífr use his seiðr to get you on this gloryless trip too?’ I asked, nodding back towards where the old skald was now soft-talking some poor tavern girl who had drifted into his word-net.

Arne grinned broadly. His face echoed the confidence of his manner. It seemed far too well-made to belong to a warrior, or maybe he just moved his head more quickly than I managed. If I had that face, I thought, I might take more care of it. ‘No, I am here for the money.’ He looked quickly about the room, then leaned in to talk more quietly into my ear. ‘And it suits me to be away from here, for a little while at least. Come, take a seat.’ He gestured to an empty place on one of the tavern’s low benches and we sat down.

Arne pulled round a sword-sheath that was tied to his belt, shifting it so that he could sit more comfortably. The green and gold of the leather looked well-made, and I wondered why someone who could afford what was in it would need to make such a trip as ours. Whoever he was running from must be formidable. Or perhaps she had a formidable husband.

‘Nice,’ I said, nodding my head at the leatherwork.

‘Isn’t it, though?’ he said. ‘Take a look at this.’ He pulled up the scabbard to lay across his lap then carefully drew the sword out, just halfway, beneath the table so as not to draw attention. The hilt was plain but well-made, but the blade shone with silver and the swirl of forge-fire, like the sheen on water where pine-tar is boiled. I let out a sharp whistle. ‘Pretty, isn’t she?’ he said. ‘Frankish-made, so you know she’s good. And she cuts even better than she looks. When we are outside I will let you hold her, the balance on her is incredible.’

I nodded. ‘I’m more of an axe man myself, but she’s a beauty alright. Does she have a name?’

He pulled his shoulders back a little and sniffed sharply. ‘I call her Soul-Chopper. Suits her, I think.’

I shrugged. ‘I guess. I would have gone for Soul-Splitter, it runs off the tongue better.’

His mouth turned a little. ‘Shit! That is better. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s too late to change it isn’t it? Yes, it’s too late, you can’t do that. Shit. You should be a skald.’

I laughed. ‘At least then I could write my own drapa, I suppose.’
Arne put Soul-Chopper away and adjusted his belt. ‘If you want to be a hero you might have picked a better quest than this one.’ He swallowed a mouthful of beer and gulped. ‘Um, of course, you didn’t have a choice. Bad luck that, but we will have some adventures I’m sure.’ He slapped my arm and a splash of my beer spilled down the front of my shirt.

I pulled the wet shirt cloth from where it stuck to my chest and looked around the inn, at the benches of ale-blushed faces, at the men with thick bellies and thin arms and ink-blackened thumbs and I sighed. ‘I think I was born in the wrong time,’ I said. ‘The world is not how it was, nor as it should be.’

Arne, I could see, was not paying full attention to me and was smiling at one of the serving girls who blushed and turned her head to hide her own smile. ‘Um, yes. How should it be?’

‘Look at this place the king had built for himself. We are in the Land of the Strong, and he calls his town Kaupangen? That’s not a home of heroes, that’s a name for shopkeepers. They’re building a king’s town and half of it is for tax-collectors.’

Arne shrugged. ‘All kings need gold, I guess it’s easier to get it from open purses than closed burgh walls?”

I put my hand down on the table firmly. ‘There was a time when men could win all there was to win on earth with an axe or a sword. Now it is all done with honeyed words, by scribes and diplomats and money counters. All that bald skald writes about is politicians and priests. You might be better using Soul-Chopper to open the seal on some audit – I’m sure Eilífr has a verse for that.’

Arne gave me a look that spoke of concern and warm amusement in equal measure. ‘I am sure we can find some Skraelings for you to fight, and I’ll write a verse for you afterwards if that helps.’

I laughed and shook my head. ‘If you write verse as well as you name swords I might rather keep my name out of that one.’

He gave a lop-sided smile. ‘Well, anyway, if we keep those priests safe maybe our names will be in their prayers and sung to a god. That’s something isn’t it?’

I thought I might enjoy Arne’s company on the journey to come, but now the beer and the conversation just reminded me of what I had given away to that skald. ‘I just want to be remembered as a hero. Is that too much to ask?’

It may not have been too much, but it was the wrong time to ask it. The words had no sooner left my mouth than I saw the shadow of that lanky oaf who had held me down for Heitha’s blade the last time I sat in this place, and he had heard me.

‘You just want to be remembered as a hero?’ The tone of his voice told me he planned to enjoy this, and my heart sank. ‘The last time I saw you, you were arse-down in the sea with your arms and legs flapping around and your eyes full of tears. You looked like a little cuttlefish, that’s how I’m going to remember you.’

He turned to the room now and I shrank back into the bench, looking anywhere but up. ‘Hey everyone, Einar the Cuttlefish wants to be remembered as a hero. Shall we sing of how Heitha took his balls?’

Arne put down his beer slowly and spoke without looking up from it. ‘Perhaps if you hadn’t been so keen to give your balls to Heitha you wouldn’t have a face like a pig’s bladder, eh Stígulf?’

I expected Soul-Chopper would have to be drawn, they were words that should have been answered with a blade. Instead, Stígulf growled and spat a curse under his breath then moved to the far end of the bench to join some other men who I was sure, from the look of them, must also be bound for our boat.

