York, Engla-lond. Spring, A.D. 927
Hakon spotted the bodies first.
There were five of them, floating in the air like wraiths, their necks bent where the ropes had broken them, their decaying skin black and oozing on their bones. Open mouths and hollowed eye sockets gaped at the dark water below their dangling feet. Ravens sat on their stiff limbs, picking at the rotting flesh with sharp beaks. As the ship glided slowly through the fog, more corpses appeared, hanging from the jetty gallows a man's height above the murky water.
Hakon shut his eyes tightly to block out the horrible sight. But it was too late; the corpses appeared behind his closed lids like ghosts materializing through a wall.
“Open your eyes, boy,” Hauk reprimanded him. “There is nothing to fear here. These have gone on to meet the Alfather at Valhall. At least they did not die abed.”
Hakon did as he was told and squinted from beneath his sandy bangs.
“Stop skulking, boy. Open your eyes!”
Hakon bristled at the man's tone. “I am a prince,” he muttered, “not a boy.”
Hauk glared down at his cargo. “Then act like one. The princes that I know do not cower at the sight of death.”
Hakon frowned and went in search of a better place to be. Near the helmsman he found an open spot and sank his thin frame to the deck, pouting.
The longship passed slowly under the hanging bodies while the crewmen watched in unfazed silence. They were warriors all, a battle-hardened lot, hand-picked for this journey by Hakon's father, King Harald Fairhair. If they felt any fear or disgust for the corpses, they did not display it. Rather, some guessed at the length of time the bodies had been decaying, while others joked at how they'd died. The sight of it all sickened Hakon.
“Who are these dead men?” he asked the helmsman.
The helmsman glanced down. “Northmen, I suppose.”
“Northmen,” Hakon wondered aloud. “Why would they be here?”
“For many winters this part of the country and its main town, York—or Jorvik, as we Northmen call it—were controlled by men from the North. Danes, for the most part. They conquered it when your father was still a bairn, and made it their capital in these parts. That is, until a short time ago. Athelstan, the Saxon king, just changed all that. In one mighty push, he conquered the northern part of Engla-lond and laid waste to the Northern host. These men,” the helmsman motioned to the dangling bodies, “are the result of his victory.”
“I am to be given to one who does such things to Northmen?”
The helmsman flashed a yellow-toothed grin. “Aye. But worry not. You are just eight winters in age; I think the king would find no great fun in killing you.”
Hakon looked away, lest the helmsman see the fear in his eyes.
“Frogar! Bjarni! Man the lines!”
Hakon popped his head above the shield-lined gunwale and peered forward. Through the thick gray fog he could just make out a group of men on a jetty, awaiting the arrival of the ship with shields raised and spears pointed skyward. At their head stood a solidly built figure with a sword at his side and a colorful shield in his hand. “Militia,” someone muttered, though in the fog they looked to Hakon more like ghosts.
Hakon had constantly told himself during the journey to be brave when they reached the new land, but the sight of the fog, the corpses, and now these strange men was too much. He whimpered involuntarily, drawing reproachful glances from those about him.
Hauk grabbed the collar of Hakon's cloak and lifted him forcibly to his feet. “Keep your teeth together, boy.”
When the ship neared the jetty, the crew pulled their oars back through the oar holes and dropped them to the deck. Frogar and Bjarni tossed their seal-skin lines to two waiting militiamen, who wound them tightly around the massive bollards that lined the pier. Others laid a gangplank from the jetty to the gunwale.
Hauk strode neatly up the gangplank and addressed the man with the colorful shield. Hakon heard only bits of their conversation. It resembled the tongue spoken in his country—a discovery for which he had not been prepared. Though he knew not what to expect from these strange men, it had never crossed his mind that they might speak a language similar to his own.
The conversation was brief; Hauk returned moments later. “Egil,” he called to the helmsman, “you and those on the steer-board side shall remain here to guard the ship. Those on the dock side shall come with me. Hakon, come.”
Hakon searched in vain for something to grab. He didn't want to go. There were no friends here. No kinsmen. Only fog, and dead people … and fearsome warriors who hung Northmen like him.
“Stand tall, lad,” Egil gently reminded him. “You are a king's son.”
The words drew Hakon from his fear and firmed his weak limbs. Fists clenched at his sides, he climbed up the gangplank to the waiting escorts.
The jetty creaked underfoot as the group moved to the shore. Once there, Hakon stumbled, then quickly corrected himself. It had been a long trip—nearly half a moon's time. He had become so accustomed to the swaying movement of the sea that the still ground felt alien beneath his feet. He paused to regain his balance, then followed the group into the billowing fog.
