Hengist glanced back at the smoldering town of Finnsburg, that he had ordered burned the night before. A strong spring wind from the south filled the big sail of his longboat, carrying the boat to the mouth of the sea, then rapidly into the sea itself. The strong wind made rowing unnecessary, so that several men were staring back at the column of smoke from a gutted Finnsburg. Only the helmsman Eaha Cerdwulfing had duties to perform. Most of the warriors were sleeping off a busy night of killing and rape. Some young women captives were silently weeping, not wanting to be cuffed for disturbing the sleep of their new masters. Some young children were bunched about the mast, also silent. Their parents had been killed the night before, and they had a life of slavery in Jutland to look forward to, having no one to ransom them. Hengist spared them a glance, then looked back at his column of ships.
First in line was Hnaef's longship, now under Ordlaf Hunlafing's command. Its dragon head was not taken off. "Let the Frisian land spirits tremble even at the departure of the vengeful Danes," Hengist thought as he grinned the wolfish grin that was the last thing King Finn saw on earth. The longship was 100 yards behind and slightly to the left of Hengist's boat. The two ships belonging to Ordlaf and Guthlaf were arranged behind Hnaef's ship. Hengist's brother Horsa captained the rear longship, half a mile distant from Hengist.
Hengist glanced at his brother's ship. "I posted him there so that he could help me watch over my interests. I would not like our Danish neighbors to forget their obligations so soon. I wish that I could have talked with him last night. I would like to have found out what was going on this winter at home while I enjoyed Finn's 'hospitality.' But he had women to sport with, enemies to kill, and treasure to find. We split the treasure and other booty when we get to Viborg. Then I shalll discuss with the Danes what they owe me, a most pleasant prospect." Hengist rubbed his hands together and chuckled.
Hengist's eye went back to Hnaef's ship, where he saw Queen Hildeburh hectoring a figure next to the steersman. "That silly woman is bitching out poor Ordlaf over us killing that idiot Finn and then burning down the town. Almost can hear her from here. Perhaps I did Finn a favor. Silly woman doesn't know how things work in real life. Well, better that Ordlaf have to listen to it all the way to Denmark than me. She is his kin, and Ordlaf got it coming to him. He asked for it, since he demanded that I not kill her or her family and that we take the lot of them back to Denmark.
But I wonder what people will think when word gets around about what happened there. I didn't specifically swear to not avenge my king come spring. But I did give that impression, didn't I? Yes, I did, and good thing too. We would not have survived Finn's treachery otherwise. We couldn't have forsworn revenge. It is a shameful thing to survive your lord's death without a pile of enemy dead to guide him to Valhalla. I did what I had to do to satisfy the demands of honor. I will kill anyone who questions what I did without giving me an honest alternative to what I have done."
Hengist's grin faded away and was replaced by a grim line. He glanced away from the smoky column rising to the skies and glared around the longboat. No one was on either side of him. No one had seen any emotions flicker across his face.
Hengist took a breath, sighed, and then smiled. Taking a few steps toward Eaha at the helm he said, " Tell your replacement to find a safe place for us to camp on the shore tonight. We should have left Frisian territory by then and gained the territory of our cousin Saxons. Do not camp close to a town. I don't want what has happened to get out before we get home and are safe. I want a simple place where we can tie up and light a fire. With good fortune, we will pick up a south wind tomorrow and make home in a few days. Fortune favors the bold, especially if he is one of Woden's children. See that this is done, Eaha."
"Yes, Lord," said Eaha. " It will be done as you say."
Hengist grasped his helmsman's shoulder and squeezed it. Then he lay down on the deck, bundled up his cloak, and basked in the sunshine. He was asleep in a few seconds.
Hengist was awakened shortly before sundown. Osric Haralding, Eaha's replacement, had him wakened by one of the slave girls. Hengist looked at the smudged face, gray eyes, and brown hair, then asked, "What's going on?"
The frightened girl shrank away, then Osric said, " I thought that you would enjoy her face rather than mine telling you to get up."
