I have been lucky enough to be asked to be a tour spot on the Giles Kristian, Odin’s Wolves Bookshop and Blog Tour! This is the 3rd UK extract from Odin’s Wolves and it’s a cracker!
by Giles Kristian
3rd UK Extract
But before long we were poking fun at Yrsa Pig Nose for the great red boil that had bloomed on the side of his snout, and after Yrsa it was the Wessexman Baldred’s turn to endure a good tongue-lashing because he had the shits and had grabbed the nearest bucket, which had happened to be one of our fresh water buckets.
We were chaffing because we were nervous. Even I had been at sea long enough to smell a storm in the air and this one was coming our way, its fingers already grasping at us. I had seen it first as swathes of dark rippling water contrasting against a lighter blue, where current and wind fought over which direction the waves should move. Then the wind had whipped flecks of spume from those waves and Serpent’s bowline had begun to swing and the reefing ropes began beating the sail. Now we were talking too much, trying to make out that it was nothing more than a sniff of a breeze that would splutter itself out before long, when the truth was we were afraid. I think the only man aboard who was not afraid was Halldor, because he was already a dead man, but then again not even Halldor wanted a drowning death.
Ulfbert cursed when a gust swiped the bear fur hat off his head, carrying it half a stone’s throw away before ditching it amongst the wave furrows.
‘What do you think, Uncle?’ Sigurd called from the stern where he stood beside Knut at the tiller. Olaf had ordered Osk and Hedin to check that our cargo was roped down securely and now he and Bothvar were lowering the yard in preparation to reef the sail.
‘I think that coast looks dangerous,’ Olaf replied, working the rope with practiced ease. ‘I think these waters have swallowed men and boats since before the All-Father could boast a beard. I also think my grandfather was right when he said it is always cleverer to reef too early than reef too late.’
Sigurd nodded, eyeing the bruise-coloured cloud that was swelling in the north-east and bearing down on us with unnatural haste. I fancied it was the Emperor Karolus’s black rage coming to smite us. ‘Even so, Uncle, if we stay out here she’s going to have her fun with us.’
‘Aye, she’s in a black mood,’ Olaf acknowledged, looking up at the rake as he lowered it a man’s height from the masthead.
Sigurd spoke to Knut beside him, who, with his free hand, pulled his long beard through his fist and replied, frowning. Then Sigurd nodded, his mind made up. ‘We will make our way in and look for a mooring,’ he called, to which Olaf nodded unenthusiastically. Then Sigurd nodded to Osten who took the horn from his belt and blew three long deep notes; the signal to the other ships that we were heading to shore. I saw the men of Fjord-Elk, Wave-Steed and Sea-Arrow make their own preparations, some going to the bows with fathom ropes and others peering over the sides into the depths, looking out for rocks or sandbanks. One of the Danes was even shimmying up Sea-Arrow’s mast to get a better look at what was below the waves, which was a brave thing to do in that swell.
Knut worked the tiller, calling to Olaf who barked at those working the sail, and I was glad my life was in their hands because I knew there were few men with such sea-craft. The steersman turned Jörmungand, our prow beast, into an upsurging wave and we rode it well, but I knew that swell was just a taste of what was coming and I instinctively touched the Ódin amulet at my neck. Old Asgot was ferreting around beneath the skins that covered Serpent’s hold and after a while he emerged with a magnificent drinking horn, shaved and polished to gleaming perfection and bound with silver bands. It was a jarl’s horn and perhaps that was why Sigurd grimaced when the old godi dropped it over the side as an offering to Njörd. But even Sigurd knew it was wise to give the gods something precious and he took a handful of silver coins from his own scrip and scattered them into the billowing black water so that Rán, Mother of the Waves, might be placated and not seek to drown us all for the glittering things in our sea chests.
Then it seemed we hit an invisible wall, for Serpent lurched and skewed, her sail caught in a cross wind, so that the sheet was ripped from Ulf and Arnvid’s hands and the bottom of the sail flapped savagely and it seemed that the whole sail would collapse around the mast. But Olaf and Bothvar and some others were able to grip its thick edge, using themselves as weights to anchor it until sheet and block could be married again. Rain lashed into my face, which was a bad sign seeing as I was looking at the shore and that meant the wind had changed and was now against us.
‘Christ on His cross, this isn’t looking good!’ Ulfbert said, wincing against the stinging deluge, looking at the shrouds, which were creaking under the strain of holding the mast steady. Serpent had been built to ride the punch of the sea rather than fight back against it, and she was as brave and worthy a craft as was ever hewn, but even she seemed to shudder as the waves slammed into her and the current swirled below her and the wind determined to screw into her sail and twist her mast from its keelson. ‘Where did this bastard come from?’ Ulfbert asked, his eyes alert with fear. His friend Gytha was bailing out with Father Egfrith, but it seemed to me that they were losing, as more sheets of water slapped onto the deck.
‘We’ll get to shore before it can sink us,’ I said, though I had no such confidence. I could not even see the shore now because it had vanished beyond a grey shroud and the rain was hammering into my eyes. Ulfbert kissed the wooden cross that he had lain over his tunic and I didn’t mind seeing him do it, because I thought it could not hurt to have his god on our side in case mine were ale-addled and feasting in Asgard, unable to hear our petitions and the plaintive creaks of Serpent’s timbers. He stumbled over to join me gripping the sheer strake, then offered the cross to me on its leather thong, a grim smile touching his lips.
‘One kiss won’t hurt a brave young heathen like you,’ he suggested, water sliding down the thick twists of his sodden hair.
‘Get that thing out of my face before I throw it overboard and you with it,’ I said, and Ulfbert grinned, tucking the cross back into his tunic, and I thought it said much about Sigurd that he had taken this handful of Christians into his Fellowship. They were good men, despite their love for the nailed god, and I was glad we had not killed them.
‘Hei! To your oars!’ Sigurd bellowed against the wind’s roar, the waves’ crash and the sail’s snap. ‘Serpent has asked for our help and we owe her so get to your benches and work! Three reefs, Uncle!’
The yard slid down the mast bit by bit, as smoothly as Olaf and his men could manage, and others reefed the sail as it came, and all of us kept our feet as best we could now that Serpent belonged to the storm. But it felt good to get my oar into that black sea. What was a slender spruce oar against that enormous fury? And yet with those blades in the water we were stating our challenge, bellowing our refusal to yield, and that is what the gods love; when mortal men bloom with the arrogance of believing themselves a match for giants.
‘Row!’ Sigurd yelled, his drenched golden hair swept back from his scarred forehead. ‘Row, you wolves!’ He was standing on the raised fighting platform at Serpent’s stern, facing the fury of the driving rain and the waves that kept thumping into my back as I bent to the oar. The jarl could do nothing for his other ships now; they were on their own, but he could help Serpent and so he stood where we all could see him and he roared defiantly as though we were going into battle.