They moved up a planked path toward what looked to be more activity, although the dense fog made it hard to tell for certain. More than once Hakon slipped on the damp planks as he surveyed the half-hidden world. They had entered Jorvik, he knew, but beyond that, he had lost all sense of direction. Disembodied voices surrounded him. Every so often a person's shadow crossed his path or a face appeared, then just as quickly vanished into the mist. Hakon could see the outlines of dwellings, but even those seemed indistinct, unreal.
The party stopped at a large door that was guarded by two warriors. The leader of the escort addressed one of the guards. The man grunted something, then disappeared inside.
“I hope the king is as hospitable as men say he is,” joked one of the crewmen.
“You'll be lucky to get the scraps at the king's feet, Northman,” came an accented response from one of the escorts.
Before the Northman could respond, Hauk turned to his men. “Listen quickly,” he whispered. “We will enter in pairs. Each man will guard the other's back. Those who enter first shall be the last to leave. Keep your swords ready, but out of sight. Remember, we are here on an errand from our king; we are not here to fight.”
“A pity,” chimed in someone.
Suddenly the door opened again and the group was ushered into the hall. Hauk went first, with the forecastleman beside him and Hakon trailing behind.
They entered an immense hall. Massive oak tables filled every empty space on the rush-covered floor. Beautifully woven tapestries, crisscrossed swords, long-shafted spears, and battle-scarred shields lined the timbered walls and thick posts. In the center were two of the largest hearths he had ever seen; the smoke from each lingered in the rafters high above his head. Over one, two pigs roasted slowly on a spit, while a giant cauldron sat among the embers of the other. The scent of roasted pork hung over the hall, blending sweetly with that of fresh rushes and boiled onions. Hakon's stomach grumbled.
At the north end of the hall sat a young man on an intricately-carved oak High Seat. Men sat facing each other on two benches below him. They turned when the Northmen came forward, but did not rise.
“Give me your weapons,” demanded a guard.
“We come in peace,” Hauk answered flatly. “We mean no harm, nor do we wish to disrupt your gathering.”
The guard turned to the man who had led the escort party, then back again to Hauk. “You cannot enter withou—”
“Let them pass,” called the young man on the High Seat. “If they draw their weapons, we will kill them.”
The man acquiesced.
Hakon struggled to keep pace with Hauk as he crossed the room. Against the walls, guards shifted nervously, brushing their cloaks aside to show their swords. Hakon could see them inspecting him, and willed himself to remain calm. When they reached the young man, Hauk stopped.
“Introduce yourselves.” The young man's dark, alert eyes showed the effects of the previous night's feast, but nevertheless remained focused on his visitors, watching their every movement.
“I bid you greetings, King Athelstan.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Hauk Hobrok, champion of the great Northern king, Harald Fairhair. He has sent me to thank you for the beautiful sword you sent him last summer.”
King Athelstan's eyes shifted curiously to Hakon. After a moment's pause, Athelstan responded. “The sword was a fitting gift for a king as doughty as Harald.”
Though Athelstan was seated, Hakon could tell that he was tall, longer and thinner in limb and feature than the majority of his councilors. Hair the color of young wheat was pulled back tightly from his high forehead into an intricate braid that disappeared behind broad shoulders draped with a fine wool cloak. A neat beard hung from his long jaw. His breeches and boots were of the finest leather and glowed in the firelight like the well-combed hide of a horse. Golden rings and bracelets gleamed in the light from the hearth fires. Other than his own father, Hakon had never seen wealth so opulently displayed.
“If everything I've heard of you is true, then you and Harald are both great kings, and well worthy of each other's gifts.”
King Athelstan did not miss the intention of Hauk's statement, and his brow lifted curiously. “Exchanging? You have brought something in return?”
“We have, my lord. In the harbor lies a new longship made of the finest Danish oak. Its gunwales and shield-edges are lined with gold. King Harald had it specially built for you.” Hauk paused, and an uncomfortable silence ensued.
“Why do I sense that there is more?”
Hauk grinned and pulled Hakon forward so that he stood only a few feet from the king. “You are a perceptive man. The great King Harald also wishes for you to foster his youngest son Hakon, the child of his maid-servant.”
Hauk's words brought outraged protests from the councilors. The man who sat closest to the king rose with his sword drawn and placed the blade to Hakon's neck. Hauk and his men drew their own weapons and moved closer together.
Athelstan held his arms out. “Silence, my lords! Calm yourselves! Byrnstan, sheath your sword.”