"It was good of you to think of me. But while I am not adverse to a little pleasure, this is not the time or place for it. Your Lord will not put on a public display of rutting and grunting. Besides, the girl is not my property. I much prefer money. So are we at a good place for the night?" asked Hengist.
"See for yourself, Lord. It is a small mudflat in the midst of the marsh. It is big enough for our needs, with plenty of driftwood for a fire. It is a bit early in the season for mosquitoes. We probably won't come across better before night."
"Very well, pull in. We camp here."
Hengist helped Eaha roll in the sail, while most of the other men picked up the oars and started rowing toward the raised mudflat. The men in the other ships saw the sail taken down and proceeded towards the mudflat. A few minutes before the sun had set, all the boats were tied up for the night. A few of the new slaves tried to leave the boat, but were warned to stay on board the ships. Slaves had no business wandering around, and were only allowed to answer calls of nature.
Hengist called his chieftains to the fire where they discussed upcoming plans.
Ordlaf Hunlafing asked, "Shouldn't we have gone on rather than camp so close to Frisia?" His brother Guthlaf nodded in agreement.
"I don't think so," Hengist said. "The men were tired, after being up all night. There is no one who could be on our trail. If we maintain a watch tonight, none of the slaves should escape, even if they had such an inclination. Tomorrow if we have a good wind and row hard, we can get up the coast past the Angles to the southern part of my kingdom. I do not wish what has happened in Frisia noised about before we get home. My cousin King Eomaer might take it into his head that he has a call on a portion of our booty. Who wishes to pay a tax on his gains?" asked Hengist.
For a second no one spoke up.
Horsa grinned and said, "Can't have that happening. If Eomaer wants money, let him steal it himself!"
"My sentiments exactly," Hengist said. "If you want to sail through tomorrow night, we can make that decision in the morning when the sun comes up. Any questions?"
The Danish brothers looked at each other and shrugged.
"Ordlaf, please keep Queen Hildeburh from disturbing me on the trip back. She is your kinswoman. You did not want her killed, and I agreed. But I do not want to hear from her if I can help it. It was necessary for me to kill Finn and order Finnsburg burned. She probably holds me responsible for last night's actions. The woman is your responsibility. Keep her away from me unless I call for her. Understood?" asked Hengist.
"Yes, Hengist. I realize that you did nothing that I didn't agree with. What we did had to be done for the sake of honor. But the woman had a son killed, then we killed her husband last night. This morning she had to leave a son behind. She is bewildered and somewhat bitter. I can't blame her for her bitter tongue today. Can you?"
Hengist said nothing.
"I will keep her from your sight as much as possible. But I think that we should make allowances. Shouldn't we," Ordlaf said, making his last question seem more like a statement
Hengist nodded. "Certainly. I'll see you and the rest of the captains in the morning. You and your brother come over to my fire, and we will have porridge."
"Good night then, Hengist, Horsa. See you in the morning, when we discuss sailing plans," Ordlaf said. Turning around, he walked toward the fire next to his ship.
Horsa waited until Hunlaf was out of earshot. He looked at Hengist and said, "He is a good man."
Hengist said, "A good man who owes me a debt. A good man who doesn't like owing anybody anything. Do you know all of what happened at Finnsburg last winter?"
"A bit. Ordlaf told me that Finn turned treacherous last winter. He allowed Garulf to attack you. That Hnaef was killed and that Finn was afraid to drag you out of his father's hall, so Finn made you and Ordlaf his sworn men until spring arrived. That you and Ordlaf made a deal to avenge Hnaef. That you wanted me to come and help bail you out of the hole that you had gotten into, big brother. All that and a number of other things."
"Ordlaf has sworn that he will support me for election to King of the South Danes when the Council of Ealdormen meets to decide the succession." Hengist glanced away from where Ordlaf's ship was beached and faced his brother. "Hnaef left no son, and Ordlaf is next in line. If the Hoclingas clan will not accept me, and there is a good chance of that, then Ordlaf owes me support whenever and whenever I need it. The Danes have been our friends ever since we allowed the Hoclingas clans to settle on vacant lands among us when they left Denmark. They will not be able to deny me rulership without good reason. Perhaps if I marry into the clan, even Hildeburh Hocsdottir . . . ."
