Chapter 1 & 2 - The Bitch Queen


Sigve the Awful listened to the ship glide through the water. Holding the steering oar, he watched the rowers and their silent strokes. A few drops of seawater rippled off the oar-blades when they left the surface, but the oars made no creaking noise; their shafts were twined with cloth, and the ship moved stealthily into a long and narrow fjord.
  Astern the moon was nearly full. The light was icy and blue, and the sternpost cast a long shadow at the rearmost rowers. Standing on the steering-platform, in the lifting, Sigve gazed over and beyond the rowers. The looming mountainsides were dark and ominous, but in the fjord ahead, he saw nothing but a calm, shimmering surface. Still, Skarphedin the Second-Sighted stood lookout in the longship's prow.

 Not that it was likely they would meet ships or be discovered by people ashore. No one expected an attack at this time of year. It was einmonth, the last winter moon, and the nights were dark and freezing cold.
  Skarphedin stood in the bow nevertheless. Despite thick winter clothes, he stood slim and tall with a close-fitting hat that hid his curly hair. Skarphedin was Sigve's captain-of-arms. If anything should move in the night, the captain would detect it.
  From his position at the helm, Sigve noticed that Skarphedin wore a knitted scarf over his mouth. In a fight some time ago, he had injured his mouth; he had lost several teeth, and since the brawl, his jaw had been aching in cold weather.
  Sigve instinctively touched his own scar. It ran across his cheek and tickled from time to time, but not now. Like Skarphedin and the rowers, Sigve wore a warm cap, and from under the cap, his long hair fell down on his shoulders. He did not grow a beard. Therefore, in the lifting, the cold air bit his skin.

  Steering the ship through a slight bend, Sigve studied his men. Under warm woollen cloaks, they wore mail, leather, and more wool. By their sides, weapons lay at the ready. Their helmets also lay nearby, but for now, they had pulled woollen caps over their ears. They were hours away from their target.
  Listening to their steady strokes, Sigve wondered what his warriors were thinking.
  Like all the rowers, Bork Berserk sat with his back to the bow and the ship's movement. He was first-rower and sat just in front of Sigve on the starboard side. Facing astern, he took direct orders from the helmsman; he set the beat and pace for the rest of the crew. Berserk was one of Sigve's most trusted men; he was dark as coal, strong, and a shape-shifter. He had the shaggiest beard anyone had ever seen.
  Big Bork, his brother, had hunched down between the ribs at the ship's side. Big Bork was dark, too; he was a huge man and a great warrior, but simple. He could not keep stroke and was released from oar duties.
  Watching the brothers, Sigve knew they had women and children back home. Only Big Bork was married, but both brothers had boys and girls with several women. The mothers of their children were not always sure who the father was, but the brothers didn't care. They loved all the kids, and Big Bork especially was fond of their children.
  Sigve was quite sure that the big, hunched figure was thinking of his family right now. His brother, Berserk, however, was focused on the battle ahead.

  Sigve finished the turn and steadied the ship at a new course. The moon disappeared behind the northern ridge of the mountains, and a sullen dimness filled the fjord. Sigve could vaguely feel the escarpments on either side, but he could no longer see the prow-beast clearly.
  Seagull, the shipmaster, had raised the prow-beast before they entered the inlet. He said the people at the head of the fjord were well versed in seid. If the people at Kvini felt trouble was brewing, they would invoke the land-wights and send powerful magic against them. The Kvinifjord was feared for its unpredictable fall-winds and sudden patches of fog. Seagull had said that the land-wights were a very good reason to approach the fjord stealthily, and that the prow-beast was an absolute necessity.
  The shipmaster stood beside Sigve on the steering-platform. He was small and skinny, but a sinewy and strong man. He was no longer young; some said he was more than fifty winters. His real name was Gast, but everyone called him Seagull.

