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.”