"I greatly doubt that Hildeburh would go along with that! I thought that you didn't want to hear the fool woman," Horsa said. "Besides you are already married, and to one of our powerful clans."
" A minor matter. What's another wife or concubine as long as you are able to provide for them in a manner that lets them put on a few airs?"
"Oh? Which woman will be content to be wife number two or just another concubine of noble status?" Horsa asked, grinning.
"Hoc, founder of the Hoclingas clan, was himself just a common soldier when he came from southern Denmark. He became a chief through his ability to handle a sword. He was not a noble, much less descended from Woden. And as far as women's notions are concerned, I am not a man who keeps from getting what he wants just because a woman might be irked. I will keep Gunhild happy by making Aesc king of the Jutes and by making any son by a Hoclingas woman King of the Danes. A good compromise!"
"Ordlaf will jump for joy! I can just see it now! Well, let's see what Grandfather Woden does about your plans when they come up. I've noticed that a sharp sword helps fulfill the Vanir's will."
Hengist drew Hildeleoma. "A sword such as this?" he asked.
Horsa drew in a breath. "Hoc's great sword, Battle-Bright! How did you get it?"
"Ordlaf put it in my lap. He must have thought it would make me amenable to a deal to kill Finn. I wanted to kill Finn anyway, but why not be paid for something that you intended to do in the first place?" Hengist said, grinning. "What do you think of it?"
"What do you say to letting your brother getting a look at that fine weapon?"
Hengist paused for a second, then laid the three-foot blade by the flat in his brother's outstretched hands. The gray steel, double-edged, pattern-welded sword had a broad, shallow groove down the center until it ended four inches from the point. The bronze hilt was shaped like an hourglass, but was unbelievably flat where the hand grasped it. The handle had two raised silver rings in the middle of the hilt, letting the middle finger rest in the groove between them, so a desperate hand could hold it correctly of a dark night. On the pommel was two gold rings, swear rings. A warrior could swear loyalty, and a lord could promise support together with this wonderful sword. A thong could also be put in one of the rings and then tied to the scabbard. These so-called peace bands were designed to thwart a hasty temper. Hengist had no peace bands on his sword.
"What do you think?" asked Hengist.
Horsa was busily admiring the sword. "A man would kill for a sword like that!" he said. He got to his feet. "Mind if I swing it?"
"I already did kill for that sword. As far as swinging the sword is concerned, well, you are my brother. I've trusted you so far. Go ahead."
Horsa looked around, then stepped back from the fire and swung the sword in the air, at first hesitantly, then lustily. "Damn, this is the most comfortable sword I've ever held. Who would have guessed that a sword this long could feel so light?" Whipping the sword down, Horsa exclaimed, "The sword is well balanced, yet the point is heavy enough that it seems to seek the foeman's throat!"
Hengist grinned, then said, "Make sure that you know who the foeman is. I haven't seen you get so excited since Father took away your wooden sword and gave you a real one! You have swung Battle-Bright in the cold night air so much that you've probably put a chill on the blade. Breathe upon the blade six inches above the hilt and watch what appears."
Horsa raised an eyebrow, then complied. His breath upon the blade caused a small serpent to appear, which quickly disappeared when his breath evaporated. In the flickering light of the fire the serpent seemed to wiggle.
"Brother, I've never envied you more in my life than I do now," Horsa said. "If you ever care to turn loose of this sword, I'll be the first in line for it."
"I'll bet you would! See the lifestone on the scabbard?" Hengist pointed to a green and black stone shaped like an irregular bead. The stone bead was threaded through by a brass ring connected to another brass ring which in turn was attached to the well-decorated wooden scabbard with bronze bands hanging from his belt. "Anyone wounded by this sword must touch the stone before the wound will heal."