  Seagull turned to Sigve and said they were a bit early. "We should slow the pace," he whispered.
  Sigve told Bork to put less strength into their strokes, and Bork Berserk gave instructions to the rowers. Gradually the men put less effort into their rowing. They had practised night-rowing at Vik before they put to sea. It was important to keep calm. In the dark, rowers were always tempted to try to see what lay ahead. But if one man turned his head, the rhythm of rowing was bound to be disturbed.

  Seagull watched the ship; he listened to the oar-blades and nodded. He had hatched their plan of attack; now he was bent on getting it right. The shipmaster had been at Kvini before, and he knew the fjord, just as he knew every place and fjord in the northern waters.
  The sea had been Seagull's entire life. He had been shipmaster for as long as anyone could remember. In harbour or at sea, he always turned his face against the wind, smelled the air, and listened to the currents and the breaking of the waves. Seagull knew sailing-poems for a hundred coastlines; some even claimed he could fly with the birds. For years, he had raided with Sigve's father, and last spring Seagull had turned up at Vik and asked Sigve if he wanted to build the best ship in the world.

  Sigve, chieftain and ship-owner, felt his hand on the steering-oar. The Sea Serpent was a magnificent ship. He could easily keep her steady, but he had to be careful. In the fjord, strong tidal currents tried to pull the ship out of course. Luckily, it was not completely dark. The stars were out and cast a pale light over the ship, and astern the moon made the western mountain-ridge visible. Even if the sea-road ahead was blurred, the dark mountainsides made it obvious which direction to steer.
  Sigve peered into the dimness, and gradually he lost his sense of time. After a while, a faint light made the eastern ridge stand out against the sky. The pre-dawn greyness, however, was even more deceptive than the dark starlight. Now Sigve, the helmsman, believed he could see, but he saw nothing.
  He could not discern anything ahead, but the blindness sharpened his other senses. He smelled salt from the sea and tar from the ship, and he heard lapping of water along the ship's side. A wet sigh reached him when the sea let go the stern and settled in the wake of the boat. The whole ship was an extension of himself.
  Sigve had always appreciated the long hours at the tiller. On the one hand, he was very much present, staring and watching. On the other hand, his mind was free to wander, thinking of the past and the future. Now, steering into the fjord, he thought of Kalv Kolson, who was back in the country – and that he, Sigve, was on his way to kill him.

  The discovery of Kalv Kolson had been a coincidence – a gift from the gods.
  The Bork brothers' mother had been a Sami. All of the Bork brothers' women were also Samis, women who sometimes walked into the mountains to visit their kin. Late in the autumn, Finnhild, Big Bork's wife, had been on her way back from such a journey when she met another Sami woman going the opposite direction. The other woman came from Kvini and told Finnhild that Kalv Kolson had come from England with the whole of his family, including Einar, his son.
  "And they intend to stay in the country," the woman had said. The ship had been full of domestic goods; Kalv had even brought the family's high-seat posts. He had also brought a band of Saxon warriors.
  When Sigve received these tidings, he had gathered Skarphedin, Seagull, and Bork Berserk – and later, Thorstein Baldhead from Bringsverd. Kalv Kolson was their worst enemy, and to get at Kalv unawares, Seagull, the shipmaster, had suggested they should sail the new-built ship around the southern headlands before the winter months were out.