‘I will keep my eye on you, Cuttlefish,’ he shouted back across the table, before taking his place to find a beer pushed into his heavy hand. He shook his head and drew deep from the cup.

‘That was… bold,’ I said.

Arne shrugged. ‘Just honest. He’s a big man, but not so good with a blade that he won’t suck up the truth when it is told to him.’

‘So, are he and Heitha–?’

He swallowed hard on a mouthful of ale, wiping the wet from his thick moustache. ‘They are like brother and sister; so she says anyway. They came here together from Rus a good few years back. He helped her kill her husband. There’s a good story in it, you should ask Eilífr about it, he would tell it better than I could.’

‘But she gave him the scar?’ I said, cautiously throwing a glance across the table to where Stígulf’s thick fingers self-consciously tapped around the mark Arne had reminded him he carried.

‘One time, in drink, I hear, he forgot for a moment what it is to be a brother and Heitha had to remind him. It was a while ago, and forgotten now. Or he hopes it is. He tells everyone the scar is from the shield wall at Novgorod, and the quickest way to get rid of him is to ask him about that. It works like a magic charm.’

‘I must remember that,’ I said. ‘I get the feeling I may need it.’

Arne’s head shot up, and I saw the others sitting with Stígulf immediately do the same. Across the floor of the tavern I could see a man walking where their eyes followed. Wiry and weather-worn, with a face as thin and vicious-looking as a ferret, he looked back at them without acknowledging any greeting.

‘Look sharp,’ Arne whispered, ‘Here’s the man whose name you’ll be cursing for the next two years, so you’d better learn it now. Good afternoon, Halvar!’

The thin man didn’t answer. He looked across the bench and at the gap between the two groups then shook his head. ‘Where is Heitha? Who the hell is this?’ He pointed at me while looking the other way.

‘That is Einar the Cuttlefish,’ Stígulf growled. ‘He’s Eilífr’s new pet.’

‘Oh Christ,’ the man sighed. ‘Eilífr, get over here.’

At least he was a man of the faith, I thought. That should keep the priests happy, but I wasn’t filled with confidence by his greeting of me to his crew. Eilífr stood up stiffly from his place by the fire, shaking himself out enough to let us all know what an inconvenience he was putting himself to.

‘Yes, Halvar. What is it now?’

Halvar pointed at me again, still not looking. ‘Who is this? Can he fight? Who is paying for him?’

Eilífr looked at me as though it was the first time he’d seen me, inspecting me like a sheep at market. ‘He’s paying for himself. He says he can fight, although I’ve not seen any evidence of that. He is the son of Leif Einarsson.’

Now Halvar looked at me, and it satisfied me to see his expression change.

‘Leif Einarsson? Of Saehestr?’ He spoke the name of the ship as if it were my father’s home, which I suppose it was.

‘I am his son.’

‘He was a fine sailor. I hope you are half as good.’

I nodded. ‘No more than half, but that is enough.’

‘It is,’ he said, then turned to the others. ‘Right – sit up. Where is Heitha?’

‘I am here, Halvar – you know I am never late.’ She had slipped in as quietly as she had ambushed me at my table the other day. I would swear she was a ghost if I didn’t know her forehead was too solid for that. ‘I had some business to attend, it is settled.’

Her mouth was blooded and a broad scratch ran down her cheek, swelling to red. I assumed she settled the account in her favour, and felt a little empathy with whoever had got the poor end of the deal.

‘Good,’ Halvar said. ‘So, most of you know who I am and what we are doing, so I am not going to keep you from your drinking for long. Trond, you’ll be pleased to hear that.’ He nodded to a thick-set man with a beard that looked like it held more beer than his cup, and the man grunted back. ‘We leave before the first tide tomorrow. This is a king’s journey, so please try not to fight with each other or there will be forfeit from your pay. And don’t fight with the priests or you’ll forfeit your life. You who are heathens, keep your damn mouths shut until we are in the water, and then keep your mouths shut anyway. You, Einar and you, Geirr,’ he gestured to a fair-haired, square-faced man sitting awkwardly on the hard edge of the bench, ‘I don’t know much of either of you, so come at dawn and help with the loading. I want to see what you are made of. That’s it, now drink yourselves stupid and you can puke it into the harbour tomorrow. Puke on my ship and I’ll get Asbjørn to wipe it up with your beards. That includes you, Heitha.’

There was no trace of humour in his voice, but I assumed that last part was a joke. Heitha laughed, so at least she thought it was. From the way the others turned to look at him, I assumed the puke-cleaner must be the man at the far end of the table who I had been eyeing cautiously since he came in. Stígulf was big, but I swear he would fit in this man’s pocket. He must have been another head taller still than that bastard, and as much wider either side, with a chest like a herring-barrel and a beard as thick as the forest at Namsenfjorden. I hoped he would be there if we ever actually had to keep these priests safe from Skraeling, and the gods help those wretches if he is. I made a promise to myself that I would try to get off on a better footing with that one than I had with Stígulf and Heitha.

‘Right then,’ Arne said, standing suddenly. ‘Tomorrow we sail for Groenland and I am suddenly painfully aware that I will have to look at all of your quite remarkably ugly faces every day for at least two years, so I intend to stay drunk for most of that time, starting now. Who wants another one?’

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