"I guess that I had better turn loose of your sword before I become too attached to it," Horsa said, giving the sword to his brother with visible reluctance. Hengist smiled as he sheathed the weapon.
"Well, you know what I have been up to this winter. How were things at Viborg and in Jutland this winter?" asked Hengist as his brother sat down across from the fire.
"Nothing much. Just the usual drinking and feasting. On court days I adjudge the usual disputes. Who is the owner of this straying pig. Why there will be no feuding over some perceived insult made between fools deep in their cups. Land boundary disputes. I had a thieving merchant hung as a sacrifice to Woden after he was caught cheating in the markets with a set of short weights and measures. That caused an increase in honesty,
or at least it seemed to, in the marketplace until the time came to take care of this Frisian business."
"The scarecrow principle at work. Hang one rascal to discourage the rest," Hengist said.
"Just so. Oh, by the way, a traveler from Britannia said that his Overlord, a man named Vortigern, was willing to hire mercenaries to help fight some rebellious Celts and invading Scotti and Picts. I quietly told him that I wanted to keep the fighting men at home. And that if we ever did need money from the Britons, that we would sail over and take it. He asked me if that meant that he was forbidden to hire mercenaries."
"And what did you say to that?" Hengist asked.
"I told him that I cannot forbid a freeman selling his sword. But I always can find a use for any prime gallows-bait that happens to wander into my brother's realm. If he needed some troops so badly, he could follow up on his missive of two years ago at Eomaer's court. He took the hint and left that afternoon. Hengist, you need to lead or let me lead some of the hot bloods on a raiding expedition to Britannia. How about this summer, when we can have the slaves and women tend the crops?"
Hengist had pulled out a grass stem out of the tall, untrammeled grass outside the fire's edge and was using it as a toothpick. He continued to pick his teeth and said, "Yes, it seems the thing to do. Got to make sure the barley crop is going to come in, though. We must keep control of the passions of the young men. But I just don't need that much more money, not after the way this winter visit to Finnsburg turned out."
"Are you all right?" Horsa asked, sitting up and facetiously examining his brother. "That is the first time that I have ever heard you say that you had enough of anything, especially money. This Finnsburg thing must have you off your feed."
" Maybe. By the way, how is my lady doing? And daddy's girl Rowena, and my boy Aesc? I really meant to ask that first off, but it slipped my mind."
"Rowena is the prettiest girl-child that I ever saw, Hengist, and I'm not saying that because I'm her uncle. She is charming, but very willful. You will have to keep a tight rein on her when she grows up, brother. Aesc was beginning to learn to walk when we left. Gunhild is managing just fine."
"I am glad to hear that. It is good knowing that I can always leave and that you will faithfully work to my best interests, brother. I am grateful, Horsa."
"You are welcome, brother. But if situations had been reversed, if I was the eldest, you would have done the same for me. Father would have wanted it that way. After all, if you cannot trust your family to work in your best interests, who can you trust?"
"Just so. Well, we had better get to sleep if we are to be in shape to take our turns rowing tomorrow. I put Eaha in charge of posting the watch. Tomorrow, take the rear, like you did today. I don't think that the Danish brothers will do us dirty, but I always want my most trusted man at the rear.
"Speaking of tomorrow, perhaps it would be best if we turned in for the night. Good- night brother."
"Good night," Horsa said. Then he left the fire and went back to his longboat to sleep.
Hengist watched him leave, then stared into the fire for a few minutes. Then he grunted, and went to his longboat. Finding his sheepskin sleeping sack, he slid in, and was soon asleep.
A little before dawn the next morning, the watch awakened the camp. A hasty fire was made, and a mixture of ground wheat and barley was cooked to make a nourishing porridge. The captains met at Hengist's fire and ate porridge that contained less barley that had been rejected as being not good enough to make beer. It was agreed that the men would row in addition to letting the wind push the boats. While there was no breeze yet, by midmorning there was sure to be one. With luck, they could bypass Angle territory and be in Jute lands by nightfall. If such was not the case, they would stand several miles offshore, beyond watchful eyes, and make anchor. Since they were in Saxon territory, the lands of kinsmen, the figureheads were taken off the longboats and put into the ship's chests. The fires were doused, then the boats were shoved off the mudbank, Hengist's boat first.