The man named Byrnstan did not budge. “My lord, it is clear these men insult you with their offer! Fostering the child of Harald's maid-servant? They should pay in blood for their insult!” A chorus of agreement followed.
“Kill the boy if you wish,” said Hauk to Byrnstan. “But know that if you do, you will bring the wrath of Harald and his entire family down upon your head.”
Athelstan, who had not even risen from his seat, placed a calming hand on Byrnstan's shoulder. “Byrnstan, the child will not be harmed under my roof.”
Byrnstan pressed the blade tighter. “Would you seriously consider fostering the child of a servant, and a heathen at that?”
“Byrnstan, take your seat.” His tone was stern, yet calm.
The man acquiesced with a grumbled curse, but kept his sword visibly displayed across his lap.
Athelstan arranged his cloak slowly, as if using the space to gather his thoughts. Finally he rested his elbows on the arms of his Seat and turned his eyes back to his audience. “I thank you and your king for these gifts. And I would be honored to raise the boy in my household. His religion may be questionable, but he is of Harald's stock, and therefore deserves a noble upbringing. As for you Northmen, if you wish to stay, we will be feasting tonight and you are welcome to join us. If that is not possible, take what supplies you need for your return to your country. I will ensure that you reach the mouth of the Humber safely.” Athelstan remained calm, stoic. Around him his councilors balked.
“Thank you, my lord. You are truly a wise and gracious king. But I believe your feast celebrates the fall of Jorvik, and the defeat of men from the northern lands, though mostly Danes. It would be wrong to partake. Besides, we must procure passage for our homeward journey. We will take our leave when our duty is done.”
Athelstan eyed Hakon mildly. “Very well. Let us be on with this, then.”
As ritual demanded, Hauk lifted Hakon and placed him on the king's knee. Athelstan received him with a pat on the shoulder and a modest smile. “You are welcome in my household, Hakon, and committed to my care. As your foster father, I will see that you are brought up as a king.”
When Athelstan had finished his speech, Hauk grinned. “King Harald thanks you.” Then without another word, he turned and led his men from the hall.
The confusion of his arrival and subsequent fostering had distracted Hakon. But now, as he watched his escorts go, he realized that the only connection to the world he knew was disappearing from his life. Panic-stricken, he jumped from Athelstan's lap, trampling on the king's fine hose with his muddy boots, and ran for the door. But he was too late—Hauk and his men had already vanished into the fog.
At the head of the class, Father Otker lead the colloquy. The voices of Winchester's noble sons echoed off the stone walls of the classroom as they answered his words in Latin.
I am a hunter, their voices rang.
Whose? asked Father Otker.
The king's, they answered in unison.
How do you carry on your work?
I weave my nets, and put them in a suitable place, and train my hounds to pursue the wild beasts … .
Back and forth the colloquy went, teacher and pupils. Hakon tried to follow along with the others, but his mouth could not wrap itself around the long Latin words that differed so completely from his own guttural tongue. Nor was his grasp of Latin sufficient to speak the strange language so quickly. Determined, he jumped into the colloquy when it paused, only to trip again when it reached a difficult string. He cursed under his breath, then gave up.
Noticing his pupil's silence, the master of the boys held up his hands. The boys halted their recitation immediately.
“Why do you sit in silence, Hakon?” Frustration quivered in Father Otker's voice.
“I do not like your language, and see no need to learn it,” he spat a bit too defensively.
Father Otker folded his arms across his chest. “I see. So you do not try and instead concentrate on blaming the language for your shortfalls.”
Hakon slumped in his seat. He could feel the stares and hear the sniggers of the other boys, but he looked neither right nor left, lest he see their faces and lose his temper.
Father Otker sighed and slowly shook his tonsured head. “How long have you been here in Winchester, Hakon?”
Hakon scratched his chin as he calculated. “Since Njord-month.”
“Since Eastertide,” the monk corrected, his voice now laboring with impatience. “And how oft have I stopped my lessons to accommodate your stubbornness?”
Hakon held his tongue.
“Daily.” The monk's thin face reddened as he growled the answer to his own question. “And I am tiring of it. Now … please attempt to follow along.”
Louis, Athelstan's nephew and another of his fosterlings, leaned over his writing table. “Hakon,” he urged in a voice no louder than the chirp of a baby bird, “do what he says.”
His blood boiling at yet another reprimand, Hakon stared up into the gaunt face of the master. “No.” His golden locks lashed at his cheeks when he shook his head.
A chorus of excited whispers filled the room as the other pupils, led by the king's younger brother Edmund, anticipated the bloodletting to come. Hakon ignored them.
“Do what I say, lad, or I will be forced to use the lash again,” the monk warned.