  On board the Sea Serpent, Sigve gazed ahead. He could see more of the mountainsides, and he discerned the shoreline on the starboard side. Soon the fjord would widen, and they would see the Kvini farm on the plains where the Kvini River ran into the fjord. They would attack the farm with just enough light to fight, but before people had woken up and begun their daily chores. The plan was to kill Kalv and all his family, but no one else. Not the Kvini people, and not the Saxon warriors – if possible.
  Sigve was both happy with and afraid of the light that crept down the mountainsides. The light made it easier to navigate, but it also made them easier to spot. By his side on the steering platform, Seagull had started to pace back and forth, sniffing the air.
  "There's a mist coming," the shipmaster said. "A morning mist."
  "A mist?" Sigve did not like it, but soon he lost sight of the shoreline. The road ahead was blurred, and he gazed into a fuzzy greyness. They had thought of this possibility, so Seagull told him to relax.
  "The mist is a good and a bad thing," he whispered. "The bad thing is that the fog carries the sound much faster and further. Now we have to row in total silence. The good thing is that we cannot be seen from ashore."
  "But I cannot see myself," Sigve whispered back. He had lost sight of the mountainsides, and he had no idea of how far he could see ahead.
  "But you can feel the current," Seagull said.
  "Yes," Sigve answered. He had been steering against a new kind of current for quite a while.
  "That is the Kvini River coming out the fjord," Seagull said and smiled. "Now the current is weak, but it will soon be stronger. If you cut the current head on, we will hit the Kvini harbour."

  Sigve told Berserk to have the crew row in total silence at a steady pace, but as soon as he gave the orders, the rowers stopped rowing altogether. As the commanding helmsman, Sigve was about to repeat his order when he saw Skarphedin stride over a beam towards the lifting.
  "There's a boat coming. A ship," he said.
  "A ship?" Sigve answered. "Can you see it?"
  "No, I can hear it."
  Soon, they could all hear it: the rhythmic sound of oars splashing into water.
  "How many?" Sigve asked Seagull.
  "Twelve oars," he answered. "Six on each side."

  This was completely unexpected. Who would row a big boat in the fog at this time of the day in the middle of winter? On board the Serpent, the crew heard the ship coming nearer. They could hear the creaking oars in the oarlocks.
  "Keep her dead slow," Sigve whispered to Berserk. "I need to be able to steer against the current. Tell everyone to fetch their weapons and put on their helmets."
  Bork Berserk arranged for a few rowers to keep the ship steady, while the rest took off their heavy coats and donned their helmets. Most men had leather helmets, but some had ice-cold iron helmets. With the helmets on, the warriors looked like evil spirits.
  Skarphedin told them to be vigilant and keep the oars ready in the oar holes. He told Big Bork and some other warriors to creep forward and make ready to board the other ship.

  Aft, in the lifting, Sigve, Seagull, and Skarphedin listened to the ship coming nearer. Straining their eyes, they stared into a grey wall of mist.
  "How far?"
  "Less than half a mile," Seagull said.


For several heartbeats, time stood still.
  In the lifting, Sigve watched and listened, and soon he heard voices. On board the approaching ship, men were shouting and talking, even laughing.
  "They suspect nothing," Skarphedin said, and in the same moment, they saw her. A dark shadow came out of the mist; it was a large vessel, both longer and taller than the Serpent. The ship had only six pairs of oars in the water. When she came out of the haze, they saw that the ship was fully manned.
  One, two, three... Sigve counted the strokes.
  The ship came nearer, and he saw more details. The sides of the ship were painted in deep red. She was broad-beamed and steep-hulled, not a warship, but frightening anyway. Her sheer-line was strange. The ship had up-thrusting prows, just like ships from Norway, but the top-stroke started curving just before the bow.
  "She is built in England," Seagull said.
  "The ship is heavily loaded and lies deep in the water," Skarphedin continued. "It is possible to board her."

  A sudden shout, followed by commands, resounded though the air. The rowers in the red ship backed the oars, but made a mess of it. Oars crossed and clashed, and a tall man in the aft was furious. The big helmsman gave new orders, and slowly the rowers managed to back the oars properly. The large ship slowed down.
  Beside the helmsman, another man stood; he was tall, too. They were both clad in thick hooded sealskin cloaks; the only thing that distinguished the one from the other was the shape of their beards. The helmsman had a brown beard twined into two long whips, the other man a grey pointed beard. When the ship glided nearer, Sigve sensed the grey-bearded man resembled someone he knew.
  Have I seen him before?