Several hours after dawn, the conflicting breezes had been replaced by a steady wind from the south. The sail was taken down and unfurled, then half the rowers were relieved by the other half of the ship's crew. Hengist's boat had a large proportion of men in it who were present with him through the winter at Finnsburg. They were not in as fine a shape as those men who had already developed oar calluses in the following boats. But Hengist spared no one, least of all himself, in maintaining a pace for his little flotilla.
"Little too much of Finn's meat? Or is that gut due to Finn's mead?" Eaha said to a panting Hengist. Hengist had been relieved from rowing after the mast was raised. Eaha was steering the boat again this morning, his reward for maintaining the watch the previous night.
"Both, you insolent pup! I have never known you to pass up good food or drink yourself. Tonight I will set up the watch on our anchored boat, then get to do the steering tomorrow. Then we will see you huff a different song."
The boats continued to make good time. A few of the men grumbled about rowing when a perfectly good wind was blowing from the south.
Hengist laughed at the grumblers, pointing out that he had rowed his two hours and would row again. He offered to replace anyone who didn't wish to row with one of the captive women. "All that you will have to do then is wear a dress, cook the food, spin the flax and wool, tend the crops, brew the beer, tend the house, give a little loving with a smile to these warrior women," pointing to the female captives, "and bear a few-odd children. Nothing that compares remotely to having to do a little rowing! Now does anyone really find his lot in life too hard to bear?"
No one spoke, although a few of the loudest grumblers exchanged sheepish glances and some others laughed aloud. When the sun had reached its zenith, a temporary halt to rowing was called. Half-ground grain and dried meat was distributed, along with water from a goatskin long since drained of wine. The men on the other longships stopped rowing also, and broke out food, keeping their ships in proper station.
During the meal it was noticed that they had left what was Saxon waters, and were in Angle waters. While the procession of marshes, mudflats, and occasional gravel beaches were the same, most of the Jutes and Danes were well acquainted with territorial boundaries. They were keenly aware of what tribe, what clan, owned which parcel of land.
During the meal, Hengist listened to Cedrik Oswalding and Eaha Cerdwulfing argue about whether the lands around the North Sea were rising or sinking.
Cedrik said, "My father's thrall, Paulus, was captured during a raid on Britannia. His father was an agricultural slave for a Roman who used to have a number of estates near the eastern shore. Paulus's father heard this Roman say that his ancestors used to farm land that is now under several feet of water, with the rest of it reverting to fens. So that either means some land is sinking or the water is rising."
Eaha scoffed, "Who listens to slaves anyway? Slaves will tell anything to get out of work. Besides, don't you remember, back in King Wetta's time that it got so cold that the Rhine froze and the Franks jumped the river and pillaged Gaul that winter. It has been getting colder ever since. And any fool knows that when water freezes to ice, it leaves less room for water, therefore more room for land." Turning to Hengist, Eaha asked, "What do you think, sir?"
"I don't know and I really couldn't care less. If you want, both of you can put a measuring stick out in the water some time and report on your findings. I think that a stint of rowing would concentrate your minds wonderfully," said Hengist.
The wind kept blowing from the south all that afternoon, but the rowing continued. They passed some Angle fishermen in small fishing boats who were searching for herring, but did not approach within earshot. The Angle fishermen watched warily and did not make any attempt to hail the longships. They were good citizens enjoying King Eomaer's rule, and these people were cousins of a sort. But slave taking often started with a kidnapping.
The wind started to die around mid-afternoon, but the longships were still in Angle territory. But Hengist did not give the order to camp. The sky was clear; there would be enough moon to follow the shore to the southern edge of Jutish territory. He knew of a yeoman's land where they could camp for the night. They would go on, even though his turn was coming up to row again.
