Special thanks to jinks7985 for the beta-reading and to Maria Semenova for her Vikings novels I adored in my teens.
Norway, 830s AD
Old Norse words and names: Noregr – Norway, hofðing – chieftain, hird – a group of warriors, bound by personal loyalty to their leader, Sami – Finns, hersir – lord.
The night was clear; the moon and the stars lighted up the graceful silhouette of a slowly moving longship and the tall black-clad figure on its bow. The man, staring ahead with his arms crossed, was Kristein Leifrsson, also known as Kris the Raven – one of the most feared Vikings among the seas of Noregr. One of those who were called sea-hofðings, because they didn't have a home other than the deck of their longship…
Kris sighed deeply, watching the stars reflecting in the sea surface. On starry nights like these, bitter memories always came uninvited… He wasn't always a sea-hofðing; there was a time, not so long ago, when he'd had a piece of land to call his own, and a woman to wait for him on the shore, and a bright little boy to listen to his tales. But he'd been one day late to sail home… and it all went up in flames. He wasn't the only one to lose family that day, and the greedy neighbor responsible for the losses had paid tenfold, but no amount of revenge could bring anyone back.
And so Kris had taken the Gods from under the burnt remnants of his home, put them under the deck of his longship and sailed away, taking on board everyone who still wanted to follow him. Now, five winters later, half of them were still here among his hird, including two of his closest friends – Bjarni Viglafsson and Jolaf Stigvatsson.
Kris looked back briefly – despite the late hour, Jolaf still sat aft, steering the ship. Jolaf the Pilot – he'd been handling a rudder long before Kris knew how to handle a sword, and now, as far as Leifrsson was concerned, he still was the best pilot out there. Kris knew full well that he owed at least half of his battle victories to Jolaf's skill; and the storms the grey-haired man had lead them through were countless.
Bjarni was another man who'd been there as long as Kris could remember himself. Born within a month of each other, the two of them had been fighting with each other or getting into mischief together before they could walk properly. Bjarni had been Kris's right hand in every raid – including the one that had been one day too long, and the one that had followed. Now Viglafsson was still here, large man who loved battle, mirth and women. And who still managed to make Kris laugh every now and then. Bjarni had been wounded during their latest battle, earlier today; and now he lay beside the mast behind Kris's back, and their healer, Naveed ibn Osama, was fussing over him.
Those who encountered Leifrsson's ship these days, in battle or otherwise, were always shocked to see a dark-skinned man among the Vikings. Some even believed that the Raven had summoned an evil monster to serve him. The real story was much simpler. They had seized a Swedish merchant ship carrying slaves, a dark-skinned Arabian among them. Kris hadn't paid a second glance to him then, fully intending to just sell his spoils during his next stop, but the Fates had decided otherwise. Jolaf had been hurt during the battle, and his wound was clearly beyond their meager healing skills, so when the Arabian offered his help, Kris accepted. Soon Jolaf had been back on his feet, and less than a month later Leifrsson had freed the healer, but Naveed had nowhere to go and nobody to go to, so he had stayed on the ship. His healing skills (and his throwing knives) had saved their lives more than once since then, and he was as much Kris's hirdman as anyone else on the longship.
"Naveed, how is he?" the worried voice asked quietly.
"Fear not, my young friend," the healer answered. "Bjarni is strong and stubborn, he will recover."
The first voice belonged to Jorn Dagsson, the youngest and the newest hirdman on the ship. The boy was from Linsetr, the settlement where they had spent the worst of the last winter, and he had tagged along with them when they had left. Jorn's father was a Viking, killed before his birth, and his mother was a slave woman, who also had died early; the hersir of Linsetr had freed Jorn, but no one had bothered to give the short and dark-haired boy a sword and a chance to become a man. Bjarni was the first person who saw something in the kid, and now, months later, Kris was inclined to agree with him. The boy had courage and loyalty – and that was enough to become a real Viking one day.
From Jorn and Linsetr, Kris's thoughts drifted to another winter stay in one of the northern fiords which bordered with Finland. Leifrsson moved his shoulders, suddenly feeling the scar on his back – a reminder of the wrestle with polar bear native to that land. It might have ended much worse, but Vidgar the Hunter had intervened. A Norseman born in fiord, but raised by Sami, Vidgar was an excellent tracker and hunter but hadn't stepped on a ship before he'd met Kris. But for some reason he'd wanted to join them, and for some reason Kris had let him and he hadn't ever regretted it. The others had accepted the Hunter, too; he had an eagle's eyesight and was a good archer, both talents useful on a longship. But as time had passed, and Vidgar had remembered or re-learned his native language and the stories of their Gods, another one of his talents had come forward, one that was much rarer and much more respected among the Norse than any warrior skills. So they didn't call him Vidgar the Hunter anymore, but Vidgar the Scald; and the name was well deserved.
Kris broke from his memories and turned from the sea to face his men. Vidgar sat on one of the bow benches, unable to sleep despite all Naveed's potions. He too, was hurt; his wound wasn't serious but was very painful. Ezra sat next to him, talking quietly, most likely telling some unbelievable tale from far lands, trying to distract the Scald from his pain.
Ezra was another man one wouldn't expect to find on a Viking's ship. A German merchant, he'd been running from something or someone in one of the big trade cities, and Kris discovered him on the ship once they had left the city's haven. "Must be some threat," Vidgar had said then, "if he sought refuge on a longship." Kris had agreed with that, and one day he might even ask Ezra what he had been running from.
Leifrsson grinned, remembering his first talk with the German. The urge to just heave the man overboard was strong, but Ezra's courage and sharp tongue had impressed the Raven, so he'd let him stay. And it soon had become apparent that Ezra was a useful man to have around. He knew all trade cities in the area like Kris knew his ship, spoke all the local languages and always could find the best way to turn the spoils they took into the things they needed – from bread to exotic herbs for Naveed's potions. Though he didn't enjoy battle like the rest of them, he wasn't a coward and had proved himself there, too. And so as strange as it may seem, but Ezra the Merchant was one of Kris's hirdmen now, as well as one of his close friends – along with the other five.
Kris shook his head – enough musings, his men were tired and wounded, as was his ship. They needed a safe haven, at least for a few days. But he didn't know these waters well: perhaps Jolaf the Pilot did. Quietly, trying not to disturb those who were sleeping, Kris went aft, nodding to those who were awake.
"We need to moor somewhere, Kristein hofðing," Jolaf said once Kris had come close. "And soon."
"I know, Pilot. Do you know a good haven nearby?"
Jolaf looked at the stars for a while, then answered: "The island of Four Cliffs is close. It is ruled by Torgeir hersir. Last time I heard, he was a fair man, respecting the laws of hospitality."
"We'll take a chance then."
Torgeir hersir sat in his room in the main house and watched his wife, Freidis, talk with the Runes. He hoped they would give some advice to her, because he didn't know what to do. Runolf Raudsson would attack soon, and Torgeir just didn't have enough men to protect his land.
The hersir sighed heavily. Ever since his son, Stigandr, had perished in the sea last summer, together with the best of their warriors, Torgeir had been feeling his age weighing him down. Stigandr's widow was a strong-willed woman, and their son was a bright boy, but they still were just a woman and a boy, and he was an old man. Even if they managed to defeat Runolf, what did the future held for them?
Freidis put the Runes back into the bag, and looked at her husband, smiling.
"What do they say?" Torgeir asked hopefully.
"Lay your fears to rest, Torgeir hersir," she said with a small smile. "The hope is coming, on Raven's wings."