  The red ship stopped less than an arrow-shot away, and the helmsman shouted.
  "Who's there?"
  "You answer," Sigve whispered to Skarphedin.
  "What do I say?"
  "Think of something!"
  "I am Gast the Icelander," Skarphedin yelled. "I'm on my way to Kvini."
  "Gast?" Seagull turned his head and wheezed at the use of his name, but Skarphedin shrugged.
  "Who are you?" he called back to the red ship.
  On board, the brown and the grey beards spoke and whispered together.
  "I am Tjodolv from Kvini," the helmsman answered. "I'm on my way to Karmey."
  "He is Tjodolv," Seagull said. "I have met him before."
  "What is your errand at Kvini?" Tjodolv shouted.

  When they received no answer, the men on the red ship conferred again, and even with oars out of water, the ships drifted closer. All of a sudden, Sigve saw who the greybeard was.
  "The grey-bearded man is Kalv Kolson, our enemy," he whispered to Seagull and Skarphedin.
  "Are you sure?" Skarphedin asked. "You have never met him."
  "I am sure."
  In a flash Sigve had recognized the bearded man. On their voyage round the southern headlands, he had recounted stories of enmity between the chieftain at Vik and the hersir at Bringsverd. He had recalled the tales of fights between his father and Kalv Kolson. During long hours at the steering-oar, he had visions of Kalv as a young man, and visions of Kalv as a middle-aged man. Now he saw Kalv as an old man on board the red ship half an arrow-shot away.

"Who is your helmsman?" Tjodolv called.
  "I am Sigve the Awful, son of Harald from Vik," Sigve shouted. "I have come to kill Kalv Kolson!"
  They could see the greybeard recoil.
  "Row!" Sigve whispered. "And hit her!"
  Bork Berserk gave orders, and the rowers put their oar-blades in the water. The first strokes were calm and steady, but the ship moved, and the men put more strength on the oars.
  On board the red ship, they saw what happened.
  "Row! Row!" the greybeard yelled, but to no avail. With few oars in the water, the red ship had no chance of escaping. Instead, the leaders urged their men to find their weapons. They had seen that Sigve's men were fully armed and ready for battle.
    The Sea Serpent gained speed, and Sigve held the steering-oar. He was aiming.
"Ship the oars!" he shouted, and, as one man, the crew pulled the oars back in.

  The Serpent smashed into the other ship. Two of the oars snapped at the red ship, the top strake splintered, and the whole ship shuddered from the impact. For a heartbeat people on board the red ship reeled. Big Bork threw a boarding rope over the rail. The grapnel fastened. More of Sigve's men threw grapnels into the enemy hull, but a warrior cut one of the ropes.
  On board the Sea Serpent, six or seven archers nocked their arrows and shot. The man who had cut the rope was hit in the eye. Sigve’s men continued to shoot at everyone who tried to hack off the coils. The warriors on board the red ship answered by hurling spears. An archer was hit in the thigh, but most spears were warded off with shields.
  Sigve's men hauled the red ship close. Big Bork tied it to the Serpent. From the bow platform, the boarding crew leapt into the enemy ship.
  Big Bork had fetched a huge Danish axe. Landing on board the red ship, he swung the axe and chopped the forehead clean off a defender. Blood and brain splashed about and hit a small group of women and children who clung to each other in the middle of the ship. Two children started screaming, but that didn’t stop Big Bork. He swung his axe in another wide circle.

  More warriors poured into the red ship. The defenders were divided. Big Bork and three other warriors chased a group forward into the red ship’s bow. The enemy warriors were poorly equipped. Some had swords, but they had hurled away their spears. One man held a long-shafted axe, but no one had shields.
  They were easy prey for Sigve’s men. When an enemy fighter stumbled into a bench, two men stabbed him in the back. With a heavy blow, Big Bork cut the jaw of another man. The wounded man dropped his weapon, a short-handled axe, and the rest of the warriors threw down their weapons and asked for mercy.
  "Spare them!" Sigve shouted. Sword in hand, he had jumped on board the ship.
  The surrendered warriors, five in all, were forced to their knees, and Big Bork guarded them closely.