About an hour after sundown, they were in Jutish territory. A little while later, they were on the shore where an adventurous yeoman farmed. When the tired Jutes and Danes set camp, Horsa suggested that the farmer be awakened and set to providing hospitality for his king.
"No, there is no need for that. The man and his entire estate are probably asleep. Besides, there is probably not enough to provide for even the captains. Don't furl my sail. Let him see the red stallion sewn on the white sail. If he comes to investigate, he will know that his king is here and means him no harm. In the morning, I'll buy a goat and sacrifice to Woden. Build small fires, set out a minimal watch. We bypass Ribe. Ribe has too many Angles in it. Maybe we might make it to Thy or Mors tomorrow night."
A large fire was built, and food cooked. Soon everyone except a few guards were asleep. Even in friendly territory, it paid to keep a watch going, if for no other reason than to keep slaves from escaping.
The next morning, Eaha took a few men with him. They trudged a mile inland to find the farmer and buy a goat. After the people remaining with the boats had eaten a breakfast of porridge Eaha and his men returned, leading a yearling goat. Since a goat lacked enough status to hang from a tree in honor of Woden, they cut its throat, gutted the animal, and threw it on the fire. After the hair had been singed off, Hengist signaled that Woden was probably satisfied. The warriors let it burn a little longer, then pulled the carcass from the fire, divided the carcass up and ate it. By then, two hours had passed since sunup.
Hengist told his captains, "At this rate, we won't get to Nykobing on Mors until dark unless we row. If we row a bit, at least until a swift breeze comes up, we should get to my Great Hall tomorrow. So let's row this morning. What do you all say?"
Ordlaf said, "It's all right by me. I'm tired of drinking water. I haven't had a good drunk since we left home to kill Finn. The sooner we get to your place, the sooner we get to eat something other than a goat."
Ordlaf thought a second, then looked up at the sky, and then hastily said, "Not that it wasn't a good goat. In fact it was the best goat I ever ate."
Horsa grinned and said, "Let's get moving then. If we get there in time, we can have the best beef that you ever ate, and wash it down with the best mead and beer." Looking up to the sky, he added, "No offense meant, Grandpa Woden."
Hengist said, "Well then, let's move." Turning around, he made an impatient gesture to his men which meant for them to pile into the boat. They got in, along with the captives. Horsa and a few of his men shoved off Hengist's longship, before moving over to their own ship farther down on the shoreline. Within fifteen minutes, all five ships had left the camp.
Like the day before, the men rowed until noon, when a snack was prepared. Then the flotilla let the south wind carry them northward, up the peninsula toward home.
That night they made it up to the mighty fjord splitting the northern islands, Thy and Vendsyssel, from Jutland. They pulled into a small fishing village on the shore.
The farmers and fishing folk offered their homes for Hengist and his leading captains to spend the night, but they were so small and crowded that Hengist refused with thanks, saying that he preferred to sleep with his men. Since it was in the early spring, and grain was in short supply in the village, the returning warriors dined on fresh fish. In response to the villager's questions as to where he had been for the past year, Hengist spoke sparingly concerning this winter's events.
The next morning it was decided that the flotilla would sail down the fjord, then tie up at a village close to Hengist's capital city, Viborg. The Danes would spend a few days, then sail eastward to their homes on the islands and in Denmark. That decided, they pushed the boats away from shore and resumed rowing. ---
Hengist took off his armor and polished it with a linen rag and some tallow. The smith-blackened armor had some rust spots in the places where the mail byrnie had resisted cuts. Hengist wiped off the rust, and lightly put a new coat of tallow over all the links. Let the people know that their king has been in a good fight while he was gone. I take good care of my tools of the trade.
Two hours before sunset, the longboats put into a large harbor protected by marsh banks. The men left the sail up, so that anyone watching atop the wooden stockade would know that Hengist had returned. Within the hour, the boats reached the knoll where a small river from the interior, the Stora, flowed into the harbor. People were waiting on the shore next to the docks. The longships had been spotted from the catwalk along the wooden palisade defending Hengist's capital city, Viborg.