  Sigve watched the mayhem around the mast. At least a dozen of his men attacked the red ship’s warriors. Skarphedin the Second-Sighted led the charge; he had thrown away his helmet to get a better view. A stiff ear poked out of his curly hair.
  At the other side of the mast, Kalv Kolson led the troops.
  Kalv’s men had drawn their swords and daggers and defended themselves by slowly moving aft over the rowing chests. On both sides of the mast, they managed to stop the advance of Skarphedin’s men. There was a clash of swords, but the enemies received long spears from their friends further aft and started stabbing at Sigve’s warriors.
  Bork Berserk saw what happened. He went into a battle madness. First, he breathed and frowned; then he snorted and roared. Without fear he plunged himself at the enemy with unbelievable force. His movements were so fast the enemy could not follow.
  Bork swung his blade and aimed for the hands and knees of his adversaries, which was totally unnecessary. None of the enemy fighters had donned protective mail, but Bork didn’t seem to remember. He cut the fingers of one enemy and stabbed another at the back of his knee, cutting all the sinews.

  In the meantime, Tjodolv, the large man in the aft, had arranged a shield-wall across the ship. For Sigve’s men, there suddenly were no enemies to fight around the mast. On Tjodolv’s command, the warriors had leapt behind the wall. The shield-wall closed in front of Skarphedin and the rest. Even Berserk baulked before the wall, and the fighting came to a halt.
  Three wounded enemies had been abandoned before the shield-wall. The man with the knee-wound screamed like a pig, and Skarphedin gave him a throat-cut of mercy. Skarphedin also killed the finger-man. When he approached the third man, the warrior jumped overboard and sank, colouring the water red. They never saw what wounds he had.

  A sudden silence fell over the red ship's hull when the wounded men were dead. Even the children stopped screaming. Despite the mist and the fog, Sigve felt the ships had turned around and were drifting outwards. The air smelled of filth. On board the red ship, someone had shat himself.
  Sigve the Awful studied the shield-wall. The wall of shields was strategically placed aft of the mast, so close to the mast-fish it was difficult to form an attacking wall. On the port side, the boom in its cradle made an attack even more difficult.

  "Tjodolv," Sigve shouted to the leader aft of the shield-wall.
  The big man climbed up in the lifting.
  "You seem to be a reasonable man," Sigve called.
  "This can be done in a fast or in a slow way," he continued. "We are in a better position than you, we are better equipped, and we have more men. You will lose the battle. But if you choose to lose in the slow way, most of your men will die. What do you say?"
  The greybeard, Kalv Kolson, had also climbed onto the steering-platform. Now the men whispered and conferred. They nodded.
  "If we choose the slow way, many of your men will also die." Kalv Kolson was the man who spoke.   "Why don’t you retreat to your own ship, and we sail our own ways."

  "Big Bork!" Sigve shouted to his man in the prow. "Kill one of the captured men!"
  Hovering over the kneeling prisoners, Big Bork asked the men to stretch their necks, but when none of them did, he swung his axe and hit the nearest man in the face.
  "Father!" one of the children cried. A girl started sobbing, clinging to one of the women.
  The warrior, the father, was severely wounded. The axe had hit his mouth, cut through his tongue, and splintered into his neck. He was dying.

  "Now?" Sigve shouted to the leaders behind the shield-wall.
  No answer.
  "One more!" Sigve called.
  This time, a man actually stretched his neck, and Big Bork cut his head straight off. If it hadn’t been for the woollen cap, the severed head would have rolled down the entire bow platform and landed in the hull. The head stopped at the edge.

  "Now?" Sigve yelled.
  No answer.
  "One more!"

  Five times Bork chopped off a head, but the men in the aft gave no answer.
Sigve didn’t like it. He watched Skarphedin the Second-Sighted. His captain-of-arms stood by the group of women and children. They clung to each other.
  "The children?" Skarphedin asked.
  "Not yet," Sigve said.

  Instead, Sigve’s men moved the boom and hacked down its cradle to make space on the port side. They set up two wedge-shaped shield-walls, one at each side of the mast. The captives in the bow were all dead, so Big Bork came aft, ready to hack loose at the enemy.
  Holding a shield in front of him, Skarphedin stood in front of the starboard wedge. Sigve was just behind. On Skarphedin's command, they pressed on. Over them Big Bork swung his heavy axe. The axe-blade cut through the iron rim and into the wood of the first shield in the enemy wall. Splinters flew in all directions. After two more hews, the shield broke.
  A man tried to fill the gap with his shield. Skarphedin opened the wall for a moment, and Sigve cut the hand of the man. The warrior screamed and lost his shield. The enemy shield-wall cracked, and Berserk leapt into the group of defenders. Big Bork followed. The brothers stabbed and hacked at the enemy, and more of Sigve’s warriors moved in.

  "Drop your weapons!" Tjodolv, the helmsman, cried to his men.
  "No!" Kalv Kolson followed.
  "Yes!" Tjodolv cried, and the enemy fighters dropped their shields, swords, and daggers. They stretched their hands in the air.

  Again, silence fell over the drifting ships. The stench of man-shit and vomit was strong, and wounded fighters moaned. Children cried. But after the clamour of battle, the air felt still.
  "Are any of these your men?" Sigve asked the man who had called himself Tjodolv, the brown-beard.
  Sigve had gone aft and leapt into the lifting with the two leaders. The Bork brothers had followed their chief.
  "Yes, these two are my sons," Tjodolv said and pointed at two very young boys. The youngsters were extremely thin; they wore neither mail nor helmets and seemed to be twins by the look of it. The boys had been standing in the shield-wall and must have been frightened to death. They watched Sigve anxiously, but also with vigilant curiosity. Sigve thought they looked like girls.
  "And some of the warriors are mine," Tjodolv continued.
  "Let them stand by the rail," Sigve said.

  Twelve men stood by the rail at the starboard side, and Sigve the Awful watched the rest of the enemy fighters. Scattered among the rowing benches, they were on their knees with both hands behind their necks.
  "Are any of you Einar Kalvson?"
  No one answered. Most of the men looked down on the floorboards.
  Sigve turned to Kalv Kolson.
  "Are any of these your son?"
  "How do you know I am Kalv?" he answered.
  A sudden flash of anger came over Sigve, and before he knew it, he swung his blade and cut through Kalv's collarbone and opened his chest. Kalv Kolson died on the spot.

  Turning again to Tjodolv, he asked if any of the warriors were of Kalv's family.
  "No," Tjodolv answered. Without blinking, he had watched Sigve swing his sword at Kalv.
  "And the women and children?" Sigve pointed at the two women and the children, a girl and a boy."
  "They are Kalv's daughters and grandchildren."
  "And their husbands?"
  "They are dead in the prow."
  Sigve remembered that the boy had shouted when his father was killed. He watched the frightened little group. The boy and the girl were crying sorely, and their mothers' eyes were begging Sigve for mercy.
  "Kill them," he said.
  Skarphedin and three other men took their knives and cut their throats.

  "And Einar?"
  "He never arrived at Kvini," Tjodolv said. "He sailed directly to King Harald Greycloak at Karmey.     Einar had his own ship and his own band of warriors."
  Sigve stood for a moment; he took in the news. This was not part of his plan.
  "But I guess your voyage to Karmey is cancelled?" he asked.
  "I suppose it is," Tjodolv answered.
  Sigve watched the big man. He liked him. He decided to offer him quarters.
  "May I offer you grid?"
  "Yes, you may," Tjodolv answered.


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